or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Gap

There's a song in the musical Avenue Q called "The Internet Is For Porn" (here's a hilarious World of Warcraft machinima* featuring that very song), and while that's not altogether wrong, isn't it nice to know that we also have it around to look up interesting things like alveolar consonants late in the evening?

Last night, Jim and I were watching the first part of a documentary about the history of the English language, and, since he has a computer at the end of the couch, decided to look up information about runes once the show was over, which led him to various topics in articulatory phonetics, the study of how the mouth and other parts of the vocal tract work to produce speech. (A while ago I wrote about my favourite topic in phonetics, the fascinating interdental fricative.) Jim was reading about alveolar consonants, and before i could even wonder about the etymology of the word "alveolus", I wondered how there could possibly be any such thing as an alveolar consonant, since the alveoli are structures in the lungs which transfer precious oxygen into the bloodstream.

It turns out that that isn't just what alveoli are.** There are also alveoli in your mouth, because the word doesn't mean "sack" or "structure for transferring precious et cetera"; it means "socket", and refers anatomically to not only the contents of the lungs, but also to the sockets in which sit the teeth.

And there we have it! An alveolar consonant is one which presses the flat, but not necessarily the tip, of the tongue against or near the palate behind the upper teeth. That's incredibly unclear, so just think of sounds such as "-n-", "-d-", and "-t-".

"Alveolus" is from, naturally, Latin: it's "alveus", "a hollow: a channel", plus the diminutive "-olus" (which you've also seen in the flower "gladiolus", "little sword": the first half, "gladius", means "sword", which also ought to be familiar from "gladiator", "sword-wielder"). "Alveolus" also has another meaning, not anatomical but apiarian: an alveolus is one of the hexagonal cells in a beehive--again, a hollow, leading to the not altogether useful but still fascinating adjective "alveolate", "honeycombed".

*A machinima is a movie made from a videogame; after writing the script, possibly basing it on existing sound recordings, you direct characters in the videogame to act out scenes and then edit them together into a movie which generally has nothing to do with the game itself. The word is evidently condensed from "machine animation".

**I only just recently learned that the lungs aren't big empty sacks lined with alveoli--they're actually densely spongy and packed full of alveoli. How can I have gone through my entire life not having known this? Still, better late than never.


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