Languages that give you a sore throat

I notice that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: I’m thinking in French.

I’m walking down the street, and in one hand I have a shopping bag containing books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  In the other hand: a shopping bag containing the most disgusting canned food available, ’cause… see the preceding sentence about books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  I realize that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: as I walk down the street, I’m thinking in French–but, I haven’t spoken it much lately.


It’s no secret that speaking a language that you don’t typically speak can make your mouth hurt.  I speak Spanish for exactly one week a year, and it always makes my cheeks sore: the kinematics of Spanish are quite different from English and French (my languages of daily life), and the difference is enough to wear out my muscles.  If I haven’t spoken French much for a week or two, my lips get tired: the French (International Phonetic Alphabet [y]) requires more rounding than any sound in English or Spanish.  But, Kaqchikel: Kaqchikel is giving me a sore throat.


I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts (see the English notes below for what in these parts means) means Mayan Indian.  There are 20-22 different Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, plus Spanish and two other non-Mayan Indian languages.  Kaqchikel is one of the four mayoritarias, or “big” Mayan languages, being spoken by around half a million people; in preparation for my week of volunteer work I just spent several hours a day for the preceding two weeks studying it in a local language school.

Part of what makes Kaqchikel sound the way that it does is its ejective consonants.  Those are the “popping” sounds that you hear in the following YouTube video.  Why they “pop:” because of the way that you make the air come out of your mouth when you make them.  Most sounds of language are made with what is called a pulmonic egressive airstream mechanism.  “Airstream mechanism” refers to the way that you make the air flow to make the sound.  Egressive means that when you make the sound, the air flows outward; and pulmonic means that the flow of air is initiated in the lungs.

Ejective consonants are produced by what is known as a glottalic airstream mechanism.  That means that the airflow is powered by closing the vocal folds (vocal chords in non-technical English).  In the case of a glottalic egressive consonant, you put your tongue wherever it goes to make the sound in question, you close your vocal folds, and then you lift your glottis upwards.  This increases the air pressure in the oral cavity, and when you open your mouth to release the sound, that elevated air pressure gives the consonant the characteristic ejective “pop.”

So… why the sore throat?  From clamping my vocal folds shut all day while I’m (trying to) speak Kaqchikel.  Mind you, I already (a) smoke way too much, and (b) spend a lot of my waking hours speaking French, so my voice is already so low that making myself heard by an American without shouting is sometimes difficult.


One week a year I head south to Guatemala, where I do English/Spanish interpretation for Surgicorps, a wonderful group of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians, and therapists who provide free specialty surgical services to people who would not otherwise have access to them.  We buy our own plane tickets and pay for our own hotel rooms.  A donation from you to Surgicorps goes to taking care of our patients, and even a little bit helps—$250 pays all of the surgical expenses for one patient, $25 pays for a pack of instruments, and $10 buys all of the pain-killers that we hand out in a week.  If you enjoy my posts from Guatemala, please consider a donation, large or small–just click here.


English notes

in these partsin this geographical area.  I’m just going to give you one example, in the hopes that you will take the time to watch the very powerful video embedded in the tweet.

How I used it in the post: I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts means Mayan Indian.  “In these parts” refers back to “Guatemala.”

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