Back Up

In the earlier post, 3Q, we looked at the seven Mandarin dentals, z, c, s, d, t, n, l. Three sounds, z, c, s are classified in Chinese as 舌尖前 or front apical, dental. The remaining four are 舌尖中 or mid-apical, and might be called denti-alveolar.

Let us be clear, the Mandarin affricates zh and ch, known as 舌尖后音 (rear apical sounds) are indeed back from their flat-tongued (or front apical) cousins z and c. The tongue tip might indeed be said to kind of curl up…a little bit. For the purposes of phonetics, retroflex might be a suitably sciencey description. But this is kind of missing the point.

Have a look at an X-ray and a diagram from 普通话发音图谱 (Pǔtōnghuà Fāyīn Túpǔ) by 周殿福 (Zhōu Diànfú) and 吴宗济 (Wú Zōngjì), mentioned in the earlier post.

Is that what you imagined?

Let’s compare that with the English phoneme /tʃ/, as in ‘church’. /tʃ/ is usually described as a post-alveolar fricative. It’s made with the blade of the tongue, say, a centimetre or so back from the tip, pressed against the back of the alveolar ridge in order to create a seal for the initial stop. Daniel Jones again:

Now try getting into position for that ‘English’ sound /tʃ/, hold it there, and say 吃 (chī, eat). Do you feel the back of the tongue dropping a little, in the centre at least? And you feel the tongue tip juddering up a little?

That’s a pretty good approximation. I’m not going to claim it’s perfect, but it’s pretty damn close to where it should be.

I think the key area is right on top of the tongue tip, which should initially be on the underside of the alveolar ridge. That’s the point of articulation. And you’ll note that is in front of, not behind, the point of articulation for English, which is itself where the blade of the tongue and the back of the alveolar ridge meet. The mass of the tongue has not significantly moved forward or back, between the English and Chinese sounds. It has just tilted a little; down at the back and maybe up at the front.

One might argue that fricatives sh and r, requiring the tip to be kept slightly down, away from the underside of the alveolar ridge, are even closer to English /ʃ/ and /ʒ/, as in ‘ship’ and ‘measure’. Perhaps. But I still feel that the point of articulation is closer to the tip. Even so, there does seem to be significant variation even amongst highly eloquent native speakers, especially for pinyin r. I’m highly doubtful that either /ʒ/ or /r/ used in a word like 让 (ràng – let, allow) will be anything like as grating to Chinese ears as the increasingly infrequent ‘urually’ (sometimes produced by Chinese speakers for ‘usually’) is to English speakers’ ears. I suspect it would be much closer to the effect of a Chinese speaker of English having a rather too heavy /r/ in ‘right’, and certainly no great obstacle to communication. But I stand to be corrected.

In the case of a Chinese English speaker making a very heavy /r/, I think very little coaching is needed to modify the sound. As I’ve said, it’s no real obstacle to communication. But, with a spell in an English speaking environment, it will probably soften quite naturally.

I think the same is true for English speakers learning to speak Mandarin. If they start out with zh, ch, sh, r as English post-alveolar fricatives, they will most likely gradually adjust to a more native-like sound. Actually, having worked out how to extend zh into zhi – and that’s the tricky part, wherever one positions the tongue for the zh – the student ought to be pretty close to the target sound.

If, however, the student has been encouraged to curl his tongue right up into the roof of the mouth, the chances of him ever approaching a native-like sound are very limited indeed. Even as he begins to correct by his own ear, he’s likely to be left with a much too ‘back’ point of articulation.

In the final post in this series, I’ll explain why I think this matters and make some suggestions for those with an interest in these things.

For the two earlier posts in this series, please see Shurely Shome Mishtake and 3Q. You might also be interested in 2:30.

One response to “Back Up”

  1. Arjun Kavi says:

    I would be forever thankful if you could put up some audio contrasting all these distinctions.

    Especially English and vs Pinyin (I speak something pretty darn close to Standard American English, but interference from my parents’ Dravidian mother tongue resulted in me producing interdental plosives in place of /θ/ and /ð/, so I barely have a hang of what they’re supposed to sound like.)

    But I’d definitely also one sound from the other articulation points contrasted with their closest English correspondent.

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