Stephen King's Uvular Nasal Tap
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Here is the long-overdue summary of the responses I received to the
following post, dated 24 Jan 2006, regarding author Stephen King's uvular
I cross-posted the message to two other lists, the Phonetics list and the
Teaching of Phonetics list, so some of the responses came over these two
The new link to the video of the interview with Stephen King is:
Or go to the Amazon homepage:
then to ''For the Community'', and click on ''Amazon Fishbowl''; from the
new page, click on ''Stephen King''.
Here are a few more links to audio files of Stephen King talking, for
Eric Bakovic posted a blog entry with further insights into the phenomenon
With warm thanks to the following LINGUISTs for your responses:
George Allen firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Armstrong email@example.com
Roy Becker firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Cornish email@example.com
Andy Elliott firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Horn email@example.com
Paul Johnston firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Knippen email@example.com
Christina Kuo firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Mandel email@example.com
Nick Pharris firstname.lastname@example.org
Steven Schaefer email@example.com
Jim Scobbie JScobbie@QMUC.ac.uk
Gary Taylor firstname.lastname@example.org
Rémy Viredaz email@example.com
Yi Xu firstname.lastname@example.org
Malcah Yaeger-Dror email@example.com
Stephen King apparently substitutes, fairly consistently, a uvular nasal
only prevocalically, that is, in the position in which most
English speakers have an alveolar or ''clear
''. Various possible
explanations were offered to explain this substitution:
(1) Some suggested that it might be related to a horrific hit-and-run car
accident King was involved in many years ago; this, however, seems to be
highly unlikely. King's speech seems unremarkable in all other aspects.
(2) One respondent thought it might be the velum closing and opening, not
the uvula, interpreted as a dark
on a person with swollen adenoids or
some other factor that prevents the velum from staying closed; however, a
close listening to the interview reveals the sound to be unequivocally uvular.
(3) Some respondents simply considered it a personal quirk of King's. One
noticed it in audio recordings of King's books in which he himself reads,
found it distracting, and he now avoids these recordings. Another
respondent called it ''a speech defect'' of King's. Another suggests that
is a ''non-trivial'' sound for a child to acquire, and some do not
learn it well. Such children will find a substitution, e.g. /j/, will get
corrected by adults, then they may happen on a sound not in the system at
all but that is still somewhat similar to the target sound. They may get
less negative feedback on this sound, then end up sticking with it. This
sounds like a quite plausible explanation in King's case.
(4) Some pointed out that Americans have more dark
s, and probably
s, than speakers of standard British English, and uvular
s simply represent a pushing of this feature toward its natural limits.
(5) Some suggested that it may possibly be a regional feature found in
certain speakers of New York/New Jersey/New England/East Coast US English.
Tom Brokaw, for example, has it for some of his
One respondent reported having this feature himself as a child growing up
on the East Coast, and says he received speech therapy to correct it after
the family moved to the Midwest (see also Bakovic's blog entry above).
Another respondent reported that his father, who grew up in rural New
England, also has this feature.
Ira Glass was mentioned by some respondents; however he seems to have a
uvular approximant or fricative
in all positions; in initial positions
it sometimes sounds like a gurgle bubbling up, producing something close to
a rhotic uvular trill. With King, air ''bubbles up'' to separate the uvula
from the back of the tongue to form a *single* tap rather than a turbulent
fricative or a trill with regular free vibration.
Kevin Bacon was also mentioned as having a strongly uvular
One respondent claims that
is sometimes even realized as a
pharyngeal/epiglottal fricative or approximant by many Americans,
especially Northeasterners and Midwesterners.
One respondent said that uvular
is common among French speakers,
especially with ''u'' and ''eu''.
Another respondent told of a female native speaker of Hebrew who
substituted a velar nasal for initial
, and something like the Hebrew
dorsal velo-uvular approximant rhotic for postvocalic
. He pointed out
that the Hebrew
is invariably a lamino-/apico-alveolar. He said the
woman's pronunciation of
was very odd, and that he'd never encountered
such before. He was also amused that the three other people, all musicians,
who were talking with this woman on the same occasion didn't seem to notice
the odd pronunciation at all.
One correspondent expressed delighted surprise that such an ''exotic''
sound should turn up in a phonetically garden-variety language like US
English, rather than in the Caucasus or Amazonia.
From the feedback received, I would tentatively conclude that the feature
is an idiosyncratic (i.e. found only in certain individuals) regional (i.e.
East coast) one; I received no reports of anyone from other parts of the
country exhibiting the feature.
Stephen King's substitution of a uvular nasal tap for [l], and related
''l'' phenomena, such as Ira Glass's invariable uvular
approximant/fricative, might be a fruitful area for further research
particularly for someone living on the US East coast, where one would be
closest to the data. I personally do not at present plan to do any
additional research on this; anybody interested is welcome to develop this
topic in further depth.
National Taiwan University
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