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Archive for the ‘Phonetics and phonology’ Category

U-Nine-Ed States

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2014


Photo by Alan Light

Photo by Alan Light

Glen emailed me a week or so ago:

Do you sometimes feel like people pronounce “united” to sound like “unined”? (Three syllables, but replacing the t sound with an n sound.) If so, is there some principle that would explain it?

In fact, I have heard this. It’s particularly noticeable in the Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know podcast. However, instead of [n], Glen may have been hearing the nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ̃]. (I have enlarged the font to make the diacritic visible.) The non-nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ] is the voiced, /d/-like sound that you hear in American English in words like atom and writer. As for the nasalized version, just as [p] and [b] have a nasal counterpart [m]; and [t] and [d] have a nasal counterpart [n]; and [k] and [g] have a nasal counterpart [ŋ]; the alveolar tap [ɾ] has a nasal counterpart. But there isn’t a special IPA character for it; instead, we just make do by putting a nasalization tilde above the tap symbol: [ ɾ̃].

You may notice that there’s something missing from this picture. [m] corresponds to two both a voiceless and a voiced non-nasal consonant, [p] and [b]; [n] to [t] and [d]; and [ŋ] to [k] and [g]; but [ɾ̃] corresponds only to the voiced [ɾ].

Or does it? It turns out that a voiceless alveolar tap is possible, as I learned on John Wells’ Phonetics Blog. You devoice it the same as you devoice any other consonant: by not letting your vocal folds vibrate while you say it. It’s just that taps happen so much faster than other consonants that it never occurred to me that this was possible. Again, there’s no special IPA symbol for it; instead, we write it by putting a “voiceless” diacritic under the tap symbol: [ɾ̥].

Moving to the second part of Glen’s question, I would call the [jũnɑɪ̃ɾ̃̃əd] pronunciation of united a progressive assimilation, because the nasal quality of the first /n/ persists, turning the subsequent alveolar tap into [ɾ̃]. As for why it persists, I guess it does because it can. We don’t distinguish between ordinary and nasalized alveolar taps, nor between nasalized alveolar taps and /n/. Furthermore, there’s little danger of a speaker hearing it as /n/, because if it were actually an /n/ before the suffix -ed, we’d only have two syllables: [jũnɑɪ̃nd].

If it’s just the nasality of the /n/ that’s causing the assimilation of the tap, we should expect it to happen with other nasal consonants, too. For example, you would expect that people might also realize the /t/ or /d/ as [ɾ̃] in words or phrases like mated or outmoded, hang it up or ring it up. Maybe I have, but if so, I’ve never noticed it the way I’ve been noticing “you-nine-ed.” Have you?

Posted in Consonants | Leave a Comment »

Unexpected Glottal Stops

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2014

It began a couple of months ago, as I would listen to the morning news on the radio. Whenever this one guy from the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau signs off, he says, “Andy Chow, Statehouse News Bureau,” but he pronounces Statehouse as [steɪʔhɑus], realizing the /t/ as a glottal stop, instead of turning it into a tap, like I do: [steɪɾhɑus]. I thought it was just a one-time pronunciation glitch the first time I heard it, but the next day, he did it again. I started to listen for more of Andy Chow’s unexpected glottal stops, and they were there: whenever a word ended with a stressed syllable followed by /t/, and the following word also began with a stressed syllable, possibly with an /h/ at the front.

This is not where I expect glottal stops in American English. In a post on his now-discontinued but still great Phonetiblog, John Wells quotes himself from his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary on glottal stops in American English:

ʔ is found as an allophone of t only
• at the end of a syllable, and
• if the preceding sound is a vowel or sonorant

Provided these conditions are satisfied, it is widely used in both BrE and AmE where the following sound is an obstruent

football ˈfʊt bɔːl → ˈfʊʔ bɔːl
outside ˌaʊt ˈsaɪd → ˌaʊʔ ˈsaɪd
that faint buzz ˌðæt ˌfeɪnt ˈbʌz → ˌðæʔ ˌfeɪnʔ ˈbʌz

or a nasal

atmospheric ˌæt məs ˈfer ɪk → ˌæʔ məs ˈfer ɪk
button ˈbʌt ən → ˈbʌʔ n
that name ˌðæt ˈneɪm → ˌðæʔ ˈneɪm

or a semivowel or non-syllabic l

Gatwick ˈɡæt wɪk → ˈɡæʔ wɪk
quite well ˌkwaɪt ˈwel → ˌkwaɪʔ ˈwel
brightly ˈbraɪt li → ˈbraɪʔ li

This has been my understanding of American English glottal stops up until now. I take it to be an indication of the novelty of this pronunciation that even John Wells, who has made a career out of knowing this stuff, doesn’t mention it at all.

The next phase began when I heard Doug refer to that classic 1990s comedy cartoon duo, Beavis and Butthead. He pronounced Butthead as [bʌʔhɛd] instead of [bʌɾhɛd]. Once I heard him say that, I started listening more closely, and now know that he regularly produces a glottal stop in such words as butthole and pothole as well. Just a couple of days ago, he was making spaghetti sauce, and said,

I [heɪʔ] how the brown sugar gets so hard.

(Yes, we put 2 tablespoons of brown sugar in our spaghetti sauce. So what?)

Finally, I drove from Ohio to Northern Virginia a few weekends ago for the funeral of the wife of oldest friend. On the way back, I listened to this episode of This American Life, which was devoted to a single story reported by Susan Zalkind. As I drove, I realized that Zalkind had this pronunciation, too. Every few minutes, she’d do it again, in a string like met Eric or shot Ibragim. But having an entire episode to listen to, I decided to listen closer, to hear if there were places where she had the opportunity to make one of these glottal stops, but realized her /t/ as a tap. It turned out there were, and that they had just been slipping by, undetected because they sounded so normal.

When I got back home, I re-listened to the podcast, and wrote down every example of /t/ that occurred at the end of a word before a word that began with a vowel or /h/ plus a vowel. I kept a list of /t/ realized as [ʔ] and /t/ realized as [ɾ], put them in a table, and was surprised to find that the two columns were just about equal. The glottal stop hadn’t completely taken over this phonetic environment after all.

So then the question was whether Zalkind (and others with this pronunciation) used it randomly, or there was some rule that could predict when she would use it. It didn’t seem to matter whether the following word began with a stressed syllable (e.g. at all) or unstressed (e.g. about it), or what vowel the second word began with. But I was able to make one generalization: When the second word began with /h/–in other words, the very environment that I’d noticed with Andy Chow’s Statehouse and Doug’s butthead–the /t/ was almost certain to be realized as a glottal stop. Out of 17 examples of /t/ at the end of a word before a word beginning with /h/, 15 of them realized /t/ as [ʔ]. Furthermore, if that second word began with a stressed vowel, chances of a glottal stop were 100%. (The /h/ examples appear at the bottoms of their respective columns.) In other words, a phrase like beat him up was likely to contain a glottal stop, and a phrase like got home was certain to.

In thinking about this pronunciation, I’ve begun to wonder why I should consider it such a natural environment for speakers like me to have a tap. The canonical location for [ɾ] is between a stressed and an unstressed vowel. This isn’t the case in a word like statehouse, where the vowels on both sides of /t/ are stressed, and we have an intervening consonant, /h/. In fact, having a glottal stop before /h/ would allow Wells’s rules to be stated more concisely. Instead of referring to “obstruent, nasals, semi-vowels, and syllabic /l/,” it could refer to “all consonants”. Well, make that, “all consonants except /r/”. Even so, this pronunciation that sounds so strange to me can be seen as just a step in the direct of regularity.

If you have encountered this pronunciation or use it yourself, leave a comment! (And not just any comment; a comment on the pronunciation. But of course, you knew that from the Maxim of Relevance.)

Posted in Consonants, Ohioana | 7 Comments »

Nae Nae, Nini, No-No, Noo-Noo

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2014

Soon after Mercer College’s amazing upset of Duke University in the NCAA March Madness tournament, both Slate and the New York Times published articles about a dance that the Bears’ team member Kevin Canevari was doing on live national TV while his teammates cheered. The dance, Slate explained, was

the Nae Nae, a dance created by Atlanta fivesome We Are Toonz. As Billboard pointed out a couple of months ago, it’s loosely inspired by the character Sheneneh, played in drag by Martin Lawrence on his popular eponymous sitcom from the ’90s.

When I read that, my first reaction was, “Aha! Another entry!”

A few weeks ago, Mignon Fogarty ran a guest script that I wrote for her Grammar Girl podcast, on the history of “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. That was an excerpt from my book-in-progress, whose working title is The Babbler’s Lexicon, a phonetically organized book of word histories, with words having one thing in common: That they consist of a reduplicated consonant-vowel (CV) syllable. I got the idea when I heard Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett discussing the word juju on an episode of A Way with Words, and got to wondering how many words in English consisted of a single reduplicated syllable.

I decided to narrow the search to reduplicated CV syllables containing any of the vowels /a, e, i, o, u/, the vowels in bat, bait, beat, boat, and boot. The crossproduct of English consonants that can begin a syllable and {a,e,i,o,u} gave me 115 possible words, which I’ve listed at the bottom of the post.

In researching these possible words, I’ve learned that almost any of them can be used as a nickname, especially those that sound like the names of letters, because they can be people’s initials: J.J., C.C., DeeDee, etc. Also, a surprising number of them have also been used as euphemisms for sexual anatomy. (Given the way I organized my list phonetically, I considered calling the book From Papa to Hoo Hoo, but realized that just wouldn’t do.) Anyway, the /n/ series consists of /nana, nene, nini, nono, nunu/. Here are the entries I have at present:

/nana/: Nothing. I’m not including single words, such as nah, that are said twice for emphasis.

nene /ˈneˌne/, n: The endangered goose Branta sandvicensis that is the state bird of Hawaii. The name was borrowed from Hawaiian in the early 20th century.

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Nae Nae /ˈneˌne/, n: See above.

nini /ˈniˌni/, Spanish slang, n: A young person who just wants to party and have a good time. According to an entry on Urban Dictionary, this comes from the Spanish ni estudia ni trabaja (“neither studies nor works”). This definition is backed up by the existence of “The Nini Anthem”:

no-no /ˈnoˌno/, n, adj: Something forbidden. The OED has this from 1942, and gives an interesting usage note: It’s usually with the indefinite article. That is, you can say something is a no-no, but even after that, you won’t refer to it as this no-no or the no-no. And I mean it!

Noo-noo /ˈnuˌnu/, n, adj: The animate vacuum-cleaner creature on the late 1990s BBC children’s TV show Teletubbies. Clever Noo-noo!

If you have other N words that belong in this set, leave a comment. I have just learned, for example, that there is a hair-removal device called the No-No, and that in South African English, nunu refers to a big, creepy insect. Other words that belong in The Babbler’s Lexicon at large are welcome, too.


/p/ /f/ /t/ /z/ /ʒ/ /k/
/b/ /v/ /d/ /ɹ/ /ʧ/ /g/
/m/ /θ/ /n/ /l/ /ʤ/ /h/
/w/ /ð/ /s/ /ʃ/ /j/

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology, Pop culture, Sports | Leave a Comment »

Interdental L for Emphasis

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2013

“Who put Blackfish on our Netflix queue?” my wife asked.

“Oh, that was me. Entertainment Weekly recommended it.”

She didn’t want to watch it, though, so I ended up watching the documentary on killer whales in captivity myself, while I wrapped Christmas presents last week. It was a well-done film, and it was short enough that I even watched the DVD extras while I finished wrapping. They included an interview with marine biologist Dr. Naomi Rose, in a segment called “The Truth About Wild Whales.”

At the end of the interview, Rose was asked whether she thought Sea World should be shut down. She finessed the answer by saying that as a business, Sea World would do what its customers demanded, and offered this advice about how customers could make their wishes known:

They have to [pause] write a letter. [pause] Change their vacation plans. [pause] Let Sea World know they changed their vacation plans.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "letter".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “letter”.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "Let".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “Let”.

I had to put down the scissors and the wrapping paper and rewind the video to the beginning of that statement to watch and listen to it more closely. There it was! In the first sentence, Rose pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of the word letter in the way it’s described in texts on English phonetics: with the tip of her tongue behind her front teeth. But in the third sentence, she pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of let with the tip of her tongue between her top and bottom front teeth, in the same position as it would be if she were pronouncing /θ/ (as in thick) or /ð/ (as in this). In other words, she was pronouncing it as an interdental sound rather than an alveolar one.

This is a pronunciation that I learned about about 10 years ago from some college students in southern central Ohio. Now that I think more about it, I imagine that probably most English speakers pronounce /l/ this way when it comes right before /θ/ or /ð/, as in healthy or all this. I blogged about this pronunciation back in 2005, and linked to a post on the Linguist List on the subject. Since that link no longer works, here’s a fresh one. In the post, Mark Jones sums up responses from other list members, some of whom note that the interdental pronunciation seems to be used for emphasis, or when a speaker is hyperarticulating. That, I think, is what’s going on in Rose’s interview. Before she says let Sea World know, she pauses slightly and leans forward; and as she says it, she speaks at a higher volume.

Whether or not you’re interested in Dr. Rose’s interdental and alveolar /l/s, I recommend watching Blackfish. I wish I’d seen it before taking Adam to Sea World in San Antonio when we went down for my sister’s wedding in May.

Posted in Movies, Variation, What the L | 3 Comments »

Trick or Trunk or Treat

Posted by Neal on October 29, 2013

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Two years ago, I wrote about the history of the phrase trick or treat. This year, I’ve become aware of a new variant on trick-or-treating. The online version of the Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the concept in an article last week:

Trunk-or-treat — the All Hallows’ Eve version of tailgating — appears to be increasing in popularity as a new holiday tradition. Adults fill their car trunks with sweets and treats, park en masse in a designated lot, and children trick-or-treat from car to car. (link)

You can find out more about it at Wikipedia, but as you can see, we’re talking about a sanitized and controlled version of trick-or-treating — even more sanitized and controlled than having official trick-or-treating hours determined by the city council. Actually, I guess it’s silly to have that complaint, because when I was writing about trick or treat, I learned that from the very beginning, trick-or-treating was an attempt to sanitize and control an uncomfortably rowdy and anti-authoritarian holiday, and a successful attempt at that. Anyway, on to the linguistics.

I learned about this kind of event a week or two ago from the marquees of two nearby churches. At the one where Adam’s Boy Scout troop meets, the sign announced that last Friday (not Halloween, you’ll note) there would be a “Trunk or Treat”. A few miles away, the other church had a similar announcement, but this one was for a “Trick or Trunk”. So which came first? And which one is more popular now? On the one hand, trunk is phonetically more like trick, with its lax vowel in the nucleus, and the final [k]. On the other hand, trunk is semantically more like treat, as refers to the source of the candy. It’s not a perfect match, of course, but still, it’s functioning to name the alternative to the trick.

Looking into the phrases’ history, I discovered that they’re not quite as recent as I thought. A ProQuest search turned up the earliest attestation I’ve found, from October 1993 in a photo caption in the Edmonton (Alberta) Journal. The event it described was held by a Mormon church, and was called a “trunk or treat”. As for trick or trunk, the earliest hit I’ve found is from 2000, via Google: “I found out about Trick or Trunk last year….” Although this quote hints at an earlier origin, it looks like the “trunk” variant of the phrase in the Wikipedia article probably is the older one. Phonetics wins!

Even so, don’t discount trick or trunk: In a Google web search, I found 388 hits for trunk or treat, and a respectable 290 for trick or trunk. (This is pared down from the original 3 million and 400,000 respective hits that Google claimed to have, before I clicked and clicked to get to the last page of hits, and Google came clean about what it actually found.)

We’ll know that trick-or-trunk-or-treating has truly arrived when stores start selling Halloween-themed trunk liners to cover up the dirt, grime, and grease spots in a typical trunk, and pre-packaged trunk-decorating kits. I wonder…

… well, there you have it. So in the words of author Lenore Skenazy:

Trunk or treat! Trunk or treat! Let’s avoid each house and street!

Posted in Halloween, Kids' entertainment, Phonetics and phonology | 3 Comments »


Posted by Neal on August 18, 2013

This is a sub!These are limes!

“What’re you listening to, Holt?” Ken asked as Holt climbed into the back of the van.

Longtime readers may remember Doug’s friend Holt from this one post back in 2008. You may also remember Ken, who once told Doug “I’ma kill you!” and played the straight man in Doug’s impromptu bit of lunchroom comedy involving the lost-and-found. Now all three of these guys are going into high school, as members of the marching band, and have spent the last couple of weeks of summer break going to practice and rehearsal from 8:00 until noon. I was the morning car pool guy for them and one other friend who isn’t relevant to this story, so we’ll just ignore him.

Removing his earbuds, Holt said, “Sublime.”

“It’s ‘Sublime,’ not ‘Sublime,’” Ken told him.

This sounded interesting. “Uh, what’s your complaint, Ken?” I asked.

“It’s ‘sub-lime,’” Ken said. “Not ‘suh-blime.’”

“So when he pronounces it that way, it sounds like he’s saying ‘Blimey!’ or something?”


Actually,” I said, “that’s what we linguists call the Maximal Onset Principle at work. It’s a phonological rule of English. When you have a consonant cluster, you put as much of it as you can at the beginning of the next syllable, instead of at the end of the last one. Since you can start a syllable in English with B-L, you get blime. If the word had been sudlime instead, then he’d have pronounced it ‘sud-lime,’ because dlime isn’t a good English syllable. That’s why we say that someone’s taste in music is ‘e-clectic’ instead of ‘ec-lectic,’ even though that’s how the word roots break down.”

“That,” said Holt, “is exactly what I meant to do.”

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology | 5 Comments »

Gay or Shtraight?

Posted by Neal on July 2, 2013

One of my posts from 2011 has been gathering some new comments recently, and not spam comments, either. The post was about the pronunciation of “str” clusters as [ʃtr], and a reader named Andrew Leitch left this comment earlier this week:

I first noticed it when my sister in law returned to Canada from grad school at Purdue and work in New Jersey more than ten years ago. It took a while but now I’m hearing it everywhere. Recently I heard it from a middle aged, white, Canadian, male, construction superintendent. That was the most surprising.
When movie characters, such as those described above, use it, I think they are saying: Only pussies and mamma’s boys would say straight when you can say shtraight. Straight is for fastidious librarians; shtraight is for guys who know how to load a gun and stuff a 20 down a shtripper’s g-string.
It’s an anti-lisp. It says: Not only am I not gay, but I’m almost unbelievably shtraight.

This is getting us in to sociolinguistics territory, a topic I didn’t get into when I reported the findings of a study by David Durian in that last post. One main idea (maybe the) main idea in sociolinguistics is that there are layers of meaning in what we say beyond the actual compositional meaning of the phrases. That’s also the main idea in pragmatics; the difference is that sociolinguistics is more specifically about layers of meaning that signal things your relationships with others. For example, y’all doesn’t mean just “second person plural”; it could also mean, “I am (or wish to be perceived as) a Southern American.” Sociolinguists refer to very specific kinds of variation, such as use of y’all, as variables, and say that they index various characteristics. Durian found that [ʃtr] indexed urban-ness, at least in central Ohio.

Leitch’s claim, then, is that [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality; indeed, a kind of hyper-heterosexuality. So I asked my followers on Twitter:

Josef Fruehwald tweeted back that Campbell-Kibler (2011) had found that “speakers with backed /s/ were rated more masculine and more "country."” More on that later. Douglas Bigham responded with a personal observation:

Gay hicks use /shtr/ all the time; I've noticed it all over the country, too. That doesn't make it NOT hetero, tho.

A good point. Just because you are gay doesn’t mean that you’ll use the behaviors (linguistic or otherwise) that index gayness. A follower named Derron Borders offered a clearer counterexample, in himself:

I am completely and utterly gay (not uber masc[uline]) and am from Circleville, Ohio and definitely say /shtr/.

He followed up with a note of caution:

It's hard to say any phonetic item indexes a particular gender or sexuality, b/c of variation in the pop[ulation].

Moving away from the question of whether [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality, Lucy Fisher and Lauren Squires offered some other observations of people with this pronunciation. Fisher noted that [ʃtr] was “quite downmarket” in the UK, while Squires reported hearing it in The Real Housewives of Atlanta and in the speech of NPR announcers.

Moving back to the issue of heterosexuality-indexing, I read the paper by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, who found that /s/-backing (in other words, pronouncing /s/ further back in the mouth, as [ʃ]) interacted with other speech variables she was investigating (pitch, and pronouncing the -ing suffix as -in). For example, if a male speaker doesn’t already have an obvious Southern (American) accent, /s/-backing will make him sound more “country”–an interesting contrast from Durian’s findings. In addition, it affects perception of three other characteristics, as it

shifts the relationship between competence, sexuality and masculinity, by increasing perceptions of the complex style “masculine, unintelligent, straight man.”

In other words, although the effect isn’t completely clear-cut or consistent, Leitch was on to something. From an articulatory standpoint, his assertion that /s/-backing is the “anti-lisp” is exactly right. Campbell-Kibler even refers to a lisp as /s/-fronting: pronouncing /s/ with your tongue a bit too far forward, so that it becomes [θ]. Unlike with /s/-backing, linguists agree that /s/-fronting has a very clear effect on listener perception, and it’s the same effect that the person on the street might tell you: It makes a man sound gay. (It’s not the only thing that does, of course, but the effect is there.) So the real opposition between /s/-fronting and /s/-backing actually does reflect to some extent the opposition between being gay and being “almost unbelievably shtraight.”

Posted in Consonants, Sociolinguistics, Variation | 3 Comments »

I Got Laboved

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2013


Bill Labov came to visit Ohio State University this week. This is the guy who, 50 years ago, began to answer what was then a 100-year-old question: What is the origin of the sound changes that run through a language, changing entire vowel systems, collapsing two phonemes into one, splitting one phoneme into two? More specifically, who starts these changes, and how, and why? With just a couple of well-known studies which are now standardly cited in historical linguistics textbooks, he changed how linguists went about researching these questions.

One of those early studies involved listening to how clerks in higher- and lower-end New York department stores pronounced the phrase fourth floor, in order to hear whether they were pronouncing or omitting the /r/ in those words. (This study was recently the subject of a two-part episode of Lexicon Valley.) The method consisted of asking a clerk where to find some item that the researcher knew to be on the fourth floor. When the clerk said, “Fourth floor,” the researcher would pretend not to have heard properly, and the clerk would say it again. In this way, Labov obtained a pair of utterances of the same phrase, said casually (the first time) and more carefully (the second time). Comparing the percentages of speakers who omitted the /r/ both times, pronounced it both times, or omitted it and then pronounced it provided interesting insights when put together with the demographics of the speakers; for a fuller presentation, listen to the Lexicon Valley podcast.

During his visit to OSU, Labov made several presentations, and tonight he and his colleague Gillian Sankoff were the guests of honor at a party at a professor’s house (his daughter’s, in fact). When I got to the party, I saw Labov talking with Brian Joseph, who introduced me.

“Neal Whitman,” I said, shaking hands.

“What was that?” Labov asked.

“Neal,” I said. It was a bit noisy, so I did my visual aid of making as if to kneel. (Get it?)

“No, your last name.”

“Oh!” I said. “Whitman.”

“Ah, you aspirate your W!” he said.

I burst into a grin. “Yes, I do!”

After that we talked for a few minutes about where I grew up, the “Cool Whip” Family Guy clip on YouTube, vowel mergers, and about sounds that persist in a language long after their reported death.

Driving home, I realized: One of Labov’s oldest tricks had taken me completely unawares.

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, Variation | 6 Comments »

Christmas Codas

Posted by Neal on December 26, 2012

During some of the Advent church services in the past month, and the Christmas Eve service earlier this week, I’ve had occasion to be reminded of a phonotactic constraint that, evidently, wasn’t so hard and fast when a lot of our classic Christmas music was written. Specifically, I’m talking about syllables that end with [vn], as in heav’n and giv’n, which come up a lot in these songs. Often they come up very close to each other in order to make a close-enough rhyme. For example, there’s this pair of lines in “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.

It also happens with [zn] in the ris’n that I ran across in another song. So to generalize, these songs allow a syllable to end with a voiced fricative (i.e. [z] or [v]) followed by an [n]. The other voiced fricatives in English are [ð] (as in thy) and [ʒ] (as in genre). As far as I know, there are no English words that end in [ʒən], so there’s no chance of finding such a word shortened to end in just [ʒn]. English words that end in [ʒən] include words like vision and fusion, but those tend to turn up in hymns so much. As for words that end in [ðən], there’s heathen, so I’d predict that if any of these songs had the word heathen in them, we could expect to see it written heath’n. But I checked, and heathen isn’t such a popular word in hymns.

As I struggle to sing heav’n and giv’n as single syllables, I have to wonder why it’s so difficult. After all, the consonant clusters [vn] and [zn] aren’t so different from other consonant clusters that form easily pronounceable syllable codas in other English words. (A syllable’s coda is the string of whatever consonants occur at its end.) Fricatives in a syllable coda can combine with certain non-nasal stops, provided the voicing is the same. Here are the admissible and inadmissible combinations of voiceless fricatives with voiceless stops:

  • *[fp]
  • [ft] lift
  • *[fk]
  • *[θp]
  • [θt] frothed (for some speakers)
  • *[θk]
  • [sp] asp
  • [st] mist
  • [sk] ask
  • *[ʃp]
  • [ʃt] mashed
  • *[ʃk]

Summing up the voiceless fricative-stop combinations, it looks like [s] can combine with any of [p], [t], or [k], but the other fricatives can only go with [t]. Now here are the admissible and inadmissible combinations of voiced fricatives and voiced stops:

  • *[vb]
  • [vd] lived
  • *[vg]
  • *[ðb]
  • [ðd] breathed
  • *[ðg]
  • *[zb]
  • [zd] raised
  • *[zg]
  • *[ʒb]
  • [ʒd] massaged
  • *[ʒg]

These are even more restricted than the voiceless combinations: Now, only three out of the four eligible fricatives ([v], [ð], and [z]) can combine with a stop, and even then only with [d]. However, the fact is that these voiced fricatives can combine with [d] to form a syllable coda. Furthermore, the only difference between [d] and [n] is that for [d], your nasal passage is blocked, whereas for [n], air is coming out through your nose. So why are [vd] and [zd] so easy for English speakers to say, while [vn] and [zn] aren’t?

One possibility that occurred to me was to blame it on the fact that [n] is a continuant. That is, because the airstream can escape through your nose, you can stretch out an [n] as long as you have breath, whereas a [d] is over in an instant. For that reason, the [n] after another consonant feels like another syllable. But that won’t work, because fricatives are continuants, too, and fricative-fricative codas are perceived as one syllable: buffs, lives, writhes, fifth.

Instead, the rule seems to be that a sonorant sound can’t come after a fricative in a syllable coda. Sonorants consist of vowels, liquids (that is, [r] and [l]), glides ([j] as in yet and [w]), and nasals, so this rule also explains why words that end in [zm] or [ðm], such as chasm or rhythm have two syllables instead of one. (I imagine that this rule has been long known, and written up in some article or textbook somewhere, but I haven’t found it. References or corrections are welcome in the comments.) Sonorants after sonorants are OK, as in kiln, barn, and film (though I understand that in some dialects, film is pronounced with two syllables: “fill-em”). For another phonotactic constraint involving codas and sonorants, see this handout for a UMass linguistics class taught by Kyle Johnson.

All that’s well and good for present-day English, but I still wonder: When did it stop being OK for English codas to end in [zn] and [vn]? Was it ever part of everyday language, or just for poetry and songs?

Posted in Christmas songs, Phonetics and phonology | 9 Comments »

The Oral-Aural Merger?

Posted by Neal on November 24, 2012

I sent a message to the American Dialect Society email list earlier this month, about a pronunciation that I’ve begun to wonder about recently. Here’s what I wrote, but with more accurate IPA symbols inserted:

I’m sure this has been analyzed somewhere at some point, but I don’t know where. What is the dialect that has [ɔ] lowering to [ɑ] in a stressed vowel preceding /ɹ/ and an unstressed vowel? In other words, the dialect that pronounces forest as “farrest,” Florida as “Flarrida”,Oregon as “Ahregun,” horrible etc. as “harrible” etc., authority as “autharity”, but still has [ɔ] in fort, lore, etc.? What is this realization called?
I’ve been vaguely aware of it for many years, but have begun to notice it more, especially among certain NPR speakers. I even heard one guy on Planet Money talk about a “flarrist” (florist), which is right in line with the phonetic environment I described, but was still a new pronunciation to me.

Actually, this question is complicated by the fact that various historically distinct vowels have merged in various combinations in various dialects of English when they appear before /ɹ/. These include the so-called Mary-merry-marry merger, the steer-stir merger, the fir-fur merger, and others, which you can read about in this Wikipedia post. I was even surprised to learn about a horse-hoarse merger, which made me realize that my father was not joking or deluding himself when he once claimed that for him horse and hoarse were not homophones. I pronounce them both [hɔɹs], but speakers without this merger pronounce hoarse as [hoɹs]. I have a hard time even imagining this pronunciation, with [o] coming before an [ɹ] at the end of a syllable (or in coda position, as phoneticians say), and have never perceived it in Dad’s speech. However, I can definitely hear it when it comes before [ɹ] at the beginning of a syllable (that is, in onset position). If you know my father, you can hear it when he calls someone a moron, which he has always pronounced [moɹɑn]: “Mo-ron!” When he does that, I find myself imagining a Southern pair of twin boys, named Jim Bob and Mo Ron. (For more on vowels before [ɹ], see this post.)

Anyway, I got some interesting responses. Kate Svoboda-Spanbock wrote, “It is a longstanding source of amusement to my L.A.-bred children, who laugh when I say AH-rinj but who nonetheless say that they are SAH-rry.” Her post jolted me into looking at my own pronunciation, because I definitely say “SAH-rry” (i.e. [sɑɹI]), and for that matter “to-MAH-row” and SAH-row,” and find the [ɔɹ] pronunciations of these words unusual.

In fact, my “SAH-rry” might not even match that of Kate’s children, because phonetically, there is more than one “ah” sound. There’s the low back unround [ɑ] that I’ve been using in the IPA notations, but there’s also the low back round [ɒ], which might appear in cough, depending on your dialect. To tell you the truth, I’m not very good at distinguishing the low back vowels, and as far as I can tell, I might be using either of them.

Ben Zimmer wrote that [ɑɹ] instead of [ɔɹ] was common in New York City, as well as in Philadelphia and the Carolinas, and gave a link to the Wikipedia page I linked to above. Paul Johnston corroborated, citing his NYC parents’ consistent [ɑɹ] pronunciation, while also noting his own nearly universal shift to [ɔɹ] in his adult life.

Larry Horn wrote that the change is almost certainly happening via lexical diffusion–that is, somewhat haphazardly on a word-by-word basis. He recalled social pressure he experienced to change some of his pronunciations in college:

[T]ypically, whatever the shibboleths are may be under the most pressure to change, which is why I switched [to the [ɔɹ] pronunciation] on corridor and moral earlier–and more consistently than–Florida or florist.

Joel Berson confirmed the somewhat unpredictable nature of this change, writing:

[M]y vacillations and shifts are different from Larry’s…. For example, I’m sure I seldom
say “florist” but mostly “flarrist”. But I say “floral”, not “flarral”.

Eventually, the discussion wandered to some of those other pre-R mergers that I mentioned earlier. Although I excluded from my query words that had [ɹ] in coda position, some of them came up in the discussion anyway. Matt Wilson mentioned the cord-card merger, which Wilson Gray (recalling his youth in Saint Louis) might have called the fort-fart merger. In elementary school, he and his classmates preferred to avoid saying any number between 39 and 50 for this reason. I also hear this kind of merger in the speech of Jessica Lange’s character in American Horror Story: Asylum.

As the discussion petered out, Charlie Doyle brought up the knock-knock joke that depends on the [ɑɹ] pronunciation of orange, whose punch line is “[ɑɹə̃nʤ] you glad I didn’t say ‘banana’?” That reminded me of a poem composed by Tom Lehrer in response to the challenge of finding a word that rhymed with orange:

Eating an orange
While making love
would make for bizarre enj-
oyment thereof.

A couple of respondents to my post noted that there wasn’t a nice, convenient name for this particular phonetic phenomenon. Larry Horn proposed and quickly rejected “East Coast Ah-ringe”. My humble proposal is in the title of this post. If any dialectologists are reading this, what do you say? Is there a name? If not, what do you propose? Ben Trawick-Smith, and Rick Aschmann, I’m looking at you!

Posted in Diachronic, Variation, Vowels | 9 Comments »


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