by Oliver

English has always been, and frustratingly so, a difficult language for me to comprehend. Perhaps due to my own learning style, I only really began to understand English in my second or third year of studying Spanish — only when we started writing diarios (journal entries).

A friend of mine mentioned yesterday that he glissaded down a hill while mountaineering in Washington state. I find glissade to be such a pleasant word. Glissade is derived from the French glisser, “to slip”. I think what I like best is that it is an onomatopoeic word, or a word whose sound describes its meaning. From there, I enjoy the composition of the word itself. I like the sound of the -ss- at the middle, and also the gl- at the beginning.

To digress into nit-picking, I should be able to refer to those two phonemes with something more substantial than their form (e.g., -ss-, gl-). I mean, I did take a Lingusitics 101 class in college, right? It’s too bad I didn’t find it more interesting at the time.

A lot of a Linguistics 101 class in college talks about phonology, the system of sounds of a language. You learn about minimal pairs (two words whose pronunciation differs only in one sound and are recognized as distinct words), allophones, morphemes, and other basic elements of historical and modern pronunciation. It’s a tough subject to follow, in my opinion, but why that is I’m not entirely sure. For me, I wonder if it wasn’t because I didn’t associate any meaning with those words — allophone, morpheme — like I did with, for example, bones in the human body. The idea of a morpheme seemed just a little too distant for me to grasp (Oxford American Dictionary: “a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided [e.g., incoming: in-, -com-, -ing]”).

Returning to the idea of why I like the word glissade, I instantly liked glissade when I first read it and said it to myself. Why did I like the word? Well, my first idea was to break it down by phonemes (the part of Linguistics 101 that I did grasp). The trouble is, that’s about as far as I got. Phonemes have many forms and are subdivided into consonants and vowels. Additionally, phonemes of consonants are named in accordance with their place of articulation.

Because I didn’t retain much from my tutelage in phonetics, I took to searching for -ss- and trying to find the name of the phoneme. Unfortunately, another dead end is my relative inability to read and/or understand the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). (When exactly do people learn the IPA in their lives, really? Is it just linguistics students who do?) In the end, I’m pretty sure that -ss- is a voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative. Sitting at my desk at work, I tried to figure out the correct sounds, trying to make the sound myself and identify the place of articulation.

Try saying glissade and try working out the syllables yourself:


Further, break it down by phonemes and pay close attention to the places of articulation:

gl- (This is an affricate, or the sound created by the combination of a plosive and fricative. You will feel your epiglottis close when you make the initial g sound and thereafter feel your tongue slide along your soft palate with the l sound. It is voiced because you use your vocal chords to make the initial sound. It is a glottal stop because your epiglottis closes, thereby cutting off your air supply and making it hard to hold the sound for very long.)

-ss- (Voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative; You will feel the tip of your tongue move to behind your front teeth and, if you hold the sound, you will feel some air escape through your teeth. It is voiceless because you do not use your vocal chords to make the sound. It is a fricative because it is a sound produced by the air flowing through your mouth, and it is also a sibilant because it produces a hissing sound.)

-d (Voiced alveolar plosive; You will feel your tongue hit your palate quickly. I didn’t explain what a plosive is after describing the composition of an affricate, but a plosive is the sound of opening up a previously closed oral passage. It is alveolar because the sound is produced using the alveolar bone in the jaw.)

The complete idea of the pronunciation of glissade involves the glottal stop with the gl- and subsequent movement of the air through the mouth with the -ss- and reopening of the epiglottal passage with -d.

When trying to figure out the places of articulation while sitting at my desk at work, I realized just how hard it is to identify what my tongue is doing. Sounds come and go quickly, and it’s hard to focus not only on the syllables, but also the tongue movement it takes to make the syllable as well as where one tongue movement ends and the construction of the next syllable begins. The process certainly lends further insight as for the difficulties we have pronouncing many words in foreign languages: just like any other muscle, your tongue may not be trained to carry out the movements necessary to make a given sound.

Oh, and here’s the videoof said friend in Washington state, glissading 2,000 feet down a mountain.

UPDATE: So, it turns out, it wasn’t actually said friend in Washington state in the video, but rather a friend of said friend. I stand corrected!