Labiodentals: lips and teeth

Picture source: http://www2.gsu.edu/~eslsal/phoncon.htm.
Picture source: http://www2.gsu.edu/~eslsal/phoncon.htm.

In hopes of getting me able to pass the DALF, we’ve been looking at verbs whose infinitive ends with IR.  We’ve looked at regular IR verbs, like finir.
We’ve looked at irregular verbs like courir, dormir, partir, sentir, and sortir:

finir courir dormir partir sortir
je finis cours dors pars sors
tu finis cours dors pars sors
on finit court dort part sort
nous finissons courons dormons partons sors
vous finissez courez dormez partez sortez
ils/elles finissent courent dorment partent sortent

Now let’s look at yet another set of irregular IR verbs. This time, we’re going to figure out a way to remember which verbs belong to this class:

ouvrir couvrir offrir souffrir
je ouvre couvre offre souffre
tu ouvres couvres offres souffres
on ouvre couvre offre souffre
nous ouvrons couvrons offrons souffrons
vous ouvrez couvrez offrez souffrez
ils/elles ouvrent couvrent offrent souffrent

First, what’s unusual about this class?  It’s the endings–they are the same as for ER verbs, which the IR verb endings usually differ from quite a bit.

Now, how can we remember these?  It turns out that finding patterns in this kind of data is what linguists do all day.  Here, the pattern appears to be related to the consonantal structure of the verb roots.  To understand what’s going on, you need to know a few things about the sounds of language.

  1. To simplify quite a bit: speech sounds are produced by making air leave the lungs through the mouth.  Look in the mirror while you make the sound ah.  Close your mouth and try to make the sound ah.  Doesn’t work.
  2. Consonants are made by obstructing the flow of air through the mouth.  Look in the mirror while you say bah-bah-bah.  See how the flow of air is obstructed completely when you make the sound that we represent with the letter b?
  3. Different consonants are made by obstructing the flow of air at different places.  Look in the mirror while you make the sounds bah and kah.  Does your mouth look the same, or different?

Now that you have some of the basics of how consonants work, let’s look at the sounds in the roots of these verbs.  You notice that (1) there is a cluster of consonants (i.e., more than one); the second consonant is r; and the first consonant is one of f or v.  Look in the mirror while you make the sounds fah and vah.  You’ll notice that the obstruction for these consonants is made with the lips and teeth.  (We’ll talk about how you differ between the f and the v some other time.)  Consonants that are produced with an obstruction made by the lips and teeth (actually, just one lip) are called labiodental consonants, or labiodentals. 

It turns out that French has exactly two labiodentals: the sound that we usually spell with the letter f, and the sound that we usually spell with the letter v.  (In the languages of the world, there are two other labiodental consonants.  We don’t have a way to spell them in English, but you probably have one of them–the labiodental nasal–in the English word emphasis.)  So, we can say that you see this particular pattern of verb endings when a verb has a consonant cluster in the middle, the first consonant is a labiodental, and the second consonant is r. 

I know of three verbs that don’t have the labiodental-r root but that do have this pattern in the present indicative.  However, they behave differently from the others with respect to their past participles.  Those verbs are cueillir (to pick, to gather), acceuillir (to receive, to greet), and recueillir (to collect, to gather).  The present indicative is like the labiodental-r verbs that we’ve seen.

However, the past participle of these verbs is different from the labiodental-r verbs: couvert versus ceuilli.  There are also a couple of verbs that have -aillir in the stem that have the same present tense pattern, maybe–one of my Bescherelles has a note about how even famous writers sometimes don’t follow this pattern for those verbs.

So, with a little bit of linguistics, you don’t have to memorize the fact that it’s verbs with fr and vr in the root that have this conjugation–all you have to do is remember that it’s verbs with a consonant cluster in the root where the first consonant in the cluster is a labiodental.  Fun, huh?

4 thoughts on “Labiodentals: lips and teeth”

  1. Yeah, it’s a shame that it’s hard to use this kind of stuff in foreign language teaching. I took a bazillion Language X 101 classes over the course of my education; you see people in those classes struggling to memorize patterns like “it’s always v except in front of p, b, and m, when it’s u,” when there’s a pretty straightforward pattern, in linguistic terms. (That’s the pattern for the word “and” in Hebrew. It’s “v” in front of everything but bilabial consonants, i.e. p, b, and m.) This kind of thing is ubiquitous in the languages of the world.

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