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Archive for the 'Phonology: Linguistic Sounds' Category

Aksing about Asteriks

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Michael Kaskel wrote me last week with some suggestions for our Most Often Mispronounced Words list.

“Enjoyed your: The Most Often Mispronounced Words in English. You might like to add asterisk, I have heard many educated people say asterick.”

“Also, celestial and controversial . People seem determined to say: celes-TEA-al and controver-SEA-al when it should be celes-chul and controver-shul.”

Twinkle, twinkle little star.Asterisk is a good one we should have caught but the other two are simply careful pronunciations of the words in question. The problem with asterisk is that a final SK cluster often metathesizes to KS, i.e. astericks (like ask > aks). The word then sounds like a plural form: two asteriks but one asterik. Still, this is no excuse.

With respect to words like celestial, there is a rule in English that the sound combination [ty] becomes [ch] in unaccented syllables (e.g. picture and denture). [t] usually does the same thing before [r], accent or no: tree, try, etc. However, these rules must apply to something, i.e. the original pronuciations with the [ty]s and [tr]s intact. They are still there, so we can’t correct them. The Brits would certainly be upset since the upper class, at least, tend to avoid this rule (appreciation for them is a-prissy-ashun). Words are generally reduced in normal conversation but you can’t get to the “normal” pronunciation without the original one, which indicates that it is still there and must be recognized and accepted.

Dialectal Overcompensation

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Bill Taber today wrote about one of the most fascinating aspects of English dialects, overcompensation. He wrote, “Wash, warsh—seems most women say warsh and man say wash. Why?”

Kennedy-BunkerThe only linguistic explanation is that most women you know, Bill, come from a different background; their immigrant ancestors were the urban middle-class British. These British English speakers tend to say [warsh], [lawr], etc. It is overcompensation in a dialect where the R is regularly (yes, regularly, governed by rule) lost after the sound AH: car become [cah], marsh become [mahsh], and so on.

At some point some influential speakers of this dialect became aware they were dropping the Rs and tried to replace them. However, since they had never heard them from their parents, they didn’t know where to put them. As a result, they tended to put Rs after every AH sound, whether they were supposed to be there or not.

Various dialects show the same effort after the UH sound. Both the Boston Brahmins and my mother, a rural Southerner, pronounced Cuba [Cuber], Eva [eever]“, etc. This is because one of their ancestors tried to stop dropping Rs after UH in words like mother [mothuh], gather [gathuh], matter [mattuh]. Again, they were not sure where the Rs go, since their ancestors always dropped them, so they tended to put them everywhere. Some of the overcompensated Rs stuck in the dialect; others didn’t.

Overcompensation is the unfortunate result of guilt and shame felt by those who speak a non-dominant dialect. The ‘standard language’ is always the dialect spoken by the most powerful people in a society. All others are disdained, laughed at and, most unfairly, taken as a sign of ignorance. This latter prejudice leads to economic discrimination which makes no sense, as the explosive economic rise of the South after the invention of air conditioning demonstrates.

Overcompensation occurs elsewhere in the North. Those who followed the US TV series “All in the Family”, might have noticed that the Queens dialect of Archie Bunker reflected some inconsistencies. Archie pronounced bird [boid], murder [moiduh], and third [toid]. However, Archie’s toilet was his [terlet], his “dingbat” of a wife, Edith, cooked with [erl] rather than oil, and tended to [berl] rather than boil the spaghetti.

Again, the (brighter) speakers of Brooklyn and Queens dialect became painfully aware of one reason why their speech made those outside their dialect area laugh at them and they tried to repair it. Problem was, they didn’t know which OIs should be ER and which, not, since they had never heard ER in their neighborhood. The result was, again, overcompensation.

As I have said over and over again: a regional dialect is nothing more than variations in the grammar of a language that naturally arise when the language is spoken over a wide area. It has nothing to do with intelligence and the only difference between a regional dialect and the ‘standard’ or ‘literary’ dialect is the (lack of) power of the people speaking it.

Jeechet?

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

I think it was in J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter that the word jeechet first appeared in print. It has always fascinated me because it is clearly one single word phonologically (a phonological word is easily defined as a series of linguistic sounds bearing a single accent). However, this ‘word’ corresponds to an entire four-word sentence!

Now, before you say that this is not a word but just the result of lazy speakers slurring their speech, let me assure you that linguists can track every single change from the sentence to the word using common rules of English phonology, i.e. rules that occur widely elsewhere and throughout the language. Here they are for your amusement and edification.

The first rule is that function words (monosyllabic pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions, etc.) like did are rarely accented except for emphasis which is irrelevant here. The second rule is that unaccented vowels occurring before the accented syllable like the [i] here are regularly dropped in English, e.g. p’lice for police, s’pose for suppose. Since did is unaccented, it attaches to [you] for accent and the [i] then disappears, giving us
 
ddyou eat yet
 
However, since English (unlike Italian, for instance) does not tolerate double consonants, [dd] regularly reduces to [d] resulting in
 
dyou eat yet

Since you is another function word, it isn’t accented either and is regularly reduced to where [ê] represents a schwa, pronounced, roughly, [uh] dyê eat yet. However, since it is not accented, it must attach to the following word for accent, giving us
 
dyêeat yet
 
The only accent in this sentence is on eat which means that the vowel [ê] is now an unaccented vowel preceding the accented one and so falls to the ax of the second rule mentioned above, resulting in
 
dyeat yet

Next, the combination [dy] regularly reduces to [j] and [ty] to [ch], e.g. mature [mêtyur > [mêchur] and picture [piktyur] > [pikchur]. Since the accent is on eat in this sentence, both the [dj] and [ty] are subject to this rule, which reduces our sentence further to
 
djeachet
 
pronounced [djeechet]. Of course, the sound [j] is a combination of [d] + [zh], the sound of the Z in azure. This makes the [d] redunant, giving us
 
jeechet

One reason we can’t determine the number of words in a language is because a phonological word (the sound part) does not always directly correspond to a semantic word (the meaning). According to Dr. Language at yourDictionary.com (also me), “I would have” comprises 3 distinct sounds and meanings but “I’d've” is a single two-syllable phonological word that matches the same three meanings—one word or three?

Speaking a language involves a complex set of mental activities in different parts of the brain each of which follows its own rules. The output of these rules are plotted onto the input of others in ways linguistics is still exploring. One of the most remarkable aspects of language is the surprising variety of rules and interaction of rules that the brain must carry out in order for us to express ourselves and be understood.

No other ‘word’ in the English language exemplifies the labrynthine nature of the levels of grammatical rules and their interactions better than jeechet.

 

 

Why do Differnt Veterns Talk Diffrent from other Vetrens?

Friday, October 6th, 2006

 

Pardon my English but Susanne Taylor raised an interesting issue in her e-mail to me today, one that catches the attention of most US English speakers at some point in their lives.  She asked that veteran and veterinarian be added to our Most Often Mispronounced Words list.

The problem with taking this step is that it isn’t clear that these words are mispronounced, just syncopated differently in different parts of the English-speaking world.  All English speakers drop unaccented syllables in fast speech but most do so in regular patterns. Throughout most of the US, when either of the sequences [ere] or [era] occurs, and neither vowel is accented, speakers syncopate (drop) the first [e], so that veteran sounds like vetren, different like diffrent, several like sevral.

In Texas and the Southwest, however, the second [e] is regularly dropped in these words so that they sound like vetern, differnt, and severl. 

The point is, wherever you grew up, the fast-speech pronunciation is regular, so it is difficult to call it mispronunciation; rather, we are dealing here with just a variation in the rules for fast speech. It is often difficult to draw a line between correct and incorrect grammar. The sure sign of a grammatical rule at play, however, is consistency like this. 

 

 

Gerrymandering the Word Itself

Monday, September 11th, 2006

 

Today’s Good Word was gerrymander and several readers mentioned that Elbridge Gerry, the eponym of this word—or at least part of it—pronounced his name with a hard G, like Gary.

Only about 2260 of the approximately 6800 known languages and dialects on planet Earth have writing systems.  Those that have had them for some time have felt the influence of the writing system on pronunciation. 

Generally, a writing system is supposed to capture the sounds of the language it represents (Chinese being the notable exception).  However, sometimes the influence moves in the opposite direction.  The pronunciation of the T in the word often is a prime current example. 

T doesn’t like to stand between F and a vowel—soften is another case in point. So the T should not be pronounced.  However, seeing it there as we read makes it difficult to ignore, so some people pronounce it.

The same thing happened to gerrymanderGerry today is used most often as a nickname for Gerald or Geraldine where the G is soft.  Since it looks like it should be soft, it has become soft, even though the OED still offers the hard version as the basic one. 

 

Of Castles and Chateaus

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

CastlePeggy Nielsen wrote today: “As I walked this morning through a lovely park outside the local Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, FL), the word campus came to mind. I’m thinking the word is from Latin, given the -us ending and I’ll bet it originally had something to do with soldiers. Now we use the word to mean the area where a college or university is situated and I think we have broadened it to mean any large area outside a central building or collection of buildings.”

“And then I am reminded of Champs Elysees, meaning, of course, Elysian Fields. Here “champs” also = “field.” Am I on the right track and is campus related to champs?”

Well, “related to” hardly describes it: champs IS campus 2000 years later. French, of course, is Latin as it developed over the centuries in France (Italian is Latin as it developed as Rome became Italy). So it is the same word.

An oddity which (last I heard) no one understands is the shift of C (pronounced [k]) to CH before A in French. This process is called palatalization because the point of pronunciation moves from back of the mouth [k] on the soft palate to the hard palate [ch]. Palatalization is common before I and E (as in Italian focaccia), vowels pronounced with the tongue in the front of the mouth. However, in French it seems to have occured before the back vowel [a]:

  • chateau from castellum “castle, fortress”,
  • champs from campus “field”,
  • chapeau “hat” from cappellum “cap”

Cappellum is the diminutive of capa from which we get cape. It originally meant a hooded cape and so the diminutive would have meant “a short cape” which would have left just the hood. 

One final note of interest. Latin castellum “fortress” is also a diminutive of castrum “camp, fortified place”. The root here is the same as that of castrare “to castrate” (Ugh!). However, the original root seems to have meant “to cut”, which means that the original camps were clearings, perhaps with the resultant logs used as fortification.

In any event, Latin also has an adjective castus “chaste” which shares the same root. The connection witih “cut” here is murky to say the least but given the original meaning was “abstaining from sexaual activity”, I shudder thinking about it.

So let me just wrap up today’s jottings by pointing out that the change from castus to chaste is yet another example of C becomeing CH before A in French since French is where English got this word.