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Archive for the 'Phonology: Linguistic Sounds' Category

Forvo

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Forvo is a website which encourages its visitors to pronounce words. It has pronunciations of words in a large number of languages.

Intonation

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

A former student of mine now living in and working in Russia, Troy McGrath, recently wrote to me and passed on this anecdote:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day and said, “In English, a double negative forms a positive. But in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However,” he pointed out, “in no language in the world can a double positive form a negative.” But then a voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

I responded that intonation was a crucial factor in his example and gave him a second example I actually heard.

Another linguistics professor, the late Kenneth Pike, once proved the importance of intonation in speech by demonstrating that intonation may contradict the content of a sentence.

If we simply say, “I love you”, the sentence has a positive meaning. But if we add question intonation, “I? Love you?”, the meaning of the sentence is exactly the opposite of the content of the sentence.

The Easiest Dental Sounds [th] > [t]

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Rudy Marinacci recently wrote:

“I enjoyed your ‘How is a Hippo like a Feather‘ article and chart very much. Could you tell me why my mother and her brother, both from Southern Italy (Reggio Calabria) could not pronounce ‘th’ and said tin iunstead of thin and tick, not thick?”

Sure can. It is because [th] is more difficult to pronounce than other English linguistic sounds. It is an “interdental” sound, which means the tongue goes between the teeth to pronounce it. It is relatively more difficult to get your tongue in between your teeth and out again before the following vowel.

The pronunciation of [t] is not that far away. It is a dental, which means the tongue goes to just behind the upper teeth to pronounce it. Much easier. The tongue remains where it is in pronouncing all other linguistic sounds (phonemes): behind the teeth. This is why people from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Deep South make the same sound change.

There is another problem your mother faces: she gets no help from Italian. This is because there simply is no [th] in Italian. In fact, this sound does not appear in any Romance languages. (Diego is right about the difference between English [th] and the Spanish dental fricative.)

Don’t worry about your mother’s pronunciation. As I said above, people from Brooklyn, Queens, and throughout the rural regions of the South (where I come from) face the same problem. She is in the company of native speakers of English around the world.

T Between Vowels

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share the discussions I have been enjoying with Good Word readers who write in questions and comments.

Not long ago Jane Quein wrote, “Another often misspelled word or mispronounced word is congratulations. Many people spell is congradulations. I’ve seen it spelled this way on many outdoor signs. Misspelled words drive me crazy!”

Me, too, though I am encouraged by the growing interest in spelling that I mentioned in my first blog, Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee (2006). The misspelling, of course, is wrong. Since we congratulate graduates when they graduate, it is easy to confuse the spelling of the two.

However, T is pronounced like a D in a wide range of English words, like writer (= rider), plotting (= plodding), and metal (= medal or meddle). These two consonants are identical except for the fact when we pronounce D, we vibrate our vocal cords but not when we pronounce T. (Actually, we also toss out a puff of air with the T but that is a moot issue here.)

Now, all vowels in English are voiced. You cannot pronounce a vowel without vibrating your vocal cords. This means that when a voiceless T occurs between vowels, we have to rev up our vocal cords, quickly shut them down for the split second it takes to pronounce T, then rev them up for the next vowel. That is a lot of double-clutching in the throat. Most English speakers do not bother, which means the vowels and the T are all voiced but voicing the T makes it a D.

That brings us to congrATUlate. It is one of those words with T between two vowels. So it is perfectly normal to pronounce this word with a D sound replacing the T. This same phenomenon is audible in the words mentioned above, words like writer and rider, plotting and plodding, metal and medal. Say “She is a plodding writer” to someone then ask them what “she” does—write or ride? How does “she” do it—straightforwardly or plottingly?

Palatalization

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

JR recently sent a comment on my claim that the word perdure is pronounced almost the same as perjure. Here is what he said:

“I have difficulty understanding the correct way to pronounce some words, e.g. that your word perdure is pronounced with a [j] sound in it. At other websites the pronunciation is given with a [d] sound in the word. Which is correct?”

In US English the SOUNDS [dy] and [ty] regularly become [j] and [ch], respectively. That is why picture is pronounced [pikchur] and verdure is pronounce [vurjur] unless they head an accented syllable. It follows that perdure would be pronounced [perjur] by speakers from the US. It is very difficult to pronounce [dyur] that way without slipping into [j].

If these sounds begin an accented syllable, this shift usually does not take place, hence most speakers would keep the [d] sound in dew, duty, and due—unless they drop the [y] in their dialects, i.e. where dew and do are pronounced the same. However, there is a little softening of the [d] even under accent.

This process is called “palatalization” because in pronouncing [d] and [t] (identical sounds except the vocal cords vibrate in pronouncing [d] ), the tongue moves to the center of the mouth, to the palate.

The same thing happens to [g] and [k] in other languages. These sounds move forward to the palate from the back of the mouth. That is why GI and CI are pronounced [j] and [ch] in Italian, e.g. Giovanni, Giuseppe, Luigi and Puccini, fettuccine.

Silent E Look Out for Silent GH!

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Maureen Koplow, responded to my comments on the word benight, with a three part question, one part philosophical, the other two linguistic. I have already expended most of my philosophical powder on the first part, here is my response to the second. (My answer to the third will follow shortly.)

The second question raised by Maureen Koplow recently was this: “I wonder where the ight ending comes from.” I think Maureen is wondering about the ‘Silent GH’ in English words. Here are my thoughts on that subject.

To understand this one, we need to know a little about phonology, the scientific study of the sounds of language. Specifically, we need to know that the letters G and K represent sounds that are identical except that we vibrate our vocal cords pronouncing [g] (the way I represent sounds rather than letters–click to hear)  but not when uttering [k] (click to hear).

There is a third member of the group found in Scots English (CH), Dutch (G), German (CH), and Russian (X) (click to hear). Let’s call this sound [kh]. It is identical to [k] except that the the back of the mouth is not fully closed in its pronunciation, allowing a bit of air to escape from the back of the throat, making a slight hissing sound. It sounds a bit like clearing your throat, so I always warned my students practicing this sound to put their hand in front of their mouths, especially anyone with a post-nasal drip.

OK. The sound represented by the silent GH in English was once a [k] in Proto-Indo-European (PIE—as mentally nutritious as it is delicious). That sound became [kh] over the course of the development of ancient Germanic languages like Old English. We still find this sound, as mentioned before, in Dutch, German, and Scots English. In most dialects of English, however, it reduced itself to [h], a sound so slight that has disappeared altogether from English everywhere except at the beginning of words. However, although the sound has disappeared, we continue spelling it.

You will find relatives of what once was GH represented as G, K or CH in other Indo-European languages. The word for “might” in German appears as mögen and möchten in German, mogu “I can” in Russian. The word for “night” in German is Nacht but in Latin nox, noctis (where C = [k]).

So words in English containing the Silent GH mark the spot where a real sound once stood. While English speakers are not at all resistent to changing their ways, we are very reluctant to change the way we spell our words, a trait that forces our children (and many adults) into years of misery trying to learn how to spell words they have no difficulty in uttering.

Words Lost in Words

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

We at Lexiteria are in the process of developing a collection of folk etymologies. Along the way we have stumbled over an interesting facet of words that might be called “reverse folk etymology”. Folk etymology is the conversion of a foreign or unfamiliar word into one that is more familiar, such as the conversion of French dormeuse “sleepy (one)” to dormouse and kith and kin to kissing kin. The opposite would be to make a recognizable word unrecognizable.

The following list of words have “lost words” in them, words we no longer see or hear when we speak:

  • sweater (hidden word sweat)
  • business (hidden word busy)
  • atonement (hidden words at one)
  • disease (hidden word ease)
  • necklace (hidden word lace)

 

We no longer think of sweaters as clothing designed to make us sweat but to simply keep up warm. Business in no longer ‘busy-ness’ and has come to be pronounced [biznis] or even [bidnis]. Atonement is a form of repentence, making up for bad deeds, and not making anything at one with another. The pronunciation of this word makes it clear that it has been reanalyzed as [atonment].

Disease has come to be something much more painful than simple uneasiness or discomfort. But that is the meaning it began with. Finally, Lace worn around the neck is no longer called necklace; necklaces are countable things made of almost anything but lace. Concomitantly, their pronunciation has shfted to blur the word lace: [neklis].

These are examples of two discrete processes. First, semantic drift, the tendency of the meanings of words to drift way from their original meaning over time . The second is the tendency of words to be reanalyzed and pronounced differently over time. The examples above starkly reveal the two critical historical changes that words undergo if they remain in English for centures.

Soft Cs and Hard Cs

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

I’m not sure when Sara Goldman asked me this question. I hope I answered her but I just found this blog entry that I had started but never finished. In case others might be interested in the origin of the distinction between soft Cs and hard Cs, will finish it now.

This is what Sara asked:

When did the letter C change from the K sound to a soft C? I studied Latin; Caesar was pronounced [kaisar] from which comes German Kaiser, which means that’s how the ancient Germans pronounced it, I think. When I took Latin, all C’s were spoken K, e.g. circus was pronounced [kirkus].  But I’d like to know more about the K to C sounds.

First, let’s talk about both [k] and [g] sounds since they are identical except you vibrate the vocal cords in your larynx when pronouncing [g]. Otherwise, both are pronounced by raising the tongue to the top of the soft palate way in the back of your mouth and momentarily stopping the flow of air from your lungs (try a few ‘kahs’ and ‘gahs’ and see for yourself).

Both these sounds tend to undergo “palatalization”, that is, their pronuncation changes because, over time, speakers move their tongues forward to the hard palate, where [ch] and [j] are pronounced.

This normally occurs when [k] or [g] are followed by a “front” vowel, a vowel formed by raising the tongue in the front of the mouth. Front vowels  are [i] “ee” and [e] “ay” in most Indo-European languages. This is why soft Cs most often appear before I and E: city, certain but cough, catch.

The problem here, as you can see, is that a consonant, formed by raising the tongue to the back of the mouth, is followed by a vowel formed by raising the tongue in the front of the mouth. The tongue has to move a great distance in a very, very, very short time. The tendency is for the back consonants, [k] and [g] to move forward over time toward the middle of the mouth, where, as I mentioned, [ch] and [j] are pronounced.

These consonants usually spend some time as [ch] and [j], pronounced by raising the tongue to the middle of the mouth.  This is why kirke became church everywhere in English except in Scotland, where you still hear kirk. (This is an example of the front vowel moving to the back to meet the consonant, too.) It is a common change, still rampant in Portuguese but common in Late Latin, just before it divided into French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

In French and Spanish, however, the [ch] and [j] sounds continued to move forward until they become [s] and [z], respectively, pronounced almost in the same spot as [ee] (letter I) and [e] (letter E). So what began as a [k] sound in Caesar [kaisar] became Cesare ([chesare]) in Italian, then moved on to become Caesar [sezer] in French and [seezur] when English borrowed it.

You can read about these changes in almost any history of Romance languages (whence we borrowed most of our words). My favorite is Martin Harris’s “History of Romance Languages” but you can find it along with Peter Boyd-Bowman’s “From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts” in most college libraries or at Amazon.com. (You can also find my The 100 Funniest Words in English there, too.)

Defending the Fort for Forte

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

David McReynolds today became the third person to call into question our claim that forte meaning “strong point” should be pronounced [fort] rather than [fortay]. He writes:

“Concerning your 100 most mispronounced words: Forte pronounced [for-tay] is a musical term meaning “loud”; it is Italian. Forte meaning strength is pronounced [fort]; it is French.”

“Modern dictionaries allow for both pronunciations of forte meaning “strong”, but the original and more correct remains [fort].”

It is difficult to determine when a language change has taken place definitively. Finding a word in print or even in a dictionary does not mean that it is a part of the language. However, in this case, I think the change has taken place and it is time to admit it. Here is what the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), which we consider the best US English dictionary, has to say about the issue:

“The word forte, coming from French fort, should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, (fôr’-ta), which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian. In a recent survey a strong majority of the Usage Panel, 74 percent, preferred the two-syllable pronunciation. The result is a delicate situation; speakers who are aware of the origin of the word may wish to continue to pronounce it as one syllable but at an increasing risk of puzzling their listeners.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the pronunciation as “fo:ti, fo:te, formerly fo:t,” omitting, as the Britons are wont to do, the R. The point is, this shift is not limited to the US but has occurred throughout the English-speaking world.

The origin of a word is irrelevant to its pronunciation in English. Those words from French, pronounced in the French way, cannot be convincingly be considered English words: if an word used by English-speakers has the same sound and meaning as a French word, what claim does it have of being English? It is possible to use foreign words in conversations if both coconversationalist are familiar with the language in question.

I would disagree with the inconsistency of AHD in claiming that [fort] is the “proper” usage. If 74% of the educated population and the editors of the OED think that the ENGLISH pronunciation is [fortay], then we would seem constrained to using that pronunciation or run the risk, as the AHD note warns, of puzzling our listeners. (Our Mispronounced Words glossary is aimed at promoting clearer speech.)

In fact, all the dictionaries may be in error in claiming that English forte was borrowed from French fort and not Italian forte: both words have the same meaning (among others) in their respective languages. Where did that final E come from? The OED claims that, “As in many other adoptions of Fr[ench] adj[ective]s used as n[oun]s, the fem[inine] form has been ignorantly substituted for the masc[uline].” My impression is, however, that those who use the term at all are far from ignorant people and, moreover, include knowledgeable speakers of French and Italian.

Hence I see no reason impeding the pronunciation of this word [fortay] and much speaking in its favor.

Florida Oranges in Hot Wooder?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Cynthia Green enjoyed both our Rebel-Yankee Tests and sent us this report:

“I took both of the tests and loved them. Fabulous job; it’s so interesting to see dialects presented in such a fun way.”

“My mother was raised in Florida and chronically “mispronounced” two words in particular to the neverending amusement of my sister and I. To her, an orange is an ‘AH-runj’, and the stuff that flows from the tap is ‘wood-er’.”

“I have never in my life heard anyone else use that pronunciation of H2O, and I’ve always been curious to know if this is a south Floridian thing or if my mom has been messing with my head for the past 35 years. :)”

I replied:

AH-runj is the careful pronunciation of “orange” pretty much throughout the South. Where I come from in central NC, however, we whittled this word down to one syllable: ahrnge (AHRNJ), i.e. iron (AHRN) plus a simple J. I pronounced it that way myself until cured in graduate school.

Pronouncing “water” (WAH-duh or WAR-der) as WOOD-er is a new one on me. It must be limited to a small area of Florida and I have no idea where it comes from—there must be something in your “wooder” down there.

In rural NC, this word was and is pronounced WAR-der. In the cities, however, where the accent of the upperclass British immigration prevailed, the preferred pronunciation is WAW-duh—no Rs. Today I pronounce it WATT-er, the result of living 50 years among the Yankee. But wooder? I can’t imagine. Must be something that drifted down there with the new immigration from New (as opposed to old) Jersey.