V is for Voice setting

18 12 2011

A correspondent has reminded me of an article I wrote – ages ago – on voice setting (you can read it here):

I have just read your article ‘Having a good jaw: voice setting phonology’, and having noted the year in which it was published, I am interested to find out if you or anyone else, has conducted any studies on the exercises you suggested?

Never mind the mouth, check out the tash!

Just to remind you, voice setting – or ‘bases of articulation’ –  is the general term for those “general differences in tension, in tongue shape, in pressure of the articulators, in lip and cheek and jaw posture and movement, which run through the whole articulatory process” (O’Connor 1973:289).  It’s argued that voice settings vary from language to language, e.g.

“In English the lips and jaw move little, in French they move much more, with vigorous lip-rounding and spreading: the cheeks are relaxed in English but tensed in French: the tongue-tip is tenser in English and more used than in French, where the blade is dominant, and so on.” (O’Connor op.cit.)

Over the years I’ve collected  a number of non-specialist descriptions – from novels and poems, principally – that nicely capture voice setting characteristics. Here’s a selection:

“His voice rang like a metal clipper hitting a bucket and he spoke English. Proper English … he sprinkled ers and even errers in his sentences as liberally as he gave out his twisted-mouth smiles. His lips pulled not down… but to the side, and his head lay on one side or the other, but never straight on the end of his neck”. (Maya Angelou I Know How the Caged Bird Sings).

When you hear it languishing

and hooing and cooing and sidling through the front teeth,

the oxford voice

or worse still

the would-be oxford voice

you don’t even laugh anymore, you can’t …

(D.H.Lawrence: “The Oxford Voice”)

“Watching him twisting his mouth into that intelligently ironical shape that is necessary for the production of Dutch noises, I was reminded of how much I liked the semi-gargling sound Netherlanders make, brewing each word up at the back of their throats and then having to unpick it with their teeth.”  (Howard Jacobson: The Land of Oz)

What I was arguing (in the aforementioned article) was that accurate pronunciation at the segmental level (i.e. of individual sounds) is at least partly contingent on adjusting to the specific vocal setting for the language you’re trying to speak. That is to say, accent is as much an effect of top-down features as it is of bottom-up ones. Hence, it might repay teachers of pronunciation to start working on these top-down features first, in advance of fine-tuning for  phonemic distinctions.

To that end, I suggested an activity sequence that included awareness-raising activities such as watching videos of speakers with the sound off, in order to try and guess what language they are speaking, or role play activities where learners attempt to speak their own language with a marked English (RP or GA) accent, in the way that – for example – Brits or ‘gringos’ are portrayed locally in the movies. This might lead to some discussion as to what is actually happening – physically – when you ‘speak with an English accent’.

Read my lips

But, to answer my correspondent’s question, I don’t know of any follow-up to these suggestions, or, for that matter, of any research into the pedagogical applications of voice setting theory at all.  Besides, I’m wondering if – in this era of English as a Lingua Franca – is it really all that necessary to take such drastic steps to ‘nativise’ learners’ accents?


O’Connor, J.D. 1973. Phonetics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Thornbury, S. 1993. Having a good jaw: voice-setting phonology. ELT Journal, 47/2, 126-31.

Illustrations from Jones, D. 1932. An Outline of English Phonetics (3rd edn.) Leipzig: Teubner.