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Are there sounds in English languages and accents where the tongue does not move symmetrically in the mouth, i.e. the right side of the tongue is not moving like the left side?

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+1 for a really unexpected question! – FumbleFingers May 24 '11 at 21:31

It's extremely rare for any language to have a sound where the target pronunciation of that sound involves an asymmetric tongue position. In fact, I'm unaware of an example (although I wouldn't like to say that absolutely none exists).

But in practice, it's very common (in languages in general, not just English) for tongue contact to be asymmetric. For example, in the pronunciation of laterals (such as English "l" sounds), which are canonically defined as having the air escape "at the sides", in practice there may be tongue contact at one side with air escaping at only one side. Similarly, in alveolar and palatal stops generally, there may be more tongue contact at one side than the other.

If you're interested more in this subject, then take a look at any study where palatograms have been taken: these give a "map" of tongue contact as sounds are produced. (Specifically, the modern type are termed electropalatograms, produced from an array of contact-detecting electrodes embedded in a false palate. An earlier primitive technique involved a false palate covered in chalk.)

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People would willingly put chalk plates in their mouth to study where their tongue hits? Wow, for science, I guess... You wouldn't see Mr. Comfort Zone over here doing that! :) – corsiKa May 6 '11 at 2:35
In days gone by, chalk was commonly swallowed as "cure" for heartburn, so it probably didn't seem any scarier than shoving electrodes in your mouth does today. – Neil Coffey May 6 '11 at 10:15
Are you saying that lateral clicks, when carefully pronounced, release on both sides of the tongue simultaneously? I have no direct experience so I do not know to the contrary, but I am surprised. I had always believed that they were one-sided releases, and supposed that a given speaker would normally release on the same side, but that there was variation between speakers. – Colin Fine May 6 '11 at 14:59
It's not so much that the release is definitely on both sides simultaneously, but more that there's nothing inherent in the pronunciation of a click (or other stop/lateral) either way. As far as I'm aware, it's quite possible for a click to be released asymmetrically, or not, apparently with no possibility of this having any linguistic significance. And equally, the same appears to be true of other obstruents. – Neil Coffey May 6 '11 at 19:19
Right, so you're interpreting the question as "are there any sounds in which asymmetric movement is distinctive?", whereas I read it as "are there any sounds in which asymmetric movement regularly occurs?" ? – Colin Fine May 25 '11 at 11:31

The only one I can think of is the lateral click, which occurs in some South African languages.

It is known to English speakers as a sound used to gee up horses, but is not part of the English language.

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I'm not sure lateral clicks are an exception, though: like other laterals, the target isn't for closure to be on one side, although in practice it may well be. – Neil Coffey May 5 '11 at 11:56
@Neil Coffey: I'm intrigued. So far as I know, all English speakers can and do make this sound (and recognise its very specific application). But I really can't begin to imagine how you'd not do it on one side only. South American mileage may differ, obviously. – FumbleFingers May 24 '11 at 21:29
In the palatograms and linguagrams I've seen (admittedly not many!) from clicks as used in actual languages as opposed to non-linguistic purposes like geeing horses, there's often a similar-ish pettern of contact on both sides, but still asymmetric-- as with various other laterals. It's actually quite a complex issue, though-- there isn't really a single type of "lateral click" (they can be produced with different places of articulation), and as I say, the extralinguistic clicks produced by tutters and horse-geers may not be the same as clicks in "real" linguistic use. – Neil Coffey May 28 '11 at 3:35

Considering the English Phonetic system, and if you mean watching the tongue from the front, the answer is no.

The lateral (L) is called like this because the air flows through the sides. It can happen that you, while speaking, put the tongue in some weird positions but that is your realisation, due to the situation, position, etc.

It's possible that in other languages there are realisations where the tongue is not symmetrical, but I'm not aware of any in English.

Try looking at the IPA for the English phonemes and try to "say" them. Your tongue will change position but, basically, it will always remain symmetrical (not mathematically symmetrical, of course, but you know what I mean).

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I've seen the RP phonemes, and they're all symmetrical. I was thinking about accents and dialects, in which I suppose there are a lot other sounds. – user4727 May 5 '11 at 13:16

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