new letter: hl

A few days ago I discovered a new letter through symmetry. I was reflecting on the stereotype that native Japanese speakers cannot distinguish between the ‘L’ sound and the ‘R’ sound. So I was reflecting on these sounds, and noted that the difference between the two is that while making the ‘L’ sound, the speaker’s tongue touches the roof of his (or her) mouth.

‘L’ and ‘R’ are voiced sounds, meaning that the vocal cords vibrate as the sound is articulated. Some sounds are voiced, others are unvoiced. Unvoiced sounds the vocal cords do not vibrate, and the sound is generated only by the acoustics and aerodynamics of the mouth. Examples of parallel voiced and unvoiced sounds are ‘F’ and ‘V’, or ‘P’ and ‘B’. Some languages even have ‘prevoiced’ sounds, meaning that the vocal cords are vibrated just before the consonant sound. The canonical prevoiced sound is a prevoiced equivalent of ‘B’, and is scribed in the roman alphabet as ‘mb’, such as Mbeki. (Name of an African politician.)

So if ‘R’ and ‘L’ are similar voiced sounds that differ in that that the tongue touches (or does not touch) the roof of the mouth, I wondered what other sounds are similar to these, but unvoiced? To me it seemed that ‘S’ (or perhaps ‘H’) is quite similar to an unvoiced ‘R’, in terms of mouth position. But what would the unvoiced equivalent of ‘L’ be? Well, there isn’t one. It’s an interesting sound, and an interesting intellectual effort to practice making it and trying to build words around the sound. It resembles an ‘HL’ sound.

Why is this useful? It’s not. It just amused me at the time.