Thursday, December 21, 2006


Sitting at IHOP Buffy and I got into a discussion about pronunciation. I mistakenly teased her for saying "aygs" for "eggs". It was a two-fold mistake. First) she doesn't pronounce the word that way. It's the [æ] that gets raised to [e] before a voiced velar, not the [ɛ]. Silly me. B) I really shouldn't tease her so much not matter what. Thank goodness she's a good sport.

But she was not pleased that I should assign that accent to her. Apparently she's long hated that pronunciation. I gave her the usual primary lecture about how phonology doesn't have anything to do with semantics and we cant know anything about a person based on accent and...

She started the argument that there is a reason why some expletives are so effective. "That fricative definitely has an effect on the meaning" she said. And she's right. Sort of. There are echoic effects to language. There is a reason we say "boom" to mean a big explosion instead of saying "beep". The sounds work better. And beyond echoics there are connotations of sounds. The stressed vowel of a word meaning 'large' is more likely to be a back or low vowel like in "large" "massive" "gargantuan" "enormous" and not a front (often high) vowel like "teeny" "wee" "itty-bitty" or "minuscule". And of course there are exceptions like "big" and "small" but notice that those words don't represent the extremes of size. They don't have to clearly communicate the idea. (And I'd guess there are several reasons why minuscule/miniscule isn't so clearly a "tiny" word.)

In the Puerto Rican and Mexican dialects that I know of Spanish the endings that indicate size work similarly. The word for small, pequeño [pe'ke.ɲo] becomes pequeñito ['ɲ], and even possibly pequeñitito though that's not so common. The form "chico" ['tʃi.ko] easily becomes "chiquitito" [tʃ']. (In Cuban Spanish you might find [tʃ].)

The ending to indicate large size is -ote. So "grande" becomes [gran'do.te]. And it gets even bigger with a reduplicated ['to.te]. (The IPA transcriptions are starting to look redundant.) Note that the stressed syllable is always the penultimate.

Note also that the final syllable in these diminutive and augmentative forms are contrary to the rule of fronting/raising=smaller and lowering/backing=bigger. My initial guess is that this allows a distinction of the stressed vowel through contrastive differentiation.

My resolution might then be to get people to start calling me a "ninny" or a "twit" instead of a "lout" or an "oaf".

1 comment:

  1. "Sort of?" Pshshshsh.

    And if I recall correctly, I simply argued for a relationship between phonology and semantics, insisting you can't say there's absolutely no correlation.

    I stand by it.


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