Origins of hard-to-pronounce sounds

According to an article I came across today, hard-to-pronounce sounds in languages might have developed to show who belongs to particular groups and who doesn’t.

Apparently ancient tribal groups recognised that such sounds are a good way to identify ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, something they considered very important, as the sounds can only be made properly by those who have grown up speaking a particular language and pronouncing the particular sounds of that language. This is especially true of the clicks found in languages in southern Africa. This is possibly why some languages have a lot more difficult-to-pronounce sounds than others, and perhaps applies most to languages spoken in linguistically and culturally diverse regions – this last speculation is my own and doesn’t appear in the article.

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9 Responses to Origins of hard-to-pronounce sounds

  1. David Eger says:

    Interesting theory. But how do we draw the distinction between sounds that are inherently ‘difficult’ and those that are only difficult because we have not been using them all of our speaking lives? I still have some difficulty pronouncing a ‘trilled’ /r/ (as in Italian, Spanish, Russian etc.) – yet it is probably the most widespread realisation of the /r/ phoneme in the European languages.

  2. Jayarava says:

    I suppose it’s plausible. Children have much less difficulty picking up the sounds of any language, but adults struggle so it marks in-group adults. But then accent, which is mostly about vowel sounds and stress patterns, also provides clues to identify out-group people? With European visitors to England for instance, it’s the vowels and stress patters that really give them away, though there is some confusion also about how to pronounce mutant names like Leicester etc. This is not difficult to pronounce, but it’s difficult to read correctly and does put foreigners at a disadvantage.

    In terms of difficult to pronounce you always have to ask: difficult for whom?

    In terms of neighbours it brings to mind the Pirahã tribe studied by Dan Everett whose language sounds and grammar are quite simple.

    And what about incorporating sounds (and words!) to become more like surrounding languages – like for instance what happened with Indo-Iranian in India. Vedic split the IIr alveolar consonants into dental and retroflex consonants. This made it more similar to Dravidian and Munda (from which it took loans words as well) and after many years study I still have difficult *hearing* the difference even when I know I’m articulating them differently.

    I think you’d have a lot of work to do to isolate “difficult” pronunciation as a factor.


    @David – you know you’ve nailed the trilled /r/ when you can can say “there’s been a murder” and trill all three like Taggart. (It’s basically an /l/ that get’s started early, and then sticks around).

  3. Rauli says:

    Brings to mind the word shibboleth, mentioned in the Old Testament as a means to recognize outsiders. The Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the /ʃ/ sound, and so the Gileadites knew they were the enemy.

  4. David Eger says:

    “you know you’ve nailed the trilled /r/ when you can can say “there’s been a murder” and trill all three like Taggart.”

    I can say that alright. It’s more when it crops up in consonant clusters like ‘str’, or where there are several in succession, like ‘Boreray’. The point is, it still takes some effort, so, in the full flow of conversation, it doesn’t always quite work – or it affects the sounds either side of it.

  5. Arakun says:

    While I’m skeptical that the language would retain difficult sounds to make things harder for outsiders I do believe that certain sounds may be judged more difficult than others.

    For example I remember reading somewhere that it’s not until around the age of six that Swedish children learn to distinguish between the tje, /ɕ/, and the sje, /ɧ/ or /ʂ/, sounds. The later is also considered to be hard to pronounce and whole dissertations have been written about it.

  6. jay says:

    A spanish friend of mine says it took her ages to roll her r.

    I read somewhere that an army ( I think Italian) in Europe during a war would ask any unknown combative how to pronounce a certain word to flash-out the foreigner from the native.

    I couldn’t understand Taggart without subtitles anyway.

  7. TJ says:

    I believe the environment itself has a factor in the formation of the sounds that can be produced as well.
    Despite the easiness of “V” and “G” sounds, classical Arabic does not have them (while Hebrew and Aramaic or Syriac have them). On the other hand, modern dialects out of Arabic, do include these sounds.
    Anyhow, the sound of “DDH” ض is still unique and more or less it is used in some way in the dialects of Arabic nowadays.
    On another note, the personal names in classical Arabic and specially the era before Islam raise denotes a significant cluster of consonants at times that sometimes it is hard to comprehend their meaning of even say them by the present native Arabic reader. As far as I understand it, it is just a chronological upgrade of the language itself and what seemed easy in the past might not be as easy in the present.
    Even today in our modern world we do recognize the rapid change in the spoken language (either by itself or for amalgamation from other languages like English for example) – probably Norwegian is a good example for the rapid change -so I heard-.

  8. Christopher Miller says:

    Hm. These Taggart references are a bit of a mystery to me.

    I agree that the “difficulty” of particular sounds is in part a function of how whether they appear in other neighbouring languages or language varieties. (Which is what people would have in mind on the hypothesis they are trying to differentiate their own variety by favouring sounds that are “different” and plausibly “difficult” for out-group members). Sure, there are certain sounds that are exceedingly marked cross-linguistically, which involve more complex or unusual articulatory mechanisms compared to most languages, and these we can justifiably describe as probably inherently more difficult than other sound types.

    Others may be more “difficult” simply because they involve phonetic distinctions in one language that don’t register for speakers of another. A very good example is the contrast between two different series of palatal fricatives and affricates in Polish and Basque, something that speakers of other languages have trouble even detecting; another is the distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated stops in many languages of India and southern Africa, a distinction native English speakers need to be trained to hear.

    The reason why these sounds come to be favoured in particular languages is probably social: they constitute markers. After that, though, it’s likely as much the force of habit and conservatism that lets such sounds remain. This would explain the persistence of clicks in southern African languages. In many cases, in the southern Bantu languages, they show up not only in borrowings from Damara (the pre-Bantu language of the Drakensberg and Indian Ocean coast), but replace ordinary sounds in words that undergo taboo deformation, such as the names of dead chiefs and words for things associated with them.

    The origins of unusual sounds are probably all traceable to some kind of regular phonetic change over time. For example, Kirundi and Chishona have both developed complex segments with coarticulated velar stops that evolved from clusters with a following /w/ or /y/. In some cases, it has been reported that these can surface phonetically as clicks. The uvular pronunciation of /r/ that spread through much of western Europe over the past four centuries or so developed from the very common trilled /r/ as a natural result of interactions involving the tongue body and air pressure while the trill is made. It happened not only in Europe but independently in Sumatran Malay and other languages, and likely independently in specific Arabic dialects of small communities in Fes, Morocco, and Iraq (among Jewish speakers of Arabic).

    Even the complex sets of lexical tones that are an areal feature of languages of China and southeast Asia seem clearly to have developed only about a millennium and a half ago and later, as the result of interaction between laryngeal (voicing) features in surrounding consonants and the fundamental frequency of the vowels next to them. We still see these kinds of “tonogenesis” effects occurring in languages of southern Africa, where voiced consonants have a “depressor” effect lowering the tone on a following vowel, in Punjabi, where a low tone developed after what were originally voiced aspirate stops, and in Limburgs, the local language of the southeastern appendage of the Netherlands, where a tonal contrast on vowels has developed out of consonantal contrasts.

    Even the rather unusual pharyngealised consonants of Arabic developed from the typologically common glottalised consonants that most of them correspond to in other Semitic and Afroasiatic languages, and this has to do again with interactions between the physiology of the tongue, air pressure while the sounds are produced, and the overall perception of the modified/coarticulated stops in contrast to stops without coarticulation.

  9. prase says:

    A question: were the situations where speakers of different languages could meet without easily recognising their group affiliation common enough throughout the history to justify a relatively expensive thing as artificially adding hard-to-pronounce phonemes to the language?