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:
- [ft] lift
- [θt] frothed (for some speakers)
- [sp] asp
- [st] mist
- [sk] ask
- [ʃt] mashed
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:
- [vd] lived
- [ðd] breathed
- [zd] raised
- [ʒd] massaged
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?