Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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?

9 Responses to “Christmas Codas”

  1. Jonah said

    “Illusion” ends with [ʒən].

  2. dw said

    I think that monosyllabic “heav’n” etc. have always been restricted to hymns and other poetry.

    Much of the time there will be a succeeding vowel, which allows resyllabification: for example, “heav’n above” would be resyllabified /hɛv.nə.bʌv/ for singing.

    When this is not the case, as in the examples you give, I was taught to sing “hen” and then sneak in a [v] at the last minute before the [n]. Works for me 🙂

  3. Dw said

    [Zd] is possible: “massaged”.

  4. Ellen K. said

    We sang a hymn yesterday (I forget which, not a familiar one) that had the word “heaven” in a place in the melody where there’s two notes that you expect (from parallel to other lines, and to another song with partly the same melody) where you expect a single syllable. But instead of a one syllable “heaven” over these two notes, it had it as a two syllable word, which was a bit disjunctive.

  5. Kate Bunting said

    Odd. I’ve been singing “O little town of Bethlehem” all my life and it has never occurred to me that “heav’n” and “giv’n” were difficult to pronounce.

  6. AJD said

    “A sonorant sound can’t come after a fricative in a syllable coda”—indeed, I’d go so far as to say that this is nearly the *definition* of a syllable. Certainly the definition of syllable nucleus I use in my Ling 1 class is that a nucleus is generally a sonority peak—i.e., a segment that’s more sonorous than the ones on either side—subject to some language-specific restrictions. (E.g., in English, a stressed syllable nucleus must be a vowel; an unstressed nucleus can be a vowel or sonorant consonant.) So since the /n/ in “heaven” is more sonorous than the /v/, it gets to be the nucleus of its own syllable.

    I wonder if the convention in hymns and early modern poetry to allow “heaven” and “given” as a single syllable is related to the sporadic deletion of word-internal [v] that took place after Old English. “Lord” and “lady” had [v]’s in Old English which were deleted in Middle English, for instance; “sennight” comes from “seven-night”; things like “e’en”, “ne’er”, and “o’er” persist in poetry occasionally. So I wonder if “heav’n” originates from a time when the [v] was still deletable, making “hea’en” serviceable as a single syllable in poetry; and then, when the pronunciation of the word stabilized *with* the /v/ in it, the convention that it could stand as a single syllable was retained, but the reason why it could do so was forgotten, replacing “hea’en” with “heav’n”.

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