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I have an alien species that while similar to humans in many ways have mouths that are closer to muzzles. In short, they do not have cheeks like humans do. I realize that this will effect the sounds they are able to produce and thus their language. Most of their speech will be translated, but I want to know what English language sounds they would be capable of making so that I can give them semi-plausible names that won't baffle English speakers.

One sound set that has already occurred to me is "p" and "b" - both are created largely with the lips. What other English language sounds would not be possible for a species without cheeks?

Note - the species does have vocal cords and tongues. The only major difference is lack of cheeks.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to make a tongue-in-cheek comment about whistling, but quickly realized I couldn't. $\endgroup$ – Geobits Sep 23 '15 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ "One sound set that has already occurred to me is "p" and "b" - both are created largely with the lips. What other English language sounds would not be possible for a species without cheeks?" Are you sure that they couldn't have other ways of producing those sounds? You might find A clever parrot learns to combine phonemes (not) interesting, in which the author discusses the fact that a parrot hasn't lips or teeth, but manages to make a bunch of bilabial sounds, as well as others that we use lips and teeth for. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ It's unclear to me whether you are proposing that they have a mouth shaped like ours but with nothing at all where we have cheeks (cf parrot, above, perhaps), or a mouth shaped such that there's no soft material analogous to a cheek, but the tongue is still in a resonant chamber capable of constriction. In either case, do they have lips? Or are the edges of their resonant chambers completely hard? (Also, the parrot points are interesting, but parrots are imitating us; were they developing their own language independently, the affordances of their vocal abilities would come more into play.) $\endgroup$ – Vynce Sep 23 '15 at 23:32
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Your aliens will be unable to produce labial consonants.

As you've correctly identified, the biggest challenge in speaking without cheeks will be the lack of lips. In English, the units of sound in speech, or phonemes, that use the lips as active articulators are known as labial consonants.

In English, labial consonants take the form of bilabial or labiodental consonants. Bilabial consonants are ones that are made by pressing the lips together, like 'm', a bilabial nasal, or 'p', a voiceless bilabial plosive, meaning a sound you make by closing your mouth by pressing your lips together and then opening them while expelling air. Labiodental consonants are those made by pressing the upper teeth against the lower lip. Examples of this would be 'v', a voiced labiodental fricative, meaning a sound created by vibrating your vocal cords and pushing air out of your mouth with your lower lip pressed against your teeth, and 'f', a voiceless labiodental fricative which is same as 'v' but without vibrating your vocal cords.

I think that 'm', 'b', 'p', 'v', and 'f' are the only labial consonants in English, though other labial consonants appear in other languages. All other sounds in English are made without the lips as an active articulator, so your cheekless aliens will be able to make them.

All of this is assuming that the aliens don't have any other means of producing these sounds. Parrots, for example, are cheekless, but possess an organ called the syrinx, which allows them to produce what we call labial consonants using a completely different process. If your aliens possess such alternate speech organs, it's possible that they can make any sound that humans can (and some we cannot) without having cheeks.

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  • $\begingroup$ Such a labiosophical approach! 90% of it flew over my head which is cool (things I fail to understand appear all the more cooler and smarter to me). Up-vote, anyway. Bonus points if you explain your answer without using all the hard terminology ^^^ $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Sep 23 '15 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Edited to try to explain the jargon. Let me know if that makes more sense. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Sep 23 '15 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ Youstay Igo answer is also right. Consonant [w] and vowels like [o] and [u] (in English this means oo in both boot and good, o in go and top, u in cute, ou in out, but not the vowel of blood, son and cut) are rounded - one must round his lips to pronounce them correctly, but this is not as necessary as for fricatives and stops. Howewer, it would be impossible to distinguish between, for example, German ü and i. $\endgroup$ – BartekChom Sep 23 '15 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ You got your labiodental definition upside-down: “labiodentals are consonants articulated with the lower lip and the upper teeth.” Which is good, because I suddenly felt really weird about doing it that way if the definition was the opposite. $\endgroup$ – KRyan Sep 23 '15 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ Just because we use lips, and teeth, and other parts of our mouth to make those sounds doesn't mean that another creature would have to use those same features. Parrots don't have lips or teeth, but can make lots of the same sounds that we do. They just do it differently. See some of the comments in A clever parrot learns to combine phonemes (not). $\endgroup$ – Joshua Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 23:26
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The sound of all letters where you must twist your lips inwards would be affected. Not that they would not be able to say them, but it would somehow come out differently.

U. cute. brute. dude.

oo. (same as above)

ew. (same as above)

O. con. don. gone.

V. They might have a lot of trouble saying this perfectly. vile. valor. vine.

S. This would be somewhat hissy, slow and prolonged like a snake's or alligator's hiss.

sh. This would probably come out the same as s.

The rest of letters' sounds would be more or less normal.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure about this? With some quick experimentation by clamping my hands over my cheeks, I can say all these words just fine. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 23 '15 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sure in my subjectivity. I might be wrong, but I think this is what it is. When you clamped your hands over your cheeks you only stopped your cheeks from moving. You did not remove the elastic support your cheeks provide to your lips when they (lips) twist/fold. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Sep 23 '15 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ Just because we use lips, and teeth, and other parts of our mouth to make those sounds doesn't mean that another creature would have to use those same features. Parrots don't have lips or teeth, but can make lots of the same sounds that we do. They just do it differently. See some of the comments in A clever parrot learns to combine phonemes (not). $\endgroup$ – Joshua Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but a bird's tongue is very unlike a mammal's. We know for a fact goats can't make speeches. Plus, parrots speak with a nasal touch in their sounds. The mechanism is very different. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Sep 24 '15 at 4:57
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It's not a given that a species without cheeks cannot imitate human speech. As some comments have pointed out, consider parrots and other birds. They can do a pretty good impression of many human sounds, because they produce them differently. Meanwhile, humans are capable of many more sounds than we typically use, but we don't produce them all, and we lose the ability to distinguish between different sounds. It's very difficult for an English speaker to make perfect representations of Chinese sounds, and vice versa, because we draw distinctions between sounds differently. The Mandarin Chinese consonants in shi and xi both sound like "sh" in English, with subtle variation, and English speakers usually struggle to hear the difference. Meanwhile, Chinese speakers will trip over the difference between our "r" and "l" sounds.

This species is likely to have a completely different set of possible sounds, and depending on their local language will use a subset of those sounds to make words, and other sounds they don't use will get merged together, as unimportant differences. Meanwhile, a totally foreign language like English will be a mix of completely impossible sounds, surprisingly possible sounds, easy sounds, and surprisingly-difficult sounds. Just as it's surprising to me that Chinese speakers can make both the "r" and the "l" sounds, yet don't hear the difference and mix them up when speaking, so too your aliens will also mix up sounds. And like birds, they may be able to approximate a "b" or "m" sound using some other mechanism.

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Instead of "handicapped humans", I.e. exactly like us but with some feature compromised, consider that they may have different features that we lack. They might make sounds we can't. Having a muzzle, they might use that anatomy for distinct speech processes, modulating what we have as a single naisel aspect into an entire family of distinguishable sounds.

I expect they will have longer tongues than we do, to match the long mouth cavity. It might bend into more complex shapes, like a recurve breaking up the chamber into several cavities. So instead of a simple "L" sound, they have both a front touch point and a mid arched toungue at the same time.

The possible sounds, e.g. vowels, depend on the resonant features of everything. The ability to switch between sounds smoothly depends on the motion of the parts forming each sound: what blends together or is a "tongue twister"? So they might have more combinations of sounds that we can't produce smoothly in that order.


So how about /m/, /n/, being very common in their names, since a rich number of different sounds are translated by cramming them all into m or n + a vowel.

That will give them a distinct feel to the words, which is what you are looking for. You can remark that the real name sounds like a melody on a clarinet and that /mo/... not only fails to distinguish 5 different m's but serializes the /m/ and vowel when the real sound has them simultaneous.

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