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Linguist Wins Symbolic Victory for 'Labiodental Flap'

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Linguist Wins Symbolic Victory for 'Labiodental Flap'

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Linguist Wins Symbolic Victory for 'Labiodental Flap'

Linguist Wins Symbolic Victory for 'Labiodental Flap'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Linguist Ken Olson convinced the International Phonetic Association to assign a phonetic symbol to a wordless sound: a trill of the lips called the "labiodental flap," common to more than 70 Central African languages.


Until recently, central African languages such as Mongo, which is spoken in Congo, have had no internationally recognized phonetic representation for a very common sound. It's called the labiodental flap, and it appears in the Mongo words for rainbow...

Mr. KEN OLSON (Linguist): (Mongo spoken)

SIMON: ...hyena...

Mr. OLSON: (Mongo spoken)

SIMON: ...and rubber.

Mr. OLSON: (Mongo spoken)

SIMON: That's linguist Ken Olson helping us out. He's convinced the International Phonetic Association to finally give the labiodental flap its own letter in the official alphabet of phonetic symbols. Mr. Olson joins us from Dallas.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. OLSON: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: And what is the sound exactly?

Mr. OLSON: It involves taking the lower lip and bringing it back into the mouth and then bringing it forward quickly, flapping against the upper teeth as it passes the upper teeth.

SIMON: So just that sound alone would sound like what?

Mr. OLSON: A-la. Like that.

SIMON: A-la.

Mr. OLSON: With your lower lip, not your tongue.

SIMON: Oh, this is hard. Oh, God. Oh, well, I'll leave it to the experts.

Mr. OLSON: OK. Well, it's just kind of fun to try.

SIMON: What does this new symbol look like?

Mr. OLSON: The symbol looks like a V, but it has a right hook on it on the right ascender.

SIMON: And how difficult is it to get the International Phonetic Association to add a symbol to their alphabet?

Mr. OLSON: Well, in the case of the labiodental flap, it's been quite some time. The sound was first documented back in 1907, so it's taken almost 100 years for it to actually to get into the IPA.

SIMON: Are there any other sounds that you know of that, as far as you're concerned, crave recognition with their own phonetic symbol?

Mr. OLSON: The evidence is better for some than for others. One example is what's called a bilabial trill--(makes sound of bilabial trill)--something like that. There's a language in eastern Congo called Mangbetu where you have both a voice bilabial trill--(makes sound of voice bilabial trill)--and a voiceless bilabial trill--(makes sound of voiceless bilabial trill). You hear the difference between those?

SIMON: Yeah. It's subtle, but yes.

Mr. OLSON: Uh-huh. The voiceless bilabial trill does not have a symbol, and so the fact that it's a significant speech sound in Mangbetu, that would argue that it should have its own symbol.

SIMON: I don't mean to put you on the spot, but you have the potential to do a great Donald Duck impersonation.

Mr. OLSON: Oh, yeah, I can do Donald Duck: (impersonates Donald Duck). I also have some good friends of mine have a daughter who's six months old, and she makes bilabiall trills all the time when she's talking to her...

SIMON: Oh, my word.

Mr. OLSON: So...

SIMON: I do believe you're the funniest linguist we've had on this program.

Mr. OLSON: Oh, really?


Mr. OLSON: Oh, OK. Well, great.

SIMON: Absolutely. Absolutely. Certainly the first one to do Donald Duck.

Mr. OLSON: Wow, that's great. OK.

SIMON: Mr. Olson, thank you very much. And may we wish you many labio trills and flaps this holiday season.

Mr. OLSON: Well, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

SIMON: Linguist Ken Olson speaking with us from Dallas.

Twenty-two minutes before the hour.

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