Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Consonants’ Category

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 | 6 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 »

Twenty Wung Guns

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2012

Glen once noted that the trouble with being able to put all your favorite songs on one convenient device is that you have to consciously decide to listen to new music. Motivation to listen to the radio plummets: “Why listen to someone else’s lousy mix plus advertisements, when you can listen to the best mix ever without advertisements?”

So true, so true, as I concurred once before in this space. These days I get exposed to unfamiliar music only when something unusual is going on. As I noted in that earlier blog post, in 2010 I heard a few new songs I liked only because I made a point of listening to the pop station every day for two weeks while I was writing a column on the use of the word <I>Im(m)a</i> in popular songs. I’ve heard a new song here and there in the bowling alley with Doug and Adam, or in the movie theatre while I’m waiting for the previews to begin.

And, as it happens, in the roller skating rink, too. That’s where, at Doug’s birthday party later in 2010, I heard a song that I identified with my song-identifying phone app as “21 Guns” by Green Day. I added it to my iPod, and now, two years later, “21 Guns” has become just one more piece of music that I listen to to the exclusion of new stuff.

After a couple of years of listening to it, I’ve gradually become interested in the chorus:

Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

Two things are interesting about the chorus, one of them because of the way Green Day sing it, and the other because it brought back memories of writing Chapter 1 of my dissertation.

In English, the phoneme /n/ might be pronounced not only as [n], as in Neal, but also as [ɲ], as in In your face!, or as [ŋ], as in drink. That last assimilation is consciously known to most literate English speakers, some of whom had to be taught that ng was actually pronounced [ŋ], and not [ng] “nuh-guh”, as it was spelled.

In fast, or even normally paced speech, these assimilations can cross word boundaries, as happens in my example of In your face! Speaking carefully, I would pronounce 21 guns as “twenty [wʌ̃n] guns”. But speaking freely and easily, I would (and do) pronounce it as “twenty [wʌ̃ŋ] guns”. (The ~ is supposed to go over the ʌ in those transcriptions

In fact, Green Day sing it this way, too, as you can hear in the video. What I find unusual, though, is that they do this even though the song is somewhat slow (about 80BPM, the low end of “andante”, according to my metronome). Nevertheless, every time they sing that chorus, it’s a very carefully enunciated “twenty wung guns”. Why?

Posted in Consonants, Music | 12 Comments »


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 »

How Do You Say Hubert?

Posted by Neal on September 27, 2011

In a post at Lingua Franca, Geoff Pullum writes about reading a novel and being pleasantly surprised when the protagonist referred to the “th” sound in that as a voiced dental fricative, which, in fact, it is. (Interdental, more specifically, but still.) But his admiration turned to disgust when he read another novel in the same series, and the protagonist tells the Secret Service that from their recording of a bad guy saying, “You won’t get that lucky again” and “Hey, I want to talk to you,” they have all the phonetic information they need to identify the guy: “All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives.”

A panphonic set of unscripted utterances consisting of only 13 words? Pullum sets the record straight in his usual style. I already knew firsthand how difficult it would be to round up all the English phonemes in one utterance, having tried doing it in the Mission: Impossible poem, which Ben Zimmer kindly linked to in a comment. For panphonic passages written by other people, check the other posts in the Panphonic Phun category.

As it happens, I was thinking about my panphonic poem just the yesterday. I had just read a post at Grammarphobia about the pronunciation of h before [ju], as in Hubert or Houston (the city in Texas, that is, not the street in Manhattan). Here’s Patricia O’Conner’s description of it when it is pronounced (instead of dropped, as some speakers do):

Phonetically, the letter “h” in these words is a voiceless palatal fricative (a consonant produced by narrowing the air passages, arching the tongue toward the hard palate, and not vibrating the vocal cords).

I was surprised for a moment, since I’m used to thinking of [h] as a voiceless glottal fricative, made simply by opening your vocal folds wide and letting air from the lungs pass through the opening between them (i.e. the glottis). But then I realized that I do pronounce Hubert and Houston with a palatal fricative at the beginning. I started to say Hubert, but quickly switched to home after saying the /h/, and the pronunciation sounded off.

This phonetic realization makes sense, since [j] (that is, the “y” sound) is a palatal consonant, and turning the glottal fricative [h] into the palatal fricative [ç] before [j] is a typical assimilation. Alternatively, instead of producing a fully palatal fricative, a speaker might get the back of the tongue only as far forward as the velum (aka soft palate) before making the /h/ sound, in which case it would come out as the voiceless velar fricative [x]. If you speak German, you’ll recognize [ç] as the sound at the end of Ich, and if you listen to Bill Cosby comedy routines, you may recognize [x] as the way he often pronounces /k/, but that’s about as but English doesn’t have /ç/ or /x/ as phonemes in their own right, so using them for /h/ here and there doesn’t cause confusion.

The significance for my poem, in which I had attempted to use not only every phoneme but also every allophone (way of pronouncing) every phoneme, was that I had learned about one more allophone that I hadn’t managed to squeeze in. I had /h/ in the words he, him, and horrible, and in all those words I think it’s realized as simply [h] and not [ç] or [x]. Some speakers might have it as [ç] in he, but not as reliably as they would in Hubert.

What about you? Do you use a glottal, velar, or palatal /h/ before the “you” sound?

Posted in Books, Consonants, Panphonic Phun | 2 Comments »

Srimp and Jritos at the Groshery Store

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2011

In my second post on the pronunciation of “tr” as [ʧr] (i.e. as “chr”), my question was this: If the /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ (that is, the “ch” and “j” sounds) are phonemes in English, then why don’t English speakers think of words like trick and drape as chrick and jrape? (At least, why don’t the English speakers who pronounce them that way think of them as chrick and jrape? Some speakers do pronounce /tr/ and /dr/ as [tʰr] and [dr].) To put it in phonological terms, why would someone who didn’t know the alphabet perceive [ʧrIk] as /trIk/ and not /ʧrIk/? Or [ʤreip] as /dreip/ and not /ʤreip/? In fact, children who are just learning to spell sometimes do spell [ʧr] as , and [ʤr] as . However, English speakers eventually come around to perceiving [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/. One reason is that as they learn the spelling system, they see that that’s how [ʧr] and [ʤr] are spelled. Another reason is that if English allowed the affricates /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ to form consonant clusters with /r/, we’d have a strange phonological system on our hands. In it, all the plosive consonants other than /t/ and /d/ could form clusters with /r/, while /t/ and /d/ for mysterious reasons could not. Meanwhile, we have /ʧ/ and /ʤ/, which do not normally form consonant clusters, able for some reason to form them with just the consonant /r/.

With that in mind, consider the consonant cluster [ʃr], in words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but comments from Herb Stahlke in some of the posts linked to this one have got me to thinking about it. Like the affricate /ʧ/, the sibilant /ʃ/ forms clusters only with one consonant: /r/. You do get [ʃt] if it’s followed by an /r/, as I discussed in a recent post, but speakers generally perceive that as /str/. And you don’t get words like shkop, shtame, or shpoonkle (oh, wait…). German or Yiddish borrowings like schlep, Schwinn, Schmidt, and schnitzel are acceptable, but you don’t find many new words created that begin with /ʃl/, /ʃw/, /ʃm/, or /ʃn/. On the other hand, the sibilant /s/ can form a cluster with several other consonants. It can form them with voiceless plosives: spit, stick, sky. It can form them with nasals: smack, snoot. It can form them with glides: swoop, and in some dialects, words like suit. (See this post on Dialect Blog for more on American English “yod-dropping”.) It can form them with liquids: slide and … Oops. It can form clusters with lateral liquids, i.e. /l/. It can’t form them with retroflex liquids, i.e. /r/. How many of you pronounce the Sri in Sri Lanka as [sri], and not [ʃri]? I try to, but it feels weird.

So by the same phonological reasoning that leads us to perceive [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/, why don’t we perceive [ʃr] as /sr/? In other words, why don’t we have a system in which /s/ can form clusters with both kinds of lateral liquids, and note that before /r/, /s/ is realized as [ʃ], instead of having a mysterious gap where /sr/ should be? Well, in this case, the spelling points toward hearing it the way it actually sounds: Words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike are actually spelled with . But if it weren’t for the spelling, how would speakers perceive it? (Stahlke observes that some Southern American English speakers actually do say “srimp”, but what about other words beginning with “shr”?)

There is at least one word where speakers may perceive something pronounced as [ʃ] as an /s/. Listen to this classic Sesame Street video:

Did you hear it? “Ten tiny turtles on the telephone, talking to the groshery men”? That’s how I heard it as a kid, but gradually wrote it off to my imagination, as I grew up in a family that pronounced it gro[s]ery. Years later, though, I learned that many speakers unquestionably do pronounce grocery with [ʃ]. On her blog, Jan Freeman wrote:

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I’ve been wary of ascribing motives to people’s pronunciations. I grew up with “mirror” pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn’t use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did.

As I wrote this post, I realized that I had an explanation for this pronunciation: If you elide the unstressed schwa in the middle syllable, you’re left with an /s/ right next to an /r/. (Linguists call such a deletion syncope.) Looking at it that way, I see that gro[ʃ]ry is no more unusual than C’lumbus, Ohio, or Web’los. But if you keep the unstressed syllable, then both gro[ʃ]ry and C’lumbus may strike you as a bit odd.

Now Freeman may or may not have recognized that her pronunciation of grocery contained a [ʃ] (feel free to chime in, Jan), but here’s a speaker for whom [ʃ] is just how you pronounce /s/ before an /r/. A commenter going by the handle embolini9 responded to a query on, “How do you pronounce ‘grocery’?” , writing, “I’m from New England, and I’ve never heard the ‘sh’ sound. I’ve always said ‘gross-ree.'” But a few comments later, embolini9 returned to write, “Oh wait! I just said it out loud, and I guess sometimes I do say ‘groh-shree.’ Maybe more often than not… yup, I definitely say ‘sh.’ Now I’m the crazy girl sitting at her desk saying ‘grocery’ to herself.” (The rest of the comments are fun,too, ranging over a lot of regional pronunciations, an dsurprisingly little peeving.)

This case of syncope feeding a phonetic alteration brings me back to the posts on “shtr” and “chr/jr” that got me onto this subject. I was listening to the Sept. 7, 2011 “Radium Girls” episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and one of the hosts pretty consistently pronounced str as [ʃtr]. There were one or two occasions when she didn’t, but one of the words that got a [ʃtr] was history. She pronounced the word historic with an [s], but history with a [ʃ]. Why? In historic, the middle syllable is stressed, so the /st/ is separated from the /r/ by a vowel. But in history, the host syncopated the unstressed medial vowel, leaving the /st/ right next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʃtr] pronunciation. As for “chr” and “jr”, I remembered way back to when Doug was three or four years old, and his favorite lunch was a turkey sandwich with Doritos. He tended to syncopate that initial unstressed syllable, leaving the /d/ next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʤr] affrication. As a result, he would ask for a turkey sandwich and “Jritos”.

Posted in Consonants, Food-related, The darndest things, Variation | 14 Comments »

Shtraight Talk

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2011

When Adam’s Cub Scout den planned a trip to go horseback riding early last summer, I signed up to ride, too. I wondered why only one other parent in the den was going to ride. What were they going to do while the boys all saddled up and went out on the trail?

At the stable, all the kids and parents stood along the wall of a big room with a dirt floor while the horse handlers did a 15-minute lecture on safety around horses. Then they had the boys come up one by one to receive a Post-It with a piece of a horse’s anatomy written on it, which they were then to stick on a cooperative model horse named Jet. That part was interesting; I finally learned what a horse’s withers were, although I forgot later.

Then it was time for the riding. Each boy stepped up onto a platform, where an adult volunteer (me), helped him onto the horse. The handler then led the horse away, walking with it to the far wall, around to the side wall, along the side wall to the near wall, and from there back to the platform, where the one boy got off and another one got on. And that was the horseback ride I had paid for. I went ahead and chased that sunk cost (as Glen would say) by taking the ride when it was my turn.

After the excitement of the ride, the scouts and their parents relaxed with a tour of the stable. In one room, the handler showed us the hay and the straw, and asked if anyone knew the difference between them. I didn’t, so I listened carefully. She began by mentioning a practical difference:

Horses eat hay; they sleep on shtraw.

What? What was that? Did she say “shtraw”? Maybe I hadn’t heard right. The handler went on to explain the essential difference between hay and straw:

Hay is grass; shtraw is the stalks of oats and things like that.

She did it again! Oh, and of course, oats are a kind of grass, too, but I got the idea. But back to the phonetic point: The handler had substituted [ʃ] for [s] twice. She didn’t do it for all /s/s; she pronounced grass, stalks, and oats with [s]. Did she do it for any /s/ before a /t/? No: stalks. How about for any /s/ before /tr/? During the rest of the talk, I listened for more [ʃ]-[s] substitutions, and heard her use the words “stronger” and “street”, pronouncing each with [ʃtr]. No other /str/ Word came up, although the handler did utter an interdental /l/ when she said, “Horses eat a LOT of food.” Otherwise, her /l/’s were alveolar, so she might have been one of the speakers who pronounce their /l/’s interdentally for emphasis in a word that begins with /l/.

But back to the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution: I first learned about it in a paper called “Getting [ʃ]tronger Every Day?: More on Urbanization and the Socio-geographic Diffusion of (str) in Columbus, OH,” by David Durian. He notes that in this area, it’s more common among younger speakers, working class speakers, and speakers who grew up in the city of Columbus rather than its suburbs; and this last set of speakers is spreading the change to the suburbs they’ve moved to as adults. He also cites a 1984 study by Bill Labov which documents widespread [ʃtr] in Philadelphia.

Patricia O’Conner wrote about the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution in a Grammarphobia post in May 2008. Three months later, the topic came up on the American Dialect Society mailing list in August 2008, when Herb Stahlke reported hearing it in a speech by Michelle Obama. (More on that at the end of this post.) Since becoming aware of this sound change, and since that visit to the stables, I’ve been hearing [ʃ] in place of [s] in /str/ clusters in other places, too…

  • When my wife and sons and I were watching the movie Independence Day (1996), I heard Harry Connick Jr.’s character say to Will Smith’s character, “You’ll never get a chance to fly the space shuttle if you marry a shtripper.” I made everyone wait while I rewound twice to make sure I’d heard right.
  • A month later, we were watching Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and I heard Eddie Murphy’s character utter this other sentence about stripping: “The only reason these officers were in a shtrip club….”
  • A couple of weeks into the school year, I overheard a conversation among a couple of Adam’s fellow fourth graders as they picked up their “Grab n Go” breakfast in the school hallway on the way to their classroom. Apparently the school can’t count on parents actually giving their kids breakfast every morning, so they provide snacks before school for any kids who want them, so they can start off the day with something nutritious and be able to concentrate better in class. This morning, it was Pop Tarts. One girl said to another, “It was funny, because you said brown sugar and I said shtrawberry!” It really must have been funny, because the girl said it again, and again pronounced strawberry as shtrawberry.
  • At about 7:51 into episode 414 of This American Life, the producer of the first story, Ben Calhoun, says, “These weren’t regular uniformed cops. They were the guys in shtreet clothes.”
  • In the past year, I’ve heard one of each of Doug’s and Adam’s friends pronounce /str/ as [ʃtr], usually in the word destroy.
  • During a family trip to New York City last month, a bus tour guide consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr].
  • In a subsequent whale-watching trip that departed from Long Island, a guy from Madison, Wisconsin consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr]. I later learned he’d grown up in Long Island.
  • One of the audiobooks we listened to in the car on our trip was Judy Blume’s Blubber. The reader has [ʃtr] for /str/ about 80% of the time, I’d guess offhand. I’ve heard it in street, strip, stripe, and elsewhere. The occasional [str] pronunciations that come up make me imagine the reader in the studio, with the engineer making her go back and re-read those words, but giving up because the reader’s [ʃtr] is just too consistent to fight.

At this point, I’m starting to forget all the places I’m hearing [ʃtr] for /str/. But my question is why it would occur in the first place. Summarizing previous research, Durian mentions three possibilities. One is that it’s a case of the /s/ assimilating to become more like the /r/; specifically, it’s pronounced with the tongue pulled further back toward where the /r/ is pronounced. That’s a little unusual, because it would be a case of “long-distance” assimilation: The /s/ is taking after not the /t/ right next to it, but the /r/ after that. I’ll add that for some speakers, this could actually be a more typical case of assimilation. Speakers who produce a retroflex [r], by curling their tongue tip backwards, might well retroflect the /t/ before it as well, and if that /t/ is retroflected, the /s/ before it is liable to be retroflected, too. When that happens, it sounds like “sh,” but not quite like the [ʃ] version I’ve been talking about. In the IPA, this retroflex sibilant is written [ʂ]. Under this scenario, the “shtr” pronunciation is [ʂʈr] instead of [ʃtr]. (Most English speakers, including me, cannot hear the difference [ʂ] and [ʃ].)

A second possibility is restricted to a subset of those speakers who, like me, turn /t/ into an affricate before /r/, pronuncing trap as “chrap”. In particular it’s limited to those speakers who (unlike me), even affricate their /t/ when an /s/ comes before it. That is, some speakers (including me), pronounce trap beginning with [ʧr] (“chrap”). Within that group, some (including me) pronounce the trap part of strap with a [tr], while others pronounce it with [ʧr]. Within that smaller group, some speakers pronounce the /s/ as [s], to produce “s-chrap”, while others assimilate the /s/ to the [ʧ] by making it palatal: “sh-chrap”. I imagined a scenario like this near the end of one of my posts about /t/ affrication. But I can’t really tell if I’ve been hearing, say, “shtreet” or “sh-chreet”. In this paper (note 9), Brian Joseph and Rich Janda profess not to have found any reports of [ʃʧr] in the literature.

The third possibility, and the one Durian favors, is proposed by Joseph and Janda. It so happens that when [ʃtr] occurs in the middle of words, the preceding vowel is almost always a high vowel such as [i], as in restructure. Therefore, it may be a case of the tongue not lowering fast enough after the high vowel, resulting in the [s] turning into [ʃ]. Then, once the [ʃtr] cluster became familiar, speakers started using it at the beginnings of words, too. This would account for why in his data, [ʃtr] occurs more in the middle of words than at the beginning.

Let’s hear from some of the /s/-retractors out there. Do you pronounce str as “shtr” sometimes? All the time? Does it depend on the word? On the social context? Give it to us shtraight.

Posted in Consonants, Variation | 60 Comments »


Posted by Neal on June 2, 2011

In 1988 I saw the movie Mississippi Burning. I stayed for the credits at the end because I wanted to find out the name of the actor who’d played the Ku Klux Klan leader. He’d had an interesting voice and resembled one of my favorite uncles, Uncle Ricky. (Decide for yourself: Uncle Ricky is the one standing in this picture.) Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught the character’s name, so I had to wait until I saw Great Balls of Fire the next year, where I saw him again and this time learned that his name was Stephen Tobolowsky. The guy kept turning up in movies here and there after that, so that when I saw him as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day (1993), I was glad to see his familiar face in a great movie.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that Tobolowsky is an amazing storyteller. I came across his podcast, “The Tobolowsky Files,” immediately recognized the name, and listened to an episode out of curiosity. Since then I’ve been listening to all the back episodes of his “stories of life, love, and the entertainment industry”. I also listen to several other podcasts that feature storytelling: “The Moth,” “NPR’s Story Corps,” “Risk,” “This American Life”. They’re good, but sometimes a story on these podcasts will have me wanting to fast-forward to the next one. Not Tobolowsky’s. Even his dullest stories are interesting. And some of his stories are masterpieces. For out-and-out hilariousness, try “The Dangerous Animals Club” (episode 22). For suspense followed by inspiration and life lessons, listen to “Conference Hour” (episode 13). True, Tobolowsky does have some mildly annoying habits: his tendency to actually say “Pause” when he makes a dramatic pause; his consistent pronunciation of Cerberus as Cerebus when talking about an evil neighbor dog; his distortion of math and science concepts when he turns them into analogies for life. (It’s great that he likes and respects the math and science, but I still gritted my teeth every time he referred to “the x/y axis” in an episode called “The Moment Before Zero”). But overall, I recommend TTF right up there with those other podcasts I mentioned, and certainly above wearisome podcasts like “Tales from the South” and “Second Story”.

All well and good, but what’s the linguistic angle? First, a phonetic one. In listening to Stephen Tobolowsky talk a lot, I’ve realized he pronounces most of his /l/s as a uvular nasal, [N]. It’s easiest to hear when he has an /l/ between vowels, for example, in a lot. In light of this, it’s surprising that I can’t really tell if he’s pronouncing /l/ as [N] when he says his name at the end of the podcast (when he gives his Twitter and Facebook addresses), but I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m hearing during the rest of the show.

Second, Tobolowsky recounts a funny misunderstanding in episode 35, “Playing It As It Lays”:

Whenever I wanted to spend money, Mom and Dad would look at me very disapprovingly and tell me some gem of folk wisdom, like “A fool and his money are soon parted.” I never told Mom, but I never really knew what that meant. I never got the syntax that the money was parted from the fool. I always thought it was like some Quentin Tarantino movie where the fool and the money is chainsawed in two….

Or, I might add, one gruesome scene in The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyway, Tobolowsky talks about the syntax of this proverb, but this ambiguity is actually a matter of semantics, and has gotten a lot of attention from various semanticists. I read about it in Flexibility Principles in Boolean Semantics by Yoad Winter, who cites about half a dozen other linguists on the topic. Here’s the background: Certain verbs require a subject that’s composed of multiple entities; for example, meet. You can’t just say, I have never met, but Stephen and I have never met is OK. The subject doesn’t have to be compound; a singular works if it denotes a group of things. For example: The committee meets the first Monday of every month. However, if you do have a compound subject, the strong tendency is to interpret each of the noun phrases joined by and as one of the participants in the meeting.

Now, what happens if you coordinate two subjects, and each of them denotes a group of things? Something like…

The budget committee and the speakers’ committee meet the first Monday of every month.

If we mean that the budget committee meets with the speakers’ committee, that’s known as the “non-Boolean conjunction” reading. The Boolean conjunction reading would be the one in which the budget committee meets and the speakers’ committee meets, possibly in different locations.

Separate is another verb like meet, with a slight relaxing of the requirements for its subject. Instead of having to be composed of more than one individual, all that’s necessary is that the subject be something that can be split into more than one portion. Thus, in addition to parting fighting siblings, you can part your hair or part the waves. As with meet, though, the elements in a compound subject will tend to be interpreted as the different participants in the separation event. So in A fool and his money are soon parted, the non-Boolean reading in which the money is parted from the fool, is the most natural one.

Not to Stephen Tobolowsky, though. He got the strange Boolean reading, in which the fool is parted and his money is parted. Cool. I wonder if anyone has put up that same misunderstanding on I Used to Believe.

Lastly, a loosely pragmatics-related observation. The podcast was inspired by a 2005 movie called Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, in which Tobolowsky plays himself, telling stories to the camera operator while preparing for his birthday party that night, and during the party itself. I don’t recommend this movie. First of all, many of the stories can also be found in the podcast. Second, it’s one thing to listen to a guy tell lots of his life stories in his own podcast that you choose to listen to. But as I watched him entertain his crowd of guests with story after story in the movie, I kept having trouble suspending my disbelief and imagining that this was a regular party. The only one who did any talking in the crowd scenes was this guy that no one ever interrupted, even with a comment like, “What did you do?”, and who never yielded the floor to anyone else who might be reminded of a story that happened to them. The whole setup results in Tobolowsky coming off as a narcissistic, patronizing conversation hog. Better to stick with the podcast, where the same stories’ entertainment value is undiluted.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Movies, What the L | 3 Comments »

Links for the New Year

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2011

Hey, what’s this post still doing in my drafts folder? I thought I hit Publish on January 17! Well, here it is now…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had any collections of interesting links to offer you, but a new year seems like a good time to start up again. I’ll start off with a couple that I’ve had sitting in an unfinished links post for months, and which still seem worth passing on.

You know that within the Phonetics and Phonology category, the pronunciation of /l/ has come up enough here to have its own tab. I’ve talked about Doug’s [j]/[w] realization of /l/ during his toddler years; the pronunciation of /l/ as a uvular nasal vowel by me as a child (and others); and the pronunciation of /l/ as an interdental sound, with the tongue tip between the top and bottom front teeth, the same position as for the TH sounds [θ] and [ð]). This Language Log post comments on and links to a YouTube video first noticed by Josef Fruehwald, who noticed Britney Spears’ /l/ articulation in both singing and lip-synching. She goes beyond the interdental articulation and into apico-labial territory — that is, the tongue curls up to touch the upper lip to make the /l/. (Apical is more specific term than lingual; it refers to the tip (of the tongue).) Don’t believe it? Watch the videos! They’re montages, with the relevant snippets shown at normal speed, then slowed down and repeated.

Next, here’s a short one from Phonoloblog on a news-limerick fail: The contestant in the current-events-limerick-completion challenge on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! can’t figure out the missing word to put in because it only rhymes in dialects with the low-back merger. If you don’t know what that is, that’s OK; the post makes it clear.

In addition to her Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast, Mignon Fogarty does one called Behind the Grammar, in which she interviews anyone she takes a mind to about some aspect of language or writing. In this August 2010 pisode, she interviews sign interpreter David Peach about sign languages in a number of countries. Take it with a grain of salt when he talks about how it’s more logical to use noun-modifier order than vice versa when praising the logicality of a particular language. Otherwise, it’s an interesting look at how sign languages vary, from language to language and from speaker to speaker of one language.

So much for old business. Now to the newly accumulated items to share. First of all, you may have noticed that I have a link to Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column, and I recommend checking that every week anyway. (Or better, you can follow @OnLanguage on Twitter, and read the columns a few days before they’re published in the New York Times Magazine.) However, I found this week’s especially interesting, because he answered a question that I didn’t even realized I’d had: What exactly does trove, as in treasure trove, mean? I especially liked this column because (1) I realized that I’d never asked myself this question; (2) I totally should have asked myself this question long ago; (3) the answer was a complete surprise to me, involving calques (see the article), Anglicized pronunciations, and morphological reanalysis.

Now for a couple tangentially involving last weekend’s LSA conference. The Saturday plenary lecture, given by Joan Maling, discussed the development of a new passive-voice construction in Icelandic. I missed it, because Pittsburgh linguist Lauren Collister had convinced me and some other linguists on Twitter that we should go out for lunch at a locally famous place that served sandwiches with fries and coleslaw actually in the sandwich! (Actually, the sandwich was pretty good — once I picked out those french fries. Hey, I tried it!) Oh, well, I’ve read the paper on this topic anyway, and the interesting comparison that Maling made with English has been written up by Mark Liberman at Language Log. There was a time when the present progressive passive voice (e.g. is slowly being eaten by army ants) was considered ugly, irrational, needlessly innovative, nonstandard English. Why say is slowly being eaten by army ants when the perfectly sensibe is slowly eating by army ants already does the job? Liberman via GoogleBooks links to the peeve as described in 1869 by Richard Grant White.

Phoneticians classify vowels according to various articulatory and acoustic properties, and end up with natural classes of vowels according to criteria such as “height,” “roundness” and “tongue root advancement”. These classes often seem to have psychological reality, as phonological rules will affect only some natural class or other. However, you have to know about phonetics to classify vowels this way. One linguist wondered what kind of classes of vowels would shake out if people without linguistic training listened to recordings of a lot of vowels and were told to classify them into two, three, or four classes. He presented the poster during the LSA conference, and I’m hoping he’ll make the research available online. I won’t try to summarize it here, but I’ll be interested to see if some of the new natural classes that emerged turn out to be relevant in phonological processes. The main reason I bring it up is that the linguist is Douglas Bigham, whose big project right now is the rollout of Popular Linguistics Online — or at least, it was until he tweeted about it as PLO and learned that there were associations there he probably didn’t want to burden a new publication with. So instead, today marks the public release of Popular Linguistics Magazine. The title says it all, and I hope the magazine succeeds. I also owe PLM a thank-you for 200 of yesterday’s hits. I didn’t see exactly where they were coming from at first, but eventually figured it out: The left sidebar on the main page is a list of several linguistics blogs that changes with every page refresh, and every now and then, Literal-Minded turns up there, with the last two or three posts listed. In this way I also learned of a couple of llinguistics blogs I had been unaware of, so check it out!

BTW, I think for future linkfests, I won’t try for one a month. When I have at least three interesting links that I haven’t already passed on via Twitter, I’ll put them up and start accumulating the next batch.

Posted in Linkfests, LSA, Morphology, Passive voice, Variation, Vowels, What the L | Leave a Comment »

Fossil Phoneme Discovered in Living Language

Posted by Neal on January 14, 2011

If you (a) are not a linguist, and (b) have heard of “click” languages at all, it’s probably been in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. That was certainly my first awareness of this kind of sound. When I heard people in the movie talking, I found it hard to believe that the clicks were actually part of the speech, instead of a sound effect that had been added. A few years later, when I took a phonetics course in college, I was further surprised to learn that there was more than one kind of click; more like four or five actually. One of them, the dental click written as [|] in the IPA, even exists in English, but since we don’t have letters to represent clicks, we write it as “tsk”. (If you actually pronounce tsk, tsk as “tisk, tisk”, well, that’s not a click. You probably also pronounce ahem as “a-hem”, don’t you?)

Amanda Miller

In recent years, though, I’ve gone beyond surprised and into overwhelmed when I learned that five clicks is just scratching the surface. Thanks to the field research of Amanda Miller, one of my former fellow grad students, I’ve learned that there are on the order of 40 or 50 click consonants. It’s fascinating research, and she does it with technology that just didn’t exist a few years ago (because it was Amanda who developed it). This slideshow presents it well.

Cool though that all is, there’s more. I attended Amanda’s talk at the Linguistic Society of America conference last week, and as I listened to her, I was reminded of a famous story in the history of linguistics. In 1879, Ferdinand de Saussure published a paper about Proto-Indo-European, and hypothesized that it had had three sounds in its phonetic inventory that had morphed into other sounds in every known daughter language. Sally Thomason retells the story in this 2007 post on Language Log, and writes, “the idea of reconstructing unknown, unattested consonants did not appeal to traditionalists.” But several decades later, Saussure was vindicated with the decipherment of Hittite in the early 20th century, when two out of those three consonants were discovered in the Hittite texts. (That is, some words for which Saussure had proposed these sounds in PIE showed up in Hittite writing, with a mysterious character appearing where these consonants would have been.)

In her talk, Amanda talked about the African languages !Xung and Ju|’hoansi. In Ju|’hoansi, there is a pair of homophones, pronounced [gǃűű], which mean “water” and “belly”. ([!] is an alveolar click, a bit like [|], but sharper and louder.) Meanwhile, in the closely related !Xung, specifically the dialect spoken in an area known as the Mangetti Dune, the words aren’t homophones. “Belly” is still pronounced [gǃűű], but “water” is [gǁűű]. ([ǁ] is a lateral click, in which the tongue tip stays in contact with the alveolar ridge behind the upper front teeth, while the sides of the tongue move downward. According to the Wikipedia article, this sound is used by English speakers to call horses.)

The conclusion, then, is that in Proto-Ju, the ancestor language to M.D. !Xung and Jo|’hoansi, these words weren’t homophones. Suppose they had been. If the Proto-Ju word had been *[gǃűű], then we’d expect both “water” and “belly” to still be homophones in M.D. !Xung, pronounced as [gǃűű]. Likewise, if the Proto-Ju word had been *[gǁűű], then we’d expect both “water” and “belly” to still be pronounced as [gǁűű]. It would be highly irregular for the same sound in the similar phonetic environment (you can’t get environments more similar than in a pair of homophones!) to undergo a sound change for one word and not another.

So if “belly” and “water” in Proto-Ju weren’t homophones, how were they pronounced? “Belly” is easy: Since it appears as [g!űű] in both M.D. !Xung and in Ju|’hoansi, the most reasonable guess is that’s how it was in Proto-Ju, too. But what about “water”? We’ve already established that it most likely was not [g!űű] in Proto-Ju, since that would have made it a homophone with “belly”. So maybe it was *[gǁűű]. That’s where we’ll leave it for now.

Meanwhile, in 2003, Bonny Sands published a paper arguing that in Proto-Ju, there had been yet another click consonant, a retroflex click (in which the tongue tip curls backwards), which she wrote as [!!], which disappeared, gradually coming to be pronounced as [!] in Ju|’hoansi, and as [ǁ] in M.D. !Xung. Like Saussure’s reconstructed sounds for Proto-Indo-European, the sound [!!] was unattested in any known language.

However, Amanda has now found this sound, like a Coelacanth in the Indian Ocean, still present in a living (albeit endangered) language! With high-speed ultrasound technology, she has recorded this sound in the speech of a different variety of !Xung, spoken in the area known as Grootfontein. As in M.D. !Xung, “water” and “belly” are not homophones in this language. As we would expect, “belly” is once again pronounced [g!űű], but the word for “water” is [g!!űű], containing the heretofore unattested retroflex click! [UPDATE, Jan. 14, 2010: I should add that this kind of “minimal pair” data, in which a single difference in sound is all it takes to convey a different meaning, is the gold standard of evidence that two sounds are separate phonemes in a given language.]

So to sum up the parallel developments of the words for “belly” from Proto-Ju to Ju|’hoansi, M.D. !Xung, and Gfn !Xung:

  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] develops into Ju|’hoansi [g!űű], where the merger of [!!] and [!] creates the homophones for “water” and “belly” that exist today.
  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] develops into [gǁűű] in M.D. !Xung. It doesn’t create any homophones there.
  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] remains [g!!űű] in Gfn. !Xung.

To support this clasim, Amanda presented both acoustic evidence (waveforms, etc.) and articulatory evidence (the ultrasound data, plus palatograms and linguograms — results of a test involving painting the tongue or palate with a mixture of olive oil and charcoal dust, having the speaker make the sound, and then seeing where the oil/charcoal mixture has been rubbed off). Her diagnosis is that the merger of *[!!] and [ǁ] along the way to M.D. !Xung was motivated acoustically (i.e., the two sounded alike), while the merger of *[!!] and [!] along the way to Ju|’hoansi was motivated articulatorily (i.e., the two sounds are made in much the same way).

What I’ve summed up in this one post covers an incredible amount of travel, technical development, fieldwork, and lab analysis. An amazing piece of work!

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, LSA | 8 Comments »