When Irish Tongues Are Talking… 

When Irish tongues are talking (in Irish, of course!) scientists from a California university will be watching. Researchers at the University of California in Santa Cruz just received a $260,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how Irish speakers use their tongues in speech.

Despite being protected as the official language of the Republic of Ireland and as a minority language in Northern Ireland, UNESCO classifies  Irish as “definitely endangered.” That means it’s still a priority for linguists to document. Recording the language is a good start, but for preservation purposes, it’s not enough to know what it sounds like. Scientists also want to know how those sounds are made. Enter the UC Santa Cruz project, called ” “Collaborative Research: An Ultrasound Investigation of Irish Palatalization.”

As Principal Investigator Jaye Padgett explained on the UC Santa Cruz blog:

“Although we all have tongues, we are surprisingly bad at knowing precisely what they’re doing or conveying that to others.”

The solution? Documenting native speakers as they speak, using an ultrasound machine to record how they use their tongues. One of the main goals of this project is to document the different between “slender” and “broad” consonants in Irish. In Irish, the same consonant sound can be pronounced one of two ways: broad,  with the back of the tongue pulled back towards the soft palate, and slender,  with the middle of the tongue pushed up towards the hard palate.

As you can see, words are only somewhat useful when it comes to describing the difference between the two. According to Professor Padgett, the team will use a portable ultrasound machine to “non-invasively capture video of the tongue’s surface while it moves during speech. Analysis of this ultrasound data will also allow us to answer more general questions about speech production.”

Researchers will travel across Ireland to collect data from native speakers of all three Irish dialects.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by M Glasgow

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