Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Affricates’ Category

Trucha Affrication

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2015

If this were a fried chicken restaurant in the US, it would probably call itself "Motherpluckers."

Doug spent last summer in Ecuador at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where he doubled his life list by seeing 345 species of birds that he’d never seen before. He also ate a lot of good food, saw a volcano, and spoke mucho español. He got to speaking it pretty well, apparently. But some of the other guests that he heard there had a little bit of trouble with their accent.

He told me about one British guest, who really enjoyed a trout dinner that they served one night, and said so: “¡Me gusta la trucha!

This really amused the cook and one of the guides. One of them asked the guest a couple more times whether he liked la trucha. The guest said yes he did, and wondered aloud to Doug, “Why do they keep asking me that?”

Before I go further, I’m going to have to do a little bit of phonetic housekeeping, specifically with regard to the R sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet. On this blog, I’ve written the English pronunciation of the R sound with the IPA symbol [r], but that’s actually the IPA representation of a Spanish or Italian rolled R, as in the Spanish perro, or the American English edited (sometimes, for some speakers). The IPA representation of an ordinary Spanish R, as in pero, is [ɾ], which also happens to be the English “tapped” T or D (as in thataway). Of course, some UK speakers roll or tap their R’s, too, such as this Scottish guy. But today, I’m talking about the non-rolled pronunciation of R in American English and the English spoken by the British guest who so enjoyed the trout. That’s a “postalveolar R,” represented as [ɹ]. OK, on with the post.

Do you remember when I was writing about how in English, a /t/ is often pronounced as [ʧ] (the “CH” sound) when it comes before an /ɹ/? Sure you do!

However, that’s an English phonological rule. Do it in Spanish, and you just give yourself away as a non-native speaker (assuming you haven’t already done so by inappropriately aspirating, voicing, or devoicing your stops). You might even embarrass yourself, as this British tourist did. Trout in Spanish is trucha, pronounced [tɾuʧa]. Note the tapped R [ɾ]. The British guest was pronouncing it as [ʧɹuʧə], with a postalveolar [ɹ] and an affricated /t/. This, as it turns out, is uncomfortably close to another Spanish word, chucha [ʧuʧa].

Doug, being such a polite young man, declined to translate this word for me, but did offer that it was part of an expression of frustration or anger that he sometimes heard from the speakers there: ¡chucha madre!. Wikipedia tells me that in other Spanish-speaking countries, the expression is ¡chucha de tu madre!. De tu madre means “of your mother” — “your mother’s” something. I’ll just leave it at that.

Posted in Affricates, Taboo | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Neal on April 27, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to discover that a new episode of The Tobolowsky Files had come out. (You may recall my blogging about this podcast last year.) This one was about a time in Stephen Tobolowsky’s life when he had an Icelandic horse. I never knew there was a breed of horse called an Icelandic, but I guess there is. The horse’s name, Tobo said, was something that sounded like Yokult. He explained that the name was Icelandic for glacier.

Wait a minute–Icelandic for glacier? Didn’t I already know the Icelandic word for glacier? Hadn’t I learned it somewhere? And it wasn’t yokult, it was…

Ah, right! It was jökull, as in Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that preempted so much trans-Atlantic air travel back in 2010. People made fun of the name–The Oatmeal’s take on it was hilarious–but the news stories explained that it meant “island mountain glacier” (or more literally, “glacier of the mountains of the islands”). On Language Log, Mark Liberman explained the pronunciation, and on his Phonetic Blog, John Wells gave some additional details.

The parts I was interested in were the ll sequences. As I’ve learned from the blog posts, in Icelandic represents a “pre-stopped lateral”. The lateral part means basically that the sound is a kind of /l/. In phonetic terms, lateral refers to the sides of the tongue. To get the full picture, you have to know what the tongue is doing for other kinds of consonants, in particular the stops (or plosives) and fricatives. For stops that involve the tongue, the tongue blocks the airflow from the lungs completely. For example, put your tongue in position to say a [t] or [d] and you’ll feel it form a seal all around the edges of your palate, from your top left molars to the area behind your top incisors to your top right molars.

For fricatives that involve the tongue, the tongue obstructs the airflow enough to create turbulence, resulting in the hissing or buzzing sound of, for example, [s] or [z]. The air that does get out passes over the top of the tongue. To see how, put your tongue into position for a [t] again, and now turn that [t] into an [s]. You’ll notice that the sides of your tongue are still touching your top molars. The part of your tongue that’s making way for the air to escape is the tip.

What if instead of lowering the tip of your tongue and leaving the sides in place, you do the opposite? What if you lower the sides and leave the top in place? In that case, what you end up with is an /l/, or to be more precise, a whispered (voiceless) /l/, written in IPA as [l̥ ]. If you turn on your voice, you end up with the ordinary voiced [l].

[l̥ ] and [l] are said to be lateral approximants (or sometimes liquids), which means that the tongue causes the airflow to take a different path out of the mouth than it would if you were just saying a vowel, but doesn’t obstruct it enough to result in a fricative or a stop. But if you want to, you can turn your lateral approximant into a lateral fricative. Just stiffen up your tongue and close the space between the sides of the tongue and the teeth above, just enough to get that turbulent airflow. If you’re doing this without voicing, you’ll get the hiss of the voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ]. With voice, you’ll get the buzz of the voiced lateral fricative [ɮ].

So much for lateral. What about pre-stopped? If you guessed that it has something to do with stop consonants, you’re right. As a reminder, the primary stop consonants in English are [p, b, t, d, k, g]. Sometimes you’ll get a stop right before a fricative. You can probably identify the stop-fricative neighbors in dipshit, ribs, cat sitter, red zone, suck face, and beg the question. A couple of stop-fricative pairs have even achieved the status of phoneme in English; that is, they’re perceived as a single sound. Those pairs are [ʧ] and [ʤ], as in cheer and jeer, respectively. These consonants might have been called pre-stopped fricatives, except that another name had already been established for these: affricates.

So instead of thinking about stops coming right before fricatives, think about stops coming right before other continuant consonants (i.e. consonants that you can keep saying until you run out of breath, as opposed to stops, which are done the moment you allow airflow to resume). Those are the nasals /m, n, ŋ/ and the approximants /l, r, w, j/. Put a stop consonant before any of these sounds, and it’ll be a pre-stopped version of that sound, right?

Not quite. To count as pre-stopping, there are two additional requirements. First, the stop and the continuant have to be homorganic (that is, made with the same parts of the mouth). So, for example, [bm] would count, because both [b] and [m] are made with the lips. [ps] would not count, because [p] is made with the lips, while [s] is made with the teeth and tongue. The second requirement–and this is where English gives up any hope of having pre-stopped consonants–is that the pair of sounds be considered a single sound by speakers of the language we’re discussing, just the way that the affricates [ʧ] and [ʤ] are considered individual sounds by English speakers. The closest English comes to having pre-stopping is in words like hidden, assuming you’re pronouncing it with no vowel between the [d] and the [n], and are just keeping your tongue tip in place and letting the blocked airflow suddenly escape through your nose. But if you ask an English speaker how many syllables hidden has, they’ll say two, not one. For [dn] to be a pre-stopped /n/, the speaker would have to consider hidden to be just as good a monosyllable as catch, or for that matter, lets, fifth, ghosts, and sixths.

Now I can get back to the Icelandic ll. This orthography represents a pre-stopped lateral, i.e. /tl/. This is easy to hear in the slower recordings of fjalla; it sounds like “fyatla”. The difficulty comes in jökull. Icelandic has final devoicing, which means that voiced consonants at the end of a word are devoiced. So /tl/ would be realized as [tl̥ ]. Supposedly. In fact, as John Wells notes and Mark Liberman agrees, that final [l̥ ] sounds more like a voiceless fricative than an approximant, so that the final consonant of jökull is actually [tɬ]. In other words, it’s actually an affricate, not a pre-stopped lateral.

It really blows my mind to force myself to think about [jœːkʏtl̥ ] as two syllables instead of three. I hear it as “yokoot” followed by static as the transmission is suddenly cut off. If I insist on interpreting that static as a speech sound, the same as I do with the staticky sound at the end of catch, the best I can do is hear it as three syllables, taking the [kʏtl̥ ] part as something like “kootle”, but with the /t/ actually pronounced as [t] instead of tapped as in poodle, and the /l/ whispered.

That accumulation of phonetic unfamiliarities–/t/ not turned into a tap, a voiceless lateral fricative that doesn’t exist in English, plus the necessity of interpreting these two sounds as a single phoneme–is too much for most English speakers, as we learned during the season of Eyjafjallajökull. In a collection of clips of newscasters pronouncing the word (which Wells links to), the most common adaptation was to metathesize the [t], and put it before the [k]: “Ayafyatlayotkul”. The adaptation I’d probably use would be to ignore the final devoicing and pronounce it to rhyme with poodle. And coming back to Stephen Tobolowsky, his adaptation is a different metathesis, namely swapping the [tl] to get [lt], as well as not trying to make a [ɬ]. That was an adaptation I hadn’t heard before, but let me ask now: How do you pronounce jökull when you’re not perfecting your Icelandic pronunciation?

Posted in Affricates, What the L | 3 Comments »

Aspiration Affrication?

Posted by Neal on March 18, 2010

This is another follow-up to my St. Patrick’s Day post, where I talked about how /t/ can sound like [ʧ] (“CH”) before an /r/. There’s another angle I wanted to explore, but first, I have to tell you about something else that happened in that classroom where I got pinched for not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day.

Now that I think about it, I think it was kindergarten, not first grade. I’m remembering my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Casas, handing me that construction-paper shamrock. Casas is a Spanish surname, which isn’t too surprising, because I lived in El Paso, Texas at the time. (When my relatives came to visit, they couldn’t wait to go across the border to visit Juarez. How times change.) A good number of my classmates were Mexican-American kids. One of them was named Dino, and I thought it was the coolest thing that he had the same name as the Flintstones’ pet. One day Mrs. Casas, was taking us through the alphabet, asking for words that began with each letter, and I could hardly wait for her to get through A, B, and C so I could offer up Dino’s name for D. The instant Mrs. Casas got to D, my hand was up.

“Dino!” I was surprised Dino hadn’t thought of it first.

“What?” Mrs. Casas asked.

“Dino!” I pointed at Dino to make sure she understood. Dino was looking at me. Mrs. Casas still wasn’t writing his name on the big tablet. What was taking her so long?

That was the day I learned that the classmate I knew as Dino was not named Dino at all. His name was Tino. I couldn’t believe it. How could his name be Tino, when for half the school year Mrs. Casas had clearly been calling him Dino?

What I didn’t realize was that Mrs. Casas was pronouncing Tino’s name with a Spanish pronunciation of /t/. But why would that cause me to hear it as a /d/? It has to do with English having two ways of pronouncing /t/, and two ways of pronouncing /d/. (Of course, there are more than two, including the [ʧ] “CH” and [ʤ] “J” pronunciations, but I’m ignoring those for now.) I mentioned in the last post that /t/ and /d/ are both made by placing the tip of the tongue behind the top front teeth, and briefly stopping the airflow out of the mouth. (This area behind the front teeth is called the alveolar ridge.) What distinguishes them is what the vocal folds are doing during and just after the tongue makes its contact.

To get an idea how this works, imagine cars approaching a toll station on a highway. A couple of the lanes are just for drivers who have purchased EZ Tag, a special barcoded sticker that allows them to drive straight through the toll station, where a computer will record their passage and charge their account accordingly. Drivers who don’t have EZ Tag have to go through the other lanes, where they have to stop and pay the attendant or put money in a machine. As soon as they’ve paid, the bar lifts and they continue. Unless, of course, they’re on a business trip, and need to get a receipt to turn in when they submit their expenses. For those drivers, there will be an interval between when they pay and when they resume driving, while they wait to get their receipt.

A moving car corresponds to the vocal folds being closed enough to vibrate when air passes through them—in other words, the voice is on. A stopped car corresponds to the vocal folds being wide open, so that air passes through them without causing vibration. Paying the toll corresponds to the tongue making contact with the alveolar ridge.

The EZ Pass driver’s actions correspond to the voice never stopping when the tongue hits the alveolar ridge (or in phonetic terms, when the articulation occurs). The phonetic symbol for this sound is [d], and indeed, this is how English speakers pronounce a /d/—sometimes. A /d/ with a vowel before it and after it, as in a duck, would be pronounced this way.

The ordinary driver who stops to pay the toll and immediately resumes driving corresponds to the voice stopping during articulation, and picking up again right away. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [t]. English speakers, however, pronounce /t/ as [t] only in certain situations, which I’ll get to a little later. Furthermore, [t] is also how English speakers usually pronounce /d/ when it doesn’t have a vowel right before it; for example, in Duck! Of course, we’re used to hearing [t] as a /d/ in this situation, but phonetically it’s still [t].

So how do English speakers actually pronounce words that begin with /t/, if they don’t pronounce them as [t]? That brings us to the driver who has to wait for a receipt. This situation corresponds to the voice stopping during articulation, and not coming back on again until about 40 milliseconds afterward. It sounds like a little “puff of air” after the /t/ sound is made, and is written [tʰ]. (This interval of voicelessness is known as aspiration. The whole topic of when the voice is on or off relative to time of articulation is known as voice onset time, or VOT.) This is how English speakers pronounce /t/ when it comes at the beginning of a stressed syllable. So when Mrs. Casas pronounced Tino as [tino], I heard it as /dino/: Dino. Once I learned Dino was really Tino, I made sure to pronounce his name with a [tʰ] at the beginning, like a real gringo would.

Now let’s come back to what I said about English speakers actually pronouncing /t/ as [t] only in certain situations. The best-known example of such a situation (and the one mentioned in all the introductory linguistics textbooks for English-speaking audiences) is when it comes after /s/, as in stop. The textbooks will usually invite the reader to hold a piece of paper vertically in front of their mouth, and say a pair of words like stop, top. The paper bends away much more when you say top, with the aspiration, than it does for stop. (The same goes for all the stop consonants, in fact. You can do the same experiment for spot, pot and scat, cat.) You can also do it with a lit candle instead of a paper. I don’t advise doing it with both a lit candle and paper at the same time.

So now, how does this relate to the “CH” pronunciation of /t/? Two posts ago, I said that I pronounced /tr/ as [ʧr], but there was an exception: when the /tr/ was part of an /str/ cluster. So now there are two rules about pronouncing /t/: as [tʰ] at the beginning of a stressed syllable, and as [ʧ] before /r/. And both rules have the same exception: when /t/ is preceded by /s/. Are the two processes actually the same? In one of the messages to the American Dialect Society in that thread I mentioned, Arnold Zwicky wrote that the [ʧ] pronunciation was “a retroflex fricative version of the aspiration on the /t/.”

It’s a cool connection, but I have a problem with it. Remember that it’s not only /t/ that gets affricated. /d/ does, too, and /d/ is never aspirated. At the beginning of a word, it will be pronounced as [t] or [d], but it still gets turned into a [ʤ]. What I think is that in an /str/ cluster, there’s a tug-of-war going on between the /s/ and the /r/. The /s/ has to be pronounced with the tongue tip near the alveolar ridge. The /r/ has to be pronounced with the tongue tip further back. In my pronunciation, /s/ wins, and the /t/ is pronounced as [t]. For other speakers, the /r/ still wins, and the [t] comes out as [ʧ]. And for a subset of these other speakers, the /r/ wins so decisively that even the /s/ is affected, turning into a [ʃ].

Posted in Affricates, Variation | 9 Comments »

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.

Posted in Affricates | 13 Comments »

Chricky Affrication

Posted by Neal on March 17, 2010

“Doug?” I asked as I knocked on his door.


“It’s going to be 65 degrees today, but it’s only 35 now, so you’ll want a long-sleeve shirt. Also, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, so you need to decide whether you’re going to wear green, or consciously boycott green.”

That’s how I have to put it to Doug. Otherwise, he’s likely to take the same attitude that I had toward St. Patrick’s Day when I was a kid. “Wear green? Why should I? I don’t have to wear green!” My attitude was a result of my unhappy introduction to the holiday: I walked into my first-grade classroom on what I thought was an ordinary morning, only to be greeted by three pinches within a minute. The teacher rescued me by giving me a green construction-paper shamrock to pin on, saying something about “Patrick’s day.” What, my friend Patrick Montgomery had a day in his honor? What did that have to do with getting pinched for not wearing green?

When Doug and Adam started going to school, I made sure they didn’t have to learn about St. Patrick’s Day the hard way. Forewarned, they can wear green or not, but at least not be surprised if people comment if they don’t.

The name Patrick reminds me of a phonology question I’ve had for a while. In the English I speak, the /t/ in a /tr/ cluster is actually pronounced [ʧ] (i.e. the “CH” sound). So Patrick is more like Patchrick; trick like chrick; troop like chroop, etc. In phonetic terms, the [t] is becoming an affricate — that is, a sound that begins with a stop consonant (in this case [t]) and ends with a fricative (in this case [ʃ]). (I’ve blogged about affricates before, here and here.)

The same thing happens when I pronounce /d/ in a /dr/ cluster. Just as the voiceless /t/ turns into the voiceless affricate [ʧ], the voiced /d/ turns into the voiced affricate [ʤ]. That’s the stop [d] plus the “zh” fricative [ʒ], or in other words, what we English speakers know as the “J” sound. So hadron sounds like hajron; drip like jrip; droop like jroop, etc.

I’m not alone in these pronunciations; most speakers I’ve heard have also done it; and I’ve even heard of children who are learning to write spelling tr and dr as chr and jr. Why would this happen? To pronounce /tr/ or /dr/, your tongue’s starting position is with the tip just behind for top front teeth and the back of the tongue lowered. What comes next depends on how you pronounce your /r/s. If you make a “bunched /r/” like I do, then your tongue tip will lower and “bunch up” toward the back of your tongue, which will rise up toward the palate. If you have the “retroflex /r/”, then the back of your tongue will stay more or less where it is, and the tip of your tongue will move toward the palate, possibly enough that your tongue is curling backwards a little bit. (For more on bunched /r/ and retroflex /r/, read John Wells’s blog post or this explanation from Kevin Russell (scroll down to “retroflex”).) In either case, the tip of your tongue needs to move from its /t/ position. If, instead of picking it up from the /t/ position and placing it at the /r/ position, you just slide it from one to the other, air will escape through the gap between the tongue tip and the alveolar ridge (the part of your palate just behind your top front teeth). When that happens, you have a fricative.

As I think about this, a question I have is why the fricatives we get are [ʃ] and [ʒ], instead of [s] and [z]. I think it’s because a bunched /r/ is made with the tongue rising toward the palate, and [ʃ] and [ʒ] are, too. So as you get to the /r/, the air is escaping over a tongue that’s closer to the position for [ʃ, ʒ] than it is to the position for [s, z]. Supporting evidence comes from the fact that this same affrication occurs when /t, d/ come before another palatal sound: /j/. ([j] represents the consonant Y sound.) That’s how we get the pronunciation witcha for wit’ your, and didja for did ya. (And the “ch” sound in spatula and tarantula.) This hypothesis would also predict that /tr/ and /dr/ affrication occurs only with speakers who have bunched /r/, not those with retroflex /r/, so there’s a research project for someone. (If it’s been done, please leave a comment giving the source!)

However, one fact is still unexplained. It turns out that (at least for me) there is one exception to this affrication rule: When the /tr/ cluster is part of an /str/ cluster, I don’t affricate. I don’t pronounce string as [sʧrIŋ] (s-chring); I pronounce it as [strIŋ]. I don’t pronounce stray as [sʧre] (s-chray); I pronounce it as [strej]. There is another phonological rule that affects /t/ at the beginning of English words, and also has an exception when the /t/ is preceded by /s/, so maybe these two rules are related. Moreover, there are other speakers who don’t have an exception for /str/, and (as I learned in a January thread on the American Dialect Society listserv), there are even speakers who let the palatalizing of the /t/ pass on through to the /s/, resulting in [ʃʧr]. Larry Horn noted it in Michelle Obama’s plea for aid for Haiti, when she says, “Schools de[ʃʧroyed” and “parent[ʃʧr]ying to feed their children”. But those topics will have to wait for another post.

Posted in Affricates | 19 Comments »

Witcha Pants on the Ground

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2010

Doug and Adam have been watching the American Idol auditions for the past couple of weeks. It was Doug who wanted to do it, but I figure it’s a good thing to do just for socialization purposes, like learning to watch football. I didn’t figure out until my first year in high school that the reason I’d come to school some week and hear everyone singing some new song was that they listened to the radio! And not just when they were in the car with their parents, but in their own rooms, on stations they chose themselves! Oh, and they also watched some cable channel called MTV or something, I came to understand.

I can just imagine if these American Idol auditions had been on the air when I was Doug or Adam’s age. For the past two weeks, I would have been wondering, “Where the hell did this ‘pants on the ground’ song come from, and why is everyone singing it all of a sudden?” But not Doug and Adam: They laughed at General Larry Platt’s audition when it came on, chanted it with their friends at school the next day, and found a dozen clips of it on YouTube the next afternoon.

What, you haven’t heard “Pants on the Ground”? Well, watch the video! It’s a riot: a 62-year-old African-American busts out with a rap making fun of the more ridicule-worthy aspects of hip-hop culture. It’s like the kind of rant Bill Cosby sometimes does nowadays, except funnier.

So what’s the linguistic point of all this? I’ll start by writing out the first few lines, indicating the pronunciation. I don’t think I need to go so far as to use the IPA for it; I’ll just use an apostrophe to indicate a sound missing (from the standard pronunciation), and the in parentheses to indicate a nasalized vowel in pa(n)’:

Pants on the groun’
Pants on the groun’
Lookin’ like a foo’ with yo’ pants on the groun’!
With the gol’ in your mouth, hat turn’ sideway’
Pa(n)’ hit the groun’, call yourself a coo’ cat
Lookin’ like a foo’
Walkin’ downtown with yo’ pants on the groun’, get it up!

Platt’s pronunciation has a number of features typical of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). (The following is taken from Wikipedia, in an entry backed up by many academic citations.)

  1. “Homorganic final consonant clusters (that is, word-final clusters of consonants that have the same place of articulation) that share the same laryngeal settings are reduced.” Ground is pronounced groun’; turned as turn’: [n] and [d] are both made with the tongue tip; both are voiced; and the second one in the cluster disappears. Similarly for gold with its [l] and [d].
  2. “AAVE is non-rhotic, so the rhotic consonant /r/ is usually dropped if not followed by a vowel.” Platt pronounces your as yo. (This is not exclusively an AAVE feature; other dialects of English are also non-rhotic.)
  3. “/l/ is often deleted in patterns similar to that of /r/ and, in combination with cluster simplification (see above), can make homophones of toll and toe, fault and fought, and tool and too. Homonymy may be reduced by vowel lengthening and by an off-glide [ɤ].” Platt pronounces fool as foo (or maybe it could be spelled foow, to represent the off-glide).
  4. “[F]inal consonants may be deleted (although there is a great deal of variation between speakers in this regard). Most often, /t/ and /d/ are deleted. … Nasal consonants may be lost while nasalization of the vowel is retained.” Platt pronounces sideways as sideway, and pants in what I’ve written as the fifth line as pa(n)’.

There’s also the pronunciation of the suffix -ing as -in, but that’s so common in American English in general that I’m not putting it in the above list. However, there’s one feature of AAVE that Platt doesn’t have, or at least, doesn’t use when he performs this song. As Wikipedia puts it: “Word-medially and -finally, /θ/ is realized as either [f] or [t]….” I listened to Platt’s performance on American Idol and in The View, and he’s very consistent. As far as I can tell, he pronounces mouth as mouth, not mouf, and with he definitely pronounces as with, not wif or wit.

For speakers who do pronounce with as wit, there’s an interesting consequence when it comes before a y sound. In many dialects of English, the sequence [tj] becomes [tʃ] (especially when the following vowel is [u]), an example of a process called affrication. Thus, I know what you want becomes I know whatchu want; Tuesday becomes Chewsday; and (for some British English speakers) tune becomes chune. In AAVE, wit’ you / wit’ ya becomes witchu / witcha. (But wit me does not become *witch me, and wit her doesn’t become *witch her.)

I noticed Platt’s pronunciation of with from the first time I saw his audition, because I was expecting him to say witcha pants on the groun’, and in all the times he repeated that phrase, it was always with yo’ pants on the groun’. But when Doug sings it, he puts in all the AAVE features he’s absorbed from black classmates or rap songs, and corrects with yo’ to witcha. So do all his friends, he says. “It just sounds better,” he tells me, “along with foo for fool.” He agrees that that’s not how Platt actually sings it, but suspects that most of his friends probably think it is. There are certainly lots of people on the Internet who evidently think so.

If I were a sociolinguist, I’d probably have something interesting to say about construction of identity through use of various dialect features, but I’m not. If any sociolinguists are reading this, I’m interested to hear your opinion.

Posted in Affricates, Doug, Variation | 3 Comments »

Apple Juice and Double Cheeseburgers

Posted by Neal on September 1, 2009

Time to order Adam’s Happy Meal. I leaned my head out the car window and spoke:

I’d like a chicken nugget Happy Meal, with fries and apple juice.

The voice of the order taker came back:

That’s a chicken nugget Happy Meal, fries and a double cheeseburger?

Wha–? Where did the double cheeseburger come from? I responded: “No, apple juice.”

The voice: “A double cheeseburger and apple juice?”

Gimme a double juiceburger!

Now Doug and Adam started cracking up in the back seat, because I was getting a taste of my own medicine. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Affricates, Food-related, Phonetics and phonology | 9 Comments »

Who Put the Inch in Peninsula?

Posted by Neal on November 10, 2008

Which one doesn't belong?

Which one doesn't belong?

One of my readers asked me about the pronunciation of peninsula, wondering if “peninchula” (or “penintula”) was a proper pronunciation. I looked it up in our Random House unabridged dictionary, and found two pronunciations listed, each with the S pronounced [s]. (Two pronunciations? Yes, I’ll come back to that.) So the simple answer is: This pronunciation is not accepted as standard, at least not yet. Corroborating the fact that the “peninchula” pronunciation hasn’t made it into our dictionary are the comments I found via a search for “peninchula”. For example:

  • What the heck is a “peninchula”??? (link)
  • I wish the narrator would stop saying “peninchula” instead of “peninsula.” (link)
  • Can America follow a man who says, peninchula? (link)

But of course, I couldn’t just leave the issue there. I wanted to know why there would be a “peninchula” pronunciation to begin with. I have a phonetically based origin and a morphologically based one. No matter which one is true (if either), I’m sure many of the people who say peninchula do it just because it’s the way they heard others saying it.

Here’s the phonetically based explanation. First of all, notice that peninsula has an [n] immediately followed by [s]. The [n] is a nasal consonant made with the tongue tip touching the alveolar ridge. The [s] is a non-nasal consonant made with the tongue tip almost, but not quite, touching the alveolar ridge. To transition from [n] to the [s], two things must occur simultaneously. One is that the nasal passage must be blocked off to end the [n]. The other is that the tongue tip must lower enough for air to escape over the top of it for the [s]. If the nasal passage is blocked off before this happens, what you’re going to end up with is a non-nasal alveolar stop [t] in the brief interval before once your tongue lowers and you make the [s]. This is how you get the “penintsula” pronunciation (as well as prints for prince and antser for answer).

But penintsula is not peninchula. To rest of the story has to do with the second pronunciation listed in my dictionary. It has a [y] glide between the [s] and the following vowel: “peninsyula”. This [sy] combination is well known to evolve into a [ʃ] sound (for example, in social). While making the [s], the part of the tongue behind the tip starts rising up to the palate in preparation for the [y], and the [s] ends up as its palatal analog [ʃ]. This pronunciation might be written as “peninshula”. At this point, we have the same situation as with the [n] followed by [s]. Unless the blocking of the nasal passage and the lowering of the tongue tip occur simultaneously, you’re going to end up with a [t] in between the [n] and the [ʃ], and as you may recall, [t]+[ʃ] = [tʃ] (sometimes written as [č]). And there it is: “peninchula”.

However, this analysis does not explain why there aren’t speakers out there pronouncing insulate as “inchulate”, consume as “conchume”, or insurance as “inchurance”. That’s why I’m now more inclined to go with a morphological analysis, like the ones proposed for nucular and defibulator. Just as nuclear gets reshaped to end with what looks like a suffix in words like molecular and particular; and defibrillate gets reshaped to end with the pseudo-suffix of words like tabulate, discombobulate, and perambulate; peninsula gets reshaped to end with the perceived -tula suffix of words like spatula or tarantula. In fact, if you follow the link after the “What the heck is a peninchula?” comment above, you’ll find my favorite etymology for the word in one of the responses: Penis+Tarantula=Penintula.

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Posted in Affricates, Variation | 5 Comments »

I Love Not-Shows!

Posted by Neal on January 10, 2006

Last Friday, I stopped by the afternoon poster session at the 2006 linguists’ secret cabal, to see the poster presented by Georgios Tserdanelis and Brian Joseph. It was about affricates–that is, sounds that combine a stop consonant (e.g. [p], [t], [k], [b], [d], or [g]) with a fricative (e.g. [s], [∫] ‘sh’, [ʒ] ‘zh,’ [f], [θ] voiceless ‘th’). English has only two affricates: [t∫] (usually spelled as ch) and [dʒ] (usually spelled as j or dg).

Georgios and Brian started by noting that there isn’t a standard way of representing affricates. For example, the sound spelled in English as ch is sometimes phonetically represented as a single character, [č], to indicate its behavior as a single sound, but at other times as [t∫], to show the actual phonetic components of it. They favored a two-character representation, but argued that there is still a problem. A problem like the one that I had fun confounding Adam with a few weeks ago… though I remember it as if it were only maybe one week ago… [cue harp music, wavy screen]

Just before bathtime, Adam had drawn a picture that he was proud of. But when Doug came around asking to see it, orneriness overcame pride and Adam refused to let him see it. “I am not showing it,” he carefully enunciated, with the result that his not didn’t come out as [naʔ] (i.e. “na’,” with the /t/ realized as a glottal stop). No, his not was a precise [nat], so that not show- was [nat∫ow].

“Nacho?” I said. “Did someone say nacho? I love nachos!”

“No, Daddy,” Adam said. “I am not showing it.”

“Yeah, nachos! I want some nachos!”

That’s as far as I pressed it, but as Adam was getting into his pajamas after his bath, I heard him murmuring to himself, “Not… show… nacho…” Heh, heh… mission accomplished.

Georgios and Brian propose to represent the subtle differences such as the one between not show and nacho by writing the t+sh of the former as [t∫]–two characters representing two separate sounds in the phrase–and the ch of the latter as [t∫]–the superscripting of the [t] showing its lesser prominence in a complex sound. (If the [∫] were the less prominent, this affricate would be written as [t]. This is what I think I hear when I listen to palatalized [t] in Russian–as if the speaker wants to say ch, but gets cut off before he or she can do justice to the [∫].)

As for Adam, it’s great that he’s gaining an intuitive appreciation of the similarity of [t∫] and [t]. Why? Well, now that he’s got this concept down, when he’s older he can make a funny feline scatological joke when someone says, “Catch it.”

Posted in Affricates, LSA | 9 Comments »


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