Friday, August 25, 2006

Didja Eat Yet? How About Cheese Pizza with Buttons and Tsetses?

note: the intelligibility of this post is riding on fonts. Here's hoping you can see the following symbols č ǯ ʃ ʤ ð ʌ and ʔ. If you cannot...I apologize. I'm not enough of an expert to fix it yet but I'm doing my research. (Though a good place to start is by using Mozilla/Firefox. It's a good idea anyways.) If you can read the symbols, all's set; the only problem now will be my horrible writing.

No system that claims to be all encompassing is without its detractors. The International Phonetic Alphabet is under siege from quite the linguistic nerd-horde. In one of my classes a very capable professor decided to swing his hatchet at the ankles of the IPA's notational convention for affricates. Here's the contention:

Affricates (such as the sounds that begin the words choose cheese chair june jack jeep) are transcribed in the Americanist phonetic system as a single sound [č] in cheese and [ǯ] in jeep.

They are transcribed in the IPA as two sounds with the symbol combinations [tʃ] and [ʤ]. Using standard orthography the sounds might be interpreted as "tsh" and "dzh."

We will focus today on the voiceless affricate: [č]/[tʃ].

The fine professor I mentioned above claims this is not an accurate notation. The affricates are not two sounds, he says, but one. His tongue in cheek explanation of the motivation to represent them as two is the influence of French language on phonetic notation. There are no affricates in French so they must not see the possibility of just one sound like that. It would be similar to the English lack of the alveolar affricate [ts]. This is the consonant sound we hear twice in the name of the fly whose bite causes sleeping sickness: the tsetse fly. In English it is natural to see this as two sounds.

His case for the "one sound" analysis: say the phrase "white shoes." According to him this results in the [tʃ] juxtaposition and clearly reveals two separate sounds. The phrase would be transcribed [waɪtʃuz] He then suggests a relevant phrase to illustrate the affricate as one sound: "why choose." "Can you hear the difference?" he asks. Heads nod. He nods once to confirm his own argument's validity. He transcribes it thus: [waɪčuz].

Here's where I see his argument falter. One difference between the phrases is the first vowel diphthong. In "white" there is a mid central vowel [ʌ] (as in cut or thus) followed by a high front vowel [ɪ] or [i]. In "why" the diphthong is a low vowel (either front [a] or back [ɑ] depending on analysis and dialect) followed by roughly the same high front vowel. Notice the difference in vowel sounds between "writer" and "rider." "Rider" is a lower and even quantitatively longer vowel. These diphthongs are the first difference the students hear.

Setup to problem two: the glottal stop is the stop of air we hear when we say "uh oh" "uh uh" or the sound we hear instead of a [t] in American "button." It's that popping grunting noise that we make by closing our throat. It is phonetically notated with an undotted question mark: [ʔ].

Thus problem two: our venerable professor tells the students to ignore any possible glottal stops as an influence on the pronunciation. But when everyone in the room says "white shoes" the glottal stop is definitely a part of the sound heard. In fact most students saying "white shoes" don't even use the [t] sound in the affricate: the glottal stop is followed directly by the post-alveolar fricative [ʃ]. I.e. the tip of the tongue never touches the little ridge behind the teeth. When saying "why choose" there is no glottal stop. This is why his argument falls apart. He is asking the class to compare what he claims is a [tʃ]/[č] difference but when they all hear and are actually comparing [ʔʃ] and [tʃ] he tells them it's because one of the affricates comprises two sounds and the other is a single sound. I see them both as two sounds.

One difference between the two sound combinations ([ʔʃ] and [tʃ]) is the pause or gemination that occurs after the glottal stop (first combination) and which does not occur after the alveolar stop (second combination). This is probably what leads him to see the first combination as more clearly two sounds. Instead of transcribing it simply as [ʔʃ] we may concede that in the phrase "white shoes" the consonant juncture is actually transcribed [ʔ:ʃ]. So yes - of course this combination at the word boundary is composed of two consonant sounds. And yes we can clearly hear them both because of the gemination that helps delineate them. But I stand firm that "choose" begins with two consonant sounds [tʃ].*

*Bonus boring stuff: For what it's worth say that last sentence out loud. Focus on "that choose." When it is read conversationally I would transcribe it this way [ðəʔ:tʃuz]. Right now I don't know if this helps my case or muddies it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

How to Be Like a Banshee

When I was in elementary school I remember hearing about banshees (alt banshie) [Irish bean sidhe: woman fairie] from one of my teachers. She explained the Irish spirit's behaviour of wailing and sometimes flailing to foretell a death. It was then that I learned the phrase "to scream like a banshee" used to describe anyone whose scream was shrill loud or frightening. I didn't have any occasion to use the phrase until years later when I heard Sinead O'Connor sing.

Then I heard a line last week on That 70s Show that triggered a thought. How unlikely is that? In one scene Debra Jo Rupp's character "Kitty Forman" rushes past her husband saying "I have to pee like a banshee."

A simple Google™ search reveals several other verbs that can be done "like a banshee." Here are several that I found:

she wailed like a banshee: Wailing connotes more of a sustained noise. Probably more mournful than screaming. Possibly identical to screaming. Perhaps neither as frightened nor high-pitched.

You are shouting like a banshee: A shout can be more like a bark. It also more easily includes the possiblity of speaking coherently - just in a very loud and probably abrasive manner.

keening like a banshee: This one I love. It's certainly the most Irish in origin and connotation. It is specifically a cry reserved for deaths and funerals. It may be a shriek. It is usually prolonged. In some cases/regions it is actually a soft and pleasant tone.

Laughing Like A Banshee: Here we have to assume that the laugh sounds like a shriek. Odd however that a laugh would be described as sounding like a cry of mourning. There is poetry in this one (if the simile weren't so overused).

...and he could play the alto saxophone with astonishing fluency, but he often preferred to blow it like a banshee: The implication here is that "like a banshee" is not fluent. So the banshee's cry is apparently a shriek according to this writer.

Vocalist Robert Plant intervenes like a banshee: We've all heard him sing. This one seems obvious. But perhaps he doesn't intervene sounding like a bashee, rather he intervenes just like we would expect a banshee to intervene. Is it possible that the writer thinks banshees are busybodies and are always sticking their noses into people's business?

The following examples all seem to imply a frantic and relentless manner. According to these people banshees do everything with speed and intensity. Is this just a natural assumption to make about something that screams?

I was sweating like a banshee
started reading like a banshee
I’m writing like a banshee
It rained like a banshee
drives like a banshee on crack
: The "like a ____ on crack" snowclone is the heir to the "like ____ on acid" construction. Whereas "on acid" implied surreal qualities "on crack" seems to imply agressive random and reckless qualities. After "like a banshee" it's overkill.

complaining like a banshee: Here we have to wonder if the complaining is loud, which would put the simile in one category, or if it's incessant and wild - which would put this example in the group above.

The following two examples sound like a description of how the banshee might move - though the description might also be just an extension of the group that merely associates banshees with frantic intensity.
flew like a banshee
spinning like a banshee

Banshees are not always described as moving about. They are sometimes sitting at a stream washing clothes. Often they are not even seen, or at least difficult to spot. This as we would expect from regional variation.

started ripping at my hair like a banshee with a comb: This one combines the flailing image and an actual characteristic of the myth. In some areas the banshee is believed to groom her long hair with a silver comb. And a comb itself can be a symbol of the banshee's presence, not to be picked up.

He/she made out like a banshee: This one probably confuses the phrase "like a banshee" with the phrase "like a bandit."

We had been going out for a month or so with no booty. he'd want to kiss and make out like a banshee: This one is hilarious. Probably someone who had heard "make out like a banshee" in the previous sense and in turn gave the term "make out" the concupiscent meaning. I'm sure this one also belongs with the group associating banshees generally with intensity and fervor.

Make a fire truck that handles like a banshee: I have no idea if this one came around after the Yamaha ATVs contributed to the meaning of "like a banshee."

Bottom line: swing like a banshee with the big stick: Instructions on how to play golf. Apparently banshees sometimes show up on Royal Troon.

The following example is by a writer who apparently has some idea that "like a banshee" is overapplied. Points for the slight humour at least.
My thighs hurt like a banshee (assuming banshee's are in a state of chronic excrutiating pain.)

Obviously several assumptions are at work here about banshees' sound, appearance and behaviour. When the Yamaha committee decided to name their "Banshee" line of ATVs I'm quite certain they weren't hoping to connote the fairie's main role of foretelling or reporting a death. And if they were tying the the screaming sound of their engine to the shriek of a banshee I'm sure they had danger in mind but probably not fate.

[Update - I forgot to mention one common use that helped to propel this post. I have seen it several times on computer forums regarding the speed of a computer. When a change in hardware or operating system leads to increased or decreased computer speed several writers have resorted to the simile "screams like a banshee." To "scream" has for a while been used to mean to "move/function with extreme speed." Is this related to the sound an engine makes when it reaches high RPMs?]

Friday, August 18, 2006

I Don't Take That Back

The Language Log is not in the habit of leading us astray. But one of the writers has steered the Bush-bashing bandwagon on the wrong course. In a short post Geoffrey K. Pullum does a good job explaining back formation (perhaps better than I have done) but the instance of usage in question is a poorly chosen example. George H W Bush's word "recreate" might not be a back formation if we accept that its source is not recreation minus the -ion, but a different form from French.

Modern English recreation probably did come from Middle English recreacioun which came from Middle (possibly Old) French recreation from the Latin recreatio.

Modern English recreate can be traced to Latin recreat- the stem of recreatus, which is the past participle of recreare. Used to mean "rejuvenate" "relax" or "amuse (oneself)" it has been in use since the 16th century.

Though one can make the claim that it came to George senior as a back formation, I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt (though that might not be prudent) and believe that the word (even when used by a Bush) conforms to an etymology that branched early enough to create both recreate and recreation as distinct and historically legitimate words.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The -wise and Wherefores

My friend Casey loves to ask questions so difficult that they make my hair eyes hurt. He responded to a recent post with an observation about the -wise construction -- apparently he's heard it mostly from ~18 year olds -- and dropped off the question "Where does this come from?" I think I can address this without flinching too badly.

His example:
Person A: "So, Joe, do you need a new bed when you move into your apartment?"
Person B (a.k.a, Joe): "Well, bed-wise I'm in pretty good shape."

Let's submit a few more to consider:

    How's the weather there?
    It's miserable temperature-wise

    Should we measure each side?
    No we'll just measure it lengthwise

    Does he speak Ojibwa very well?
    He's pretty good accent-wise

    Which way are you spinning?
    I think this is clockwise.

    Are you good with money?
    Well penny-wise I'm pound foolish.

The first categorisation - we will say it's a surface characteristic - splits the usages into hyphen/non-hyphen forms (ironic hyphenation?). Do these words count as examples of the -wise suffixation? They're certainly not part of the currently productive rash. I doubt Casey (for instance) would object to the use of otherwise. But there is a grammatical form here that has been generalised to generate those other constructions.

The OED tells us that this suffix comes from the archaic noun wise meaning "a manner, way, mode, fashion, or degree." So to act kindly is to behave "in benevolent wise." Not too common anymore. The OED's account of the etymology takes us to the Old English wise and connects the word to several other similar words, in various languages, that arose from the Germanic base of WIT and WISE (adj). (The OED is great for the history of a word in English but it always presents such a circuitous etymology. Damn the OED for forcing me to learn more than a simple answer.) The suffix works quite closely to the -ways suffix: anyways noways (cf. nowise.)

Webster's New World gives us a more simple (though more weakly attested) path to the German weise which "probably" originally meant "appearance." And the Indo-European root is identified as *weid- from *w(e)di-, to see, know. In etymology those asterisks mean "we don't swear to this."

This suffix has gained a very flexible utilization -- it can follow almost any word -- likely because of its very nebulous meaning:

"In a specific manner" lengthwise (cf. sideways)
"In a manner similar to" clockwise
"In reference to" temperature-wise, accent-wise

It's this last use that is especially productive. Almost any noun can take the suffix. I can't think of any noun that would not allow it. Even gerunds will take it. "I had a very slow summer fishing-wise." We can use it to cap a constituent phrase: "I'm pretty lazy; but watching-TV-all-day-wise I'm an ironman." And we can stack several nouns under one suffix: "I'm pretty skilled, cooking ironing and even sewing-wise."

Perhaps this old formula works too easily. Boredom can quickly become irritation when we feel it's imposed. And of course - when any easy construction encourages a slew of nonce terms we start to wonder if every one is really necessary.

Isn't It Ironical?

A few days ago I thought in print about the form orientate. It's a word many people hate. I mentioned in that same post another word that has a similarly maligned reputation: ironical.

What jars many an ear is probably the apparent extra suffix. Ironic sounds sufficient so why add the -al? Are we maybe looking at a difference in meaning? Could it be that something that is characterized by irony is ironic and something that has ironic characteristics is ironical?

Ummm...well...hold on.

The -ical ending in other words is met quite easily and quite often without eliciting the scowl. Even when ending a word with a counterpart that ends in -ic. Economical historical and metrical change meanings slightly when the suffix changes. Technical's counterpart is a relatively uncommon adjective.

Some words such as clerical or cynical have a counter that is a noun. This is an effect that was also seen in Greek. Adjectives ending in -ikos were, in absolute use, nouns. There is some evidence that -ic nouns came through a branching of the -ic form in Middle English. The same Latin and Greek forms that preceded the French -ique (connected to the English adjective form) might have been the source of the Middle English -ike: the ancestor of so many nouns.

And several words (farcical nautical popsicle) have no (or extremely rare) -ic forms.

In some cases the -ic form can be either a noun or an adjective. Though we find that the adjective -ic form is not used in a predicate. It may be a comic opera but the opera is comical. And the lyric sung by the lyric tenor was lyrical.

The -ical suffix can be traced variously to Medieval Latin -icalis or even to the additon of -al to English -ic nouns (cynical) or French -ique adjectives (diabolical).

My guess is that the prejudice against ironical comes from the fact that there has been no clear split in the semantics of the two forms. The noun irony [< Fr ironie < L ironia < Gk eironeia < eiron, dissembler] was established by the early 16th century. Ironical took root by the late 16th and ironic finally settled in by the middle 17th. The ready use of irony could well have kept ironical from needing a noun -ic form. So when the -ic form did come along it was pure evolutionary competition. Ancestral adjective forms were the French ironique and late Latin ironicus.

The -ic/-ical struggle is sometimes resolved by semantic specialization or flat out victory of a form. I suggest to those who hate ironical that a different meaning is quite manageable. In fact a clearly written dictionary will likely have the definitions nicely aligned already. We can assign ironic for situations that are characterised by the schism of perspectives. We can save ironical for the people who create those situations. Don't you think.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

More Eponymy

Here's an update on the post about brand names that become generic nouns. I started the list with the following:

Coke (down south)

Jeff added Tylenol and Aspirin.
Daniel offered Hoover and Jello.
Meghan suggested Chapstick.

All good examples.

The mention of Jell-o reminds me of the band Green Jellÿ that performed "Three Little Pigs" (remember the claymation video?). They originally spelled their name with the "o" but after a lawsuit was brought against them by Kraft Foods (probably largely because of their slogan "Green Jello Sucks!") in 1992 they changed it to a ÿ (notice the umlaut). They say the pronunciation is the same.1

I thought of a few more too.2

Quonset (Maybe too specialised a term. It's a type of shed made of corrugated sheet metal with a rounded roof. You see them on farms a lot. I learned the word living in North Dakota)
Mace - which can also be a verb.

There are two main classes here. Some of these are still very much associated with a brand. Kodak may be occasionally used to mean a snapshot, but nobody is unaware that Kodak is a brand name. The same is true of Xerox and Q-tip. There are some however that have become so purely generic that many people can't even think of an alternative to the term. Jacuzzi is close but there's still hot tub or whirlpool (bath). Vaseline is close, but we do still know of the brand and it is usually capitalised. My favorite is escalator. I can't think of anything else to call them. ...lifty-stairs?

Jeep is on the fringe. It's an interesting example because it is sometimes used to describe any Jeep-like vehicle but there are so few that it almost always means the brand. It is especially connoted with the Wrangler model. Some might claim that the other models (the Grand Cherokee the Commander etc.) aren't really "jeeps"; they're SUVs. But now we have to move backwards with this example. The brand name Jeep came from the common military abbreviation G.P. for General Purpose Car - a completely generic description. But even this can be followed further back. There is a common claim among dictionaries that the power and nimbleness of the vehicles garnered them the nickname jeep in reference to Popeye and Olive Oyl's powerful and nimble friend "Eugene the Jeep." That could have happened as early as 1936 when the character was introduced as a gift to Olive. The order is hard to prove. The Thimble Theatre cartoons were popular at this time. It makes sense that when the soldiers noticed how much "G.P." sounded like "Jeep" they made the further connection. Making sense isn't enough to make it so. This may remain one of those pointless mysteries that only a nerd like me cares to solve.

1. Not to get too technical but this International Phonetic Alphabet diacritical usually indicates centralization (although the umlaut is commonly a process of fronting in Germanic languages). Assuming that the "y" indicates the "ee" sound it would actually sound very little like any English vowel. Saying "ee" while smiling is easy. Try saying "oo" while smiling. (The Navajo language does have a sound like this). A centralized "ee" would be somewhere between these. But if we consider the IPA symbol "y" we find that centralisation would be closer to an "oo" sound. The IPA "y" is like an "ee" with rounded lips - e.g. German flügelhorn. As these are high vowels they wouldn't sound much like the 'o' of Jello. That's a middle back vowel.

2. I have purposefully left out some commonly mentioned examples. Some brands have become so ubiquitous that the name is used generically - but the name is still used to name only objects of that brand. Pop-tart is rarely used for a pastry other than the one made by Kellogg's. I suppose small adhesive squares like Post-It Notes could be made by a lot of companies other than 3M - but I don't think I've seen many yet. Patents might be an issue with some of these. How can a generic product get the label if the generic product isn't even allowed to exist?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I Can't Believe We -ate The Whole Thing.

My friend Rick and his wife Kelly have an ongoing argument about the acceptability of several words and he was hoping I'd back him on a point. We were visiting a few weeks back and when the subject of language came up he proposed this question: "What do you say about the word orientate?" Buffy was there as well and at the sound of this grotesque word she gave me the same look she gives when someone admits liking Jay Leno better than David Letterman: 10% skepticism, 80% horror, 10% pity. But on this point I had to let her down.

I could only shrug and grant that the word is in the dictionary. I know it sounds redundant. Orient already means "to give bearings" so why add the -ate? This is close to the argument that hates ironical. We already have the -ic adjectivation. Why add the -al? We might end up with words like "redundantical." (This reminds me of Winona Ryder's character's terrible ad-lib in Mr Deeds: "Westchestertonfieldville, Iowa.")

But to see if in fact orientate is a hypersuffixation we have to look at original forms. The earliest related form is simply orient. Traced back to Late Middle English it was a noun meaning the east and at times specifically that part of the heavens where the sun rises. In the early 16th century it meant dawn.

The transitive verb orient, meaning "to arrange facing the east" goes back to the early 18th century. It was not until the Middle 19th century that the more general meaning - "to establish bearings" - is attested. It is also at this point that we find a use of orientation. The -ation suffix is not picky. It is found on nouns derived from verbs that originally ended in -ate (moderation) or -ize (marginalization) and at times on nouns that have no corresponding verb form (constellation). It was added to some suffixless words of French origin (alteration) and then to words from various origins (flirtation < ? Old French; starvation: a Germanic mutt of a word - thank you OED).

It appears that orientation is one of those latter types. From the addition of -ation to orient [oriri + -ent (present participial of certain Latin conjugations)] we find what probably surfaced as a back formation: orientate. This might be the product of the false assumption that orientation was formed by adding the -(t)ion suffix to orientate.

I will not try to determine whether such a back formation constitutes a faulty motive and therefore a malformation. Classes begin in just over one week and the hectic demands of teaching studying and waking up before 4 P.M. will be enough to disorientatize me (it actually sounds okay if you put the primary stress on the -ent-).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hoi vey!

[preface/update - I've noticed from the keyword search statistics that several visitors to this post have been looking for the meaning of "hoi vey." This is a common missspellling of the Yiddish phrase "oy vey." For some forgettable reason I chose to combine the "hoi" of "hoi polloi" (the subject of this post) with the "vey" of "oy vey" (not the subject of this post) in the title. Eliezer Segal loosely connects the two-word phrase (meaning roughly "woe is me") to the German "weh" (pain) the Latin "vae" the Greek "ouai" and the Hebrew "ee" (all similar in meaning: alas/woe/ah).]

Buffy asked me the other day how I feel about the use of the definite article before hoi polloi. I told her I think it's redundant. This is one of those opinions that can make the holder seem like an elitist or a pedant. She read aloud - sharing the view that intolerance on this point is silly. Her source argued that there are other English words that in their language of origin comprise(d) an article with another segment and can now employ the English article without the snobs making a fuss. The word algebra [Arab. al-, the + jabr, reunion of broken parts] was given as an example.

I do see some differences between algebra and hoi polloi - the main difference being that algebra has been in the English register since the 16th century and entered the Late Middle English register probably through Medieval Latin (Early use of the word described the practice of healing bone fractures). Algebra has also shuffled off its italicization. Hoi polloi is often printed still in italics, indicating the word is used as a foreign term - the productive qualities of this typography are usually phonological. Often the pronunciation follows rules or even uses phonemes that are not a part of the English inventory. E.g. - One may pronounce adieu with the front rounded vowel (an 'ee' with rounded lips) that does not occur in the English phonological bank. Of course I won't rely on the typical font of a word as an indicator of its syntactic character.

In fact I'm not going to use any of these observations to argue the point of acceptability or appropriateness - it's really not that fruitful an issue. And lately I've come to see the value of simply speaking as I will and letting others do the same. Linguistics would be abysmally mind-numbing if there was no variation among users. And equally so if there was no change in a language over time. Even if I choose not to use the before hoi polloi I can easily see a time when the syntactic behaviour of the term will warrant the English article. I can even see a time when nother will become a dictionary entry - but that's a whole 'nother issue.

More than any other language English has opened its borders and granted citizenship to the foreign. Italics are just a green-card we force some words and phrases to carry before we give them a vote.

In my writing classes I do tell my students to avoid writing "and et cetera." But that's really just to get them to think about what the borrowings mean. It's the same reason I give them a fun little quiz asking them to define e.g. and i.e. also.

Eventually those who argue that language is supposed to be used within their parameters will rely only on the claim of stability: "It is bad to change the expectations of those few who have chosen to have expectations." And it is in their best interest that not even their own efforts succeed in changing common practice. It would be a pyrrhic victory for these conservationists who love showing that they can find fault in speech and who trumpet the skill loudly and abrasively. They would succeed in obliterating their favourite claim of their own relevance.

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--