Native Tongue

Learning other languages can be difficult. So, when UC Santa Cruz linguists wanted to understand Irish Gaelic, they went straight to the source. To decode the complex language, the researchers make ultrasound videos of the tongue while native speakers form words. The project, “Collaborative Research: An Ultrasound Investigation of Irish Palatalization,” was awarded a $261,255 grant by the National Science Foundation.

Although Irish Gaelic is Ireland’s official language, it’s spoken by less than five percent of the population. One unusual aspect of the language is that every consonant can be pronounced two ways; either with the tongue raised and pushed forward, or raised and pulled back.

“It’s very difficult to describe what the tongue is doing without actually seeing it,” said Grant McGuire, an assistant professor in the Linguistics Department and co-investigator of the study. “Ultrasound allows us to see the tongue movement in real time.”

The precise tongue movements are documented by placing an ultrasound probe under the chin of native Irish speakers while they talk. So far, the team has studied 16 people from three regions of Ireland. Also on the project are linguistics professor Jaye Padgett, former UCSC grad student Ryan Bennett, and Irish colleague Máire Ní Chiosáin.

“We’re studying one endangered language. But this fieldwork teaches us more about the way all languages work,” McGuire said