LINGUIST List 13.2072

Mon Aug 12 2002

Sum: Ventriloquists & Labial Consonants

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Carol L. Tenny, Ventriloquists and labial consonants

Message 1: Ventriloquists and labial consonants

Date: Tue, 6 Aug 2002 19:33:42 -0400 (EDT)
From: Carol L. Tenny <>
Subject: Ventriloquists and labial consonants

Sum: Ventriloquists and labial consonants

Quite a few months ago I posted this question about ventriloquists and labial

 One of my students in my intro linguistics class asked today, as we were
 finishing up phonetics, how ventriloquists make labial consonants without
 moving their lips ???
 I love my intro students, they ask such great questions.

 Anybody have any idea?

 Carol Tenny

Thanks to the many people who responded and apologies for the long hiatus
between posting the question and the answers.

The trick seems to be that they substitute other consonants for the labials.
Most people said they substituted the corresponding dentals, but some said
velar substitutions were possible. Various psychological techniques also
contribute to covering up the substitutions. I will post the answers I
received below, because they were delightful to read.


 Two ways:
 1. by really saying 'v'

 2. by really saying 'd'--see:
 (It's pretty far down the page.)


 Dr M Lynne Murphy
 Lecturer in Linguistics
 Acting Director, MA in Applied Linguistics
 School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
 University of Sussex
 Brighton BN1 9QH

 phone +44-(0)1273-678844
 fax +44-(0)1273-671320

Subject: diladial consonants...
 From: Sheri Wells Jensen <>


 When I was a kid, I had an LP made by a ventriloquist and his puppet about
 how to become a ventriloquist. The idea was that, when you had a bilabial
 sound, you should substitute a dental /t/ for /p/, /d/ for /b/ and /n/ for
 /m/. He then had his puppet try these substitutions, gradually speeding
 and (it seemed to me) friccating slightly. The faster he went, the easier
 it was to ignore the slightly wrong sounds (since so much of the rrest
 fine) No doubt the funny voice had something to do with the overall
 as well. I would have thought that velars would have been a better
 but my (admittedly limited) practice seemed to say otherwise. come to
 think of it, it really would be interesting to see some spectrgrams of
 ventriloquists' consonants, maybe comparing beginners with more


 * * * * * * *
 Visit BG-Peacenet Home Page at
 * * * * * * *
 Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen
 423 East Hall
 (419) 372-8935
 * * * * * * *


Subject: ventriloquists

 From: "Mike Maxwell" <>

 I hope you get some more knowledgeable answers than I can give you, but
 in case, here goes--

 My father-in-law is a ventriloquist. He tries to avoid labials where
 possible. Where he can't, I think he sometimes substitutes a velar when
 can get away with it, perhaps with a bit of lip approximation (but not
 closure, so it's not quite as obvious). His rounded vowels are, it
 to me, less rounded than normal English rounded vowels. But I think the
 main thing is to make the dummy the center of attraction when it's
 which is probably one reason why ventriloquists' dummies have very large
 mouths, and the ventriloquists are careful to make use of those large
 mouths. And finally, I think that there's a very strong compulsion (at
 least in our culture) to maintain eye contact with the 'person' who is
 the talking. So the audience is looking at the dummy, not the
 ventriloquist, when the dummy is supposed to be talking.

 Mike Maxwell
 Linguistic Data Consortium


Subject: Re: 13.256, Qs: Ventriloquists/Labial Consonants, Tense/Lax /i/
From: Daniel Currie Hall <>

 Dear Dr. Tenny,

 Last term, I contrived to satisfy my own curiosity about ventriloquism by
 putting the question "How do ventriloquists make or simulate labial
 consonants?" on a list of suggested topics for a research project in the
 second-year undergraduate phonetics course I was teaching. One of the
 students took up the suggestion; unfortunately, I handed back the paper
 without keeping a copy for myself, so I can't give you the references, but
 I can tell you what I remember of the content.

 In English, at least, ventriloquists tend to use dental stops in place of
 [p] and [b], thus squeezing the coronal/labial contrast into an
 alveolar/dental one. I find that dentals do sound a bit like labials (and
 have a lower F2 than alveolars), especially if the body of the tongue is
 kept as low as possible.

 For [m], the velar eng is sometimes used. This is an especially effective
 strategy (in English) when the sound occurs in an onset: the listener
 hears a segment that is clearly nasal, and not an [n], so if it's in the
 onset of a well-formed English syllable, it must be an [m]. If the fake
 labial consonants are produced fluently, then the listener's phonotactic
 and lexical knowledge will work to the ventriloquist's advantage.

 As for the fricatives [f] and [v], these sound reasonably good even with
 very little constriction, so the lower lip doesn't really have to move to
 produce them.

 The most important tool of the ventriloquist, though, is misdirection. The
 ventriloquist's dummy serves not only as a partner in a comic dialogue,
 but also as something to draw the audience's attention away from the
 ventriloquist's mouth. If the dummy's mouth and arms and eyebrows are all
 moving in synchrony with the words, and the ventriloquist seems to be
 reacting to the content of the speech, then the observer's mind interprets
 the scene in the most obvious way: the dummy is the one speaking.
 Ventriloquists typically reinforce the illusion of dialogue by giving
 their dummies distinctive voices and speech mannerisms; in this context,
 any auditory difference between the fake labial consonants and the real
 ones can be subconsciously interpreted by the audience as part of the
 difference between the dummy's voice and the ventriloquist's.

 So it really is a great question, because the answer involves acoustic and
 auditory phonetics, phonotactics, top-down processing, and psychology.

 Best regards,

 Daniel Hall
 Department of Linguistics
 University of Toronto

Subject: Fwd: 13.256, Qs: Ventriloquists/Labial Consonants, Tense/Lax /i/]
 From: "Kurt S. Godden" <>

 p.s. I think some ventriloquists actually do bilabials, but since their
 mouths are nearly closed and the audience is usually looking at the
 dummy, it's not terribly visible. Others, I think, just do maybe an
 alveolar nasal and get away with it. After all, people often can't
 tell. My youngest daughter used to say, with huge melodramatic
 exaggeration when she was about 4, "Did you em-MA or en-NA?" when trying
 to understand what spelling we told her for some word.

 -Kurt Godden
 Advanced Technology Labs
 Lockheed Martin
 Camden, NJ


Subject: ventriloquists & labial consonants
 From: "Luis Vicente" <>

 Dear Tenny:

 Nice question. I can only tell you what I know from the two ventriloquists
 used to see acting on TV during my child years: they did pronounce proper
 labial sounds (i.e., putting their lips together and then separating
 but they had a couple of tricks. First, they never separated their lips
 than a few milimeters, so it was difficult to tell what they were actually
 doing. Second, both of them performed with a microphone, and used it to
 their mouths as much as possible.
 Also, I guess that most of the people that go to these shows look at the
 puppet rather than at the person behind it. Therefore, ventriloquists can
 pronounce labial sounds without much people noticing that they are moving
 their mouths.

 I hope this helps. Congratulations to your class for such good questions.



 From: Laurie Bauer <>

 Wrt ventriloquists -- they don't. Labials are replaced with velars
 (both share the feature of gravity in the Jakobsonian system -- and
 consider changes such as earlier English /x/ gives /f/ in words like
 _enough_), hence stereotypes such as _a gottle of geer_ rather than
 _a bottle of beer_. I suspect that they must make other alterations
 to the vocal tract to enhance the labial-like sound, but I'm no
 expert and just sit back amazed when it happens!

 Laurie Bauer

 Professor of Linguistics
 School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
 Victoria University of Wellington
 PO Box 600
 New Zealand
 Ph +64 4 472 1000 x 5619 or DDI +64 4 463 5619
 Fax +64 4 463 5604


Subject: ventriloquists and labial consonants
 From: "A. Medina" <>

 hello, this may be a crazy thought, but I think they pronounce something
 similar to a labial consonant, I mean it may be a sound similar in
 manner, and hearers think they are perceiving labial sounds where there
 are not...In short, it is the context, which seems to play a role
 here... we do not perceive physical sounds... but meaningful sounds...

 Ana Aurora Medina Murillo
 Universidad de Sonora
 Hermosillo, Mexico


Subject: ventriloquists and labial consonants
 From: "Bruno Estigarribia Fioravanti" <>

 Hey, I'm sorry I don't have an answer to either question but I still want
 congratulate you and encourage you to keep listening to your students!
Where do you

 Ventriloquists: My guess is: it is widely known that the articulatory
 of phonemes and their allophones are only statistically valid
descriptions. In
 general, people pronounce those sounds the way they are described.
Nevertheless, the
 importance of compensating phenomena has been thoroughly studied and
stated mainly
 for cases of physical impairment. I can see no reason except my own
ignorance and
 lack of skill to believe that the particular acoustic configuration of
labials is
 less amenable to articulatory variations than other sounds.
 But of course, you know all that.

 Bruno Estigarribia Fioravanti
 Universit� Paris V-Ren� Descartes-Sorbonne
 D�partement de Linguistique g�n�rale et appliqu�e
 Laboratoire d'Etudes sur l'Acquisition et la Pathologie du Langage chez


Subject: ventriloquists and labial consonants tense and lax i
 From: "Peter T. Daniels" <>

 What nice questions!

 > Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2002 20:43:06 -0500 (EST)
 > From: "Carol L. Tenny" <>
 > Subject: ventriloquists and labial consonants
 > One of my students in my intro linguistics class asked today, as we were
 > finishing up phonetics, how ventriloquists make labial consonants
 > moving their lips ???

 By misdirection. They write their patter to avoid labials; and if
 they're unavoidable, they do something acoustically similar and context
 takes care of it.

 > I love my intro students, they ask such great questions.
 > Anybody have any idea?
 > Carol Tenny


Subject: Labials

 The usual instruction in the ventriloquism books is to "fake" the labials
 with alveolars (dentals). Thus, /d/ for /b/, /t/ for /p/, /n/ for /m/ /
 it out in context. It works pretty well, especially with a "funny accent"
 begin with.

 James J. Jenkins
 Psychology Dept and Speech and Hearing
 University of South Florida


Subject: Ventriloquism and labials.

 From: "Allan C. Wechsler" <>

 I think I learned this from a how-to book, perhaps by Shari Lewis.
 The labiodental fricatives are easy; they are replaced with
 apico-interdental fricatives. The bilabial stops are harder. The
 book was not quite clear, but I think it advocated using 'flabby'
 apico-domal stops. I once practiced a bit and was able to reach a
 sort of comprehensibility in an hour or so, before I lost interest.
 I'm sure I could have gotten good with more practice.

 I don't know how [w] is achieved, but I suspect a velar or postvelar


Subject: linguist list questions
 From: Raphael Mercado HBA <>


 i read the questions you posted on linguist list.

 1) according to some studies, given the right stimulus and/or context,
 people fill in the proper sound in the right places in words (ask your
 nearest psycholinguist about these studies). ventriloquists most likely
 replace labial consonants with alveolar consonants. so, instead of
 instead of saying "there was a big spider", they would say "there was a
 dig stider".


 D�p�chons-nous de succomber � la tentation avant qu'elle ne s'�loigne.
 -- �picure

 On peut r�sister � tout sauf � la tentation.
 -- Oscar Wilde



Subject: Ventriloquists and bilabials
 From: "David Palfreyman" <>

 Speaking as a non-professional ventriloquist: There's a folk wisdom
tradition (in
 the UK at least) that ventriloquists use velars instead of bilabials (this
 referred to as the "gottle of geer" phenomenon). Personally, when I have
a go at it
 I find I'm using dental stops instead - articulatorily (and acoustically,
I think)
 as close to bilabials as you can get without moving your lips!



Subject: ventriloquists' labials
 From: "Roger Lass" <>

 Hi. Having watched ventriloquists and been instructed by really good
 phoneticians, I found there's a relatively simple answer. If you think of
 the oral cavity as a horn-shaped device ('Helmholtz resonator'), you'll
 (in profile) that a labial closure and a vbelar/uvular closure produce
 geometric figures with virtually the same shape, but with the closures
 facing in opposite directions.

 This geometry has an acoustic reflex, in that labials and velars/uvulars
 have a number of features in common, such as low Formants 2/3. The effect
 rounding can be produced by furrowing the tongue toward the back, and the
 general sound of labials by experimenting with stop or fricative closures
 the back regions. It's difficult, but you can get a reasonable

 Roger Lass


Subject: Ventriloquists and lax i
 From: "Sidney Wood" <>

 Velars ar substituted for labials, k for p, g for b, ng for m etc., and
 mouth is held only slightly open.

 Best wishes,

 Sidney Wood PhD
 Dept. of Linguistics
 Helgonabacken 12
 223 62 LUND


Subject: ventriloquists and labials
 From: "Richard A. Wright" <>

 They don't make labials. They rely on the well known tendency for lexical
 and semantic context (listener expectations) to override distortions of
 signal and substitute other stop places for the labials (alveolars and
 velars depending on the performer and context).

 Richard Wright, Assistant Professor
 University of Washington
 Department of Linguistics
 Box 354340
 Seattle, WA 98195-4340


Subject: ventriloquists and labial consonants
 From: "David MacGregor" <>

 Cecil Adams addressed this question years ago. His answer can be found
here: He says that they
substitute a
 similiar sound and count on the audience to interpret it as the target
sound. The
 only example he gives though is /u/ for /w/.


 David MacGregor
 Research Associate
 Language Testing Division
 Center for Applied Linguistics
 4646 40th St. NW
 Washington, DC 20016-1859

 Telephone: (202) 362-0700
 Fax: (202) 362-3740


Subject: Re: 13.256, Qs: Ventriloquists/Labial Consonants, Tense/Lax /i/
 From: Bart Mathias <>

 Hi, "Carol L. Tenny" <>
 >LL Subject: ventriloquists and labial consonants

 >LL One of my students in my intro linguistics class asked today, as we
 >LL finishing up phonetics, how ventriloquists make labial consonants
 >LL without moving their lips ???
 >LL I love my intro students, they ask such great questions.

 >LL Anybody have any idea?

 I wasn't going to try this one, but since they come two to an e-mail...

 I imagine they substitute an [N] or a very nasal vowel with other
 appropriate invisible contortions. Though I would probably have trouble
 coming up with references at the moment, it is well known that various
 articulations can produce the same acoustics. E.g., ventriloquists also
 manage round [u(w)] and unround [i(j)] without moving their lips.

 Bart Mathias


Subject: ventriloquists
 From: Janet Randall <>

 Hi Carol,
 Judy Kegl tells about interviewing Shari Lewis, who explained that to
 make a labial, she lengthens the "tube" not by making the closure at the
 lips but by making it at the teeth and then lengthening it on the other
 end, dropping the velum. The distance of the "tube" is the same so the
 consonant sounds more labial than a dental without a dropped velum. You
 can write to Judy, who will have more details.
 Janet Randall


 Subject: re: ventriloquists
 From: Karen Froud <>

 Hi Carol,
 That is a great question... But isn't it the case that
 ventriloquists don't use labials? They substitute them
 with other consonants - e.g. velars. Hence 'gottle of
 geer' for 'bottle of beer'. I know nothing about this
 - just reading your question for some reason made me
 think of this example! Hope it's some help.

 Dr Karen Froud
 Postdoctoral Research Fellow
 Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy



Subject: Ventriloquism
 From: (lc22)

 My understanding is that ventriloquists use the equivalent alveolar
 consonant for the bilabial consonant: [n] for [m], [t] for [p], [d] for
 Hearers presumably use context to figure out which one is meant. That
 said, I wonder if ventriloquists avoid certain cases where there is
 ambiguity, or, better, whether they rely on set phrases that automatically
 direct hearers towards one or the other of two possible selections. "It's
 so quiet you can hear a [tIn] drop" will be pretty easy for hearers to
 interpret. Perhaps one of your students would enjoy getting a tape of a
 ventriloquism performance to see how ambiguities are avoided? A possible
 term paper, perhaps.


 Linda Coleman
 University of Maryland


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