I've searched the site a bit for this topic, and I recognize that there's quite a bit of variability about the classification of phones like [w] and [j]. My primary understanding comes from Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics, which, if my memory is correct, presents these in their guise as semivowels. In this context, he seems to define a semivowel as a momentary, rather quick move into and out of a vowel. He demonstrates by having the reader "discover" [w] as a momentary [u] by having the reader start by making a [aaaauuuuaaaa] sound and gradually reduce the length of the [uuu] portion until [aaaauuaaaa] becomes [aaaaauaaaa] becomes [aaaawaaaa]. Similarly, [j] can be produced by starting with [aaaaiiiiaaaa] and then shortening the [ii] portion until the sound is [aaaajaaaa].

This all made a great deal of sense to me and has helped me find phones that are less familiar to me, such as [ɥ]. What isn't clear to me, however, is what exactly is happening when I make sounds where the semivowel is preceded or followed by the same vowel sound from which it's derived. For example, [ji] and [wu] are clearly different sounds to my ear than [i] and [u] alone (or [ʔi] and [ʔu]...?). If I try a similar Catford-esque experiment by making a [uuuuwuuuu] sound, it seems like something is happening—perhaps more intense labialization—but I'm not sure. When I try to do the same thing with [iiiiijiiiii], I have trouble hearing as much difference.

My question is, if I strictly go by the first paragraph's understanding of a [w] sound as simply an abbreviated [u], then it seems that a sound like [wu] should be indistinguishable from [u] (and same goes for [ji] vs. [i]). Is there something wrong with my understanding of the [w] and [j] semivowels, or does one make some sort of "extra" distinction when a semivowel is surrounded by its corresponding vowel?

  • Perhaps the trick is in stress? Because /uwu/ has to be either /'u.wu/ or /u.'wu/, so the the /w/ marks at least a change in stress. – Luís Henrique Apr 28 '18 at 22:10
  • Somewhat related, can we really distinguish between /ju/ and /iw/ in unstressed positions? – Luís Henrique Apr 28 '18 at 22:12
  • @Luís Henrique In French, you can easily distinguish the words "oui" [wi] and "ouille" [uj]. – Michel Fioc May 2 '18 at 15:43
  • @MichelFioc - point taken, but I think in both words the diphtong is in a stressed position, isn't it? – Luís Henrique May 16 '18 at 13:45

If you do strictly go by the first paragraph's understanding of [w], [wu] should be a somewhat longer version of [u], having whatever its reduced duration is plur that of [u]. It is not false to say that [w] is a rather short [u], but that is insufficient. Apart from duration, there is a small but visible difference in stricture of the vocoid, where the glides have a narrow constriction. The articulatory movement of [j,w] is more ballistic. This is mostly independent of the surrounding vowel (though [w] in [awa] vs. [uwu] are themselves different).

| improve this answer | |

I think Catford has in mind the phonetician's distinction between a sound with a steady state and a sound without a steady state, the latter being a glide. Looking at the sound spectrograms displaying formant transitions, one can distinguish between sounds where the formants are level for an appreciable time, which is a steady state, and others where steady states cannot be found, which are glides -- parts of diphthongs.

I'm skeptical. At a normal rate of speech, steady state vowels may be difficult to find.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.