LINGUIST List 15.490

Thu Feb 5 2004

Disc: Re: SARS Spread Through Aspirated Consonants?

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. John Kingston, SARS spread through aspiration, NOT!

Message 1: SARS spread through aspiration, NOT!

Date: Fri, 30 Jan 2004 08:27:57 -0500 (EST)
From: John Kingston <>
Subject: SARS spread through aspiration, NOT!

In her article in Lancet, summarized in the Guardian, Inouye purports
to explain why some English speaking tourists visiting China
contracted SARS but no Japanese speaking tourists did. She claims that
when Chinese shopkeepers speak English to English speaking tourists
they shower them in virus laden spit whenever they appropriately
aspirate English voiceless stops, but when they speak to Japanese
speaking tourists they do not shower them because they don't, again
appropriately, aspirate Japanese voiceless stops. Now, this is an
amazing precision in pronouncing foreign languages, so amazing that I
think we can safely dismiss it as very improbable.

If the shopkeepers speak any Chinese language in which the stops
contrast for aspiration, as many do (e.g. Mandarin), then they are
most likely to use their unaspirated stops for both English and
Japanese voiced stops and their aspirated stops for both English and
Japanese voiceless stops. The only way that I can imagine the Japanese
speaking tourists could possibly be safe from the dangers of
aspiration is if the Chinese shopkeepers pronounce BOTH Japanese
series as unaspirated, i.e. they neutralize the contrast because they
recognize neither Japanese series is aspirated. 

But the Japanese speaking tourists still wouldn't stay dry, since all
three languages have a number of fricatives that involve very high
rates of air flow out of the mouth, particularly the jets in sibilant
fricatives, which should shower everyone equally. In short, some other
explanation is needed to explain why Japanese but not English speaking
tourists escaped SARS infections when visiting China last year but
English speaking tourists didn't.

- John Kingston
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