Friday, March 27, 2009

'Ayin, the sound of thunder

One of the most characteristic sounds of the Semitic languages (and probably the one most non-Semitic-speaking people find the hardest to pronounce) is 'ayin (or 'Ayn as it is called in Arabic). To some of those whose native language belongs to other linguistic families (like Indo-European, for example) it sounds almost like some kind of vomiting or nausea, but I happen to be one of those who really think it is beautiful and pleasant to listen to. Thus, I feel called upon to provide a small tutorial on how to pronounce this sound, which is phonetically classified as a voiced pharyngeal fricative (or sometimes a pharyngealized glottal stop)—as a simple service to non-semitist mankind:

1) constrict the muscles as far down in the throat as you can.
2) produce an ah-sound, as deep and gargly as you possibly can, almost like when the doctor examines your throat with one of those funny little tongue depressor-thingies.
3) Feel how your whole body vibrates when you make the extraordinary sound.

Hey presto! Now you can pronounce beautiful words such as mu'allim ( "teacher" in Arabic), and enunciate the name of the country Iraq as it was meant to: 'irâq, with an audible 'ayn at the beginning. And don't forget ra'am ( "thunder" in Hebrew, in the classical pronunciation). Particularly note how the 'ayn-sound makes the Hebrew word vibrate and almost sound like the sonic shockwave created by lightning: RA'AM!

Beauty in its most unadulterated form. Call me crazy, but that's what I think it is. I spent many years of my adolescence trying to learn to produce this sound correctly: I suppose a lot of people thought I was somewhat demented, but hey: it worked!

4 comments:

Martin said...

That's an excellent description of how to make the sound, and I think I get it. But is it a vowel, extended long enough for gargle-singing, or is it just an explosive?

Erik Petersson said...

Ola, may I propose that you link to a sound file, or youtube file, where this sound can be heard? Thanks in ahead!

Ola Wikander said...

You can listen to the sound on the Wikipedia page for 'ayin. Off you go :-)

Anonymous said...

Worth mentioning as well is that the Arabic word for thunder, "Ra'ad", also has an ayin in the middle; something that further emphasizes the "thunderness" of this magnificent sound.