Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Love Not-Shows!

Posted by Neal on January 10, 2006

Last Friday, I stopped by the afternoon poster session at the 2006 linguists’ secret cabal, to see the poster presented by Georgios Tserdanelis and Brian Joseph. It was about affricates–that is, sounds that combine a stop consonant (e.g. [p], [t], [k], [b], [d], or [g]) with a fricative (e.g. [s], [∫] ‘sh’, [ʒ] ‘zh,’ [f], [θ] voiceless ‘th’). English has only two affricates: [t∫] (usually spelled as ch) and [dʒ] (usually spelled as j or dg).

Georgios and Brian started by noting that there isn’t a standard way of representing affricates. For example, the sound spelled in English as ch is sometimes phonetically represented as a single character, [č], to indicate its behavior as a single sound, but at other times as [t∫], to show the actual phonetic components of it. They favored a two-character representation, but argued that there is still a problem. A problem like the one that I had fun confounding Adam with a few weeks ago… though I remember it as if it were only maybe one week ago… [cue harp music, wavy screen]

Just before bathtime, Adam had drawn a picture that he was proud of. But when Doug came around asking to see it, orneriness overcame pride and Adam refused to let him see it. “I am not showing it,” he carefully enunciated, with the result that his not didn’t come out as [naʔ] (i.e. “na’,” with the /t/ realized as a glottal stop). No, his not was a precise [nat], so that not show- was [nat∫ow].

“Nacho?” I said. “Did someone say nacho? I love nachos!”

“No, Daddy,” Adam said. “I am not showing it.”

“Yeah, nachos! I want some nachos!”

That’s as far as I pressed it, but as Adam was getting into his pajamas after his bath, I heard him murmuring to himself, “Not… show… nacho…” Heh, heh… mission accomplished.

Georgios and Brian propose to represent the subtle differences such as the one between not show and nacho by writing the t+sh of the former as [t∫]–two characters representing two separate sounds in the phrase–and the ch of the latter as [t∫]–the superscripting of the [t] showing its lesser prominence in a complex sound. (If the [∫] were the less prominent, this affricate would be written as [t]. This is what I think I hear when I listen to palatalized [t] in Russian–as if the speaker wants to say ch, but gets cut off before he or she can do justice to the [∫].)

As for Adam, it’s great that he’s gaining an intuitive appreciation of the similarity of [t∫] and [t]. Why? Well, now that he’s got this concept down, when he’s older he can make a funny feline scatological joke when someone says, “Catch it.”

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9 Responses to “I Love Not-Shows!”

  1. Anonymous said

    To mis-quote Tom Lehrer: “Some of you may have met linguists and wondered, therefore, how they got that way…”

    I submit that the above anecdote, at least in part, answers the question:-P.

    Jason B.

  2. Rachel said

    I think I was born a linguist (I’ve got all kinds of stories I could tell you). And there aren’t any other linguists in my family. So it can’t just be that. :)

  3. bearing said

    When you lived in Columbus, did you ever eat at Nacho Mama’s, north of the city?

    (My first comment. I just discovered your blog through a link from Language Log and have been clicking through your archives for the past two hours. Great stuff!)

  4. Neal said

    Yeah, we did eat there once. It was OK, not great. It reminded me of a joke: Two guys want to make nachos, don’t have enough money for all components, decide that one of them will wait for another shopper to buy cheese and then grab it from them and run. Plan works, but while enjoying nachos, one guy asks the other, “But how did you know this was the right kind of cheese for our nachos?” The other replies, “Oh, easy. When I snatched it from that shopper, she said, ‘Hey, that’s nacho cheese!’”

  5. [...] you’re going to end up with a [t] in between the [n] and the [ʃ], and as you may recall, [t]+[ʃ] = [tʃ] (sometimes written as [č]). And there it is: [...]

  6. [...] more interesting linguistically. It’s the reverse of what happened when I teased Adam about nachos a few years ago. You will of course recall that in that post I pointed out how the sound written as [...]

  7. [...] [t]) and ends with a fricative (in this case [ʃ]). (I’ve blogged about affricates before, here and [...]

  8. [...] juice and cheese start with a palatal affricate. Juice has the voiced [dʒ]; cheese has the voiceless [...]

  9. Yay for digging up old posts…!

    Not to take away from the possibility that the /t/ is in fact underenunciated enough to warrant a superscript, but I was under the impression that the two-symbol version of affricates require a tie-bar, so as to avoid these situations: /natʃo/ (“not show”) versus /nat͡ʃo/ (“nacho”). (And you could always add the period in to indicate syllable breaks, too.)

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