The Velar Stops Here
Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use by Paul Niquette,
Great Grandfather as of June 20, 2003
Copyright 1996 Sophisticated: The Magazine. All rights reserved.
Part 1: How to Make a Billion Bucks

During density lock on a California freeway, I took notice of the cars around me:
  • Accord and Acura;
  • Bronco and Buick;
  • Cadillac, Camaro, Camry, Caprice, Carrera, Chrysler, Comanche, Corolla, Corvette, Cougar, and Cutlass;
  • Celica, Civic, and Escort;
  • Lincoln and Pontiac;
  • Suzuki and Volkswagen.
Do you notice it too? These names share a common phonetic attribute: the "unvoiced, velic-closure, stopped consonant," which is the sound produced by the letter c in the word car or, in other words, the letter k.
    If not in the vehicle's proper name, then in the model by virtue of the letter x: Aerostar XL, Jaguar XJS, Probe LX, Pulsar NXXE, Ranger XLT, Taurus LX, Thunderbird LX.
Of course, not all automobiles have velar stops in their names. But the airplanes I fly do: Cardinal, Cutlass, Dakota, Skyhawk, Skylane.

Sound of a Kiss

In the early sixties, I worked on the development of a voice synthesizer, which required a quick study of speech production. Apart from classifying the sound of a kiss as an "ingressive unvoiced bilabial fricative," I have seldom made practical use of my knowledge of phonetics.

    The English Language uses 29 phonemes, the smallest units of speech that distinguish one utterance from another. For whatever you want to say out loud, all you need are 8 primitive vowels and 21 consonants.
One consonant is the velar stop, which I symbolize with the capital letter K.
    Why so many Ks in car names? I wondered.
rade names are subject to an obvious commercial motivation. High risk and cost attend the selection of a product name. Worth every penny, though.{HyperNote 1}
    "Share of market follows share of mind."
The market acceptance of -- the desire for -- a given automobile apparently benefits somehow from the sound of K in its name.
  • My informal count finds K in more than half of them. Not bad for a phoneme that represents less than a 5% share of the consonant supply.
  • On the average, an automobile name owns 3.5 consonants, which means only one vehicle out of six should make the K sound, not one in two.
  • The consonant K appears as the initial sound in one out of five names, where it must compete with the vowels as well as other consonants. You should expect to hear K at the beginning of only one name in 29, not one in five.
Hey, maybe we're on to something here: Names do get to be worth billions, you know. Once off the freeway, I reviewed my notes from decades ago. What follows cost me a week's TV watching.

Look, Listen, and Stop

Look around you. Listen. See and hear all those velar stops? K is exceptionally popular, although in written form K gets concealed in five spellings:

  • sKool (ch)
  • blaK (ck)
  • Kar (c)
  • etiKette (qu)
  • seKs (x)
K's closest competitor is Z, hiding in two spellings:
  • Zylophone (x)
  • surpriZe (s)
How did all those Ks get there? Words come into existence in various ways -- as slang mostly, truth be known. Not sophisticated, so let's drop it.

It may have something to do with how a person forms the sound of K: restricting and releasing air from the back of the throat instead of from some other place in the vocal tract.

Easy-Speak

Maybe K takes less effort than pressing lips together (for Ps and Bs) or mashing tongue against palette (for Ts and Ds) or flexing the diaphragm (for Hs and vowels). My guess is that K simply feels good. If so, one should expect a disproportionate density of K-cars on foreign freeways. I leave the researching of that point to others.

    Psychologists have demonstrated that the easiest words to find on a printed page are those with letter x in them (hence perhaps Exxon and Xerox). Don't remember why, but it could have something to do with... never mind.
Is it that K-words are easier to hear? Or simply easier to remember, for some unknown reason?

Meanwhile, I moved to Boise and take the bus.

Commerce-Speak

We should not be astonished to see the commercial benefits of K-names...

  • MKDonalds and Burger King
  • TaKo Bell and ShaKeys.
Celebrity names likewise have commercial significance, whether chosen or given.
  • For each Barbra is there a RaKel?
  • For each Presley, a HumperdinK?
A network anchor may not select a last name, but networks select the anchors.
  • For each Pauley is there a BroKaw?
  • For each Rather, a KronKite?
The practice goes way back, seems to me.
  • For each Matthew is there a MarK?
  • For each John, a LuKe?
Among sports figures, eminence is determined objectively. Numbers select names. Except for nicKnames.
  • JacKie, MagiK, MicKey
Speaking of sobriKets, ordinary people get to make the selection.
  • BucK, ChucK, and DicK;
  • FranK, HanK, and IKe;
  • JacK, MacK, and MicK;
  • NicK, RicK, and VicK;
  • DeKe, ZacK, and ZeKe.
Let Your Fingers Do the Talking

Imagine missing Jeapardy to study the names in the Boise phone book.

  • There are 7,000 initial K-phonemes out of 67,000 residential listings (10%), thrice what you should expect by chance.
  • Out of 21,360 Boise businesses; 2,400 (11%) have initial K-sounds -- velar stops. Tell your friends.
Here's a thought: In the selection of street names, consensus plays a role. Sure enough...
  • Boise has 170 street names out of 2,160 (13%) that start with the K-sound.
  • City names demand wider consensus, presumably, and more velar stops: 36 out of 255 (14%) in Idaho (Caldwell, Coeur D'Alene ...), four times K's fair share.
Which reminds me, a friend who lives in Mississippi has no explanation for people picking Picayune for their municipal moniker.
 
picayune
  1. Of little value or importance paltry.
  2. Petty; mean; trivial. 
  3. A Spanish-American half-real piece.
  4. Something of small value; a trifle.

Might be that K-sound in Picayune, don't you think? Still there are plenty of choices -- English-sounding choices -- for a city name.

How many? The answer to that question took another night's work...
 

The Velar Stops Here

by Paul Niquette
Copyright 1996 Sophisticated: The Magazine. All rights reserved.
Part 2: How to Save a Billion Bucks

One never knows where a solution to a billion-dollar problem will come from.

For my voice synthesizer project back in the early sixties, I needed 29 single-character phonemes that I could peck upon the keyboard of what we used to call a 'typewriter' (q.v. in the Smithsonian someplace) -- "typographic phonemes," I called them. Here is a summary of their derivations, which you may want to skip {SkipLink}.

The list of consonants I concocted starts out with the fifteen easy ones:

  • B, D, F, G, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, V, Z.
As shown above you don't need C, Q, and X, so I use C for the ch in charm, Q for the ng in song, and X for the th in the.  That leaves H for the beginning of hard, making it necessary to pick a symbol for wh in which, for which I stole Y from the vowels. For the sh in cash, I used $.

There are eight vowels that seem to hold still in the mouth. Back in 1961 I called them "standing vowels."

  • Four standing vowels -- A ah, E ee, I ih, U uh -- make it easy to say pot, peat, pit, putt.
  • To say pat and pet, I made use of the typographic symbols @ aa, and & eh, leaving O oh and W oo for poach and pooch.
The standing vowels can be combined into pairs to form moving vowels, the latter conventionally called 'diphthongs.'  Of the 56 possible diphthongs (8 times 7), English uses only 17.

In my system, the motion in diphthongs can take one of two directions: forward and reverse.

  • Four forward diphthongs AE and @E, @O and OE give you the ability to say pipe and pate, pout and point.
  • The 13 reverse diphthongs usually signal the start of a syllable: EA yawn, E@ yack, E& yes, EO yoke, EU yuck, EW you, WA want, W@ wag, WE we, W& went, WI win, WO woe, WU won. For woo, WEW works.
Of the 420 possible pairs of consonants, I figure English uses 67. Here they are for your speaking pleasure:
  • BL, BR, DR, FL, FR, GL, GR, KL, KR, PL, PR, SL, SM, SN, SK, SP, ST, TR at the beginning of syllables and...
  • BZ, BD, DZ, DX, LM, LN, LZ, LF, L$, LX, LC, LB, LD, LJ, LV, LK, LP, LT, MZ, MB, MD, MP, MT, NZ, NX, NC, CT, ZD, RL, RM, RN, RZ, RF, R$, RX, RC, RB, RD, RG, RJ, RV, RK, RP, RT, GZ, ZD, JD, VZ, VD, PX at the ending of syllables.
Syllables, by the way, give phoneticians and hyphenators fits, mostly because of what they call 'syllabic consonants' -- the R in merge, for instance. So I m&Rged the & with the R, thus mandating a vowel to occupy the interior of all my syllables. {HyperNote 2}
 
 

Picayune Question

We are working on the answer to a question here, in case you forgot...

    How many English-sounding choices are there for a city name?
The city fathers (all right, and mothers) may have insisted on a K-sound in their city name. If so, the number of English-sounding choices the people of Picayune had to pick from depends on the answer to an intermediate question...
    How many English-sounding syllables have a K in them?
Almost 400, it turns out -- for each vowel. Since there are 25 vowels including diphthongs, English offers 10,000 syllables that contain the K-phoneme. {HyperNote 3}

Here are the ones with just the I-vowel, with all spelling variations...

ilk irk bilk birk blirk blick blilk blisk bick bisk brirk brick brilk brisk cilk cill cilled cills cilm cilp cilt cir cirb circk cird cirdge cirf cirg cirl cirm cirn cirp cirs cirse cirsh cirt cirtch cirth cirve cimb cimt cise cised cises cived civ chilk chirk chick chisk chrirk chrick chrilk chrin chrins chrisk clilb clilk clilled clills clilm cliln clilp clilsh clilt clilve climb clims climse clirk clilse clise clised cliv cliver clilf clibb click click clid clidge cliff clig clil clilch clildge clilk clilth clim climed climp climt clinch cling clinn clinned clins clinse clint clinth clip clish clisk cliss clit clitch clith cliv cib cibbed cibbs cick cick cicked cicks cid cidge cids cidth cig cigged cigs cilb cilch cildge cilf ciln cilsh cilth cilv cim cims cimse cin cinch cing cinned cins cinse cint cinth cip cipped cips cipth cis cish cished cisk cisk cisp cist cit citch cith cithed ciths cits cigh cighs crilm criln crilve crir crirk criw criw criwl criwldge criwled criwls cribb crick crid cridge crigg crilb crilch crilf crilk crilk crilp crilse crilsh crilt crilth crimb crimmed crimp crims crimse crimt crinch crind cring crinse crint crinth crip crish crisk criss crit critch crith criz crizzed dilk dirk dick disk drirk drick drilk drisk filk firk flirk flick flilk flisk fisk frirk frick frilk frisk girk glirk glick glilk glisk gick gisk grirk grick grilk grisk hilk hirk hick hisk jilk jirk jick jisk kils lilk lirk lick lisk milk mirk mick misk nilk nirk nick nisk ict isk ix pilk pirk plirk plick plilk plisk pick pisk prick prilk prisk rilk rirk rick risk silk sirk scild scildge scilf scilfse scilk scill scills scilsh scilt scilve scir scirk scised sciw scibb scick scick scidd scidge scigg scilb scilch scilk scilm sciln scilp scilth scim scimb scimmed scimp scims scimse scimt scin scinch scind scing scins scinse scint scinth scipp scish scisk sciss scit scitch scith scizz shilk shirk shlick shick shisk shrirk shrick shrilk shrisk slirk slick slilk slisk smirk smick smilk smisk snirk snick snilk snisk sick sisk spirk spick spilk spisk srirk srick srilk srisk stirk stick stilk stisk tilk tirk thilk thirk thick thisk thrirk thrick thrilk thrisk tick tisk trirk trick trilk trisk virk vick visk whilk whirk whick whisk zilk zirk zick and zisk.{HyperNote 4}

A good list to keep handy for naming a car. Or a city...

    Ilkayune, Irkayune,... Zickayune, and Ziskayune.
Thus, with 29 symbols (A-Z, @, &, $) it is possible to represent the sounds of each and every word in the English Language, including PIKAEWN -- an adjective some will apply to this whole exercise. I hope not. I gave up both Gilligan's Island and Bowling for Dollars for it.

But then, there is just this one minor observation...

TWMARO AND TWMARO AND TWMARO KREPS IN XIS P&TE P@ES FRUM D@E TW D@E TW XA L&ST SILAB&L OV REKORD&D TAEM. AND AL AOR E&ST&RD@ES H@V LAET&D FWLS X&R W@E TW DUSTE D&X. AWT AWT BREF K@ND&L. LAEF IZ BUT A WAKEQ $@DO A PWR PL@E&R YW STRUTS AND FR&TS HIZ AWR UPAN XA ST@EJ AND X&N IZ H&RD NO MOR. IT IZ A T@EL TOLD BAE @N IDEAT FUL OV SAWND AND FEWRE SIGNIFAEEQ NUXEQ.

You will find no product names in MaKBeth's lament, only ordinary English-sounding words. But someone named ShaKespeare (or BaKon?) chose each one. Plenty of volition involved in that -- and for its time, not a little commercial motivation.

    Why do you suppose there are only four Ks out of 280 phonemes? -- fewer than half the number you would expect by chance alone.
It may not be too far-fetched to speculate that this sample of Bard-based statistics has revealed an invisible -- not to say sophisticated -- aesthetic guidance:
 
Choose your use of Ks carefully to maximize the force of what is being expressed.

Picayune Payoff

Humans learn to speak first, then read. Five years earlier, some say. Later, as school children, we scanned printed words in an effort to identify them by their sounds. Often we faced words transliterated from a polyglot of languages, forcing us to struggle against our natural heuristic impulses -- to generalize from each particular spelling that comes along. We found ourselves confounded by more exceptions than you can shake a diphthong at.  It's a wonder that we didn't all drop out -- or that 'rules' of any kind ever receive our respect. If any sentence deserves an exclamation point it might be the previous one. And the next two...

Think of the expense. Fussy old non-phonetic spelling must cost extra billions to teach.
Back in 1961, I coined the term speel in place of spell for...
    H@E, C&K XIS AWT.
Want to save money in education? Here's a sophisticated first step: Teach kids to speel first then spell. {HyperNote 5}
  • Let the printed words impart knowledge right away, describe images, expound upon ideas.
  • Getting 100% on every speeling test builds self-esteem too.
That's what I thought back then. Other matters came along and pushed the speeling concept aside. If it's a good idea, I thought to myself, it'll get done. Decades went by.
    Then I took a drive on a California Freeway and started noticing car names...
It's aristocratic, I think, to insist on preserving the linguistic origin of each word in its spelling. It's misguided sophistication. It's wasteful of tax dollars. It's UNAMARIK&N.{HyperNote 6}

 
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HyperNotes

{1} Sophisticated Businesspersons will have read any number of books in the management library giving the history of companies that attribute a measure of their success -- or failure -- to the choice of commercial names. {Return}


{2} Sophisticated Phoneticians will recognize that the speech-sounds provided here are incomplete. I can live with that.

    My limited number of phonemes will not support an accurate pronunciation of words like 'pussyfoot' (PUSEFUT, PUSEFWT, PWSEFUT, PWSEFWT). I can live with that, too.
But the conclusion of this memoir finds fault with American education -- a costly defect, which sophisticated phoneticians might have recognized but apparently did not. Long ago, they might better have put aside their venerated implements to propose a practical remedy.
If my professional life were devoted to the field of English pronunciation -- pronunciation as relevant to teaching children to read -- and I had passed up such an opportunity, I don't think I could live with that.{Return}

{3} Sophisticated Technologists will see right through what's been done here:

    The formulation of a set of cyber-friendly tools for systematically -- some might say mindlessly -- automating the generation of English-sounding syllables.
Which marks the beginning -- not the end -- of something hard to do: Selection of English-sounding syllables that have a relevant meaning. And aesthetic quality.{Return}


{4} Sophisticated Readers will notice that I used hoky approximations of the English spellings for each of these syllables. That was to facilitate readability for unsophisticated readers, who are not fluent in the single-character phonetic symbols presented here. {Return}


{5} Sophisticated Scientists will recognize this picayune exercise as merely the first step in the Scientific Method:

  1. Formulate an Hypothesis
  2. Design the Critical Experiment
  3. Take the Data
  4. Analyze the Results
The author will continue to hope that others more qualified might carry out the rest of the Method upon seeing social merit and potential economic payoffs in 'speeling' as an educational instrument.

Meanwhile, here's the Speeling Key.  {Return}


{6} Sophisticated Educators will doubtless have much progress to report on the effectiveness of 'Phonics' (as in "Hooked On") for teaching our children to read. Their comments are especially welcome.{Return}



 
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As expected, when The Velar Stops Here was first published in 1996, a number of people expressed contrary views -- none with more technical precision than my friend Norm Bryga, who is famous among those who know him for his -- well, his technical precision.
Unvoiced Lingua-Palatal Fricative

You make your observations while stuck on freeways, I make my observations elsewhere. I have noticed a pattern in names of mattresses...

  • Seally
  • Serta
  • Simmons
  • Slumberland
  • Somma
  • Spring Air
  • Strearns & Foster
  • Stress-O-Pedic.
Will you please come up with a theory for this sample of data? -- Norm Bryga
Thanks for wiping out another night's sleep for an old guy in Idaho. -- PN

Other views were not so contrary, here are comments offered in 2001 by my other friend Rich Alexander, who has a keen eye for business relevancies.
Explosive Sound
While grazing over your observations about the frequent use of Ks or K-sounds in car names, I've heard that good product names tend to begin with an "explosive" sound rather than a soft, recessive sound, to add punch to the product. K does that.

Another thought, and a curious thought I've not heard from anyone else: When communicating in all the basic codes (Morse code radio, Morse code flashing light, semaphore...) the letter K has the universal meaning of "invitation to transmit." K in code is similar to the proword "Over" in voice radio. A semaphore operator holds his flags (or hands) showing K, to indicate that he is ready to receive. K might have an archetypical meaning -- with subliminal marketing value -- as the letter that indicates an interest by the manufacturer in communicating with the customer.

-- Rich Alexander
Then too, my dictionary gives the origin of the expression OK as the popularized slogan of the O.K. Club, the Democratic Party's political club of 1840; for Old Kinderhook, the nickname of President Martin Van Buren, who was born at Kinderhook, New York; but previously attested in the 1830s as a modish slang abbreviation of favorable but uncertain meaning, possibly connected with another abbreviation, D.K. for "don't know," which just happens to be my response to the question, Why has "okay" been appropriated by languages all over the world?
-- PN

Speeling Key


Natural Consonants
b
d
f
g
j
k
l
m
n
p
r
s
t
v
z
B
D
F
G
J
K
L
M
N
P
R
S
T
V
Z
Auxiliary Consonants
ch charm
C
ng song
Q
th the
X
h hard
H
wh while
Y
sh cash
$
Standing Vowels
ah
ee
ih
uh
aa
eh
oh
oo
pot
peat
pit
putt
pat
pet
poach
pooch
A
E
I
U
@
&
O
W
Forward Diphthongs
pipe
pate
pout
point
AE
@E
@O
OE
Reverse Diphthongs
yon
yack
yes
yoke
yuck
you
want
wag
we
went
win
woe
won
EA
E@
E&
EO
EU
EW
WA
W@
WE
W&
WI
WO
WU
Consonant Pairs
Beginning
BL BR DR FL FR GL GR KL KR 
PL PR SL SM SN SK SP ST TR
Ending
BZ BD DZ DX LM LN LZ LF 
L$ LX LC LB LD LJ LV LK 
LP LT MZ MB MD MP MT
NZ NX NC CT ZDRL RM
RN RZ RF R$ RX RC RB
RD RG RJ RV RK RP RT
GZ ZD JD VZ VD PX



 
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