Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

When I was young, long before I knew what a linguist was, I remember wandering through the Tattered Cover (a multi-story bookstore then near the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver, CO) and stumbling upon a strange finding for a bookstore: a small baggie containing a booklet and a cassette tape, David Alan Stern’s “Acting with an Accent: Standard British”.

My family had a history of goofy home movies and different voice “characters”, so the idea of “speaking British” had an immediate usefulness in my young mind. My father indulged my curiousity, and quickly (more quickly than they anticipated), I learned a British accent. Then, after a later trip to the same bookstore, a Russian accent. A special-order later, Southern. Before I left high school, I could switch into (and stay in, for hours, if needed) no fewer than 6 different dialacts, ranging from comical to convincing.

“Point of Resonance”

Although it played a huge role in my phonetic life, one aspect of David Alan Stern’s method of accent teaching never quite sat well with me as a phonetician.

The first step in every one of his tapes/CDs is to find and develop the “point of resonance” for a given dialect. He always begins by explaining that for General American English (GA) speakers, this point is, quoting Dr. Stern from memory, “at the place above your tongue where your fingers would meet if you pressed two fingers into your cheeks and they were flexible enough to come together”. He would then go on to explain the “point of resonance” for the dialect in question, moving closer to your teeth for Standard British, further back in the mouth and throat for Russian, high, near the velum, for Australian (as memory serves).

He would then go on to encourage you to mimic this point of resonance, to visualize it, and to “use” this point of resonance while speaking, even before applying any of the consonant or vowel changes which were characteristic of the dialect in question.

This was, unquestionably, a powerful teaching technique. Using this approach the sounds themselves simply “got out of my way”, and I was able to mimic something important about a dialect without even thinking about the individual sound changes. And although the sound-by-sound descriptions were useful and helped improve the authenticity of the accent, for me, only when I “found” this point was I able to not only produce an accent, but to stay in it.

Unfortunately, as a phonetician, trained in the classical approach of sounds as independent entities, this idea was far from conventional. I was taught that we describe dialects by describing their sound transformations, giving rules such as “in Russian-accented English, all instances of /ɪ/ (as in “bit”) are replaced with [i] (as in “beet”)”. We can also describe things like prosody (how stress and pitch are assigned), and we can describe word-specific substitutions.

But nobody ever talked, in my experience, about a grander “point of resonance” characteristic of a given dialect, and the few times I (poorly) described such an idea around the phonetically knowledgable, I was met mostly with blank stares. Until last night.

“Articulatory Setting”

As I’m planning to look into voicing type (“breathy” vs. “creaky” vs. “normal” or “modal” voice, another post coming soon) as a part of my dissertation, my advisor recently recommended John Laver’s 1980 book The Phonetic Description of Voice Quality1.

There, as I was reading, I happened upon this passage, quoting another author, discussing the idea of “articulatory setting” (“articulatory” here, as in most of phonetics, referring to the movements of the tongue, lips, mouth, and other parts of the vocal apparatus):

Broadly, it is the fundamental groundwork which pervades and, to an extent, determines the phonetic character and specific timbre of a language. It is immanent in all that the organs do. Articulatory setting does not imply simply the particular articulations of the individual speech sounds of a language, but is rather the nexus of these isolated facts and their assemblage, based on their common, rather than their distinguishing, components. (Quote from Laver 1980 pp. 12, in turn quoting Honikman 1964 2).

When I read this, I couldn’t help but smile, eagerly reading and cross-referencing with my copy of Netter’s Anatomy. This, and the subsequent chapter, went on to describe quite neatly the phonetic realities of Dr. Stern’s “point of resonance”, and gave examples of all of the various articulatory parameters which help to make it up.

Coming Full Circle

Anybody paying attention can easily draw a solid line from that moment when I picked up that weird tape-and-booklet-in-a-baggie to a month or two ago, when I recommended that same accent learning kit to a student in the Phonetics and Phonology class I was teaching. These kits were the first time I though about dialect, the first time I saw the IPA, and the first time I ever considered sounds independent of letters.

It may seem silly that finding a scientific description of the phenomenon of “point of resonance” meant so much to me. But that little paragraph, knowing that term, gave me something I’d long missed. It brought my first meaningful (and at the time, amazing) phonetic experimentations into focus. It validated an approach to speech that I’d long believed in, but seldom discussed.

Most importantly, though, it gave me a way to use the language of my current world to relate to the very first moments of my phonetic life. A Christmas gift, it seems, from the most unexpected of sources.

  1. Laver, J. (1980). The phonetic description of voice quality. Cambridge Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

  2. In Abercrombie, D., & Jones, D. (1964). In honour of Daniel Jones: Papers contributed on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, 12 September 1961. London: Longmans.


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