The legend of the “African” t
Espressivo № 1, Linguistic tips for singers1
Phonetic terminology has been abundant at choir practice lately, and there seems to be a bit of confusion about the words and their meanings. So I thought that I—as the linguist of the choir—would try to clear up this confusion.
An affricated t is a consonant that is pronounced by following the stop t with a short s-sound. In phonetic transcription it looks like this: [tˢ].
That is how we Danes pronounce t’s in the beginning of a syllable. Our choir’s name Tritonus [ˈtˢʁ̥itˢonus] contains two instances of this sound. But why do we call it affricated? What is the alternative?
Let’s start at the beginning. The consonant t is a member of a family of sounds called plosives. A plosive is a consonant that is pronounced by briefly blocking the airflow from the lungs, so that air pressure increases in the mouth. This pressure is released all at once, and it sounds like a small explosion—hence the name.
Plosives can be made in different places of the mouth. For example, you could block the airflow at the lips, and you would get the sound [p]. Or you could place the tip of the tongue behind your upper front teeth on the alveolar ridge and pronounce a [t]. You can also use the back of the tongue against the soft palate (velum), which results in a [k].
But plosives also have other properties. The Danish consonants p and b are both pronounced at the lips—what differentiates them is aspiration. The Danske p is written in the phonetic alphabet as [pʰ], and the little h represents the small puff of air that follows the explosion. If you hold your hand in front of your mouth and say pa-pa-pa, you can clearly feel the puff. That is caused by a pause after the explosion of the consonant before the glottis begins to oscillate.
If you say ba-ba-ba instead, there is not nearly as much air that escapes. That is because the glottis begins to vibrate immediately after the b explodes. That is written in phonetic transcription as [b̥] and it basically corresponds to an unaspirated p.
The little ring below the b means that the consonant is devoiced. That is, the voice box isn’t buzzing while the lips are closed and the pressure is building. There are also voiced b’s, and they are written without the ring: [b]. Danish doesn’t have this sound, but if you imagine an American saying Bob [bɑːb], you will have a good idea, what it sounds like.
So, different languages pronounce b and p differently. French, for example, has no aspiration at all, so they pronounce their capital Paris [pɑˈʁi]. That sounds almost like a Dane saying Bari [ˈb̥ɑːʁi], but in French that would be pronounced with a voiced b.
Affrication is the addition of a fricative consonant. A fricative is a sound that is pronounced by hindering the airflow and creating turbulence—or friction, as the name suggests. That is the hissing sounds and those that sound like white noise: f [f], v [v], th [θ] or [ð], s [s], sh [ʃ], French j [ʒ], German ch [x] and many more.
A complete affricate is a consonant that consists of a plosive and a fricative, and they are written with a tie bar in phonetic notation: German z [t͡s], English ch [t͡ʃ] and English j [d͡ʒ] represent some of the most common consonants of the type.
In Danish, the t’s are affricated in their pronunciation, and that is not too far from the German z. That makes it easier for Danes to differentiate between t and d.
But since the Germans already have the consonant z [t͡s], it would be confusing, if they also pronounced their t’s [tˢ]. So they say [tʰ]—a “dry” t. That makes it easier for them to differentiate Tal [tʰɑːl] and Zahl [t͡sɑːl].
I hope you can find some sense in this madness, or that you have at least become confused on a higher level than before.
This post, I wrote for my fellow singers in the choir Tritonus. In an effort to agree on the pronunciation of specific consonants, we discussed some phonetics—especially aspiration and affrication. During the discussion, affricated t quickly became African t. So I wrote this article to clear up some confusion. Translated to English on 21 November, 2018. ↩