Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Flat Tree Will Get You Nowhere

So Daniel wants to preserve the clarity of some pronunciation distinctions while Buffy would like to support my claims because she loves me and I'm always right.

I'll agree with Buffy. But I'll still address Daniel's issue. It's a fair challenge he poses to my analogy -- as I pose articulation with football.

I bring issue to your analogy. Movement, opening a door, running a football, picking up a saucer, is a personal and individual task. . . . I think speech should be interactive.

And yet we can reconsider the various tenors of the simile and say that in each of those activities there is a goal just as in speech there is the goal of reasonably unimpeded transference of an idea. So now we look at each performance whether in a social setting or in an empty cafe or through a lonely doorway and we again pose the question: "Why would adjustment and continuity be valued in one and derided in another?"

So when we're communicating with another, clarity is important. That awkward [t] might be important when stressing writer or whiter. Yes, there are many ways to effectively communicate, including some "tripping" language, depending on our audience, but efficient speech doesn't mean effective speech.

This is certainly true. The most efficient speech, without regard from the Speaker for the ability of the Hearer to understand, would be something like a *sigh* or an open mouthed "uuhhhh" probably corresponding to exhalation. But this is not what I defend when I use one example from a common American dialect that voices and flaps intervocalic dentals. In that example I defend a particular allophone that is quite clear to all Americans. And lest we say that the flap is at the top of a slippery slope we have to look at the company changes often keep.

American English does elide some sounds. In 'laboratory' many American speakers syncopate the second vowel saying [ˈlæ.brǝ.to.rɪ] while some British dialects would elide the penultimate vowel saying [lǝˈbɔ.rǝ.trɪ]. Any readers who know this to be false about BrE please let me know. This may be my over-eager application of a pre-sonorant/post-schwa elision rule.

If we consider again the words 'rider' and 'writer' we find that the vowel change very ably serves the goal of distinction. So while the purely phonemic underlying form differs only by the voicing of the middle consonant the surface form in AmE differs by vowel quality instead. Here is where I bring back my analogy with a running back. One color commentators will say Man that Emmitt Smith is a hardworking back. Look how he just pushes up the middle and keeps turning his legs when he hits the line and another commentator says But he's nothing like Barry Sanders. Look at how far he runs before he even gets to the line. If they counted lateral yards Sanders would have the rushing record by far! Then the first would argue that Smith did more work by being a receiver as well.

If we consider the pre-sonorant/post-schwa elision rule at work in both BrE and AmE pronunciation of the word 'watery' we see tit-for-tat surface forms. In some BrE dialects 'watery' is pronounced as two syllables because of schwa deletion: [wɔː.trɪ]. Because the schwa will not elide after a flap the AmE surface form remains trisyllabic: [wa.ɾǝ.rɪ]. We find the same comparison of AmE and BrE 'flattery': [flæ.trɪ] & [flæ.ɾǝ.rɪ]. It goes back and forth and becomes an argument about which types of distinctions are the more virtuous to preserve.

There is a larger arbitrating factor. When the allophones and pronunciations in question are part of a dialect (as opposed to an idiolect) the ability of the Hearer to understand is already attested. When a dialect recognizes and favours one distinction we use preposterous logic to say that it is out of consideration for the audience that we discard its phonology.

Okay -- Next time: Buffy's careful efficiency. It's related to this.

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