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The Case of /kabo/ & /kkabo/

January 11, 2012

“Right there. That’s how we know that the meaning of /kkabo/ is a beetle, not some sort of blurry eyes!” said John casually during a meeting in early December 2011, pointing to the shorter vowel duration of /a/ in /kkabo/ as opposed to the longer vowel duration of the same vowel in /kabo/.

We had been working so passionately on this mysterious side of word-initial geminates for the past few months, uncovering another aspect of acoustic properties that could possibly contribute to the singleton-geminate contrast in Kelantan Malay. We had successfully condensed our recent findings into a four-page conference paper and submitted it to the 6th International Conference of Speech Prosody to be held in Shanghai the following year. But, even after putting all these results into a nice and publishable paper, I was still unsure whether I should fully embrace John’s hypothesis on vowel duration as a potential cue to gemination, joining other important ingredients of geminates like pitch or intensity. I had always assumed that the difference between /kabo/ (blurry) and /kkabo/ (a beetle) was simply because of the initial consonant duration, or in a simpler term, of the single and double consonants at the beginning of each word (as many lay Kelantanese men and women out there might have agreed). But it was not easy dealing with such a complex pair as /kabo/ and /kkabo/ because of its tricky character of voicelessness. It took one nerve-cracking afternoon for me to realize that this was not all about doubling a consonant. My view on this whole goddamn business of gemination was about to change.



THE /kkabo/ MOMENT

It happened in a conference room right after I presented a paper on geminates in Hong Kong a few months before. I was still standing nervously after the maiden presentation when a group of eager phoneticians, assuming that I was a proficient speaker of Kelantan Malay, conspired and forced me to say a pair of /kabo/ and /kkabo/ aloud. After listening to my production of the word-initial voiceless geminate stop, they said that it was highly aspirated, which I seriously doubted since it was not necessarily the case for most original speakers of Kelantan Malay (the aspiration of voiceless stops is very highly unlikely in Kelantan Malay, unless one tries to sound like an English man speaking in Kelantan Malay). So, I admitted rather honestly that my (distorted) aspiration could be due to the influence of English language (if this were really true, I could be a total embarrassment to the older generation of Malay men in Kelantan!).

“Excuse me,” said another curious conference participant, “I could detect some differences in the duration of vowels following that pair. Would you mind saying it again?”
“No, I don’t mind,” I said, repeating the mind-boggling pair of /kabo/ and /kkabo/ with greater clarity and greater effort so it would sound as phonetically authentic and semantically accurate as the original words used by millions of speakers in Kelantan since, perhaps, ten thousand years ago.
“Yes, I could hear it! Don’t you all hear it?” he asked other excited participants in the room, to which they all responded in a similar fashion, nodding excitedly as if they had found the long-lost puzzle of their century-long research. I didn’t hear it, sorry, but I sincerely thanked them for their invaluable input and promised that I would do my best to unlock the secrets behind this puzzling sound of human speech.

John was there too, thinking very hard and trying to make sense of what was going on in that unsettling room, deeply analysing how on earth this crazy bunch of non-native listeners of Kelantan Malay could possibly own such sensitive bionic ears, coming up with such an extraordinary idea, perceiving the word-initial singleton-geminate contrast in a way that had not been well thought of before. He took this informal feedback very seriously and, when we returned to Melbourne, he insisted that we should grab this opportunity very professionally and turn the anecdotal discovery into empirical data. So in we swam into the huge spoken data of Kelantan Malay and, lo and behold, we found something that surprised us even more.




It turned out no one in the phonetic world had ever examined vowel duration after geminates. Unlike our investigation, most of previous studies focused on vowel duration before geminates, especially those dealing with word-medial geminates. So, our experiment was the first of its kind! What’s more, we found that most speakers in our data employed vowel duration more significantly in tokens embedded in a sentence, not in an isolated word, which was further baffling since we had anticipated that the speakers would have used vowel duration more effectively in isolated words, given the difficulty in determining the consonant duration of voiceless geminate stops in utterance-initial position. In addition, the differences in vowel duration were more apparent for low central vowels (/a/) compared to other vowel contexts, but that’s another story altogether.

What’s obvious then was that the case of /kabo/ and /kkabo/ had indeed gone beyond a particular segment or a consonant or a vowel. It was part of something, of another story, of a bundle of the larger prosodic world out there that could be better understood if only we could look at it from a larger, out-of-the-box perspective. Vowel duration, or any other associated properties, was part of the grain of sand in the desert of human speech. But as usual, I was always confused and hungry for more marvels in the phonetic desert.

“Hey Hilmi, don’t worry about not getting the whole picture of /kkabo/,” said John at the end of the meeting.
“You are right, John. I’m just too preoccupied with this stuff. But isn’t it amazing to see what’s coming out of people’s mouth, things they say and mean?” I asked quite rhetorically.
“Indeed! You know what, these results tell us one good thing about our research.”
“What is it?”
“It is always /kabo/.”
“Like our eyes.”
“Like our blurry eyes.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Arif permalink
    January 14, 2012 2:38 pm

    /kabo/.. Cekmi I think it is aspirated… 🙂


  2. February 12, 2014 2:31 pm

    I stumbled into your “The acoustics and perception of the word-initial singleton/geminate contrast in Kelantan Malay” when looking for ideas for my class project. It was an incredible piece of work even though I barely understood half of it. Thanks though! As a proud kelantanese, there I go searching for the author. Good luck on your future linguistics projects 🙂 Bbijok!


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