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.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

So this is Halloween too?

Years ago a colleague shared with me his disdain for the "abbreviated" form Xmas for the word Christmas. He doesn't appreciate a spelling that takes "Christ" out of the word. This same concern has become Bill O'Reilly's yearly rant-motive, adopted and amplified by headlines and television reports. The latest focus is on a poll created by Zogby's that claims that people are more offended by the phrase "Happy Holidays" than by the phrase "Merry Christmas." Geoff Nunberg at Language Log posted a nice analysis of the poll to show how its wording and organization has likely contributed to a desired outcome.

Here's my précis of the post: The poll supplies more answers that acknowledge even a slight offense than no offense at all at the phrase "Happy Holidays". The poll loads the questions by implying or claiming a motive for those who use the phrase "Happy Holidays".

Maybe we should start calling them the "H-words". "Holiday" has religious meaning anyway. So there should be no such thing as a government holiday. That's establishmentarian.

Let's take these proto-rhetorical techniques to the extremes to show how they might affect the numbers. Here's a one question poll meant to show how people feel about Merry Christmas -vs- Happy Hol...I mean the H-words.

Q: Which of these statements best describes your opinion?

Possible Answers:

  • I've been wished a "Merry Christmas" many times and I've never gotten violent when I hear it

  • There's nothing absolutely evil about saying "Merry Christmas"

  • I don't get upset when people say "Merry Christmas"

  • I think saying "Happy Holidays" can sometimes be annoying if the person who says it is only trying to be politically correct and acts superior or snooty

  • "Merry Christmas" is a traditional greeting and poses not threat to National Security

  • I don't even always notice when someone says "Merry Christmas"

  • I think some people who insist on saying "Happy Holidays" can be a tiny bit off-putting

  • The mere sound of the phrase "Merry Christmas" is offensive and I feel like I have been slapped in the face and spit upon whenever someone says it even if they aren't directing it at me

  • This poll offers answers that support both "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays".

    My guess is that answers that show tolerance for "Merry Christmas" are more likely to be chosen. I would then have to release the findings of my poll with the summary saying "More respondents answered that the phrase Merry Christmas is not at all offensive to them or that Happy Holidays is at least somewhat annoying."

    Language history bit:
    Typical English vowel changes have led to the pronunciation [howlɪ] from OE hálig. Our pronunciation of holiday has not observed the usual [a:]>[o] change. It has preserved the vowel quality just as northern ME dialects did. This is not likely an effect of a preserved northern pronunciation. In the combined form the vowel retained its pronunciation [halɪdej] even in non-northern ME dialects. There might be several reasons for this--among them is the distinction between holy day with religious denotation and holiday without it. But that's research that I'll have to do later. Right now I'm on holi-... vacation.

    Oh yes. Regarding my friend who believes Xmas takes Christ out of Christmas: he's only right as far as the orthography. As I understand his complaint he means that it secularises the day for the sake of a quicker spelling. But the X is probably symbolic of the cross. So the 'X' spelling could serve the pious Christian as a reminder of the birth and significance of the life to follow. Etymology can help us all learn to see past that which at first looks evil. Can I hear an 'amen'? (Or is it 'omen'?)

    Saturday, December 23, 2006

    Its Knot Necessarily Sew

    The claim that phonetics and semantics are not related is of course too absolute for me to defend. So we explain what we believe can be inferred about one from the other. The examples in the last post moved in the direction of certain semantics to their likely phonetic forms. Yes this is a relationship. Let me admit that from the start and move on. I then use the term necessary relationship and claim that there is no prescriptive or proscriptive force from one segment to the other. Although there are apparent correlations between words about relative size and the vowels in those words most will agree that a words need not based their meaning on their vowels. And to support this they could counter the claim that a stressed vowel in a diminutive word can certainly be a back vowel as in "puny."

    If a contrary voice suggests that "puny" does have a +high initial segment (either [i] or [j]) in its stressed diphthong [ju], "huge" [hjudʒ] serves as a counter example. That can be countered by the additive argument: "puny" has an unstressed high segment in the second syllable that 'adds' to its diminutive tone. It's getting ridiculous already. There is no reason "puny" must mean "small." And although the direction of implication can make a supportable claim about what vowels are likely to be stressed in words with certain semantic intensions it is unreasonable to expect that on hearing the phonetic or phonological form in an unknown language anyone could synthesize its semantics.

    And for some this is an unbearable lightness. Buffy looks at my white board covered with formulae and the corresponding sets and symbols and all forms of data and its grids and she flashes back to her math classes. She is now fully immersed in the dense and philosophical literature of the renaissance and she doesn't always share my interest in the IPA. The patterns I'm identifying are semantically empty and she has questioned how I was able to leave behind my literary degrees and move over to phonology. We've moved in opposite directions. I can say nothing of her motives and her reasons for following her math degree with literature--but I left literature and moved over to phonology largely because I enjoy a field that is often unapologetically only about itself. I find phonology to be a largely self-absorbed field and I love it for that.

    There are of course many in the field who apply their learning and theories to early childhood language acquisition and even some who focus on theraputic applications. And that's a wonderful focus. I've said so before. But I came into the field because I spent several years telling high school aged students that success in my English classes was not going to guarantee success anywhere in their future, and failure would not guarantee failure anywhere else. Then why try? they asked. Why indeed. And so I moved into a culture that loves and trusts itself for its own sake. Such is academia. It's such a joy to read an essay that deals with expletives taboos and other offensive forms with spartan pointedness. No asterisks or &!@#ing euphemisms. (I'm not talking about the words themselves here so I don't need to use them.) While others are claiming that a word must be banned, linguists are assuming that it is possible to separate an offensive word from the hatred that often propels it. Separating a form from its meaning is my little reminder that basic investigation is a reasonable goal.

    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".

    Wednesday, December 20, 2006

    Web Log Project

    The new blogger accounts make it easy to label and organize posts. So instead of thinking of my next post topic I've been looking at old posts and assigning them tags. I'm one of those types that tries to account for everything mentioned in the post--even if it's not a main topic. It's the cross-referencing instinct.

    There are some features I would like to use on this new account, but that would require that I lose most of the changes that I made to formatting. For instance: I don't want to lose the drop-down comments that require a java-script. I'm not even sure if the "peek-a-boo" comments will be possible with the new format.

    So this web log might undergo some drastic design changes. I think I'll keep the runes in the background no matter what.


    This last semester ended (for me) with a busy Friday full of Middle English dialect analysis. I took the easy way out and accounted only for those features that pointed very clearly to the West Riding county in northern England. I noticed a few features that might complicate the placement, but I weighed them against the positive evidence I found and the reddening of my eyes and I decided that they could be ignored for the sake of my own sanity. Not a comfortable decision. It ruined my weekend.

    So Buffy and I went to Minnesota for a few days to recuperate. Ahhh Minnesota: that northern salve for the nervous spirit.

    We're back and defrosting. Page views have dropped steadily during my week long silence. I thank the faithful few who have been checking in. Your patient perseverance is heartening.

    Saturday, December 09, 2006

    Teggin id izi (or Taking It Easy)

    [Update: Welcome Spectrum Blog readers. Johnny A. Ramirez Jr. has kindly provided a link to this post--offering a kind estimation. I'm glad he finds this interesting. He also says I'm "not Adventist". I wonder if my comments on his website and on the Spectrum Blog have led him to that conclusion or if it's the implication of the following data that these comments about babdist-ism were directed at me. I should make it clear that these are comments that I read on another web log. Cheers.]

    I saw the word "babdist" a while ago. Apparently as a phonetic spelling for "baptist". I first saw it in the question (asked on another web log) "You sure your a babdist?" Because of the colloquial grammar and the use of "your" instead of "you're" I wondered if it was a mistake. Then the same writer posted another note making a correction: "you’re a babdist". So since the writer took the time to post a correction I have to guess "babdist" is exactly what he meant to write.

    I looked around and found several instances of the spelling. Some of them actually referring to the spelling. (Should "referring" or "to" be stressed in that sentence? See John Wells on accents and insists.) The spelling is used derisively by some and affectionately by others. Some people took offense or assumed an attack was intended. One writer explains

    "Now, I don’t mean to poke fun by writing ‘Babdist’ instead of Baptist; that’s just the way folks talk in these here parts, and there’s no point sugar-coating it"

    Then another comments on this usage saying
    "Your persistent use of the misspelling "Babdists", in conjunction with the ways you otherwise talk about them, communicates to me that you despise them and think you are better than they."

    I could go a lot of places with this. Why are accents so charged? Why is representation of an accent so easily considered ridicule? Is Chaucer's Reeve really mocking the students from Soler Hall? Can we learn anything about a culture from its pronunciation? I'll say no to the last one while granting that technically we can learn about its phonology, about the influence of foreign languages, about its historical cleaving from other dialects--basically we can learn about its pronunciation.

    But with socio-linguistics aside I'm curious about the pronunciation implied by this spelling of "babdist".

    AmE commonly flaps the [t] between vowels or between a vowel and an approximant [l] [r]. The rule can be refined to exclude an environment like after [l] (as in "alter") or before a stressed syllable (as in "retain").

    The flapping rule doesn't apply when another consonant is adjacent to the [t]. A similar rule either deletes or completely assimilates the [t] regressively to an adjacent alveolar nasal [n]. So we get forms like [ɛnɹ] for "enter" [ænɪbaɾi] for "antibody" or [pæniz] for "panties". We might not get [dejni] for "dainty" as often as [dejnti] because of a strong semantic force of the word--we take care with its pronunciation because it helps to communicate the care and precision of a 'dainty' type.

    And after a voiceless stop the [t] is never flapped--at least in my dialect. And I haven't noticed it in any other AmE dialect. (I'm not implying that it can't therefore exist. I am after all a beginner.) And since [p] doesn't get voiced intervocalically--"happy" doesn't become [hæbi], "topple" doesn't become [tabl] etc--why does is the word baptist becoming "babdist"? Is there a progressive voice assimilation rule flapping the [t] before the [ɪ] then another one voicing the [p] before the [ɾ] that used to be [t]? Either these rules do exist in a dialect, or some other rule merging the segments allowing [pt] to undergo the common flapped-t rule, or this spelling is a misrepresentation of the smoothed lilt of an accent. If the accent sounds "soft" and easigoin' maybe all consonants are represented by voiced lenition and all vowels are centered--a common AmE version of vowel reduction.

    Tuesday, December 05, 2006

    Solved: Middle English Manuscript

    Regarding the last post Daniel asks "So what can you tell from a handwriting analyst's perspective? Are they angry or lying or maybe a bit egotistical? :)"

    I think Chris Blake really needs to put more than a grain of salt into his lesson plans.

    Casey suggests/asks "It looks like "wheyder" to me, so I guess that would make it "wither?" I think so too. I should point out the thorn (þ) in the previous snippet that looks identical to a 'y'. This is common in MSS.

    Then he asks "But among so many variations for 'whether,' how could 'wheyder'--if 'whether' was intended--be an 'error?' Seems like these crazy middle-English speakers didn't really have orthodox spellings and their necessary opposite: errors." Well I suppose the question is fair. If there are so many spellings how can a new one be considered an error and not a new legitimate variant? Having not yet perused LALME I cannot say for sure, but I would think that there is still a requisite convention to any spelling. (I read MSS on a micro-(stanley)-fiche.) There were so many dialects that those variants are not single occurances but evidence of the motley mosaic that was Middle English. So if enough people spelled it that way--it's not an error. Mediaevalists have always been so Post-Modern. (Post-Modern Man: PoMo Sapiens?)

    Update: After looking at the MS carefully with Professor Astell we came up with a supportable transcription of the odd word I had previously mentioned.

    I overlooked an obvious character. The fourth from the end is not a 't'--no 't' in the MS rises so high above the line. It's a 'k'. So we have a kyng of some sort. But the line needs a verb so we look at the -yng as the present participle ending and -thyngk- is there as a base. So what type of "thinking"? Vin-? Vui? Viii? Vni? Is it a typo for unthyngkyng? "Thoughtless"?
    Or is it an almost impossible to pronounce vm-? Yes. Yes it is. Although I find no other instance of v=u in the text, the transcription would fit a form coming from the Old English ymb/ymbe meaning "around" or "about" or "near". The line is then part of a description of a man thinking about his character and fate.

    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Middle English Handwriting.

    My recent library time has been spent on the second floor of HESSE in front of a big clumsy microfilm projector. I have fun flipping through the notebook and reading the descriptions of the manuscripts. That is if I can find the corresponding text on the scroll. Although I'm looking for a text ca. 1350-1450 my first standard is the handwriting. So I've printed out several excerpts and studied them only to find that they're either much later or indecipherable or too short to meet the requirements of my project. Here are a few interesting items.

    mye blode (ra(n)ne) down be mye cheke

    thow prowde man þ'fore be meke

    I'm not absolutely sure about "ranne". The 'r' and the 'e' look certain. The 'n' looks clear and the 'a' is a probable. I have found the following spelling of 'man' (at least I hope it's 'man') in another line.

    This is pretty good evidence for 'ranne'.

    Not every puzzle is so easy. I found the following two lines in another MS.

    And what he sall be at his ende
    And whyderward þt he sall wende

    I see that the 'y' and the 'þ' are almost identical.

    In this same MS I found the following.

    And what he is & whe?der sall he

    The character in question could be either a 'y' or a 'þ'. If I translate the word as 'whether' both are reasonable as errors. The Middle English Dictionary I use online (click here for Purdue access) provides the following as some possible spellings for the word:
    whethere, whethir(e, whethur(e, whethre, whetir, wheder(e, whedir(e, whedur, whedre, whedder, wheddir, wheither(e, wheithir, wheidir, whither, whithur, whider, whidir, whother, whothir, whoder, whather, wher(e, wheer, wherre, whor, whar(e, wer(e, war(e, hweðer(e, hweðre, hwaðer, hwæðer, hwæder, hwere, hwor, wheþþr(e, whær, 3weþer, 3weþur

    (errors) wheper, wherther, weðe, queþe, hewðer, fader, spyer, dur, whe3(h)er, whoyþer

    So I start thinking it looks like an error. But could I have found a spelling error not yet found by the MED? I doubt it.

    If I translate it as "whither" the MED gives me these possible spellings:
    whider, whid(e)re, whidir, whidur, whither, whithir, wheder, whedir, whedur, whether, whethir, whethre, whethur, wheoder, whader, whoder(e, whodir, whodur, whother, whuder, wider, widir, widur, widdere, wiþþere, weder, wether(e, wethir(e, woder(e, wuder, qweder, qwedir, quid(d)er, quither, queder, quedire, quedur, quether, quethur, hoder(e, houdere, huider hwider, hwiðer, whudere, hwuder, 3wodere, wheyder, wheyther, whaþer, qwhider, qwheyer, quehdir, qhedder, hweder

    (errors) w3ide, fwider, (?error) wherther

    And so I find the form. This word 'wither' is closely tied to the "heaven or hell" question which is appropriate to this MS. I think I found my answer. And there's a bonus. 'wheyder' appears to be an uncommon form that may give me just the necessary boost towards finding the regional dialect.

    But then I find this.

    I figure the first letter is a "v" followed by some minims. There's an "h" and probably a "y". The last few letters look like "ngtyng". The minim before the "h" looks crossed. My guess is it's a "t". So: vinthyngtyng? Vuithyngtyng? But what if it's not a "t"? I have two weeks to figure it out.