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One of the most important, and sometimes challenging, parts of learning a new language is mastering the new sounds involved. There are dozens of different sounds one can make with the throat, mouth and tongue, and any given language usually only employs a much smaller subset of these sounds. For example, English has no tongue-clicks, rolling-r's or lip smacks, but some languages do. Learning to make a new sound therefore means learning to manipulate your mouth in a new and unfamiliar way -- something you haven't had to do since your learnt your first language. Yup, it's back to preschool!

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)[edit]

If you've done some basic linguistics or are otherwise familiar with the IPA, you can safely skip this section.

Some textbooks, when describing the sounds of a new language, try to describe them in terms of the language you already know. "Like the a in father." "Like the g in aghast but further back in the throat." The problem with descriptions like this is that they are imprecise and may not be accurate for people who speak a different dialect or with a different accent to the author. Therefore we will use the IPA to describe the sounds of Uyghur.

As you are probably aware, there are two different types of basic sounds - consonants and vowels. We'll deal with consonants first. Consonants are characterised by a closure or restriction in the vocal tract (typically somewhere in your mouth). Repeat the sound "pa" or "apa" aloud. Where is the closure occurring? Your lips. "Fa" - your teeth and your lips. Then "tha" - "sa" - "sha" - "ya" - "ka".

Here is a simplified table of the consonants of English (from Wikipedia):

  bilabial labio-
dental alveolar post-
palatal velar glottal
plosive p  b     t  d     k  g  
nasal m     n     ŋ  
fricative   f  v θ  ð s  z ʃ  ʒ     h
affricate         tʃ  dʒ      
approximant       ɹ   j    
lateral approximant       l        
approximant w

OK, what have we got here? Most of those symbols look familiar, but some will be new. How is this table arranged?

The columns represent different places of articulation. That means where in the mouth is the restriction occurring? So when you say "pa" or "apa" which part of your mouth is closed? Your lips. Bilabial means two lips. As you go from left to right across the columns, the place of articulation slowly moves back through your mouth, until we get to glottal - basically your throat.

Going down the rows, we have different manners of articulation. This refers roughly to how your tongue and lips and the rest of your mouth come in contact. You are probably not aware of it when you speak, but there are different ways. Compare saying "ba" to "ma". Your mouth is not changing position - so why are they different sounds? It's due to air flow from the back of your throat to your nose, which is why m and n are in the row called "nasal". The first row is called "plosive" - kind of like "explosive". You can tell these are plosives because it's impossible to hold the sound. Compare "ammmmmmmmmmmmmma" to trying to say "abbbbbbbbbbbbbbba". If you're making a true b sound, it's impossible!

Next down, for English, is "fricatives". If you hold a hand in front of your mouth while you say "ffffff" or "sssssss" or "shhhhhhhh" you will be able to feel air getting through, but you can tell that it's being restricted. This is what characterises fricatives - air in your mouth being forced through a narrow channel.

Just one last thing... why do some cells have two entries in them? In each cell, the one to the right is voiced. The difference between a voiced and unvoiced consosnant is best shown with "f" and "v". Make the sounds "afa" and "ava". Your mouth isn't moving - why are these sounds different? Now put your hand against your throat and say them again. Do you notice when you make the "f" sound, your throat stops vibrating, while when you say "v" it vibrates all the way through the sound? That's the difference and that's why "v" is a voiced consonant.

So how do these strange symbols correspond to the English orthography we know and love? Let's have a look (if it's not listed, that means it's exactly what you'd expect):

  • ŋ: "ng". In English, only occurs at the end of words, such as "sing".
  • θ: "th", unvoiced. As in "think".
  • ð: "th", voiced. As in "they".
  • ʃ: "sh".
  • ʒ: Like the s in "treasure" and the final sound in "mirage". Some people use this sound when they say "Taj Mahal" or "Beijing". Not a very common English sound.
  • : "t" + "sh"... what does it turn out to be? "ch" as in "church" (twice!).
  • : Like the final sound in "judge".
  • ɹ: Just plain old "r", but in IPA r means a trilled r, so we use the upside-down symbol.
  • j: Usually "y" as in "yesterday" but also sometimes looks like a vowel, as in the first sound in the word "usually".

Not so scary now, is it?

The sounds of Uyghur[edit]

Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Retroflex Labial-palatal
Plosive p b t d
Nasal m n
Trill r
w:Fricative f s z ʃ ʒ
w:Lateral approximant l
Alveolo-palatal Palatal Labial-velar Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Epiglottal Glottal
w:Plosive k g q
Nasal ŋ
w:Fricative x ɣ ʁ h
Approximant j