Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

With a Name Like Smuckers…

Posted by Neal on July 1, 2004

For the past few weeks, Doug has been learning how to say his th sounds. Previously, he pronounced his voiced ones (as in the, there, either, etc.) as [d] at the begining of a word and [v] between vowels (giving us dis, dere, and eiver), and his voiceless ones (as in thick, thumb, etc.) as [f]. Now he’s learned that the [d] isn’t the sound he wants for voiced th, and his pronunciation has become a bit more regular, with all voiced th pronounced as [v]. He knows where he needs to put his tongue to get the sounds right, and can do it when he’s concentrating, but it hasn’t become fully automatic yet. Once it does, he will have fully acquired the basic English phonological system. At the beginning of the year, [l] and the th sounds were the last holdouts, and he mastered [l] in May. (More on the strange system underlying his [l] pronunciations in a later post.)

Watching him fine-tune his pronunciation reminds me of some strange pronunciation rules that he followed when he was about 2 years old. When we would brush his teeth at night, we’d give him a cup of water to “swish and spit” with. Doug would say, “squish and fit” (like advice you’d give to someone trying on a shoe that was too tight). Substituting squish for swish wasn’t a random thing; he’d also say squallow instead of swallow. If he’d been into Dora the Explorer back then, I’d have had him say, “Swiper, no swiping!” to see if that [sw] became an [skw], too. I bet it would have.

Unlike this [k] insertion, I could see a reason for the fit instead of spit substitution. [s], the first sound in the cluster [sp], is a fricative. That is, when you make this sound, the air isn’t completely stopped on its way out of your mouth, but manages to hiss through a tiny passage, in this case between your tongue and the top of your mouth. You know the air isn’t completely stopped because you can keep saying ssssssssss until you’ve run out of breath; try the same thing with a [t] or [k], for example, and you feel the pressure build up behind your tongue all the way to your Adam’s apple, until you finally have to let go and say the sound, and in an instant it’s all done. Either that or you let go immediately, and spend the rest of your breath saying uhhhhhhhhhh.

The second sound in the cluster, [p], is a labial sound: You use your lips to make it.

In simplifying the [sp] cluster, Doug took the fricative quality of the [s], and the labial quality of the [p], and combined them to get a labial fricative: [f]. You use your lips to say [f], and you can say fffffffffffff until your breath runs out. (Side note: George Carlin’s famous “bilabial fricative” is not the raspberry sound, which I suppose would be called a linguolabial fricative. Nor is it [f], which is a labiodental fricative. The actual bilabial fricative what you’d get if you tried to say a [p] or [b] but didn’t actually close your lips all the way.)

Like the [skw]-for-[sw] substitution, this [f]-for-[sp] substitution was a regular one: Doug said fin for spin, foon for spoon, etc. But while I was noting these pronunciations, something occurred to me: [m] is a labial sound, too. Did the [f] substitution also apply to [sm] clusters?

It did. Not too much later, Doug’s mom was praising him for doing a good job on some task or another, and exclaimed, “You’re so smart!” Doug agreed: “I so fart!”

3 Responses to “With a Name Like Smuckers…”

  1. Anton said

    Until now I don’t recall encountering the shift /sp/ > /f/ except in Proto-Eldarin.

  2. Anonymous said

    My son switched /f/ for /tr/, which was odd and cute until we bough him his first truck…

  3. Neal said

    I told Anonymous’s story to the mother of one of Adam’s preschool classmates, and she said her 2-year-old son had made the same [f]-for-[tr] substitution. And when they took a family road trip with her in-laws, her son loudly pointed out every truck he saw on the road.–>

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