Wednesday, December 27, 2006

If You Built It They Will Have Come?

Listening to NPR this week I heard one of the reporters utter what at first sounded like a mistake. I believe it was "if he build it". In the span of 3 seconds my mind found and completed the right algorithm to realize she meant to say "if he built it."

I say she meant to say even though I'm not sure she made a mistake and in fact she might have said the phrase grammatically. She might have even pronounced it according to a grammar. But it would have to be a more recent grammar. I wonder how many people out there would also say the phrase this way.

In several phrases there is a clear alternation with a word final post-vocal [t] flapping before a vowel.

"put it"
"write it"
"cite it"
"fight it"
"pat it"
"spot it"
"shot it"

An [ɻ] can replace a vowel in either the pre or post [t] position and flapping will occur. So we have "artist" "matter" "starting" "hearty" and "litter." Even with an [ɻ] in both post and pre [t] the flapping occurs in "bartering". There can be other analyses of the rules at play here. I'll address them in a later post (maybe the next) but for now we can agree that at least in the pre [t] position the [ɻ] allows for flapping.

So the word "built" complicates this because the [t] comes after [l] which doesn't satisfy the environment condition. The [t] in "alter" "falter" "pelter" "melting" et al doesn't alternate. But [l] is oh so close to a vowel. Its sonority is just below the [ɻ] so that in English it can serve as the sole nucleus of a syllable. And when it follows a [t] its just as good as a vowel. ergo "bottle" "battle" "little" "cattle" etc with the flapping alternation.

Sonority looks the be the important feature here. And it may be that for some speakers the relatively high sonority of [l] is asking to join vowels and [ɻ] as pre-[t] flapping environment. This is still rare in occurrence. At least it is within my limited scope.

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