Monday, November 06, 2006

The Great Consonental Elide

Compensatory lengthening: it has nothing to do with all those spam emails I get every day. Its a form of phonological alternation related to the post on "careful" pronunciation. Let's take a look at Buffy's pronunciation as an illustration.

Her pronunciation of contracted forms usually deletes the [d]. This leaves her saying words that sound like 'shoont' and 'woont'. The vowel quality remains the same. It's the lax high back vowel [ʊ] in 'hook' 'stood' and 'roof'. (Anyone disagree about that last one?)

In the fast speech of many AmE speakers these words lose the [d] and the vowel is reduced to an incredibly weak or short schwa. In a quick phrase like "you really shouldn't say that" the word could be transcribed [ʃə̆ʔ]. Perhaps some assimilation/deletion rule ends up knocking out the [d] before the [t] becomes a glottal stop. What of the limbo that holds the [n]? Even in careful speech the [n] would be syllabic -- transcription [ʃʊ.dn̩t]. Of course some might go ahead and put a vowel in there: [ʃʊdɪnt] or [ʃʊdənt]. But when the two dentals are gone the [n] seems to lose its platform. In front of the glottal stop, it can be lost in all the voicelessness. (The glottal stop is a strange sound that cannot exist in a voiced manner. It is the complete obstruction of air at the glottis: the source of voicing.) Or let's suggest that the deletion of the voiced dental stop removes the articulatory context for the nasal to exist -- so the deletion kills them both.

So Buffy gets rid of only the [d]. Granted her [n] is very slight--so I'll represent it by nasality of the vowel (as is common in AmE). She also dodges that 'lazy' label by compensating for the lost consonent with vowel length. So her pronunciation 'shouldn't' or 'couldn't' or 'wouldn't' is a clear [ʃʊ̃ːʔ] or [wʊ̃ːʔ] or [kʊ̃ːʔ]

This elision of alveolars is common. Especially in the context of other alveolars. Look at the common pronunciation of the day named after Wodin, no one says [wɛd.nɛs.dej]; now it's [wɛns.dej]. This may not be a result of the same process. But still... And the segments don't even have to be adjacent. Look at the common AmE pronunciation of that institution of mediocre satire: Saturday Night Live. The already flapped [t] has just about disappeared taking the following schwa with it. First [sæ.tər.dej] then [sæɾər.dej] and now [sæːrdej].

And some people delete an alveolar whose context is ambiguous. While deriding George W's non-standard pronunciation [nu.kju.lər] of nuclear ([nu.kli.ər] or [nu.kliːr]) most people overlook two things.

1) He is creating a more natural form by maximising the onset of each syllable and/or simplifying the vowels.
2) His pronunciation is less garbled than Jimmy Carter's. Carter still pronounces the word with a muffled and strange sounding compensation for the deleted [l]. I keep listening to him but I'm not ready to pick one transcription.

[nukiːə] [nukiː] [nukjəː] [nukjə]

He says it several times here. Put your ear to the test.


  1. I like his pronounciation of North "Korear" as well. It is a bit different than the rhotism of the Brits with an "Australiyer."

  2. I have to listen to that again. I don't hear it so clearly.

    If it's not there it may be an 'aural' illusion. Perhaps his accent makes us think he's saying the 'r'.

    Or perhaps he says it.

  3. I heard it most on his first mentioning at the 41 second mark of the clip. The other pronounciations seem more standard to me.

  4. Yes. It's clear there. I wonder what leads him to that pronunciation there but not in other places. His accent is nebulous. just like his various vowels in 'nuclear' he uses several vowels in 'Korea'. When he says 'South Korea' around 1:20 it's not a strong [r] but I think I hear it.

    I notice that in both instances he pauses after the word.

    Did you notice how he stumbled when talking about Iranian uranium enrichment (1:52)? After he says "That's what they claim to be dun" as he gives the apposition to be in progress. What is this mysterious "dun"? Did he mean to say "to be doing" but mangle the vowel in doin' or did he mean the participle 'done'?


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