Sunday, August 06, 2006

I never said that!

***Please forgive the increasingly dry and technical cant of my posts. School is coming up and I have to get back in the mode of writing like a textbook. My contributions will likely become reflections on my studies - I certainly hope that doesn't shatter the interest of those few of you who do me the favour of checking in to see if you care about what I write.***

Abstract forms are a controversial topic in linguistics. In syntax there are schools of thought that claim our minds work with un-pronounced (un-expressed? un-said?) items all the time.

One simple example of this is the phrase: "I want to eat." According to the minimalist camp there are no fewer than 2 words that are nullified in this phrase. The underlying representation (or the grammatical form that our mind knows but our mouth doesn't express) is closer to this: "I want (for me) to eat."

One argument is that every verb needs to be done by a noun. So the first "I" does the "wanting." Something else needs to do the "eating." So we put a form of "I" in there to do the eating (but because it's an object of the first clause it takes the "me" form). So apparently it's true - "You" can't have your cake and eat it too...

The suggestion is that we know these things and they shape the grammar of the words we utter - even if we never pronounce the null constituents or realize that they're in that crazy little brain of ours. The inevitable argument against such abstractions is countered with the following: Being proficient does not mean that we are able to analyse our proficiency.

In phonology there are some proposed abstract forms that may change our phonemic inventory if we believe they exist. It's a very technical argument and I apologize that I don't have the skill to explain it in an interesting manner. Let's start with a question and just hope that you care to find the answer. Here's the setup to the question. Of all the sounds in the English inventory there is only one that never occurs at the beginning of a word: the eng. This is that nasal sound that we put at the end of sing thing ring wing and just before the /k/ in sink think rink and wink. Every other consonant is possible at the beginning of a word. Why does this never occur initially? Some propose an abstract representation of all those -ing words.

The argument goes like this. The nasal in those words is underlyingly the same as the /n/ in sin thin or win. But because it comes before a /g/ it moves back to assimilate in place (just like the /n/ moves forward to assimilate to a /p/ in a phrase such as "ten people." Trust me - in normal speech you say "tem people." No one ever believes us when we tell them this). After the assimilation the /g/ is deleted - perhaps due to some special rule that deletes a voiced velar /g/ after a nasal /n/. And we see some evidence that this rule is not applied all the time. You may have heard someone from New York talk about "Long-Gisland." This is not proof - just evidence. So perhaps the eng never occurs at the beginning of a word because it's not an actual phoneme of the English language - it's just an allophone. There are no words that begin with ng- or nk-. Those would be the only clusters that would create the eng consonant.

(The real controversy in this is the distinction between dynamic and static phonological data - are we talking about language just as it is today or are we talking about language as it changes over years and years?)

And then we come to the /h/. This sound never occurs at the end of a word.1 But this isn't so strange because the /h/ is a fickle sound that has disappeared in many places.2 take for instance the common pronunciations of vehicle and vehement. Consider also the /h/ sound that used to be found at the beginning of which and whether. And then we have the fast-speech habit of dropping initially.

Tell 'im we're leaving?
Does 'e care?
Well 'e said 'e wanted to see 'er...

(Calling attention to such habits is why Eliza Doolittle was trained with the phrase "In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire Hurricanes hardly happen.")

Here is the most startling discovery about English I've made in the last several years (I didn't actually discover this - I merely learned it while doing some research). When we say "'em" for the plural third person (e.g. "Those people look hungry. Give 'em some pickles.") we are not deleting the initial th- of them. The evidence? There is no other word that begins with th- that we pronounce without that onset. We never say -

Where are 'ey going?
Is 'is the right place?
I'd like some of 'ose over 'ere?

By observation of the lack of this process we conclude that the 'em we say is not a shortened form of them. We are in fact deleting the initial /h/ of an older form hem that was more common in Middle English. So for most of our lives we've been using the shortened form of a word we had no idea we knew.

Again - analysis must reveal those things that proficiency hides even from the proficient.

An allophone is an alternation of a single phoneme that is not recognized as a distinctive part of the phonemic inventory - i.e. the hear interprets the two sounds as the same sound. The clearest class of allophonic alternation is the difference change in the /t/ in tack and stack. In tack there is a puff of air after the /t/ that we call aspiration. In stack there is no similar puff of air. But the ear does not consider these two different sounds because they are merely allophonic. Two distinct phonemes would change the meaning of the word and be heard as different. So "lock" and "rock" begin with different phonemes in English. But not every language hears the difference. In some Asian languages these would merely be allophonic and be heard as the same word. --Go back to reading--

1. Well this isn't completely true. Loch is sometimes pronounced with the final /h/. This word comes from the Old Irish and into the Scottish Gaelic and has preserved a phoneme that is for all intents and purposes obsolete in the U.S. We can see this effect in the American use of the word - homophonic with lock. To our phonological ear the heavy /h/ is merely the product of a brogue. We would no more likely use that sound than we would rrroll our arrrs. Most Americans only know these sounds as the tricks to sounding like groundskeeper Willie.

"Eef elected merrr, mi fairst act wull be tuh kill theh whole lot of yuh - and boorrn yer toon to cindairs!"

--Go back to reading--

2. And sometimes we throw it in somewhere just to clarify borders. I remember in high school choir one kid had to sing the phrase "ever more and ever more." He always took a breath before the "and." This left him thinking that he had to accentuate the beginning of "and." So it always sounded like "hand." With a little choral training he would have learned that the proper syllabification could best be written "ever mo -ran -dever more."--Go back to reading--


  1. My favorite part of that scene when Willie is stumping is when someone on the stage tells him the microphone is on. He responds with indignation, "I know its on!"

  2. "Is 'is the right place?"

    Sounds like standard Appalachian to me. Izis the road to Matewan? Izzachur truck?

  3. Hey! You're absolutely right Rick. I'm going to have to figure out what might be going on there. Because if the Appalachian dialect does delete the onset "th" then maybe they don't in fact work with hem as the underlying form.

    Wow. Here's the tricky part: you gave two examples of deleting the "th" after an "s" - could you give any examples of a "th" deleted after vowels? An "r" or an "l"?

    After an "s" we might not be seeing strict deletion. Here your spelling "izis" and "izzachur" could be the key. Voiced "th" and "z" are pretty close as far as features go. It might be assimilation.


  4. I would guess that after an /l/ you might find "th" deletion. It's a coronal like the /s/ and "th" sounds.

    So an incredibly strong accent might say "tell 'is guy what I'm sayin'."

    But without a coronal it's harder to imagine. Does "Give 'is guy some jerky" sound plausible?

    The fact that an new accent might change the data necessary to establish an underlying form within the same lexical register is almost as exciting to me as the current controversy over Pluto's status as a planet.

    Is it possible that just because of the accent we can't say that hem has survived in some regional varieties of English?


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