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Recently I was trying to explain that I had (mis?)interpreted a Portuguese way of writing laughter, "kkkkkk", as the kind of sound Ernie from Sesame Street makes when he laughs. Here's a video with some examples. (I've been told this is not the general understanding of "kkkkk" among Portuguese speakers. But I have heard people in real life laugh like this.)

I had been hoping to explain it in terms of phonetics, partly because in my head it "made sense" for that sound to be related to the consonant [k], and partly because I had forgotten about the Ernie example. It seems to me like some kind of a voiceless fricative, made near the back of the throat. To make it myself, my lips are in a similar position as they are for [i]. But searching around Wikipedia's pages on various consonantal sounds made near where [k] is, like [x χ], I wasn't able to find anything that sounded quite like it to me.

Is there a phonetic classification for this kind of laughter? Or is this just not a sound used in any human languages?

  • It sounds like someone learning an L2 with /x/, coming from an L1 without /x/. Like when Cantonese people learn Mandarin - they turn the velar fricative into a plosive... ETA: Maybe it's more of an affricate because of the long period of fricative-like sound afterwards. – WavesWashSands Jun 8 '16 at 16:55
  • It sounds to me like a voiceless velar affricate /k͡x/ followed by voiceless velar fricatives /x/ i.e. /k͡xixixixixi/ – brazofuerte Jul 11 '18 at 15:23
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I've always thought it was an affricate (I'm puzzled at the notion it could be a fricative), and in fact I've always imitated Ernie by producing a lateral affricate; [tɬ]. (And that was long before I learned Klingon.)

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It is kinda possible to analyze any sound phonetically: the real question is whether we should. It is beyond doubt that we can indeed analyze any sound physically (in terms of the resulting acoustic waveform, or in terms of the mechanism creating the waveform). The real question is whether phonetics is more specialized than general acoustics: does it focus on sound properties of human language? For example, can you give a phonetic analysis to the sound of blowing out a candle, "wh" which you could transcribe as [w̥ʊ̥ʔ]. Since laughter or candle-blowing are not linguistic units, under the view that phonetics is about language, you can't give such sounds a phonetic analysis. But we have no way of scientifically determining what the scope of phonetics "really" is, and I can't tell you that it is self-evident that phonetics is restricted to human language sounds.

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