Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2014

The wife has spent numerous hours planning the itinerary for a trip we’re going to take out west later this summer. She has tricks up her sleeve that I never would have thought of for finding the best prices for airfare, car rentals, and hotels, so I bow to her travel-savvy. But all our discussions about the American West did get me to do some intense thinking of my own.

So you know the song “Home on the Range”? When I first heard it sung, on Captain Kangaroo when I was probably four or five years old, there were two lines in it that nagged at me. One was Where the skies are not cloudy all day, with its strange scope interaction between the negation of not and the universal of all. (Only cloudy some of the day? Uncloudy all day?) The other was the line that came right before it:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

Seldom was not in my vocabulary yet, but whatever it meant, it apparently must be a real bummer of a word to hear. Why might that be? And why would you be so likely to hear it? Were people out west in the habit of just walking up to one another and saying this particular discouraging word? “Hey, guess what!” “What?” “Seldom! Ahahaha!”

Some years later I learned what seldom meant, and eventually plugged the meaning into the “Home on the Range” lyrics. Then I was able to parse the line as a kind of negation inversion along the lines of Never have I ever…, Only rarely is he in his office, or Not a word did she speak. Mystery solved!

Or was it?

Let’s start off by taking out the seldom, an dputting this line into non-inverted, ordinary English word order of subject verb complement:

(no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.

If the line in the song were the same kind of negation inversion as in my examples, I’d expect the negative-like word first, then the auxiliary verb (which in this case is also the main verb, is), and then the subject and any complements, like this:

(Negative inversion) Seldom is a discouraging word heard.

…instead of what we actually have:

Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Compared to the typical negative inversion, the subject and the complement have swapped places. This seems more like copular inversion, where a subject and a complement connected by a finite form of be switch places. This is the kind of inversion we get in utterances like Of greater concern is the fact that you lied, or Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. But this doesn’t get us our desired output, either. If we take a discouraging word as the subject (as we’ve been doing), and take the phrase seldom heard to be the complement (instead of just heard, as we’ve been doing), we get this:

(Copular inversion) Seldom heard is a discouraging word.

To sum up: two kinds of inversion, and neither of them produces the relevant line in our classic American folk song. At least, not individually…

Together, copular inversion and negative inversion can get us what we want, if we just assume that seldom doesn’t get into the picture until step 3:

  1. (no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.
  2. (copular inversion) Heard is a discouraging word.
  3. (negative inversion) Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I find it interesting that this negative inversion can do its work on whatever appears in the typical subject position, whether or not it’s a subject. Does this really happen in other examples? Let’s try another one:

  1. (no inversion) The man who finds wisdom is happy.
  2. (copular inversion) Happy is the man who finds wisdom.
  3. (negative inversion) ??Seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom.

That one doesn’t work so well, so now I’m not sure I’ve identified what’s going on in “Home on the Range.” Maybe there’s some locative inversion with the where going on as well, like what Robert Burns has in his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The poem is about how this guy and his friends like to have fun drinking together, and don’t worry about how late they’re going to arrive home,

Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

I’ve tried locative inversion, though, and haven’t found a satisfactory combination of moves to get the desired output yet. Now isn’t that a discouraging word?

Posted in Inversion, Music | 8 Comments »

Open Conditionals with the Past Perfect

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2014

Flashman and the Redskins

When Glen and I were kids, for a couple of years our family would read aloud from novels after supper. I remember we did a few that you’ve probably never heard of, plus a Hardy Boys mystery and Johnny Tremain. But by the time we hit junior high school, the habit had kind of fizzled out, which was too bad. As regular readers know, we do a lot of reading aloud here, from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say that I’ve maintained the tradition for longer than it lasted from my childhood. And now I can read them R-rated stuff that I could never have read them a few years ago–for example, our current selection: Flashman and the Redskins.

This is one of my favorites in the Flashman series, so I’m having fun re-reading it now, complete with a British accent that I wouldn’t dare do within earshot of any actual British people. As I was reading from it a few days ago, my eye was caught by this sentence, which had seemed unremarkable in 1993, when I first read the book:

If the Apaches had posted sentries, I suppose they had been dealt with. . . .

What was the big deal? Well, a few years ago I wrote this post about conditional sentences. Following the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I divided them into open conditionals (describing situations that might actually happen in the future, or may have happened in the past), and remote conditionals (describing situations that are unlikely to happen, or probably did not happen). Also following CGEL, the past tense can show actual past time (see the bottom left corner), or remoteness in the present or future time (see the top right corner). What it can’t do (at least in Standard English) is show both past time and remoteness simultaneously. For that, you need the past perfect tense. This is what you get in the dark green, bottom left corner: If he had been sorry, he would have apologized. In my diagram, that’s the only place the past perfect tense appears.

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But I got to thinking later on… You could have open conditionals where both sentences were in the present tense, like If he’s sorry, why isn’t he apologizing? You could have open conditionals in the past tense, as in If he was sorry, he never apologized. And there were even possibilities that I hadn’t put on the diagram; for example, why couldn’t I have an open conditional with present perfect tense? Something like … If Doug has finished his homework, then he has definitely left the house by now. If I could do an open conditional with the present perfect, why couldn’t I do one with the past perfect? Why couldn’t I have an ordinary, open conditional, in which the past perfect wasn’t showing a combination of past time and remoteness, but was just performing its usual function of showing a past time prior to another past time? I imagined sentences and contexts like these:

Back in those days, Doug liked to go out and ride his bike at every opportunity. I was coming home from work and wondered if he would be home. I knew that if he had finished his homework, then he had certainly already left the house.

Back in those days, when we went to Adam’s weekly violin lesson, I could always tell if Adam had practiced earlier in the week. If he had practiced, then he wasn’t nervous. [Actually, this one is a mixed past-time/even-further-past-time conditional.]

So now you can see why the Flashman example caught my eye. It was a real example of an open conditional with past perfect tenses. In fact, it isn’t the only one I’ve found. I’ve collected a couple of others, but this most recent example gave me three, which made enough to post about. One was from an article in New Scientist entitled “How did we lose a 1400-tonne ocean liner?” They wrote about a plane searching locations where radar had registered an object:

But the plane dispatched to the position of another smaller blip found nothing. If there had been a lifeboat, it had sunk.

The other one came from a book Glen gave me a few years ago, The Experts’ Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, edited by Samantha Ettus. One of the essays is “Make Conversation,” by Morris L. Reid. One of his rules was to keep up with current events in order to be able to have topics of conversation. He gave this analogy:

What happened in school if you hadn’t read the previous night’s assignment? You most likely had nothing to say.

And now to finish with a more typical conditional with a past perfect tense: If I hadn’t been thinking about open conditionals, I wouldn’t have noticed anything interesting about these three examples!

Posted in Books, Conditionals | 8 Comments »

How to Create a Metaphor with Like

Posted by Neal on June 2, 2014

Doug and Adam are happy to be out of school for the summer, but one of the last things Doug did during the school year was to miss the morning bus one day, and I had to drive him in. As he settled into the passenger seat, I noticed that he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt for the relaxed dress code of the final week, but was also carrying a jacket on his lap.

“Why the jacket?”

“Because even though it’s a warm day, my homeroom is like the Antarctic,” Doug said.

Or did he? Maybe he really said, “Because even though it’s a warm day, my homeroom is, like, the Antarctic.”

“Hey, whoa up there, Doug,” I said. “Did you just use a simile on me, saying that your homeroom is like the Antarctic, or did you bust out a metaphor, saying that your homeroom is the Antarctic, and using a conversation-filler like?”

“Ah, I see what you did there,” Doug informed me.

“From simile to metaphor via punctuation,” I said. Between you and me, I think it’s a metaphor. I heard just enough of a pause before and after the like to make the call.

“Anyway, the math room and the Spanish room are usually OK,” Doug went on, “but then I get to band and it’s, like, a furnace.”

There he goes again!

By the way, if the simple presence or absence of like strikes you, as it did me in elementary school, as a preposterously thin difference to hang a whole conceptual distinction on, read or listen to this guest episode I did for Grammar Girl, which goes into how metaphors are so much more than similes without a like or as.

Posted in Doug, Semantics | Leave a Comment »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

Chemicals, Castro, and Last Year’s Jeans

Posted by Neal on May 8, 2014

Here are a few items I recorded some time ago, and just found lying in my stash of draft posts.

Doug and Adam each spontaneously uttered a double passive within a day or two of each other sometime in the past year. Here’s Doug’s:

… standing in front of a chemical plant that‘s threatened to be bombed.

I don’t even remember what the context was for that. It’s a good thing I wrote this down, or it’d be a memory lost forever, like all that thing he did that one time that I didn’t bother putting in his baby book, or that other thing he did that other time that I never put in a diary or anything. Anyway, if the clause about the chemical plant were in the active voice, it would be something like “a chemical plant that someone threatens to bomb.” But if you don’t know who made the threat, how do you say this? You do like Doug did, and use the passive voice. The trouble is, you have two verbs to deal with: threatened, and bomb. Which one do you make passive? Option 1 below

just doesn’t make any sense. Option 2 is grammatical, but it removes the human agency from threaten. It sounds like conditions are such that the chemical plant is likely to be bombed, in the same way that It’s threatening to rain means, “Conditions are such that it’s likely to rain.” So he went with option 3, making both verbs passive.

  1. *a chemical plant that is threatened to bomb
  2. a chemical plant that threatens to be bombed
  3. a chemical plant that is threatened to be bombed

Now, on to Adam’s double passive:

Fidel Castro has been attempted to be assassinated over 600 times.

I think he got this off a history website or something, like maybe this Mental Floss article.

Robin Dodsworth sent me the weirdest case of possible right-node wrapping that I’ve seen. I’ve come to believe that nonparallel coordinate structures such as

wash and put the dishes away

are actually part of many people’s English grammar. Usually they consist of an ordinary transitive verb (e.g. wash) and a phrasal transitive verb (put away) taking a single direct object, with the preposition from the phrasal verb coming after the direct object. Phrased as a parallel coordinate structure, this would be “Wash the dishes and put them away.” Robin’s example, though, is different. An old high school friend wrote on Facebook:

Scariest moment of the year — the first cool day of Fall when you have to put on (and find out) if last year’s jeans still fit.

Put into a parallel structure, this would be “Put on last year’s jeans and find out if they still fit.” So instead of being a direct object with respect to the parts I’ve colored red and green in the quotation, it’s a direct object for put on, and an embedded subject in find out if ___ still fit. This is so unlike other RNW examples that I suspect it was just a mistake, but I don’t know. Does it sound comparable to wash and put the dishes away to you?

Posted in Adam, Double passives, Doug, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 6 Comments »

Ceramic Tins

Posted by Neal on April 20, 2014

Two ramekins

A couple of years ago, we would sometimes order take-out pizza from Boston’s in the Columbus Arena District. It was very good, but even so, since learning last year that the best pizza in Columbus is Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza, and we haven’t been back to Boston’s since. But we still have a few reminders of when Boston’s was our main source for take-out pizza. They would always send along a little container of red pepper flakes with our order, one of those little plastic cups with a snap-on lid, the kind that’s also used for salad dressing or Parmesan cheese. I didn’t really have a good name for this kind of cup until a server at a restaurant referred to one of them as a ramekin. It was slightly bigger, and made of ceramic, but it seemed like the same basic idea. Anyway, I’d keep these ramekins of red pepper flakes. We used them in a few recipes, so it didn’t make sense to throw them away. Now we’re finally on the last one, and then we can go back to using the pepper flakes in the bottle that came from the grocery store.

It was Doug’s turn to make supper one day last week, and he was looking for the ingredients for the dish he’d selected.

“Where are the red pepper flakes?” he asked. “Oh, wait. Here?” he held up the bottle of pepper flakes.

“I usually use the flakes in that plastic ramekin there,” I said.

Doug looked where I was pointing. “Oh, I use the flakes in that ceramic tin for ramen noodles,” Doug said, and continued looking for the remaining ingredients.

An eggcorn, born!

The word ramekin was as unfamiliar to Doug as it had been to me when I first heard it. But whereas I had just accepted it, Doug tried to make sense of it. Hearing [ræməkɪn], he perceived it as /səræmɪk tɪn/. The funny thing about eggcorns and folk etymologies (i.e., eggcorns that become widespread and part of the language) is that they still might not make much sense. They only have to make more sense than no sense. Ramekin is just a string of syllables until you attach them to a referent, but ceramic tin is two common English nouns. Never mind that ceramic tin is a contradiction in terms, and is even sillier when you consider that I was talking about a “plastic ceramic tin.”

Wait a minute … maybe there is such a thing as a ceramic tin, after all…

Posted in Doug, Folk etymology, Food-related, Ohioana | Leave a Comment »

U-Nine-Ed States

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2014


Photo by Alan Light

Photo by Alan Light

Glen emailed me a week or so ago:

Do you sometimes feel like people pronounce “united” to sound like “unined”? (Three syllables, but replacing the t sound with an n sound.) If so, is there some principle that would explain it?

In fact, I have heard this. It’s particularly noticeable in the Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know podcast. However, instead of [n], Glen may have been hearing the nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ̃]. (I have enlarged the font to make the diacritic visible.) The non-nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ] is the voiced, /d/-like sound that you hear in American English in words like atom and writer. As for the nasalized version, just as [p] and [b] have a nasal counterpart [m]; and [t] and [d] have a nasal counterpart [n]; and [k] and [g] have a nasal counterpart [ŋ]; the alveolar tap [ɾ] has a nasal counterpart. But there isn’t a special IPA character for it; instead, we just make do by putting a nasalization tilde above the tap symbol: [ ɾ̃].

You may notice that there’s something missing from this picture. [m] corresponds to two both a voiceless and a voiced non-nasal consonant, [p] and [b]; [n] to [t] and [d]; and [ŋ] to [k] and [g]; but [ɾ̃] corresponds only to the voiced [ɾ].

Or does it? It turns out that a voiceless alveolar tap is possible, as I learned on John Wells’ Phonetics Blog. You devoice it the same as you devoice any other consonant: by not letting your vocal folds vibrate while you say it. It’s just that taps happen so much faster than other consonants that it never occurred to me that this was possible. Again, there’s no special IPA symbol for it; instead, we write it by putting a “voiceless” diacritic under the tap symbol: [ɾ̥].

Moving to the second part of Glen’s question, I would call the [jũnɑɪ̃ɾ̃̃əd] pronunciation of united a progressive assimilation, because the nasal quality of the first /n/ persists, turning the subsequent alveolar tap into [ɾ̃]. As for why it persists, I guess it does because it can. We don’t distinguish between ordinary and nasalized alveolar taps, nor between nasalized alveolar taps and /n/. Furthermore, there’s little danger of a speaker hearing it as /n/, because if it were actually an /n/ before the suffix -ed, we’d only have two syllables: [jũnɑɪ̃nd].

If it’s just the nasality of the /n/ that’s causing the assimilation of the tap, we should expect it to happen with other nasal consonants, too. For example, you would expect that people might also realize the /t/ or /d/ as [ɾ̃] in words or phrases like mated or outmoded, hang it up or ring it up. Maybe I have, but if so, I’ve never noticed it the way I’ve been noticing “you-nine-ed.” Have you?

Posted in Consonants | 1 Comment »

Thoughts on Just Because X Doesn’t Mean Y

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2014

On her Grammar Girl podcast this week, Mignon Fogarty is running a guest script that I wrote on the just because X doesn’t mean Y construction, a thriving piece of English syntax that has come into its own in the last 50 years or so. My favorite example of JBX-DMY is

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

In this post, I go into some of the details that didn’t make it into the script. First off, quite a bit has been written about this construction; the sources I read while writing the Grammar Girl script are:

Weird syntax
JBX-DMY is so common that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t follow the regular syntactic or semantic rules. On the syntactic side, what’s the subject of doesn’t mean? Is it the just because clause? Or is it an understood subject that sometimes gets pronounced, as in Just because it’s easier to raise VC money, that doesn’t mean you should, or Just because it’s wrong, it doesn’t mean it’s not funny?

Weird semanticsFor comparison, let’s look at more regular sentences that contain just because. For example, think about the scope of the “cause” meaning and the negation meaning in Bill isn’t speaking to me, just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke. Depending on the intonation, we can get two readings. I’ll illustrate them by using the notation CAUSE(A)(B) to mean that A caused B. With the intonation suggested by the comma I put in the sentence, we get this reading, with CAUSE taking scope over the negation:

CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(NOT(speaking to me))
(i.e. my serving Bill the CFS caused him to not speak to me)

Without a pause before the just because, and with a a rise-fall intonation at the end of the sentence, we get a reading with a wide-scoping negation:

NOT(CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(speaking to me))
(i.e. Bill is speaking to me, but for reasons other than my serving him a CFS)

However, when we put the just because clause in front, as in Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me, the only reading we get is the wide-scoping CAUSE.

Now consider just because X doesn’t mean Y. In passing, let’s note that just because is now not talking strictly about cause and effect, but about inference. This is not unusual in and of itself, because “inferential because” is a well-known phenomenon. For example, you can say, “Classes just let out, because the hallways are full of students,” but not mean that the crowded hallways caused classes to let out. What you really mean is that the fact that the hallways are full of students allows you to infer that classes have just let out. But what’s interesting about just because X doesn’t mean Y requires that NEG scope wider than (inferential) CAUSE, just the opposite of our cat-food sandwich example:


Variations on the just because and the doesn’t mean
Another point made in several of the articles is that JBS-DMY requires neither just because nor doesn’t mean to work. You can do it with simply because, or in the right context, plain old because. And instead of doesn’t mean, you’ll also hear other negations, such as is no reason to, or doesn’t make, or even rhetorical questions that imply a negative answer.

Just because with of complements, and “because X”
By analogy with ordinary because and because of, Kanetani observes, the just because construction now has a variant with just because of, as in

Just because of his dominance doesn’t mean they’re going to win games of footy or win or the clearances. (link)

The much-talked-about because X construction (in which X is something other than a full clause, such as a noun phrase, an adjective, a participle, or an interjection) has also now been folded into the analogy. Taking the top result from Tyler Schnoebelen’s listing of the most common words to appear in tweets after because, I did a search for “just because YOLO doesn’t mean” and found numerous examples like Just because YOLO doesn’t mean you can act like a moron.

Hilpert believes that the origin of the unusual semantics of JBX-DMY followed a sequence like this:

  1. Unremarkable sentences beginning with just because were already in the grammar, and some of them happened to have negated main clauses; for example, Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me.
  2. Such constructions eventually came to be used with the inferential CAUSE meaning rather than a pure causation meaning.
  3. Finally, the inference-denying meaning of today’s JBX-DMY.

There’s a problem, though. In step 1, the semantics has CAUSEcausation>NOT, as discussed earlier. In step 3, the semantics has NOT>CAUSEinference. So there are two changes that have to happen in between: the scope change, and the change from causal to inferential just because. Whichever of those changes happens first, we end up with something that doesn’t seem to have the appropriate meaning, as illustrated below:

Just because he’s my nephew I didn’t hire him!
(Desired meaning impossible: that I hired my nephew for non-nepotistic reasons.)
Just because the streets are wet, it didn’t rain.
(Desired meaning impossible: that the sole fact of wet streets allows us to infer that it rained.)

I think a more likely progression is suggested by Bender and Kathol’s paper. Noting that there is flexibility over how the DMY part gets negated, imagine a sentence like this, in which the speaker seems to question the validity of an inference:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he seems to think he is allowed to use it any time he wants to.

The semantics here is the straightforward one you’d expect: For the sole reason that I let him borrow my computer once, he thinks he can use it whenever he wants. The negation, which is unspoken, permeates the whole utterance: This guy is wrong to think he can borrow my computer any old time now. From here, it’s a short step to turn that implied negative he seems to think into an actual one:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he shouldn’t think it’s his to borrow whenever.

Now we have NOT>CAUSEcausation, which we couldn’t get in our nepotism example. From here to that doesn’t mean doesn’t seem quite such a jump now. Subsequent elimination of the overt subject that or it, Hilpert argues, was due to the mostly empty meaning of the pronouns, plus the phonetic similarity of their final /t/ and the beginning /d/ of doesn’t. This part of his argument I’m inclined to believe.

Update, April 14, 2015: Doug was re-watching Iron Man this afternoon, and I heard this line of dialogue, uttered by bad guy Obadiah Stane to Tony Stark:

Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?

Without the framing rhetorical question of Do you really think…?, this is a straightforward instance of causal just because: if you have an idea, that makes it yours. But inside the rhetorical question, the clear meaning is that simply having an idea doesn’t make it yours. It’s an example, in the wild, of the type I was describing in the original post.

Posted in Scope ambiguity, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Unexpected Glottal Stops

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2014

It began a couple of months ago, as I would listen to the morning news on the radio. Whenever this one guy from the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau signs off, he says, “Andy Chow, Statehouse News Bureau,” but he pronounces Statehouse as [steɪʔhɑus], realizing the /t/ as a glottal stop, instead of turning it into a tap, like I do: [steɪɾhɑus]. I thought it was just a one-time pronunciation glitch the first time I heard it, but the next day, he did it again. I started to listen for more of Andy Chow’s unexpected glottal stops, and they were there: whenever a word ended with a stressed syllable followed by /t/, and the following word also began with a stressed syllable, possibly with an /h/ at the front.

This is not where I expect glottal stops in American English. In a post on his now-discontinued but still great Phonetiblog, John Wells quotes himself from his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary on glottal stops in American English:

ʔ is found as an allophone of t only
• at the end of a syllable, and
• if the preceding sound is a vowel or sonorant

Provided these conditions are satisfied, it is widely used in both BrE and AmE where the following sound is an obstruent

football ˈfʊt bɔːl → ˈfʊʔ bɔːl
outside ˌaʊt ˈsaɪd → ˌaʊʔ ˈsaɪd
that faint buzz ˌðæt ˌfeɪnt ˈbʌz → ˌðæʔ ˌfeɪnʔ ˈbʌz

or a nasal

atmospheric ˌæt məs ˈfer ɪk → ˌæʔ məs ˈfer ɪk
button ˈbʌt ən → ˈbʌʔ n
that name ˌðæt ˈneɪm → ˌðæʔ ˈneɪm

or a semivowel or non-syllabic l

Gatwick ˈɡæt wɪk → ˈɡæʔ wɪk
quite well ˌkwaɪt ˈwel → ˌkwaɪʔ ˈwel
brightly ˈbraɪt li → ˈbraɪʔ li

This has been my understanding of American English glottal stops up until now. I take it to be an indication of the novelty of this pronunciation that even John Wells, who has made a career out of knowing this stuff, doesn’t mention it at all.

The next phase began when I heard Doug refer to that classic 1990s comedy cartoon duo, Beavis and Butthead. He pronounced Butthead as [bʌʔhɛd] instead of [bʌɾhɛd]. Once I heard him say that, I started listening more closely, and now know that he regularly produces a glottal stop in such words as butthole and pothole as well. Just a couple of days ago, he was making spaghetti sauce, and said,

I [heɪʔ] how the brown sugar gets so hard.

(Yes, we put 2 tablespoons of brown sugar in our spaghetti sauce. So what?)

Finally, I drove from Ohio to Northern Virginia a few weekends ago for the funeral of the wife of oldest friend. On the way back, I listened to this episode of This American Life, which was devoted to a single story reported by Susan Zalkind. As I drove, I realized that Zalkind had this pronunciation, too. Every few minutes, she’d do it again, in a string like met Eric or shot Ibragim. But having an entire episode to listen to, I decided to listen closer, to hear if there were places where she had the opportunity to make one of these glottal stops, but realized her /t/ as a tap. It turned out there were, and that they had just been slipping by, undetected because they sounded so normal.

When I got back home, I re-listened to the podcast, and wrote down every example of /t/ that occurred at the end of a word before a word that began with a vowel or /h/ plus a vowel. I kept a list of /t/ realized as [ʔ] and /t/ realized as [ɾ], put them in a table, and was surprised to find that the two columns were just about equal. The glottal stop hadn’t completely taken over this phonetic environment after all.

So then the question was whether Zalkind (and others with this pronunciation) used it randomly, or there was some rule that could predict when she would use it. It didn’t seem to matter whether the following word began with a stressed syllable (e.g. at all) or unstressed (e.g. about it), or what vowel the second word began with. But I was able to make one generalization: When the second word began with /h/–in other words, the very environment that I’d noticed with Andy Chow’s Statehouse and Doug’s butthead–the /t/ was almost certain to be realized as a glottal stop. Out of 17 examples of /t/ at the end of a word before a word beginning with /h/, 15 of them realized /t/ as [ʔ]. Furthermore, if that second word began with a stressed vowel, chances of a glottal stop were 100%. (The /h/ examples appear at the bottoms of their respective columns.) In other words, a phrase like beat him up was likely to contain a glottal stop, and a phrase like got home was certain to.

In thinking about this pronunciation, I’ve begun to wonder why I should consider it such a natural environment for speakers like me to have a tap. The canonical location for [ɾ] is between a stressed and an unstressed vowel. This isn’t the case in a word like statehouse, where the vowels on both sides of /t/ are stressed, and we have an intervening consonant, /h/. In fact, having a glottal stop before /h/ would allow Wells’s rules to be stated more concisely. Instead of referring to “obstruent, nasals, semi-vowels, and syllabic /l/,” it could refer to “all consonants”. Well, make that, “all consonants except /r/”. Even so, this pronunciation that sounds so strange to me can be seen as just a step in the direct of regularity.

If you have encountered this pronunciation or use it yourself, leave a comment! (And not just any comment; a comment on the pronunciation. But of course, you knew that from the Maxim of Relevance.)

Posted in Consonants, Ohioana | 9 Comments »

Nae Nae, Nini, No-No, Noo-Noo

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2014

Soon after Mercer College’s amazing upset of Duke University in the NCAA March Madness tournament, both Slate and the New York Times published articles about a dance that the Bears’ team member Kevin Canevari was doing on live national TV while his teammates cheered. The dance, Slate explained, was

the Nae Nae, a dance created by Atlanta fivesome We Are Toonz. As Billboard pointed out a couple of months ago, it’s loosely inspired by the character Sheneneh, played in drag by Martin Lawrence on his popular eponymous sitcom from the ’90s.

When I read that, my first reaction was, “Aha! Another entry!”

A few weeks ago, Mignon Fogarty ran a guest script that I wrote for her Grammar Girl podcast, on the history of “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. That was an excerpt from my book-in-progress, whose working title is The Babbler’s Lexicon, a phonetically organized book of word histories, with words having one thing in common: That they consist of a reduplicated consonant-vowel (CV) syllable. I got the idea when I heard Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett discussing the word juju on an episode of A Way with Words, and got to wondering how many words in English consisted of a single reduplicated syllable.

I decided to narrow the search to reduplicated CV syllables containing any of the vowels /a, e, i, o, u/, the vowels in bot, bait, beat, boat, and boot. The crossproduct of English consonants that can begin a syllable and {a,e,i,o,u} gave me 115 possible words, which I’ve listed at the bottom of the post.

In researching these possible words, I’ve learned that almost any of them can be used as a nickname, especially those that sound like the names of letters, because they can be people’s initials: J.J., C.C., DeeDee, etc. Also, a surprising number of them have also been used as euphemisms for sexual anatomy. (Given the way I organized my list phonetically, I considered calling the book From Papa to Hoo Hoo, but realized that just wouldn’t do.) Anyway, the /n/ series consists of /nana, nene, nini, nono, nunu/. Here are the entries I have at present:

/nana/: Nothing. I’m not including single words, such as nah, that are said twice for emphasis.

nene /ˈneˌne/, n: The endangered goose Branta sandvicensis that is the state bird of Hawaii. The name was borrowed from Hawaiian in the early 20th century.

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Nae Nae /ˈneˌne/, n: See above.

nini /ˈniˌni/, Spanish slang, n: A young person who just wants to party and have a good time. According to an entry on Urban Dictionary, this comes from the Spanish ni estudia ni trabaja (“neither studies nor works”). This definition is backed up by the existence of “The Nini Anthem”:

no-no /ˈnoˌno/, n, adj: Something forbidden. The OED has this from 1942, and gives an interesting usage note: It’s usually with the indefinite article. That is, you can say something is a no-no, but even after that, you won’t refer to it as this no-no or the no-no. And I mean it!

Noo-noo /ˈnuˌnu/, n, adj: The animate vacuum-cleaner creature on the late 1990s BBC children’s TV show Teletubbies. Clever Noo-noo!

If you have other N words that belong in this set, leave a comment. I have just learned, for example, that there is a hair-removal device called the No-No, and that in South African English, nunu refers to a big, creepy insect. Other words that belong in The Babbler’s Lexicon at large are welcome, too.


/p/ /f/ /t/ /z/ /ʒ/ /k/
/b/ /v/ /d/ /ɹ/ /ʧ/ /g/
/m/ /θ/ /n/ /l/ /ʤ/ /h/
/w/ /ð/ /s/ /ʃ/ /j/

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology, Pop culture, Sports | 6 Comments »


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