SIL linguist successfully proposes new phonetic symbol

(October 2005) The council of the International Phonetic Association has approved the adoption of the first new symbol in twelve years into the International Phonetic Alphabet. The symbol proposed by SIL represents the labiodental flap, a speech sound found in central and southeastern Africa. The IPA is the organization that sets the standards for the transcription of speech sounds in the world’s languages. 

Dr. Kenneth Olson, SIL's Associate International Linguistics Coordinator, proposed the new labiodental flap symbol, which is technically referred to as “a right hook ‘v’.” After review of Dr Olson’s proposal for the addition of the labiodental flap symbol, the IPA Council voted in favor of the addition. Linguists now have an agreed-upon standard for writing this sound when doing phonetic transcription—a very practical outcome of Olson’s research.

Dr. Olson encountered this speech sound when he was living among the Mono people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While studying Mono, he found very few publications discussing the labiodental flap, prompting him to publish his own research. Over seventy languages in Africa are reported to use the sound.

The labiodental flap sound is produced by drawing the lower lip back into the mouth well behind the upper teeth and then bringing it forward rapidly, striking the upper teeth briefly in passing. A few languages have an alternative pronunciation, called a "bilabial flap", in which the lower lip strikes the upper lip rather than the upper teeth.

Olson's doctoral dissertation focused on the phonology of Mono, but he also did a crosslinguistic study of the labiodental flap while completing his degree at the University of Chicago. This study was subsequently published in articles in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, Linguistic Typology, and Linguistic Discovery.

Related links of interest