What does “flat” mean?

Posted by Jim Johnson on November 06, 2012 0 Comments

I got an email from a customer with a question about the concept behind the descriptive word flat:

I’ve recently bought your Boston accent guide and I’m having a great time with it. I really like your style and approach, and I expect I’ll be buying more accent guides very soon. I’m puzzled by just one thing — when you describe the Boston vowels as flat, what do you mean? In the world of dialect description, there seem to be a lot of different meanings attached to the word “flat” as a vowel descriptor — there’s a great discussion here in which several people try to thrash it out and never arrive at a single meaning. So I was wondering what you mean when you use that term. It sounded as if you might mean that the vowel space is actually more restricted in the vertical dimension for the Boston accent than for some accents, but I wasn’t sure. Just to give you an idea of my background, I have a doctorate in linguistics, so I’m familiar with the phonetics/phonology world but relatively new to the voicework/dialect world. I teach general American pronunciation to second-language speakers of English, and I’ve recently gotten interested in dialects and voicework.

- Thanks, Karen

My reply:

First of all, thanks for the note, Karen! I think you’re absolutely right that the term “flat” tends to get thrown around, and though it’s hard to define it, I find that actors often respond to it well enough that it’s still a useful term. Funnily enough, we were just discussing some terms in one of my graduate classes today that often don’t fit descriptive phonetics but seem to work for actors. (I was specifically referring to the idea of a “glottal attack” that J.C. Wells – phonetics god – was criticizing in a blog post, but which is a useful term for talking about vocal issues in theatre productions, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

 

I think there are two ways that I’m using the term flat, and I think they’re related. One is more easily understandable, I think: It’s a pitch quality – tending to stay ever so slightly under-pitch. I was referring to it today in another class in discussing the intonation for Jewish New York accents, how the scooping lilt seems to “drag” below pitch on the way up. I do use this in the last paragraph of section III on Intonation in the Boston materials. I used it very similar with another group in talking about the intonation of Northern Irish accents.

I think it’s more likely that the more confusing use of flat is where I mention it as a quality of vowels in the Helpful Hints section in the Boston accent materials. As I mention, it’s something that’s also a quality in Bronx as opposed to Brooklyn intonation – we also hit on that in class today, so apparently all I’m doing is talking about flatness these days! I think some people might describe this phonetically with the tilde ~ symbol above the vowel, representing nasality, though it’s not necessarily nasal at all. It seems to be a narrowing of the vocal passage at the back. There is perhaps a slight descension of the soft palate (without necessarily opening – just reducing its “dome” quality). I think there is also a slight increase in something that is sometimes called twang. (I’m familiar with the term through the teachings of a singing instructor by the name of Jo Estill, who has since passed, though her principles are still taught by others.) She used twang to refer to the seemingly nasal quality of the voice that does not have to be truly nasal at all – not through the nose, but rather purely oral. This is that “Jerry Lewis” voice. One theory is that this is caused by increased tension in the aryepiglottic muscle – reducing the space in the opening of the epiglottis in relation to the larynx. Twang strikes me as an appropriate term. Sometimes this is also referred to as “mask placement” or “nasal placement” or “mask resonance” by some theatre voice teachers.

Between the top and the bottom of the throat constricting the back of the mouth/pharynx, it seems to create a “flat” quality to the sound. Rounded vowels can gain a rounded quality either through purely rounding the lips, or by rounding the throat – lifting the dome of the velum further and toning the muscles of the throat to literally round the space more.

I have some science, some theory, and years of teaching it in ways that seem to work, though it’s often troubling to not know the answers for certain… Why does one exercise work, why does this term describe something well for some people and not for others, why did I ever think I knew what the hell I was talking about?

Funnily enough, I think the “flat-A” of the blog post Karen referred to is related to my second flatness reference here, but I think there’s an additional tongue action happening (or possibly not happening, actually), but I think that’s yet another discussion! In short, I believe the “flat-A” so often referred to can be due to the front of the tongue being lax rather than tense. – a whole other rant for another time?

Let me know if you’ve got a question! - Jim Johnson

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