Tuesday, October 21, 2014

We've Moved!

As of October 22nd 2014, we'll be continuing business over at ktspeechwork.com/blog

All of the blog posts and comments since we started this blog in 2012 should be accessible on the new site. While you're there, why not take a look around our new website, and let us know what you think by emailing us at knightthompsonspeechwork@gmail.com.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Orchestra of Gurns

"girn (also 'gurn') noun:
1. The act of snarling or showing the teeth in rage, pain, disappointment, etc.
2. The act of laughing or grinning."  - The Oxford English Dictionary

“A gurn or chuck is a distorted facial expression, and a verb to describe the action.” – Wikipedia

Those in the know also refer to "gurning" as "face-pulling."

I usually describe “gurning” as “the art of making funny faces.” And there is indeed art in it. There are gurning competitions all over the UK, the most famous of which has been happening at the Egremont Crab Fair in Cumberland since 1267. There are rules to this competition - no make-up, for instance, but removal of false teeth is fair game - and there is in fact an individual who holds the Guinness World Record for gurning after winning the World Gurning Championship fifteen times.

Dudley wrote in his book, Speaking with Skill, that "to 'gurn' is to make strange faces, and the more bizarre they are better." On its own, gurning is a wonderfully effective warm-up for the muscles of facial expression and of articulation. When a Gurner takes that action inside the vocal tract - to the tongue, the soft palate, the muscles of the neck and throat - and when a Gurner adds a flow of voice to it, that Gurner starts to make a new language full of exotic and familiar vowel and consonant sounds. We might call this language Gurnish, and the only thing that determines its consonant and vowel inventory is what's physically possible.

There may be some factors that influence our perceptions of what's physically possible. One may be a fear of pulling our faces too far towards injury. That's understandable! No competitive Gurner wants to go down that way. Another factor may be a lack of experience. Perhaps you've never tried to pull your lower lip over your nose, and that's also understandable. It doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't physically possible, though, and it just might lead to an award-winning expression. Yet another factor may be our own internal "cool" meter. "Is it cool to pull my upper lip over my nose?," it may be wondering inside your head. "Will that other actor waiting for the audition think I'm strange if I do that?" "Will that cute boy in my speech class not want to go out with me if I do that?" One way to bypass this internal "cool" meter and to expand your Gurnish is to give over control of the action to a partner.

In other words, to be conducted in your gurning.

A Gurnish conductor's job is to gesture (with hands, voice, or full body - why not?), and the Gurner's job is to translate those gestures into Gurnish. The resulting strange, funny, and pulled faces will most likely include some that the Gurner wouldn't have found on his or her own, and so the speech sounds that are shaped by them will most likely be ones that the Gurner wouldn't have found on his or her own. And you, as the Gurner, can't be blamed for the faces and sounds you're making; you're simply following your conductor.

An example (and certainly not the only one):
1) The Conductor and Gurner sit opposite each other.
2) The Conductor raises his or her hands, and, at the cue, begins to conduct using hands and arms.
3) The Gurner begins to gurn according to the information s/he receives from the Conductor.
4) The Gurner adds a flow of voice to the conducted gurning.
5) At the cue, the Conductor and Gurner switch roles.

Conducted Gurning can be done in pairs, or there can be one Conductor for a whole orchestra of Gurners - with separate wind, brass, percussion and string sections, if you like.  The only limitation to the exercise is what is physically possible.  And I, for one, think that's pretty cool.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Name of Action

I studied acting with the great Earle Gister some years back. He was a brilliant man, and his way of teaching and speaking about acting resonated deeply with me. It felt, at the time, like the missing piece of my equipment as an actor. After working with Earle, I still had plenty left to learn as an actor—I don't think we ever get to the end of that particular road—but I felt somehow complete in a way I hadn't before. In every acting job A.E. (After Earle), I knew what to do. It's not that I was never lost or confused. I was, of course. (If you're never lost or confused in rehearsal, you're probably not doing your job!) But I was able to be productively lost and confused, and I always knew how to deal with it and what to do next. It was liberating.

Another way in which it was liberating: Earle gave me back my head. I had spent years—all the way through high school, college, drama school, and even after—being told to get out of my head, not to use my intelligence. This was good advice, to a point. What all those teachers and directors were really telling me, of course, was to get and stay present; to listen, act, and react in the moment rather than from ideas or preconceived notions about the character or moment. I spent years learning how to do this, but along the way somewhere I made the mistake of coming to think that being present and alive to the moment meant not being able to apply critical intelligence to acting at all. Or, at the very least, to be extremely cautious about any such endeavor. Earle, a ferociously intelligent man, gave me permission to use my head again. It was an extraordinary gift, and I find it nearly impossible to describe how freeing it was for me.

I find deep and resonant analogues between Earle's work and KTS. To my profound regret, I never had a chance to really talk them through with Dudley. In lieu of that never-to-be-had conversation, perhaps we can have a little one here. I know there are others out there who have studied with both Earle and with Dudley and Phil. Joe Alberti, who took Experiencing Speech and Experiencing Accents in Irvine this past summer, has even written a book about his teaching!

Deep resonance #1: Earle and Dudley were both profoundly intelligent men, and visionaries in their fields. (They were also both brilliant actors in their own rights.) They both saw the inconsistencies and inadequacies in what everyone around them was teaching, and ended up by completely breaking with prevailing methods and orthodoxies. They both started over from scratch, from first principles, and found their way to cohesive, coherent approaches that revolutionized the training of actors, Earle in acting and Dudley in speech and accents.

Deep resonance #2: In both Earle's work and KTS, the primary impulse is towards description. What is it that is going on here?, both ask. What is it, exactly, at the most fundamental level? How accurately can we perceive it and describe it?

We know where this led with KTS. This deep questioning and granular observation is at the very heart of the work, both in its genesis and in its practice. It is a, perhaps the, central value, and one that we try to infuse into our students, into every class and every exercise we teach.

In Earle's work, the investigation had a very specific focus. What is it that we're doing, he asked, when we're acting well? What is it that great actors are actually doing when they're practicing their craft at the highest level? His answer mostly had to do with a precise and particular definition of action, which I'll have more to say about in a minute. For now, though, I just want to note that for me, as for a great many of Earle's students, his answer was entirely persuasive. I really believe that he captured an essential, bedrock truth about acting. It's for that reason I don't really like to refer to his work as a technique or a method. It is those things, of course, but it's also simply a truth. It's a systematic description of what it is that actors are doing when everything is working the way it's supposed to. It doesn't matter if they studied with Earle or not, or if they've even studied acting! They can have never even heard the word action used in the Stanislavskian sense. It doesn't matter. If they're acting well, they're doing what Earle described and taught.

This seems to me to mesh perfectly with Dudley's project. His abiding interest, it seems to me—and the spirit that suffuses the work—was in what things actually are. He wasn't interested in some sort of ideal form, or in what things are supposed to be. What, at the deepest, most fundamental level, is this thing?

Take the 'concept' of oral posture (or vocal tract posture, if you prefer!). Oral posture is a contribution of enormous significance. (And Phil shares credit with Dudley, certainly, for its genesis and development, as I've written previously.) Others have taken stabs at something similar, both before and after Dudley and Phil got there. David Alan Stern, notably, was writing and teaching something called "tone focus" from early days. But like other similar efforts, it was a bit vague, and not terribly well-defined.* And in phonetics, Dudley and Phil drew on the work of John Laver, in particular, and what he called "articulatory setting." But with typical curiosity, perspicacity, rigor, and humor, Dudley and Phil wrestled oral/vocal tract posture into its current form—a vital and powerful tool of accent teaching and learning. And here's the thing—you might never have heard of oral posture. You might never have thought about it in any conscious way. But if you speak another language well (phonetically-speaking) or do any accent well, you have found the oral posture of that language or accent. Oral posture is, in other words, so useful and effective because it's a description of something that's actually happening. It is, in that way, just like Earle's 'theory' of acting. A potent tool of teaching and learning, of effing the ineffable, as it were, whose power stems from deep observation and rigorous description of an actually occurring phenomenon.

A bit more about what that 'theory' actually entails: I'm just going to focus on one aspect here, the one I consider to be the most central, as well as the most original. (If you want to know more, read Joe's book! Or buy me a drink.) In Stanislavski's analysis of what good acting necessarily entails, in any scene the character must always want something from the other character or characters. This is their objective. The actor/character must then do something to try to get what they want. This is their action. You can't play an objective, only an action. Legions of acting students dutifully learn to write 'action' words in the margins of their scripts. "To persuade," "to threaten," "to explain." These general infinitive verbs lead to generalized acting. Invariably. (It's quite something, actually. Earle used to say that when we're acting, we do what we say we're going to do, and he was right. If you've directed or coached actors, you've probably had this experience: an actor does a scene or monologue in a very generalized way, with no specific, actual connection to their scene partner. You ask them what it was they were trying to do, and they will inevitably give you very general answers.)

Earle's insight is that an action is something very particular—it's always an attempt to make another person feel a particular way. So "to make him feel afraid" is an action. "To make her feel important" is an action. "To make them feel like tiny insects" is an action. "To make her feel explained to" is not an action. You can't even play it. Go ahead, try it!

This sounds simple. And it is simple, once you work it out and can actually do it. That may take some time, of course. (It's really a transfer of energy, which is a skill. It does have to leave your body and land on the other person's. Otherwise you're not doing it. It has to affect them. That's why you can feel it in the audience when actors really do it. Those experiences in the theatre when the hair stands up on the back of your neck or you get goose bumps? The actors just successfully and fully sent and received energy—they played actions.)

This may seem like a small thing—this insistence on phrasing actions with "I want to make her feel ____. Isn't this just semantics? But remember, we do what we say we're going to do. And when we say to ourselves, in the margin of our script or in our heads before we enter, "I want to make him feel like the hottest thing that ever walked on two legs" (and then actually do it, of course—that part is crucial!), it results in specific, connected acting. Energy is sent. One actor acts on the flesh of the second. She tries to change him, the actor/character, the actual being standing in front of her, right here, right now. Not in theory, not in the abstract, but in the actual, in the here and now. When this happens, when energy is sent, when a specific action is actually played, the other actor can experience it—actually feel the action land on him as an almost physical thing. He can then respond in kind—the natural thing to do when someone actually plays an action on us! The audience feels it, feels like something is actually happening right now, right in front of them. And all of a sudden the thing is alive, and dangerous. Anything can happen.

Another great acting teacher, Jed Diamond, once said that acting is motivated by simple thoughts, deeply taken in. Earle's 'theory' of action is simple, or sounds it, at least (it's easier said than done). But it is astonishing in its effectiveness when taught to actors. And as a description of what it is that we're doing when we're acting well, I find it entirely persuasive. It makes sense to me both from both the inside and the outside, from my own experience as an actor, from my experience as a coach and teacher of acting, and from my experience as an audience member.

A corollary: Earle's contention was that this is what we do in life, not just when we're acting. We don't do it consciously, of course, not for the most part. But we want things from people, and we try to get them by playing actions on them—by trying to make them feel smart, or wrong, or loved, or irresponsible, or guilty, etc. Again, the wellspring is observation of actual, live phenomena—human behavior.

Deep resonance #3: the emphasis in KTS is on the physical actions of speech. It's not an accident that the same word—action—is at the very heart of both bodies of thought and practice. They have slightly different usages and implications—Earle's use of action, like Stanislavski's, is a term of art. But though the basic definition of action, for Earle, was a release of energy, his emphasis was always on the concreteness of the energy. When someone successfully plays an action—releases energy—you can see it. You can feel it. It is a palpable, concrete, specific thing.

It was the same for Dudley. It's the same for Phil, and for me. More than anything else, I want the actors I teach and coach to feel the specific, in-the-moment, concrete physicality of their speech actions. Term of art or no, action is action. Speech or acting, physical or energetic, action is action. The two senses engage, reflect, intertwine, and embrace. The root is the same. Speech is acting, acting is speech.

Enterprises of great pitch and moment indeed! Let us then, rather than lose the name of action, embody it, embrace it, study it, teach it, own it, define it, challenge it, live it, and be it!


*Despite this, "tone focus" was far from a useless concept. It was, in fact, a significant contribution in its own right. David Alan Stern was really the first to try to put his finger on this all-important aspect of accent teaching. He was, in every sense, a pioneer. The problem is just that if this idea is applied without rigor, it can lead to oversimplification, stereotype, mystification, and even parody.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rhoticity, Part Two: Symbol Confusion

This post is a part two of an answer to a question posed by Kim Mappleswitch. Part one is here.

As a reminder, Kim writes:

At The High Standards Academy of Dramatic Art (HSADA) we're required to teach Standard Stage as a basis for learning IPA. I have asked the faculty here how they teach the /ɜ˞/ sound. On one hand - it's that the tongue tip stays behind the lower teeth and on the other hand it's that the tongue tip is not on the lower teeth, but rather "floats" because the body of the tongue is slightly retracted. What do you guys think? Rhoticity is a difficult topic and I'd like to have some clarity with this symbol and get some other opinions on how to teach it. In the course packet we are supposed to teach out of it says this is a "pure vowel" but I don't see how it can be with an r-hook. This is where I'm hitting a wall with this sound.

I dealt with the question of the physicality in the last post. This post will be specifically about the transcription questions around rhoticity (post-vocalic /r/ sounds to you).

This is a vexed area, to say the least.

Most folks in the theatre voice and speech world use ɜ˞ to represent the phoneme in So-Called General American NURSE, just like Kim's HSADA colleagues. This is a widespread, deeply-rooted convention. It can be found in Kenyon and Knott, Skinner, Patricia Fletcher’s Classically Speaking, Louis Colaianni’s Joy of Phonetics, Paul Meier’s treatment of ‘General American’ and many, many other resources. Even John Wells, in Accents of English, uses /ɜr/ for the ‘GenAm’ phoneme. (Wells’ idiosyncratic use of the ‘all-purpose’ /r/ here, rather than a rhoticity diacritic, is perhaps best left for another discussion. The important point for now is that he concurs with everybody else in using the basic ɜ symbol for the vowel.) ɜ˞, in other words, is a very well-established usage.

This same basic symbol, ɜ, is used to represent the NURSE phoneme in RP, and has been at least since Gimson. It is at least as well-established as the use of ɜ˞ for the equivalent American vowel. This is interesting. Now of course SCGA and RP differ in the all-important aspect of rhoticity. SCGA is rhotic, RP is not. But is this, in fact, the only difference between the two realizations? The widespread practice of using the same basic symbol for both vowels would seem to indicate that we’re talking about the same tongue position, and that the SCGA and RP NURSE vowels differ only in whether or not the sides of the tongue are reaching up for the molars or not. Is this the case? Let’s hold onto that question for a moment while we have a quick look at the IPA vowel chart as it is currently configured.

Since 1993, when the current version of the IPA vowel chart was adopted, the unrounded central vowel situation has been this:

There is one symbol at the same height as Cardinal 2, one symbol at the same height as Cardinal 3, and one symbol halfway in between.

Let’s do a little experiment here. Release your jaw, tongue and lips. Let everything flop open and see if you can let go of any tension or holding in your articulators. Send a little voiced sound through there. Congratulations, you've just produced [ə], the only truly relaxed sound possible in human languages. Every other speech sound in existence must necessarily involve some degree of muscular engagement somewhere in the vocal tract. Now say a few NURSE words in a 'General' American accent of some kind. "Bernie the pervert learned curses from stern circus girls," perhaps. Freeze your tongue in the middle of one of those vowels. Feel where it is in your mouth. Compare it to [ə]—relax into [ə] and feel whether your tongue moves or not. Did it raise or lower when it moved from SCGA NURSE to [ə]?

I’m going to guess that it probably lowered. Yes, there's an extra thing going on—the tongue-bracing action I discussed in the last post. But speak one of these words again in an SCGA accent and hold on the vowel. See whether you can relax the sides of the tongue down while keeping the body in the same position in your mouth. Again, compare it to a [ə]. Dollars to doughnuts it's higher.

Now, if you're an RP speaker, or have a killer RP accent (an RP NURSE vowel can be a tricky one for a lot of Americans), speak a few NURSE words in RP. Hold, as before, on the vowel, and feel where your tongue is. Then relax it into an [ə]. Compare and contrast. The result, I'd imagine, is that you discovered your tongue was lower for RP NURSE than for [ə]. So we've got three different tongue positions here. Going from lowest (slightly cupped) to highest (slightly arched), we have RP NURSE, then [ə], then SCGA NURSE.

Look again at the chart above. We have three symbols on the IPA vowel chart corresponding more or less perfectly to the tongue heights of these three vowels.

Now, assuming you're with me so far, please tell me what earthly sense it makes to use the same basic symbol for both RP and SCGA NURSE?

And even more importantly, how can we not expect this to be confusing to students? On the one hand we're teaching them that the IPA functions on the bedrock principle of one and only one symbol for each unique physical action, and each unique physical action will have only one symbol to represent it. Now we're telling them that ɜ indicates a vowel lower than [ə], but all you have to do is add a rhoticity diacritic to the basic symbol, ɜ˞, and now we're describing a vowel that is higher than [ə]. But higher than [ə] is not where ɜ is on the chart! Furthermore, there is a symbol occupying that precise position on the chart, ɘ!

Convention aside, if we were choosing a symbol from scratch to represent a central vowel about the height of Cardinal 2, which one would we choose? The answer is obvious—we’d choose [ɘ]. It’s right there on the chart! The choice for RP NURSE is similarly obvious—we should go with [ɜ]. Again, it’s right there on the chart, an unrounded central vowel about the height of Cardinal 3. That’s the quality we want to describe, and the IPA has provided us with a symbol that lives right there.

So, my preferred usage is:

SCGA NURSE vowel: /ɘ˞/
RP NURSE vowel: /ɜ/

This usage has the advantage of making clear that we’re talking about two completely different tongue positions for the two vowels—one higher than [ə] and one lower. Rhoticity is not the only difference between the two.

Of course, if we teach this, we still have to explain the convention so that students understand what they’re reading when they come across it elsewhere. But it’s far better to go this route, I think, than to just go on pretending that we’re talking about the same thing when we’re really talking about two different things. If one of the main points of teaching phonetics is to allow students to begin to untangle perceptual confusions, then we are certainly not serving that goal if we’re teaching ɜ˞ for American NURSE.

As long as this post has now become, there is still more to say on this subject. In NURSE words, Joe Yankee probably uses some kind of 'braced' or 'molar' 'r', (discussed in the last post), which I'm now choosing to transcribe as [ɘ˞]. But what does he use when a spelled 'r' precedes a vowel, as in rutabega?

The answer will have to wait for part three. (Though discussion, as always, is welcome in the comments.) 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bird is the Word

'BBQ Grill Rotisserie Chicken' photo (c) 2009, Phil Gwinn - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Kim Mappleswitch writes:

At The High Standards Academy of Dramatic Art (HSADA) we're required to teach Standard Stage as a basis for learning IPA. I have asked the faculty here how they teach the /ɜ˞/ sound. On one hand - it's that the tongue tip stays behind the lower teeth and on the other hand it's that the tongue tip is not on the lower teeth, but rather "floats" because the body of the tongue is slightly retracted. What do you guys think? Rhoticity is a difficult topic and I'd like to have some clarity with this symbol and get some other opinions on how to teach it. In the course packet we are supposed to teach out of it says this is a "pure vowel" but I don't see how it can be with an r-hook. This is where I'm hitting a wall with this sound.

(names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

There's much to respond to here. I imagine that Kim is not alone in finding herself in an institution that has yet to join the 21st century as far as speech-training is concerned. But perhaps that's a subject best left for another post. I’m going to tackle the question about physicality first, and leave the transcription question for a bit later.

To be clear, what we're talking about here is the way /r/ is realized after a vowel in rhotic American English, and especially in words like NURSE (the relevant lexical set). Though there is some variation here—some Americans do, in fact, use a strongly retroflexed [ɻ] in words like bird and murder—generally speaking Americans realize post-vocalic /r/ as a 'bunched' /r/, also known as a 'molar' or 'braced' /r/. In Speaking with Skill, Dudley describes it as follows:

Unlike the alveolar /ɹ/ or the retroflex /ɻ/, the tip and blade of the tongue are relaxed down with the tip of the tongue behind the lower teeth and the jaw relaxed open. The middle of the dorsum or body of the tongue is raised and the side edges of the tongue are braced vigorously against the inside of the upper teeth in the area of the rear bicuspids and first molars. Considered in terms of its orientation to the roof of the mouth, this action is taking place in the palato-velar area. The muscular bracing of the tongue has the effect of further tensing and thickening the midline of the tongue, bringing it even closer to the border of the palate and the velum.

JC Catford, in the invaluable A Practical Introduction to Phonetics, describes the same sound as follows:

This vowel was formerly described as ‘retroflexed’ but this is not a correct description. It does not usually have the upward curling of the tongue that is characteristic of retroflexion. Instead, the main body of the tongue is bunched up into a kind of half-close-central position, but with two peculiar modifications: one modification is a moderate degree of deep pharyngalization: the root of the tongue is drawn back into the pharynx just above the larynx. The second modification is a fairly deep depression in the surface of the tongue opposite the uvular zone. This sub-uvular concavity can be acquired as follows. Produce a uvular trill. Note that in order to do this you have to form a longitudinal furrow in the tongue within which the uvula vibrates. Now move the whole body of the tongue slightly forward, while retaining precisely that deeply furrowed configuration. The result should be a close approximation to the typical American ‘bird vowel’, for which the phonetic symbols [ɜ˞] and [ə˞] have been used — both representing a central vowel with an r-like modification.
As we saw, this very strange American vowel involves not only a concavity — or ‘sulcalization’ (from the Latin sulcus `a furrow, or trench') — of the tongue in the neighborhood of the uvula, but also some slight degree of pharyngalization. It is because of this that a series of vowel-sounds with modification of this rhotacized type in some languages spoken in the Caucasus area of Russia, notably Tsakhur and Udi, are known as ‘pharyngalized’ vowels.

The first question is where exactly is the tongue-tip? Is it down, behind the lower front teeth, or does it, in the words of the HSADA instructors, "float"?

The answer is, it depends. Both are possible. It is possible to make a 'molar' /r/ sound with the tongue tip down and out of the action. Only the sides of the tongue come up and make contact with the insides of the upper molars. The jaw must be fairly high (close) for these things to be true simultaneously, of course. You can feel this kind of molar /r/ if you articulate the word green slowly and attentively. Concentrate on keeping the tongue tip down until the final /n/. If you've done this successfully, you've realized the /r/ as a tongue-tip down molar /r/. In actual fact, the tip of the tongue probably does come off the teeth a bit, even if it stays down (it does for me). This is because it is true that the body of the tongue is somewhat retracted for this sound.

(Note that it is not true, pace Catford, that the tongue root must be retracted for a 'molar' /r/. It may well be true that these things often go together—general, blanket tongue-root retraction may be found all over these United States—but it is entirely possible to make a 'molar' /r/ without retracting the root of the tongue.)

Now, it is also possible to make a 'molar' /r/ in a slightly different manner. To really get the sides of the tongue inside the upper molars—enough so that they can actively push out against the teeth, it is necessary to retract the body of the tongue a bit more. The tip will thus come further away from contact with the teeth, and may in fact,"float," in a kind of neither-here-nor-there tongue-tip limbo. Marina Tyndall describes this condition as "Jabba the Hutt tongue," which I think is a very pleasing image. The tip of the tongue is receding into the body—squishing into to as the tongue shortens and gets fatter, just as Jabba the Hutt looks as if he might once have been a tall, cylindrical creature until he was stepped on and squished by some sort of gigantic sand monster. (Which is probably why he's such a sadist, but I'm veering dangerously far afield now.)

If you've tried these two strategies out for yourself—the tongue-tip down 'molar' /r/ and the Jabba the Hutt 'molar' /r/—you may have already observed that they're really just two poles, two endpoints along a single continuum. It would be equally possible to stop anywhere along the way and call that your preferred spot for a 'molar' /r/. Try it out—move smoothly and gradually from one to the other.

In the second configuration (the Jabba the Hutt one), we can vary the bracing action. If we do go ahead and actively push out with the sides of the tongue against the molars, we'll end up with a 'harder' sounding /r/, maybe one reminiscent of Oklahoma or Texas. It's equally possible to do no bracing at all with your Jabba the Hutt tongue, just light contact. So here is another continuum, varying between strong bracing and no bracing. In fact, we can join the ends of these two continua and end up with one continuous continuum, beginning at one end with tongue-tip down 'molar' /r/, moving through light-contact Jabba the Hutt 'molar' /r/, and increasing in bracing until we get to 'hard', strongly-braced Jabba the Hutt 'molar' /r/.

My sense is that when modern Skinnerians ask for 'light' rhoticity (Skinner herself specified that no rhoticity was to be used for singing and “Good Speech in classic texts”), they are asking for the tongue-tip down version. If your goal is to promote a pattern of articulation that leaves the tongue free and ready to go wherever it needs to next, this makes a certain kind of sense. I would argue that the tongue-tip down version is no better in this regard than the light contact version, but both clearly have some articulatory advantages over the strongly braced one, especially if it includes tongue root retraction, as is likely. So to specify the tongue-tip down version is to aim for the end of the continuum that is furthest away from the one that may result in some constriction and less agile articulation.

My position on this is that I feel no need to employ this kind of subtle subterfuge with my students. Not to mince words, there's something almost dishonest, it seems to me, in insisting on a particular articulatory realization as a target merely so as to keep students as far away as possible from a disfavored action. Don't we want our students to have as much fine control and awareness as possible? I certainly do—I want them to have as much understanding of and feel for their own articulators as I can give them. So if the middle point on our continuum, what I'm calling the contact-only Jabba the Hutt tongue, will allow for agile articulation and a free, open vocal tract just as well as the tongue-tip down version, why not teach that? I will admit to some personal bias here—my own NURSE vowel is formed in this way. The tongue-tip down version just doesn’t feel, well, /r/-ish enough to me.

I can point to no instrumental studies on the matter, but I suspect that contact-only Jabba the Hutt tongue is the way the large majority of contemporary Americans realize the NURSE vowel, as well 'consonant' /r/. My students have always felt this to be so as well.

Of course, as with all speech actions, I’d like my students to be able to do all of these things. I don’t mean to prescribe the ‘light contact’ version as the best alternative or the one that should be taught to everybody as the ideal. But if a given student has a strongly braced /r/ with tongue-root retraction, and a freer, more open vocal tract is desired for whatever purpose, the bracing and tongue-root retraction itself are the aspects to address. If the student has an easier time incorporating and owning the ‘light contact’ version, what exactly is the reason for getting them all the way to the tongue-tip down one?

This has turned into an exceedingly long post, so I will save the discussion of symbols for another post.

As always, comments, discussion and vituperative disagreement welcome below.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Email address!

'Confusion' photo (c) 2009, Hamner_Fotos - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ We've just established an email address for the blog. You can now write in with questions to:


We'd love to hear from you. Any question you may have about transcription, exercises, pedagogy, philosophy, linguistic resources, etc.—send them in!

(The one area I think we can perhaps leave for other forums is requests for help finding resources for specific accents. Those discussions are probably best had on vastavox or the Facebook page. Let's leave this forum specifically for questions to do with Knight-Thompson Speechwork, phonetics, teaching, coaching, linguistics, etc. I think that'll be plenty!)

Bring us your questions!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Adding Insult to Investigation

One thing I think we'd like to do with this blog is share ideas for new and fun Omnish exercises. One of us will write a post soon sharing one or two that aren’t in the book. I have also found a need in my teaching, however, for some extra Outlandish exercises. I hesitate to introduce Omnish until my students are thoroughly grounded in the Empty Chart—in all the specific possibilities of obstruent action. But because the Bataan Death March through the Empty Chart can take up to five ninety-minute classes, I have a great need for fun things to do for warm-ups and for quick head and tongue-clearing breaks in the middle of these classes.

One thing I’ve found to be effective and a lot of fun is to have students insult each other in Outlandish. Outlandish, being outlandish, has even more potential for extreme and enthusiastic expression than Omnish does. So it lends itself wonderfully to insults. I generally divide the class into two groups, and send each group to opposite sides of the room. One member of one group walks forward towards the other group and insults them, in Outlandish. The insulted group, as a whole, then responds by repeating, incredulously, the insult or the end of the insult, ideally using a kind of ‘Did he really just say that?’ inflection as they look at each other, full of righteous umbrage. One of them then steps forward and insults the other group generally, hopefully topping the first insult. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Besides being a lot of fun and changing the energy in the room after some very focussed attention on individual specific articulations, this exercise encourages a lot of active muscularity. Whether or not it's pointed out to them after the fact, they get an early chance to start experiencing what it's like to really be physically engaged in the act of speaking. Which is the whole point, after all.

Do you have any fun or creative Outlandish exercises that you do with students?