I gave my students a brief introduction to IPA last week, and this coming week we're spending every class on a different aspect of phonetics, including IPA transcription. So I'm getting ready for a fun week of making silly sounds and writing with symbols that most people have never seen. One sound class that people seem to enjoy encountering for the first time is ejectives. They occur only in about 15% of languages, and most of those languages are minority languages that mainstream people never hear. In fact, they're exotic enough that Paul Frommer chose them as an element of the Na'vi language used in the movie Avatar.
Most inexpert descriptions of ejectives are mindbogglingly useless. If I tell you to pronounce /t'/ by pronouncing a more forceful "t" sound, I'll wager just about any amount of money or hat-eating that you're not going to come up with an ejective. The best way I've found to describe ejectives is to pronounce a consonant while holding your breath. After all, this is essentially what distinguishes ejective stops from regular stops: regular stops use the pulmonary airstream, while ejective stops use the glottalic airstream, without accessing air from the lungs. Ejective stops are the most common ejectives, but languages also have ejective fricatives such as /f'/ and /s'/, and Tlingit even has an ejective lateral fricative (it's a pretty tough one the first couple times). Though no language has ever come up with one of my favorite possible sounds: an ejective alevolar trill. Give it a try and see how many contacts you get before your tongue runs out of air.
Jerome Stueart interview (pt. 3)
10 months ago