Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Affricate Identity Crisis

Posted by Neal on March 17, 2010

In my last post, I talked about how /tr/ and /dr/ are often pronounced as [ʧr] and [ʤr], and asked why this might happen. But I forgot to write about the question I’m actually more interested in.

Here’s the deal. Suppose there were no writing system for English, and a phonologist were inventorying its sounds. Here’s one line of thinking they might follow:

“All right, I’ve established that this language has /t/ and /d/ in its consonant inventory. I also know that its other stop consonants, /p, b, k, g/, can form clusters with /r/, in words like pro, bro, crow, and grow. But for some reason, I haven’t found any words with a /tr/ or /dr/ cluster. However, I do find words with [ʧr] and [ʤr] clusters, and [ʧ] and [ʤ] are phonetically similar to [t] and [d].

“I suspect that [ʧ] and [ʤ] are /t/ and /d/ in disguise. An affrication rule is at work, such that /t/ and /d/ are pronounced as their corresponding affricates before /r/.” This is standard phonological reasoning: /t/ and /d/ are said to be phonemes, with [ʧ] and [ʤ] as possible pronunciations (i.e. allophones). But wait — now we’re left with the question of why /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ never form clusters with /r/. To put it another way, why is it that whenever we hear [ʧr] or [ʤr], we always perceive it as /tr/ or /dr/? Aren’t there any [ʧr] or [ʤr] clusters that really are /ʧr/ and /ʤr/, not /tr/ or /dr/ in disguise?

Let’s lay that aside and look at another line of thinking a phonologist might follow: “All right, I’ve established that this language has /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ in its consonant inventory, and that they can form clusters with /r/.” But now, if words like chry and jry really do begin with /ʧ/ and /ʤ/, not with /t/ and /d/ in disguise, then we’re left with a gap in the distribution of /t/ and /d/ that we noted before: Why don’t they ever occur before /r/?

For those of us who can read (and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you can read), the spelling is the biggest clue that [ʧr] and [ʤr] are /tr/ and /dr/ in disguise: We write try and dry, not chry and jry. But how do toddlers, who for the most part can’t read, come to this conclusion? Herb Stahlke, in a comment on my last post, noted some acoustic differences between the [ʧ] and [ʤ] that you get as a result of this kind of affrication, and the [ʧ] and [ʤ] that exist independently, so that may be part of it. Or (my guess), it’s just that the gap in distribution you get when you disallow /tr/ and /dr/ clusters stands out a lot more than the one you get when you disallow /ʧr/ and /ʤr/ clusters. If you didn’t allow /tr/ and /dr/ clusters, then /t/ and /d/ would be conspicuously absent among all the other stop and fricative consonants that can form clusters with /r/, as well as with /l/. In contrast, /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ are the only affricates English has, so they don’t stand out as the only members of some class that don’t do whatever. Furthermore, they can’t form clusters with /l/, either — there are no words like *chloop or *jlick — so not forming clusters with /r/ is no big deal. The child can simply conclude that affricates don’t form clusters in English.

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13 Responses to “Affricate Identity Crisis”

  1. dw said

    It’s not just with /r/ and /l/. The proposed */ʧr/, */ʤr/ would be the _only_ clusters formed by the affricates. By contrast all the stops form a variety of clusters:

    r l j w
    p X X X
    b X X X
    t ? (X) X
    d ? (X)
    k X X X X
    g X X X X

    ʧ ?
    ʤ ?

    (My dialect has /tj/ and /dj/: North American ones generally don’t).

    In addition, one could consider dialects of English that use an alveolar tap or trill (e.g. some Scottish speakers) or even other languages with cognates. That seems just as legitimate as looking at the spelling.

    • dw said

      Hmm: my table didn’t format very well. I hope everyone can figure out what I meant :)

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the observations. I overlooked the glides (j,w) in my focus on the liquids (r,l). So gaps for /tr/ and /dr/ would stand out even more than I stated above, and gaps for /ʧr/ and /ʤr/even less.

      To help readers decipher your table, I’ll give an example of a word for each cell.

      prow, plow, puke, ?? (You have an X in this cell, but I can’t think of any pw words.)
      bright, blight, beauty, ?? (You have an X in this cell, but all I can think of is loans like bwana.)
      true?, *tl (I assume you left this cell blank but the whitespace got deleted), Tuesday (for some speakers), tweet
      drew?, *dl (I assume you left this cell blank but the whitespace got deleted), due (for some speakers), dweeb
      crew, clue, cue, queen
      grew, glue, virgule, guava

      Your point about dialects with trilled or tapped /r/ is well-taken, but how would a child who’d only heard American English arrive at a decision about [ʧr] and [ʤr]?

  2. dw said

    @Neal:

    There isn’t supposed to be an “X” in the /pw/ and /bw/ columns. (I promise never to try to submit a table that relies on fixed-width font again :))

  3. Jonathon said

    In some dialects (mostly British ones, I believe), /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ can form clusters with /j/, as in chew and Jew. But the point still remains that the affricates are much more marked than their stop counterparts and that the paradigm would look much stranger if we assumed underlying /ʧr/ and /ʤr/ clusters and no /tr/ and /dr/ clusters.

    And as to the question of how a preliterate child would know about American English phonology, in the case of my son (who is almost four), it’s because he brought it up. He commented once that two particular words (I don’t remember which ones, so I’ll just say dry and jog) both start with j. So then I explained that dry actually started with d and that the r made it sound a lot like j.

  4. Julie said

    In my dialect, palatalization happens randomly, maybe 30-40% of the time. I can’t remember being preliterate, but I do remember thinking that “Front Room” (pronounced with a glottal stop) and “Frunch Room” (pronounced with an affricate) were two different expressions. And yes, being reasonably literate, I postulated the latter spelling.

  5. gacorley said

    “In my last post, I talked about how /tr/ and /dr/ are often pronounced as [ʧr] and [ʤr], and asked why this might happen. But I forgot to write about the question I’m actually more interested in.”

    “For those of us who can read (and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you can read), the spelling is the biggest clue that [ʧr] and [ʤr] are /ʧtr/ and /ʤdr/ in disguise”

    I usually don’t do this to blog posts, but those errors made it hard to understand.

  6. Although some very progressive dialects really do have [tʃ] and [dʒ], I find it much more appropriate to transcribe /tr/ and /dr/ clusters as [t̻ʂ] / [d̻ʐ], [tʂ] / [dʐ], or [ʈʂ] / [ɖʐ], depending on the speaker. I usually have [t̻ʂ] / [d̻ʐ].
    It just never sounds right quite to me when I try to use the CH sound in “chuck” in “truck”.

    I’ve asked some Polish speakers what they think about this and they all said that the affricates in /tr/ and /dr/ clusters are very much like their [ʈʂ] / [ɖʐ] phonemes, and not like the usual English [tʃ] / [dʒ].

  7. [...] my second post on the pronunciation of “tr” as [ʧr] (i.e. as “chr”), my question was [...]

  8. [...] a blog post on the affrication heard in words like truck and dry (and which I’ve blogged about, too). His question: Does it happen when the tr or dr cross word boundaries, as in night rate and [...]

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