Angus Grieve-Smith wears a mask of his own design, featuring IPA vowel quadrilaterals on each cheek

Show your vowels and support Doctors Without Borders!

I’m very excited about a new face mask I designed.  You can order it online!

I was inspired by two tweets I saw within minutes of each other on July Fourth.  First, Médéric Gasquet-Cyrus, a professor at Aix-Marseille, posted a picture of  his colleague Pascal Roméas wearing a “triangle vocalique” T-shirt designed by the linguistics YouTuber Romain Filstroff, known as Linguisticae. Gasquet-Cyrus’s tweet translates to “When you eat out with a phonetician colleague, you get a chance to practice your vowel quadrilateral!”

The vowel quadrilateral is one of the great data visualizations of linguistics: a two-dimensional diagram of the tongue height and position assigned to the vowel symbols of the Interneational Phonetic Alphabet, as viewed from the left side of the face.   It is also known as the vowel triangle, depending on how much wiggle room you think people have for their tongues when their mouths are fully open.  It can even be plotted based on the formant frequencies extracted from acoustic analysis.

The second was a tweet by Emily Bender, a professor at the University of Washington, about face masks with a random grid of IPA symbols on them.  These are designed by the Lingthusiasm podcast team of author Gretchen McCulloch and professor Lauren Gawne, using the same pattern as in their popular IPA scarves.

Seeing the two pictures one after the other, I realized that rather than a random grid, I could put a vowel quadrilateral on an IPA mask.  Then I realized that if I placed the quadrilateral on one side, I could get it to line up with the wearer’s mouth.  I also had to make a corresponding chart for the right side.

I decided that I wanted the money to go to a charity that was helping with COVID-19.  Doctors Without Borders has been doing good work around the world for years, and with COVID they’ve really stepped up.  Here in New York they provided support to several local organizations and operated two shower trailers in Manhattan at the height of the outbreak.

From July 16 through 29 I ran a fundraiser through Custom Ink where we raised $310 in profits for Doctors Without Borders, and masks should be on their way to 23 supporters!  I want to continue making masks available, but these fundraisers are limited by the structure of the site.

If you missed the fundraiser, you can still get masks!  I have made a slightly different mask design available at RedBubble.com.  You can even get a mug or a phone case.  This is the same store where I’ve been selling Existential Black Swan T-shirts for years.  You can get a mask with the swan on it, if that’s your style.  None of these part of a fundraiser, but you can still donate directly to Doctors Without Borders!

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