How People Think They Make Sounds


Photo: Rachael Ashe

When I was younger, I believed I made the English /r/ sound with my lips.  When I visualized this consonant, I pictured myself making a tight half-pout.  I saw /r/, in essence, as a more emphatic version of/w/.

So it was something of a shock when I took an introductory voice and speech course in college.  My professor (and a prescriptivist speech textbook) taught me that the ‘correct’ way to produce /r/ is by moving the front of one’s tongue to the space behind the upper teeth.  Compounding my confusion was the fact that when I was younger, my /r/ was ‘bunched,’ meaning it involved the back of the tongue, not the front.

This anecdote highlights an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years: people sometimes have off-base perceptions of how they themselves produce the sounds of English. And I’ve noticed what seems to be a pattern. People are aware of movements they make with their lips, but are often unconscious of what they do with their tongue.

Take the /w/ sound. Most non-phonetician types probably assume (as I once assumed) that this sound is made entirely with the lips. The fact that ‘w’ involves tongue movement (lifting the back of the tongue to the soft palate), is something few people would be cognizant of.

The same is probably true of the ‘oo’ sound: many imagine this vowel being made by rounding the lips alone.  Tongue height, of course, is equally if not more important (and I might argue that in some dialects, lip roundedness is an afterthought).  Still, when most people think of ‘oo,’ they think of a pair of lips forming a perfect ‘o.’

So why do the lips seem more on people’s minds than the tongue? I’ve sometimes wonder if this is because the lips are more consistently visible: the first president Bush told the country to ‘Read my lips,’ not to ‘Read the interplay of gestures between my lips and tongue.’  We have a vague notion that the tongue is doing something back there in the darkness, but we’re not quite sure what.

These are obviously personal observations, and hardly universal.  But it does seem that humans assign conscious gestures to entirely unconscious activities, particularly when it comes to talking. Why do we notice some of the movements that create speech while ignoring others?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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9 Responses to How People Think They Make Sounds

  1. Jonathon says:

    I think you’re on to something. Before my first real linguistics class, I thought the difference between /i/ and /u/ was lip rounding.

    • trawicks says:

      Which is a fair assumption. What people seem specifically unaware of are the dimensions of height and backness that go into the production of sounds.

  2. cclinton says:

    I dunno. Around here, whenever I try to explain something like the difference between two sounds, always want to say something along the lines of “so you’re doing something different with your tongue?” Even when it is between something like /θ/ and /ð/. I think most people understand the tongue has a part in producing sound; It’s just the specifics that are often fuzzy.

    • trawicks says:

      I might amend my initial statement to say that the tongue DORSUM is what people seem unaware of. Which come to think of it, suggests another possibility: because the back of the tongue doesn’t touch other parts of the vocal tract as the tongue tip or the lips, we quite literally don’t sense anything going on back there.

  3. Alan Curry says:

    I got another example for you: When a doctor says “Say aaah” he probably just means something like “lower the back of your tongue”. But if instructed “lower the back of your tongue”, people might reply “I don’t know how to do that.” So he asks you to imitate a sound, which regular people can do without any conscious knowledge of the muscle movements involved.

  4. AL says:

    Does this affect how deaf people read lips, since they can’t see tongue position?

    • cclinton says:

      I believe so. In fact, I’ve seen, in a language book I have, that there is actually a system called “Cued Speech” that allows for deaf people to watch the lips, but also has hand motions along with it to allow them to “see” sounds that lip movement would not distinguish.

  5. Nick Curnow says:

    Very very true. I was told at drama school that, where it came to the common Australian habit of l-vocalisation “the lips are a stronger articulation” – which I always took to mean they are essentially more visible. But that also means, I guess, that their effect on a sound is more noticable as it is combined with whatever the tongue is doing. The /l/ is still approximated by the tongue, but the lips cover this articulation and all that is perceived is a /w/. Many of my students who do this are completely unaware of it and firmly believe they are pronouncing the same /l/ in “gold” or “hill” as in “like” or “long” until I ask them to say “little” and then ask them if there is any difference between the first and second /l/. They say yes, but even then they say “one is longer” or “softer” until I ask them to think specifically about their tongue.

    And re. the dorsum of the tongue, I actually find it useful to get the student to focus on the side edges of the tongue when moving between /i:/ and /u:/ – EE-OO-EE-OO-EE-OO, etc, and getting them to feel the tongue sliding back and forth along the top teeth, or forward on the teeth, then back off the teeth, as the first inclination is almost always to say that /i:/ is formed somewhere back in the mouth until they contrast it with /u:/.

    Coming back to your original post about /r/ my natural accent has always made me see /r/ as a tongue articulation and having nothing to do with the lips, so I was never aware until it was pointed out of the lip aspect to the, say, general American /r/ when using it as an actor, or in teaching other actors. I still find it hard to incorporate the lips into my /r/’s!

  6. And then there are the people who suppose that they begin the words “thin” and “this” with a /t/ quickly followed by an /h/ …I myself have seen a teacher (of reading) telling children that “the word ‘though’ has seven sounds: the Tee-sound TUH, the Aitch-sound HUH, the Oh-sound AH, the Yoo-sound UH, … ” and so on _ad_nauseam_: reprimanding those children hi said they heard only two or three (“Why, then, you will just hav to try harder to listen better!”) In the D’N, all were priced to say they heard seven sounds … and those showing any insincerity in this, or continuing to voice objections and demonstrate by they objected, were publicly ridiculed by the teacher and by their classmates (who eagerly accepted the teacher’s encouragement to join her in poking fun at the objectors.)
    See also: