LINGUIST List 13.2072

Mon Aug 12 2002

Sum: Ventriloquists & Labial Consonants

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  • 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 consonants:

    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 UK

    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 up 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 were fine) No doubt the funny voice had something to do with the overall effect as well. I would have thought that velars would have been a better choice, 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 experienced ones.

    Best, Sheri

    * * * * * * * 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 just 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 he 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 appears 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 talking, 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 doing 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 I 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 them), but they had a couple of tricks. First, they never separated their lips more 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 hide 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 Wellington New Zealand Ph +64 4 472 1000 x 5619 or DDI +64 4 463 5619 Fax +64 4 463 5604 www e-mail


    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 to congratulate you and encourage you to keep listening to your students! Where do you teach?

    Ventriloquists: My guess is: it is widely known that the articulatory descriptions 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.

    Cheers 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 l'Enfant (LEAPLE)


    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 without > 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 From:

    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/ / Try it out in context. It works pretty well, especially with a "funny accent" to 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 glide. --


    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" <>

    Hi, 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 is 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! Cheers, David



    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 see (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 of rounding can be produced by furrowing the tongue toward the back, and the general sound of labials by experimenting with stop or fricative closures in the back regions. It's difficult, but you can get a reasonable approximation.

    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 the mouth is held only slightly open.

    Best wishes,

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


    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 the 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 e-mail:


    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 were >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. Cheers, Karen.

    ================================ Dr Karen Froud Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy M.I.T. ================================



    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 [b]. Hearers presumably use context to figure out which one is meant. That said, I wonder if ventriloquists avoid certain cases where there is potential 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