Synching Sounds: A Phonological Phenomenon

Ask most English speakers to say the word “orangutan” and they are likely to say, “orangutang”. This switch is not a fluke, according to Sharon Inkelas, Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley. Rather, it is an example of a phenomenon called “agreement by correspondence,” or ABC. A similar pattern emerges with the word “smorgasbord,” which is occasionally said out loud as “smorgasborg,” where the “ord” sound is just close enough to “org” that speakers tend to turn them into a rhyme.

“Sounds are more likely to assimilate if they are similar, and if they are closer together,” says Inkelas. “An analogy is magnets. If they’re far apart from each other, they don’t move, but if you put them close enough together, they will slam into each other. The idea is that partial similarity in close proximity is an unstable state, and sounds will become more or less similar to avoid that unstable state.”

In 2014, UC Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix sponsored a seminar with the goal of bringing together a group of faculty and graduate students from different disciplines—including psychology, linguistics, and Slavic Studies—to probe the implications of this linguistic peculiarity. “Our seminar wanted to drill down into the specifics and find different kinds of evidence that would substantiate this idea,” Inkelas says. “We brought together phonologists, who are experts in the pronunciation of words, and psycholingusts, who study the brain-speech connection. We wanted to see if we could bring this data to people who hadn’t looked at it before, and get new insights and sharpen the idea.”

Participants have already published papers resulting from the seminar, and two graduate student participants are writing dissertations on the topic. The seminar culminated in May 2014 at an international symposium at UC Berkeley that brought together top researchers from MIT, Stanford, Ohio State University, USC, and UC Santa Cruz (among others) as well as universities in South Africa, England, Canada. “Everyone walked away saying it was very inspiring,” Inkelas says. “It was the right idea at the right time with the right people…. We are building a theory around principles that are not language specific. It's a way of taking linguistics out of its silo.”

For more information, a longer version of this article is available here.