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I'll be going back to the Republic of Georgia pretty soon and will try to learn the famously difficult language but last time I was there I couldn't distinguish or reproduce the ejectives.

Everybody understood me anyway but I'd really like to nail them. It will also help my spelling because I can't remember which letter is for which sound when it comes to those with ejective variants. My Georgian and Armenian friends couldn't even understand how such completely different sounds could be confused by anybody (-:

Somebody in an earlier question gave what I thought was a very good guide for how to pronounce another sound in another language (I'll add the link when I find it) so I'm hoping somebody can do the same for these tricky sounds.

Georgian has ejective versions of the stops p, t, k; and affricates ts, and ch each of which contrast with two other similar consonants plus an ejective stop q which doesn't have any counterparts to contrast with so I usually get away with my bad attempt at an Arabic 'ayn which I believe is pronounced in the same place but is not ejective.

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Coming from English, ejectives are hard! I'm studying a Mayan language that's chock full of them, and it took me a solid two years of speaking it before the ejectives stopped feeling like a huge effort to produce. But it's fairly easy to get to a point where you can produce them with effort. Here are some tips based on my own experience.

  • The ejectives further back in the mouth tend to be easier to produce: [q'] and [k'] take less effort than [p']. Since your native language doesn't have uvular sounds in it, [k'] might be the easiest one to start with. (FWIW, this isn't just personal bias. There are a lot more languages with phonemic /k'/ then there are languages with phonemic /p'/ -- which suggests that the [k']-sound really is easier or more natural.)
  • The ejectives are glottalized sounds, which means that you shut your glottis while producing them. It helps to get in the habit of noticing what your glottis is up to. One way to practice this is to pronounce a sequence of glottal stops (that's the hamza sound in Arabic) and really pay attention to the feeling in the back of your throat and the muscles you're using. Try to do it without inserting vowels in between the glottal stops. Vibrating your glottis, like you do to produce a normal vowel, can distract you from the glottis-open/glottis-closed feelings that you're trying to notice.
  • Some English speakers (though apparently not all) will use ejectives as emphatic pronunciations for word-final voiceless stops. Try pronouncing the sentence "I didn't say sit, I said sick," putting as much emphasis as you can on the t in sit and the k in sick. You may find yourself pronouncing them as [t'] and [k']. Use kaleissin's puff-of-air test to check. If, as an English-speaker, you produce a sharp and loudly audible k-sound at the end of a word, and there isn't a big soft puff of air along with it, it was quite likely a [k'].
  • Another place you'll hear ejectives in the English-speaking world: beatboxing! You'll hear [k'] used as a snare drum or rim-shot-type sound, and you'll sometimes hear [p'] used as a bass drum and [ts'] as a sharp closed-hi-hat sound. If you happen to have put any time into learning to beatbox, or listening to classic hip-hop with prominent beat-boxing, the connection might help.
  • My experience is that production is the key to perception. The better you get at pronouncing the ejectives, the easier it is to recognize them.

Also, FWIW, the Georgian q sound isn't at the same point of articulation as 'ayin. It's actually at the same point of articulation as qāf — though, like you say, qāf isn't glottalized and Georgian q is.

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  • Yes I just came to this realization that Georigan is qāf rather than 'ayin! Also you are right that the k' and q' are easiest though I actually don't differentiate them properly, especially since Georgian q' doesn't have the aspirated or unvoiced counterparts that the other Georgian ejectives have. – hippietrail Dec 12 '11 at 11:39
  • When I first read this answer the stuff about emphatic pronunciations and beatboxing was too abstract for me, but now that I've been in Georgia over a month with friends trying to teach me these sounds, it falls perfectly into place. I'm sure I can pronounce them all right now, at least in isolation. – hippietrail Dec 12 '11 at 12:32
  • Glad it's going well! – Leah Velleman Dec 18 '11 at 6:37
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I've been told that my attempts at ejectives are a little stronger than what happens in natural running speech, but my first approach at practicing ejectives went like this:

  1. Hold your breath.
  2. While still holding your breath, try to say the sound (stops are easy to start with) in isolation.

If you're holding your breath (not using pulmonary air flow), then when you try to say /t/, for example, you should naturally compensate by raising your glottis to create the requisite pressure.

Then, I'd suggest experimenting, by holding your breath, and building pressure for a /t/ without releasing it. Through this experimentation, you should get a good feeling about what muscles are involved in generating the ejectives.

The final step is to practice doing them in running speech.

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  • Sorry Jo, now that I've been in Georgia and trying to learn these sounds, it turns out that Dan's answer has been much more helpful so I changed it to the accepted answer. I still appreciate yours though. – hippietrail Dec 12 '11 at 12:29
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As you practice what @JoFrhwld is saying, do the finger-trick: put a finger close to the lips and say [b] [p] [ph] [p']. Expect just about no tickly air on [b] and [p], lots of soft air on [ph] and a very concentrated, short hard puff on [p'].

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  • It's a bit tricky in the case of Georgian because there's an ejective series and an unvoiced series, both of which are not aspirated, so when you concentrate on not making the puff of air an English speaker tends to make the easier unvoiced sounds rather than the harder ejective sounds. – hippietrail Dec 12 '11 at 11:41

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