Velars or Sounds further back

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I'm not sure what it's taken me this long to get round to one of the sounds that learners most commonly complain about finding tricky. My bad?

Anyway, so here goes ...

This group of sounds contains some familiar faces and some which are less so. Let's start with /k/ (same as in English cup or car) - a velar sounds as linguists will tell you. To begin with, I want you to run your tongue from your upper teeth backword along your palate and feel if it's soft or hard. You'll notice it's both. It starts off hard and then, once you've had to curl your tongue back to go that far back, you'll feel that it suddenly goes soft. Now most people can't reach that far back but if you managed to go a little bit further back, you'd reach something called the velum. It's basically a flappy bit of meat at the back of your soft palate. It's anatomicaly function is to close off the space between your nasal cavities and your mouth. If you ever got some rice into your nose, then your velum was at fault and let something slip through.

But as it so often happens, one thing can be used for many things and in the case of the velum, one of its extra functions is in producing speech sounds. So to make a /k/ what happens is that your velum and the back of your tongue meet up to close off the air coming from your lungs. They then burst open to make - in this case - a /k/ sound. Try it. Say a cup veeeery slowly and pay attention to what happens at the back of your mouth. You will first feel air coming through for the a bit and the your tongue bunching up against what you now know is your velum, closing off the air and then suddenly bursting open to make a /k/ sound. The same thing also applies to the English g sound, for example in guppy, same place, same interaction between your velum and the tongue. The only difference is voicing but we'll leave that to another time.

The reason I'm telling you about sounds you already know is simple - it will help you with two which many learners struggle with: the so-called velar voiced fricative /ɣ/. Or in slightly less technical terms, the broad dh sound that you get in words like dhà or ghorm. The good news is, there are two simple tricks you can use to learn how to make this sound.

Method 1 If you're good with saying the /x/ sound you get in loch, then that's probably the best place to start. Both /x/ and /ɣ/ are made the same way in the same place with only ONE difference: voicing. Or in other words, for /x/ there's nothing vibrating in your voice box, the hissing noise comes from your velum and your tongue narrowing the gap at the back (but not closing it up fully). So put you hands on your voice box (it's behind your Adam's apple) and start with /x/ and then deliberately soften the sound by creating a buzz (the 'voicing') in your voice box. And you get a perfect /ɣ/.

Method 2 The other way is to take an English word with a g between two vowels. I find hugger works well. So the sound in the middle in English is what linguists call a voiced g and it's only a tiny step from there to the Gaelic /ɣ/. The only difference between the two is that for the gg your tongue and velum close up fully but for /ɣ/ they don't, they just narrow the space at the back. If we combine this with the fact that muscles tend to run out of energy after a while, we can cheat our way to a perfect /ɣ/ like this: say hugger again and again without pausing. After a while, your velum in particular will tire and there will come a point where it refuses to close the gap completely and instead of a gg what will pop out is a Gaelic /ɣ/. You'll know you're doing it right when you can keep the sound going - exactly in the same place you made the gg - for more than 5 seconds. If you can't keep it going that long, you're still saying gg but if you can, congratulations, there's your /ɣ/!

Beagan gràmair
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