Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Phonology: Linguistic Sounds' Category

Catawba or Catalpa?

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Judith Hanlon sent me an interesting question today: “Is it “catalpa or “catawba”? I’ve heard both, and seen both in print (gardening or fishing references), but “catawba” isn’t in any dictionary. Should it be?”

I responded the following:

Thank you for this question. These words have fascinated me for a long, long time.

Today these are two different words, both originating in the Carolinas in Siouan languages. One of those languages is the Catawba language spoken by the Catawba indians who once inhabited an area close to the North and South Carolinas border, along the—wouldn’t you just know it?—Catawba River.

It is also the name of a reddish-yellowish grape and the wine made from it. This name probably came from one of the sources above. I’m from central North Carolina and, as a teenager, loved to climb up grape vines to the tops of trees and eat “fox grapes”, a smaller reddish-yellowish wild grape, no doubt related to the catawba. Folks in central North Carolina also grew catawba grapes commercially.

Catalpa in the English language refers to something quite different. A catalpa tree is a broad-leafed tree with seeds that look like long beans. Down South in the spring they are attacked by caterpillars that make great freshwater fishing bait. Everyone in North Carolina mispronounced this word “catawba”.

We had one on the street where I was born and my mother loved to tell this story about me as a baby. She took me in her arms one day and visited the catalpa tree which was at that time filled with catalpa worms. She took one on to her finger to show it to me up close and, according to her, I said, “Go ‘way, Worm Beard!”

These two words may have historically been the same word, since in many dialects of English the L before a consonant is pronounced like a W. That is the case in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. My sons grew up pronouncing milk [miwk], help [hewp], and belt [bewt]. Still do. Caulk everywhere is pronounce [cawk].

So, catawba and catalpa may, in fact, have originated as the same word pronounced differently in different parts of the country.

French Pronunciation

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Jan Collins raised a question today about French which all French learners (and some speakers) might be interested in:

“Can you please tell me when people stopped pronouncing final consonants in French? When I see the historical words I never know how they would have been spoken.”

In the Early Modern French Period, which began about 1700, French passed through an “open syllable” stage, when all syllables had to end on a vowel and could not end on a consonant. That is why those ending on consonant sounds, always are spelled with a “silent e”, e.g. l’homme, pronounced [lOm], because the [e] at one time was pronounced, and still is in some songs.

However, few words—only new ones—end on consonants that are pronounced; otherwise they are silent unless they appear before a word beginning with a vowel:

  • muet [mye] “mute”
  • nez [ne] “nose”
  • mot [mo] “word”

French opened all the syllables ending on nasal consonants, [n, m], by nasalizing the vowel. That is why French has nasal vowels, e.g. temps [tã] “time”, grand [gRã] “large”.


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.


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?


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 (You can also find my The 100 Funniest Words in English there, too.)