Thursday, 30 September 2010

more on Russian ж

An anonymous commentator on yesterday’s blog (why don’t people identify themselves?) wrote
Russian ж is a retroflex, so shouldn't we use IPA ʐ?
This suggestion risks opening a whole can of worms.

If you compare a typical French ʃ or ʒ with a typical English ʃ or ʒ, you may notice that the French ones sound slightly ‘darker’ than the English. As Armstrong and Ward put it,
The palatal (i.e. j-like) quality which is often heard in English ʃ and ʒ is absent from the French sounds. [The Phonetics of French, 1932]

If you compare the Russian sounds written ш and ж, transliterated sh and zh respectively, you will notice that they are darker still. Here is Daniel Jones.
English ʃ … is a somewhat palatalized sound … in comparison with Russian ʃ, and does not have the characteristic ‘dark’ or ‘hollow’ quality of the latter. […] English ʒ differs from Russian ʒ in exactly the same way that English ʃ differs from Russian ʃ. [Jones and Ward, The Phonetics of Russian, 1969]

All three ʒ sounds (English, French, and Russian) are ‘darker’ than the ‘alveolopalatal’ ʑ of Polish, Japanese and other languages. On the other hand none of them are as ‘dark’ as the ‘retroflex’ ʐ of Standard Chinese (Pinyin r, as in 人 rén).

So what we are dealing with is a continuum of possibilities. I used to make my students first produce with their usual ʃ (or ʒ) and then prolong it while modifying the articulation so as to make it sound first clearer then darker, then slur backwards and forwards between the extreme points of ɕ ʑ and ʂ ʐ, passing through a range of subtly different varieties of ʃ and ʒ.

Providing a language has no phonemic contrasts of place within this range, it is entirely acceptable, indeed recommended, to use the symbols ʃ and ʒ. The precise coloration does not matter: we write ʒ in transcriptions of French and of English without causing any confusion (even though the sounds are not exactly identical).
In cases where a lanɡuaɡe does have a contrast within the ranɡe, we can discuss which symbols to use. So for Polish it is usual in the IPA tradition to write ɕ ʑ for the clearer pair and ʃ ʒ for the darker pair, though some prefer ʂ ʐ for the darker.

Russian is an interesting case. There is no simple direct contrast of place, but the fricatives spelt ш and ж are dark (non-palatalized) and very different from the palatalized fricative spelt щ, which tends to be longer and can also be interrupted by a plosive element, so ɕɕ or ɕtɕ. (Jones and Ward use the obsolete IPA symbols ʆ, ʆʆ, ʆtʆ.) But for the non-palatalized ones J&W write ʃ and ʒ.

Ladefoged and Maddieson, in The Sounds of the World’s Languages (1996), have a long discussion of the articulatory postures involved in sounds of this general type. They categorize the Polish sound spelt rz, which I equate with Russian ж, as ‘flat post-alveolar (retroflex)’. Yes, somewhat retroflex. But they are nowhere near as retroflex as the “genuinely retroflex gesture” L & M report in the Toda language, or in other Dravidian languages.

Perhaps we would do best to confine the use of the retroflex symbols to those languages where there are not only fricatives but also plosives and nasals that are distinctively retroflex. For Russian ж I’m sticking with ʒ.


  1. Yes I was going to direct that commentator to your blog entries for 4&5 March 2008:

  2. The whole thing is also specifically discussed in Silke Hamann's paper in JIPA (2004, vol. 1). The issue here is, as usual, of imprecise terminology, in that the same category of symbol can be used for both the subapicals such as the Dravidian consonants and, and to the Slavic-type "retroflexes" (and even sometimes the Scandinavian "postalveolars", at least in the case of the stops).

    One could, potentially, use two different symbols for the Russian ш, and that is if one subscribes to a Halle or Rubach-type of analysis where these segments do actually come in a palatalized and non-palatalized variety in the phonology. (Personally I don't buy it, but who knows).

    I'm wondering about the щ, though. Certainly to my Russian ears the Polish [ɕ] sounds appreciably different from Russian щ; the latter, to me, qualitatively sounds more like a palatalized [ʃ] (where plain [ʃ] is of the English type). But I have no literature to back that up.

    (In the interest of full disclosure: personally, I use the retroflex symbols for ш and ж when talking about Russian phonology, but I do this out of a pet peeve to give quite narrow transcriptions of Russian, because much of the phonological literature is far too broad for my liking)

  3. > why don’t people identify themselves?

    Probably because when someone makes a comment that's not spot on, sometimes you can come across as patronizing or derogatory. Don't know if you mean to, but I've been surprised sometimes.

  4. The difference between English "drug" and "jug" is that the former is apical and (according to my impression) velarized whereas the latter is laminal and palatalized, right?

  5. P. Iosad: I'm wondering about the щ, though

    Agreed. I don't have any literature to cite, either, but to my Polish ear the Russian sound is a "palatalised double ш" (or шч, of course), and doesn't sound "soft" (=palatal/clear in the usual Polish terminology) enough to qualify as a Polish ɕ.

    It all just shows the limitations of the IPA system, sorry ;) A transcription, even a very detailed one, not to mention a "broad" one at a rather high level, just can't stand on its own without an associated description; but this is of course recognised in the IPA's guidelines.

    Regarding the darkness/retroflexion of the Polish sounds -- well, I'm in the process of listening to the data from my first ever experimental project using Polish speech (I shouldn't admit, I know), and when listening to small VCV bits, I tend to sometimes think, "Is s/he speaking Chinese or what?". So dark are the sz sounds. Earlier, I used to be quite ambivalent about Hamanns et al.'s proposals, but I may become a convert.

  6. Even if that's so, Anonymous, it's trivial to use a pseudonym (like I'm doing now), or even a different pseudonym every time you post. The most popular post I've ever written had almost every commentator being anonymous, and I had to refer to them as "Anonymous #39" to provide answers, and sometimes I lost count and probably gave the wrong answers to the wrong people. Finally I disallowed anonymous posting because of that irritation.

  7. > or even a different pseudonym every time you post.

    I may or may not do that.

  8. I note that Canepari (to whom I was introduced by army1987) uses variations of ʂ and ʐ for the Polish sz and rz while using variations of ʃ and ʒ for the Russian ш and ж. Canepari uses his own distinct modified glyphs (he uses the base IPA letters with the middle tilde in each case), but with official IPA diacritics they correspond to ʂˠ and ʐˠ for the Polish fricatives and to something like ʃ ̻˗ˠʷ and ʒ ̻˗ˠʷ for the Russian ones (I would be mightily impressed if the last pair displays correctly).

    In any case, with just three or four (if we include s and z) base symbols to describe sounds that can be anywhere along a continuum of possibilities and even then can have a range of values within each language, disagreement on which symbols are appropriate is going to be inevitable.

  9. On the other hand Canepari uses the same symbol (the deprecated ʆ) for both Polish ś and Russian щ while using ɕ for Chinese fricative represented by x in pinyin.

  10. Surely pseudonyms are OK? Not everyone is happy with identifying themselves in online fora. And isn't the problem really that the linear setup of the blog doesn't allow comments on comments?

  11. I grew up bilingually Danish/Swabian German, and although I subconsciously identified many crosslinguistic "phonemes" (e.g., to me German /b/ was Danish /b/, /s/ was /s/, etc.), I never made any connexion between Danish 'sj' /ɕ/ and German /ʃ/. When I learnt English from age 10 onwards, I used the German /ʃ/, although the English sound is much more palatal. I also used the German sound when I many years later tried to learn Russian.

  12. My wife Elena considers her щ sound to be soft. We believe that Dennis Ward's informants had a similar Leningrad accent. Judge for yourselves from this clip.

  13. I note that Canepari (to whom I was introduced by army1987)
    I'm sorry. :-)

  14. In the first of these comments I gave the wrong dates for the relevant entries in John's blog. Correction: 3&4 March 2008:

  15. Regarding the Russian word translated "it's a pity", English speakers may recognise an inflected form of this (in, I'm told, somewhat mangled form) in the final line of the Flanders & Swann classic "In the Desert".

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  17. We've lost our cassette, but we seem to remember that Swann sings Очень жалко ему!. The first word means very. The adjectival жалко is no less impersonal than the adverbial жаль in the list reproduced in John's OP, and has the same meaning and syntax. Neither ‘pity’ word is inflected. The final word is intended to mean for him.

    A free but ineffective translation would be I'm very sorry for him. Flanders' translation What a pity better reflects the silliness.

    What is 'somewhat mangled' is the Russian. It should be genitive его not dative ему.

    (Жалко ему can be grammatical, but only if it means He regrets it.)

    The grammatical error would not seem to be Swann's, but rather part of a stereotypical representation of Central Asian speech: simple, unidiomatic and occasionally wrong. Elena sees it as a deliberately silly song even before Swann sent it up — and Flanders sent it up further. I see it as a distant cousin of Abdul the Bulbul Emir.

  18. I'm a bit curios about /ʒban/ which I take to mean "jug", since we in Danish have /sba^ʔ^n/ meaning "bucket".

  19. Jens

    According to Elena's etymological dictionary, жбан is a Slavic word with forms found in Church Slavonic and cognates in Czech and Serbian. The earliest forms have an affricate rather than a fricative. There's no mention of Germanic influence.

    The illustration is misleading. The dictionaries specifies 'wooden container with lid'. Elena thought it was a sort of glass jar — largely because on the rare occasions she's come across the word it was collocated with full of kvas.

  20. I'm uncertain exactly what is meant by the use here of the impressionistic term 'dark'. I've always thought of it as contrasting with 'clear' and referring to velarisation, but here it seems to be used to refer to degrees of retroflexion. I'm quite used to retroflex sounds, having worked for some years with Australian Aboriginal languages where they are abundant, and 'dark' does not seem to me a natural way of describing them (but that's surely the problem with impressionistic terminology). Would you care to clarify?

  21. I don't know why ZH is used for Malayalam and Tamil retroflex R (identical to the US English R), so instead of writing Tamizh wouldn't Tamir be a more logical solution?

  22. I don't know why ZH is used for Malayalam and Tamil retroflex R (identical to the US English R)

    1. both languages have other rhotic consonants for which R is more naturally used in transcription.

    2. FWIW, the native Tamil speakers I have heard here in the US tend to produce a non-sibilant fricative, rather than an approximant, for that consonant. I noticed the same thing from Malayalam speakers when I was in Kerala. Both sounded quite distinct from any sound in American English. And since ZH is a reasonable transcription of the retroflex sibilant fricative, I suppose it got pressed into service for the non-sibilant fricative as well.

  23. just your average anonymous phonetician10 November 2010 20:43

    > the palatalized fricative spelt щ, which tends to be longer and can also be interrupted by a plosive element, so ɕɕ or ɕtɕ.

    All the textbooks give ɕtɕ as a real pronunciation. I think it is certainly possible to have ɕtɕ in Russian, or at least štš. One can, for example, say:

    наш чистый дом

    our clean house

    But, as can be heard in the clip, kindly provided by David Crosby, there is no t there in what is represented by щ in the Russian orthography. People dealing with Russian phonology don't say that there is. Just the other day I came across a discussion about this very thing, and, of course, I can't find it now :-(

    In other words, if your Russian teacher says ɕtɕ is a real pronunciation represented by щ in the orthography, don't believe her/him.

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