Monday, September 10, 2007

You two behave or I'm gonna separate you

The pronunciation of many place names is difficult to deduce because they are long which confuses the scansion; they are full of digraphs which combined with confused scansion confuses the vowels; and they are unfamiliar. It's the same thing that makes my last name so daunting for so many people. I say it [ˌkʰow.vəˈɻuː.bjəs]

But consider a place name like Hamtramck a city geographically embraced by Detroit. There's no real ambiguity there. It looks pretty clear: [hæmtræmk]. But the final consonant cluster is a problem in English so it has to be fixed. That's where the ambiguity comes in. We don't like a nasal and following adjacent consonant to have contrasting places of articulation when syllabification forces us to make them a cluster. So the labial [m] and velar [k] doesn't work for us word finally. How to fix it?

It could be any of several repairs including:

  • simple progressive place assimilation--[hæmtɹæŋk]: this has worked in tank and rank and tin cup (even tho it's not word final) and is one of the most common repairs. But that's a coronal [n] assimilating. Labial [m] is not as willing to move.

  • excrescent progressive place assimilation--[hæmtɹæmŋk]: but this is very unlikely because there's now a more complex cluster and the adjacent mŋ still needs to be fixed. One likely repair would be to delete the [m] leading to the first repair as a final form. It's not a likely extra step.

  • excrescent progressive manner assimilation--[hæmtɹæmpk]: the m takes the voiceless stop feature of the [k] which sometimes occurs with words like tense [tɛnts] and answer [æntsɻ] but isn't a fix because it leaves adjacent [pk]. If the [k] is then deleted we would come around to another possible repair.

  • regressive assimilation of place--[hæmtɹæmp]: this is more simple than the previous mentioned repair; it would require one step: k → p. But that's not a likely repair. The [k] likes to stay put. It's not like those peregrine coronal nasals that assimilate to place of articulation with relative ease.

But the local fix is none of these. Call epenthesis to the rescue. The city is pronounced as if it was spelled 'Hamtramick' with primary stress on the 2nd syllable--[hæmˈtɻæmɪk]. Think of the rhythm of ham sandwich.

This is not so surprising a repair. About a year ago Eric Baković put up a post on phonoloblog describing his wife's playful truncation of berry names. When she encountered a similar problem she avoided assimilation and turned to epenthesis as a repair. Baković writes
assimilation (*[bɔɪzəmbz]) is independently blocked by whatever is responsible for the lack of word-final noncoronal nasal-voiced stop clusters ([mb] and [ŋg]) in English, deletion (as in bomb [ba:m]) is also blocked because the point of the truncation is for the [b] of berries to be retained, and so epenthesis is employed as the last resort. At least, that's an interesting way to look at what may just be Karen’s funny way of talking.

Epenthesis is not a favoured repair for illegal clusters. It may be too 'obvious' a fix. But it apparently has its place. Stretching at least from San Diego to Detroit.


Lately there's been a tiny burst of discussion regarding place names and their pronunciation. Recently the LA Times ran an article about Jackie Johnson's website meant to help with those hard-to-pronounce Wisconsin names. Ben Zimmer and Nancy Friedman alerted Mr. Verb to the article and he covered it in a post. Then the topic showed up on the ADS-L board and subscribers are still throwing out all sorts of observations and questions about the words and attitudes involved.


  1. I confess to being a little bit disappointed to learn the standard pronunciation of Hamtramck. I had been (mentally) pronouncing it as ['hæmtræmk], and relishing its (alas, imaginary) phonotactic oddness.

  2. That is so true. It's such a joy to find usage that persists against highly ranked constraints. Something that forces us to think outside the OT box.

  3. This reminds me of a typo I found working with addresses. I only identified it as a typo because I couldn't pronounce it.

    The town was Wetumpka, AL and was typoed as Wetunpka. I mean, seriously, how can someone pronounce that?


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