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.

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006

    Truespel concl.

    Zurinskas writes

    The alphabetical principle holds that letters stand for sounds. We find now that even Egyption [sic] hieroglyphic symbols stand for sounds, and we can speak the writings of 5,000 years ago because of this.
    The problem is that the alphabetical principle is not a universal principle. Our alphabet is a Romanized symbol set that corresponds very roughly (or shall I say flexibly) to our phonemes. Acknowledging this is not the same as believing that it 'must/should/better' be this way.

    Were I to accept Mr Zurinskas' claim about Egyptian hieroglyphs (which I understand is based on a simplistic summary of a documentary he saw) I would still reference the differences between Chinese dialects that are based on the same symbols and use different phonology. Is one of these dialects incorrect or less "true" to the symbol set?
    Arbitrary dialects destroy this relationship and should they take hold lessen the consistency of correspondence between letters and sounds and make English all the harder to read and learn. Not good.
    Okay so it's about consistency. But--what? Arbitrary dialects? Who are these people who have done away with phonology and have begun speaking with indecipherable idiolects based on nothing at all but whims and fancies? And on the flipside, who are these people who are choosing to represent the phonemes of English with fabricated symbol patterns? Like "truespel" for instance.
    Let's not be artificial dialectizers by misspeaking words, but rather retainers of what semplence [sic] of alphabetic principle we have for English.
    Mr Zurinskas wrote this in response to a question about the perfectly natural and reasonable dialectal pronunciation of milk as 'melk'. Apparently something wecked thes way comes. I have found no basis for his contempt of change beyond a premise that change is evil. He wants the English alphabet to correlate in all English dialects to the same sounds his dialect (or if you look at his phonemic transcriptions, his idiolect) recognizes. Why his dialect? Why the current correlations? Is the language at its peak? Have we been waiting ever since the Norman invasion to see English reach its current ideal state? Freeze things now because they'll only get worse?

    Zurinskas has no expertise in phonology or phonetics but claims to have training in psychological experimentation. Does he wish he had training in phonology/phonetics? A few weeks ago he made a claim that the first vowel in "English" is a high front [i] as in "bee", and he was challenged by several trained linguists who observed that it is more commonly lax [ɪ] as in 'bit' (and rarely the tense [i]). Some suggested that it might be a high center vowel [ɨ] (which is not a phoneme in English though many speakers pronounce the [i] or [ɪ] phoneme this way in some environments). Zurinskas' reply: "Right. Call [and ask] a friend that is not a linguist, a normal person." His response to the challenge of the rationale behind that suggestion: "Basically, I'm thinking we need unbiased opinion. Linguists are exposed to phonetic notation that could affect judgment." I take it he refers to those manipulative IPA symbols.

    When a body of knowledge encourages more accurate and therefore predictable observation I believe it's okay to affect judgment with that information.

    All quotes and examples are taken from either American Dialect Society LISTSERV postings or the website.

    Monday, November 27, 2006

    Truespel "Phonemes"

    Let us look at a few of truespel's transcriptions. These are taken from the website.

    mad = ~mad
    hat = ~hat
    apt = ~apt
    This one seems reasonable.

    father = ~faather,
    hop = ~haap,
    aardvark = ~aardvaark,
    knock = ~naak
    I'm not certain why Mr Zurinskas decided to use "aa" as a low center/back vowel--but I'm guessing his inclusion of aardvark in the set is an attempt to justify the symbol as relating to orthography. I can think of a few other examples of that sound spelled with "aa": Paas easter egg colouring kits; Golfer Jay Haas. And when cartoon characters scream it's usually spelled "aaahh!" which we'll assume represents the same vowel.

    Even with this mountain of evidence linking it to a pattern in English orthography (usually when spelling Dutch borrowings) it illustrates the inability of this system to avoid the main liability of any system based on orthography--the same symbol (in this case 'a') represents two different sounds. Doubling makes sense if the transcription intends to double the quantitative length of the vowel--but to represent the vowel change from 'hat' to 'hot' doubling isn't any more intuitive than introducing a new symbol.

    sundae = ~sundae
    make = ~maek
    paid = ~paed

    Here he uses 'sundae' to establish the pattern. Why this digraph I'm not sure. My guess is that there is an orthographic clue to the [ej] diphthong when an 'e' follows in the next syllable thus making the 'a' "long." We remember this from the phonics lessons that told us how to distinguish between 'mad' and 'made'; 'fad' and 'fade'; 'tam' and 'tame'; 'bad' and 'bade'. But this clue to pronunciation is best understood as an indicator of the historical two-syllable forms that lengthened a vowel when in an open syllable. Wouldn't it make more sense within this system to combine the two units that represent the two vowels ("e" & "ee") or the vowel and glide ("e" & "y") in this phoneme

    But there is no way to distinguish between the tense and lax mid front vowels in "truespel." The closest the system comes to recognizing the two is the introduction of "~air" used to represent what is apparently analyzed as a vocal-rhotic (my term) phoneme, such as we hear in "fair" "bare" and "wear".

    Why not spell it "er"? Apparently because that's already used to represent the vocal-rhotic phoneme" in "fur" "sir" and "docter". Again we have a vowel ('e') representing different sounds. Since Zurinskas uses "~u" to represent several lax middle vowels (or schwas) it's not clear to me why he avoids it here.

    Here is where I can say "etc" and avoid picking on every problematic phoneme representation in "truespel". I have to save space for an observation or two regarding dialects and another about syllable stress.

    "Truespel" has some regional biases. It recognizes the phonemic vowels that are differentiated in some areas (such as the 'cot'/'caught' and 'rot'/'wrought' vowels) and even recognizes some dialectal allophonic alternations as separate phonemes. For some reason he decides to represent the first vowel of "anchor" as the diphthong [ej] ("~ae" in his system). This occurs in some areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota. (But I'll grant that this is a matter of transcription. It doesn't reflect his system--just his analysis and ear.)

    Zurinskas does apparently believe in representing certain non-phonemic phones in his transcriptions. Probably because he believes they are pronounced by everyone (like the vowel in "anchor"). In 'entrance' is "~entrints", 'pounce' is "~pounts", and 'insistence', is "~inssistints". Transcribed this way it is impossible to differentiate between 'sense' and 'cents' phonemically.

    And transcribing 'imbibe' as "~inbbieb" is just incorrect.

    He uses a system of doubled consonants to indicate stress on a following syllable. I'm not sure how he justifies the doubled 'c' & 'h' in "~reecchhaarj", but decides to double only the 's' in "~inssher" ('insure'). I would guess that he only doubles the 't' in 'without'-"~witthout" because he hears it as a voiced fricative and in his system a doubled 'h' would indicate voiceless as in 'rethink'-"~reetthheenk".

    So how would this stress indicator deal with a geminate consonant as the [t] in "cattail"? If doubling the vowel indicates a vowel stress he can't use "~tt" or the stress switches to the second syllable. "~cattael" would sound like "caTAIL" wouldn't it?

    Though some of his transcriptions look very close to typical English orthography I can't imagine that "~Ummairiku" is the best transcription to teach a child or adult to read "America."

    I have one more short post on this topic. Next time: Mr Zurinskas' attempt at a "socio-moral" (my term) rationale.

    All quotes and examples are taken from either American Dialect Society LISTSERV postings or the website.

    Friday, November 24, 2006

    Truespel vs IPA part II

    Mr Zurinskas says that he wants

    a simple notation of the 40 USA English sounds that kids and adults can use to achieve "phonemic awareness".... They can read and write stories in first grade, and transition to tradspel is no problem as demonstrated by IBM's Writing to Read system as tested by ETS. But that system uses special symbols, not as simple as truespel.

    If simplicity is what he's going for it must be noted that "truespel"'s allegiance to the alphabet makes it more complex than the IPA where representations are consistent and some dialectal variation is easily accounted for by representing phonemes instead of allophones. I take it he wants something to mimic American orthography. But he wants it to represent pronunciation consistently. I don't know much about IBM's "Writing to Read" program. It involves listening and reading stations and computer programs, using sound and feedback to direct and provide feedback on a learner's reading and writing. I don't know about the "special symbols" that it uses. I will make no claims comparing this system to "truespel."

    But Zurinskas apparently has intentions beyond his attempt to debunk the current phonics curriculum. He has put together 4 books on his system and calls it his "life's work."

    It integrates the dictionary...with initial teaching of reading..., and eventually translation guides to other languages. No other notation can do this.

    Based on his last claim I must assume he is urging his campaign against the IPA. Of course the IPA can transcribe any language only but at the dear expense of integration with the dictionary. But I wonder how "truespel" is supposed to translate into other languages. Because the system is limited by its reliance on standard AmE orthography it can only capture AmE phonemes. How will he capture the difference between Spanish pero - but, and perro - dog? How will he transcribe a front round vowel in German flügel? How will he capture the phonemic difference between an aspirated or unaspirated stop? English does not have these.

    "Truespel" cannot capture non-English phonemes unless it provides system of redundant vowels or symbols as diacritics. Will double and triple letters start creeping in? Will the dollar sign start to represent a sound? This system already uses doubled consonants to indicate phonemic stress in a word so that "attack" is transcribed "~uttak" and "implore" is transcribed "~impllor." (Mr Zurinskas has decided to use the tilde as the marker of his transcription system.) So "truespel" would represent that tasty drink, the hot toddy "~haatttaadee"? This would become the equivalent of Ptolemaic deferents and epicycles attempting to take back the astronomical model of the universe.


    All quotes and examples are taken from either American Dialect Society LISTSERV postings or the website.

    Tuesday, November 21, 2006

    Truespel vs IPA part I

    An ambitious gentleman named Tom Zurinksas has formulated and proposed a form of phonetic notation that he believes will better serve English phonetics than will the IPA. He describes his system over at, also providing a table full of examples of his transcriptions.

    On the American Dialect Society LISTSERV forum he has provided a snippet of his manifesto sales-pitch. Here I share a few notable quotes.

    English is the lingua franca of the world....Because English is the most important language, phonetic notation should be based on English. It should use regular letters so that it's easy to write. That's the big impetus behind truespel notation.

    He doesn't say what body of phonetic notation should be done with "truespel." By calling English "the most important language" I must assume that he is ranking this phonetic system against systems that favor other languages. I can't think of any standard phonetic notation system that isn't heavily based on conventional English characters. But I'm not really sure if he means that "truespel" is valuable because it's based on the orthography of English or just the characters. Either way he is mounting an attack on the Internation Phonetic Alphabet for some odd reason that makes sense to him. Apparently he doesn't like using character maps.

    But there's a bigger reason; our kids. They are not exposed to phonetic reading and writing because of unusable phonetic notation in our dictionaries.

    Oh is that why? I thought we kept phonetics from them because... wait... My nieces and nephew are learning phonics. Isn't that a system that attempts to show the relationships between spelling and pronunciation? And just how unusable is the phonetic notation in dictionaries? There are several systems yes. Confusing? Sometimes. I remember my 5th grade teacher who thought the pronunciation gloss of John Muir's name (MYOOR) meant it was pronounced like flier and buyer. I do wish dictionaries would provide a pronunciation key or som- (...What's that? ...which ones?...really?...)
    Never mind.

    So I'm not grasping Mr Zurinskas' reason for this new standard he has organized. To his demand that the system base itself more on English (he apparently wants to favour American English) I suggest that is a short-sighted goal given the importance of a system that can be applied to all languages. I suggest also that IPA is already quite close to English orthography. The simple transcription for "bed" is [bɛd]; "forever" is [forɛvər] or the indecipherable [fərɛvər]. Not quite "unusable."


    All quotes and examples are taken from either American Dialect Society LISTSERV postings or the website.

    Sunday, November 19, 2006

    "Thanks Lovely"--"Ask Lovely"

    Is that how we would translate "Danke schön" "Bitte schön"?

    On a web log I visit regularly someone left a comment regarding the amount of power produced by West Virginia coal, oil, and natural gas. She ended with "So America, you're welcome for the energy!"

    For? When did you're welcome change its syntactic properties? On another day I might not have noticed this preposition. But something caused me to pause and think "which would I have said, for or to?"

    Once I paused to think about it my literal side cried out "to! It's to! But there's a part of me that hears 'for' as appropriate. I wonder how I would respond if someone said "you're welcome" and I didn't know why. I'd probably ask "for what?" just as easily as "why?" But does that transfer to hearing it as "you're welcome for X"?

    In that structure I find a literal paraphrase only in "I support your entitlement: I say so in reference to X." But that's an unlikely intention.

    "You're welcome" has now become a parallel directive to "thank you"--both of them taking the same preposition.

    I wonder if this has something to do with the tendency of people to respond to a "thank you" by repeating a "thank you" instead of offering the assurance "you're welcome."

    "Thank you."
    "Thank you."

    So the speech act is separated from the context or subjuct of the speech act--and the relative role of the locutor/hearer to that context. What used to be I thank your for your offering and You are welcome to my offering has now become You are thanked /(regarding/for this interaction) and the simply restated You are welcomed /(regarding/for this interaction).

    The new meaning of this exchange is then "Irecipient approve of this event" and "Iagent approve of this event."

    Saturday, November 18, 2006

    Still Blue

    Ohio buckeye

    NOUN: A large shrub or tree (Aesculus glabra) of the central United States, having compound leaves and yellowish-green flowers.

    The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

    ...The wood...of the buckeye is soft.

    The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright © 2004, Columbia University Press.


    Extremely strong and fierce, the wolverine hunts a wide variety of animals, and will drive animals larger than itself away from a kill. It has been known to attack nearly every animal except humans [like Troy Smith]. It robs traps of bait and victims and steals food supplies in camps; however, its reputation for gluttony is exaggerated [as it is apparently averse to devouring the nut of the Buckeye tree].

    The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright © 2004, Columbia University Press.

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006

    Not So Colorless; Not So Green

    When Chomsky decided to illustrate the separation of syntax from semantics he created a sentence that he believed could not have a sensible meaning.

    Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

    Many introductory syntax courses continue to offer on this famous illustration. Many semantics courses are just as sure to point out that the semantics are in fact quite easy to expand. We look at a metaphorical use of 'colorless' meaning boring or insipid; we take 'green' to mean young or undeveloped; we think of 'ideas' as the exchange of plans and policies, and the attitudes towards them from various member of some committee; we use 'sleep' as a form of silence or dormancy--perhaps the time when the committee votes to table the issue; and we use furiously to indicate the seething emotions and the planning and plotting that the contentious factions in this tense conference room where people are making stupid suggestions and wasting time.

    ...for instance.

    But it makes his point. I like another form of separation from semantics. The paradox. There is a necessary schism between text and meaning in the following:

    1. Don't do what this sentence is telling you to do.

    2. Disagree with this sentence, okay.

    3. This sentence is not meant for you.

    The extension of "this" can be a sentence before or after the one that contains the word. If we read a haiku in class and I ask "So does this do a good job with the seventeen syllable limit?" I'm more likely asking about the poem and not the sentence while I'm speaking it. Or if I say "hey listen to this one-liner" I should probably say a second line. But if 'this' refers the sentence in which it's used we have an imposed semantic disconnect.

    At least one crucial word in sentence 1 has no semantic extension: "what." I might even claim that "telling" has lost all rights to its claim because it functions in a sentence that has rendered the verb incapable. The sentence tells me something that cannot be--therefore it is not telling me anything. Since telling and not-telling cannot be the same thing there can be no semantic quality to the word. But now I'm realizing that I've paid too much attention to Beowulf this term and I've forgotten how to talk about semantics.

    Some semantic textbooks are fond of the phrase "in all possible worlds." Is this like the mathematical employment of imaginary to label the square root of a negative number? We say it's imaginary because it can't exist--but by saying that it has a quality, imaginary, we've created an entity that can be defined, and therefore exists.

    The last word of this sentence is not here.

    Monday, November 13, 2006

    The SAT Snowclone

    Linguistics web logs all over are talking about snowclones. Tenser, said the Tensor has even written a post about a Perl program he wrote to help quantify occurances and variations in the Google™ corpus. It has gotten the attention of Language Log, the web log that started it all.

    Arnold Zwicky recently posted some of the notable snowclone formulae that have accumulated on his "desk" since 2000. People are sending them to him constantly. After reading his list I was reminded of one common formula and its comedy cousin. (What follows is from an email I sent to Mr Zwicky.)

    The first is the standard "X is to Y what Z is to Q" -- which can be used as a complement, an insult, or a neutral (though sometimes odd) observation. E.g. "She is to academics what Olivier is to acting" or "He is to relationships what Gallagher is to watermelons" or "She is to cooking what Stephen King is to writing."

    The second is a simple change in the formula: X is to Y what Z is to Y. There's usually a partial echo between X and Z. I first heard it used by Comedian Jeff Ross in a Friars Club Roast of Drew Carey (1998). He said "Drew Carey is to comedy what Mariah Carey is to comedy."

    Whoever first used this formula for comic effect was obviously well aware of the ability of a snowclone to shape expectation very quickly. I especially like how the similarity of X and Z make the repetition of Y ridiculous.

    But I've heard it used several times since then -- even by Jeff Ross himself. Satire doesn't work as well served as leftovers.

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006 Alex?

    On Jeopardy this week (Celebrity Week!) there were two phonetic/phonology events to note that I can remember. One of Jane Kaczmarek's responses got me thinking about phonology but I can't remember what it was.

    Event #1
    Two letter words.
    Paraphrase of the Clue:
    The "sound" represented in AmE orthography as u-h is represented this way in BrE.
    Correct Response:
    My Thought:
    When I saw the response I recognized the likely reason for the difference. I always read the spelling as a heavy 'uurr' [ɻ] but in Received Pronunciation the 'r' would be dropped. So RP 'er' would sound very similar to the AmE pronunciation of 'uh.' Both could be transcribed phonetically as a very long [əː] or [ɜː]. The AmE might sometimes be pronounced and transcribed [ʌː].
    Alex's 2 cents:
    After providing the answer he decided to perform the sound. But he pronounced it [ɻː]. Why? It's not really a word and the British spelling isn't meant to be translated. When a Spanish speaking friend sends an email and decides to represent a laugh orthographically it's written 'jaja.' It would be silly to tell someone that my friend represents a laugh with [dʒa.dʒa].

    Event #2
    When Nancy Grace responded to a question about a world record foot tapping speed in a certain type of dance she responded "what is flamingo?" The judges thought about it and deemed it an incorrect response. The dance is of course the "flamenco." She laughed and demanded that she had in fact said "flamenco." She defended her pronunciation by saying "I'm from Georgia!"

    Is she claiming that in Georgia the voiceless velar stop is voiced in that environment? I haven't heard a Georgia dialect that voices [k] intervocalically or in contact with a sonorant. Let me know if there is one. Is she claiming that a Georgia accent is hard to understand? The judges have tape and they do go back and listen to the audio carefully when they have to. Is she claiming that in Georgia people choose random sounds and as long as it's close she shouldn't be held to the same standard as other people? C'mon Ms Grace--your accent is just as rule driven as any.

    Language Preservationist Wins Award

    A short post over at Language Log reports on the recognition Leanne Hinton recently received for her work preserving and revitalizing languages.

    Leanne has long worked with California Indian tribes who are on the point of losing, or have lost, their heritage languages. Her famous Master-Apprentice program has been adopted by communities in which a few elders still speak the tribal language fluently; her regular Breath of Life workshops at Berkeley are an important resource for communities whose languages are no longer spoken but are sufficiently well documented that they can (with hard work and some luck) be revived.

    I introduce no controversy to the value of such work. I laud and appreciate her efforts. Such work is one of the most important and pleasing applications of Linguistic study.

    Here's the balancing act: Does this value make it necessary that linguists contradict themselves when they scoff at or dismiss the claims of prescriptivists who say language is deteriorating and non-standard dialects are the bane of our language's beauty?

    It isn't so horrible that Middle English reflects the influence of French is it? Is it tragic that English no longer uses 'seo' as a feminine article?

    To one who claims such an award is hypocritical the challenge may go in several directions.

    1) To lose a language is different from seeing the language change

    2) It is a fair distinction to make between a language that is on the verge of disappearing and a language that is changing while thriving.

    3) When the language is on the verge of disappearing because no succeeding generation has a reasonably intelligible grasp of the language's grammar we are no longer talking about language change.

    4) Linguists in fact do work to preserve the so called "dead" languages and if we could somehow travel back in time to get more information from L1 speakers -- and encourage them to teach and propogate the language, we would do so (if in fact we trusted such time travel to be safe).

    5) When a language fades because political, social, economic, and martial forces have historically sought explicitly to subjugate and extinguish a culture, it is a fair (i.e. just? i.e. beautiful?) principle that leads to an interest and investment in a contrary force.

    And better arguments than these can be made by better minds than mine.

    Monday, November 06, 2006

    The Great Consonental Elide

    Compensatory lengthening: it has nothing to do with all those spam emails I get every day. Its a form of phonological alternation related to the post on "careful" pronunciation. Let's take a look at Buffy's pronunciation as an illustration.

    Her pronunciation of contracted forms usually deletes the [d]. This leaves her saying words that sound like 'shoont' and 'woont'. The vowel quality remains the same. It's the lax high back vowel [ʊ] in 'hook' 'stood' and 'roof'. (Anyone disagree about that last one?)

    In the fast speech of many AmE speakers these words lose the [d] and the vowel is reduced to an incredibly weak or short schwa. In a quick phrase like "you really shouldn't say that" the word could be transcribed [ʃə̆ʔ]. Perhaps some assimilation/deletion rule ends up knocking out the [d] before the [t] becomes a glottal stop. What of the limbo that holds the [n]? Even in careful speech the [n] would be syllabic -- transcription [ʃʊ.dn̩t]. Of course some might go ahead and put a vowel in there: [ʃʊdɪnt] or [ʃʊdənt]. But when the two dentals are gone the [n] seems to lose its platform. In front of the glottal stop, it can be lost in all the voicelessness. (The glottal stop is a strange sound that cannot exist in a voiced manner. It is the complete obstruction of air at the glottis: the source of voicing.) Or let's suggest that the deletion of the voiced dental stop removes the articulatory context for the nasal to exist -- so the deletion kills them both.

    So Buffy gets rid of only the [d]. Granted her [n] is very slight--so I'll represent it by nasality of the vowel (as is common in AmE). She also dodges that 'lazy' label by compensating for the lost consonent with vowel length. So her pronunciation 'shouldn't' or 'couldn't' or 'wouldn't' is a clear [ʃʊ̃ːʔ] or [wʊ̃ːʔ] or [kʊ̃ːʔ]

    This elision of alveolars is common. Especially in the context of other alveolars. Look at the common pronunciation of the day named after Wodin, no one says [wɛd.nɛs.dej]; now it's [wɛns.dej]. This may not be a result of the same process. But still... And the segments don't even have to be adjacent. Look at the common AmE pronunciation of that institution of mediocre satire: Saturday Night Live. The already flapped [t] has just about disappeared taking the following schwa with it. First [sæ.tər.dej] then [sæɾər.dej] and now [sæːrdej].

    And some people delete an alveolar whose context is ambiguous. While deriding George W's non-standard pronunciation [nu.kju.lər] of nuclear ([nu.kli.ər] or [nu.kliːr]) most people overlook two things.

    1) He is creating a more natural form by maximising the onset of each syllable and/or simplifying the vowels.
    2) His pronunciation is less garbled than Jimmy Carter's. Carter still pronounces the word with a muffled and strange sounding compensation for the deleted [l]. I keep listening to him but I'm not ready to pick one transcription.

    [nukiːə] [nukiː] [nukjəː] [nukjə]

    He says it several times here. Put your ear to the test.

    Saturday, November 04, 2006

    Some of the Tum.

    American English loves the schwa. Unless we start to look very closely at the phonetics of pronunciation we can transcribe the phoneme as the standard lax central vowel [ə]. Several vowels in AmE can alternate with this sound when in an unstressed position. Consider the following pairs of stressed (or emphatic) and unstressed pronunciations of words/syllables.

    the: [ði] - [ðə]
    forever: [fo.rɛ.vər] - [fə.rɛ.vər] (Final [r] is probably syllabic--the first may be as well.)
    mistake: [mɪstek] - [məstek] (is the [s] possibly syllabic?)
    that: [ðæt] - [ðət]
    to: [tu] - [tə]
    A: [ej] - [ə]

    and so on...

    When a vowel that is almost always unstressed gains a necessary (or artificial) stress the new vowel varies dialectally. I've heard some Canadians stress the indefinite article by saying [æː]. In the U.S. it's almost always stressed [ej]. When I was in the Glee Club at the University of Michigan we learned to sing the last syllable of "Michigan" as if it rhymed with "gone." A few listeners made a point of telling us that we were pronouncing it incorrectly. "You're supposed to say it 'Michi-gen'" they offered. They obviously were interpreting underlying form of the schwa as the [ɛ] in red bed get them... UM Glee Club phonology says that when stressed its the [a] of father hot otter bomb. Okay it's not actual phonology at all. It's more of a this-vowel-is-the-best-for-singing system.

    So what does this have to do with Buffy? When a vowel is stressed she turns it into the stressed open-mid vowel symbolised by the "carrot" or "hat" [ʌ] that we hear in cut love sun... (technically the open-mid back unrounded vowel). I've heard other people do this but not as clearly as she does. The two words in which she does this most clearly are 'to' and 'because.' Our Austrian friend Norbert cracks up whenever he hears her say this. What he I find so funny is the stress she puts on these segments. When she says "because" [bʌkʌːz] as a clear spondee the two syllables have the same vowel. And when she says 'to' [tʌː] she often lengthens it dramatically while she's making her point--either gesticulating or thinking of a good word: "You know how little kids like tuhhh..." (her hands flailing) "frolic and flounce crazily..."

    This is a drastic neutralization of two vowel sounds that are underlyingly quite far from their usual pronunciation. When unstressed they're almost identical [ə], while most people will stress them as high front tense [i] and high back tense [u]. Buffy's surface form for emphasis puts them both in the same place [ʌ]. This shouldn't strike us as too odd considering that most Americans do this also--and with the same word. Sometimes 'the' is stressed with the high front [i]--"are you the Donny Most?" and other times as the open-mid back unrounded vowel [ʌ]--"Wouldn't you know it? The one time I choose to miss class..."

    [The last stressed 'the' is harder to illustrate contextually. It's not a standard with a clear semantic meaning like the celebrity indicative 'the'.]

    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    A Flat Tree Will Get You Nowhere

    So Daniel wants to preserve the clarity of some pronunciation distinctions while Buffy would like to support my claims because she loves me and I'm always right.

    I'll agree with Buffy. But I'll still address Daniel's issue. It's a fair challenge he poses to my analogy -- as I pose articulation with football.

    I bring issue to your analogy. Movement, opening a door, running a football, picking up a saucer, is a personal and individual task. . . . I think speech should be interactive.

    And yet we can reconsider the various tenors of the simile and say that in each of those activities there is a goal just as in speech there is the goal of reasonably unimpeded transference of an idea. So now we look at each performance whether in a social setting or in an empty cafe or through a lonely doorway and we again pose the question: "Why would adjustment and continuity be valued in one and derided in another?"

    So when we're communicating with another, clarity is important. That awkward [t] might be important when stressing writer or whiter. Yes, there are many ways to effectively communicate, including some "tripping" language, depending on our audience, but efficient speech doesn't mean effective speech.

    This is certainly true. The most efficient speech, without regard from the Speaker for the ability of the Hearer to understand, would be something like a *sigh* or an open mouthed "uuhhhh" probably corresponding to exhalation. But this is not what I defend when I use one example from a common American dialect that voices and flaps intervocalic dentals. In that example I defend a particular allophone that is quite clear to all Americans. And lest we say that the flap is at the top of a slippery slope we have to look at the company changes often keep.

    American English does elide some sounds. In 'laboratory' many American speakers syncopate the second vowel saying [ˈlæ.brǝ.to.rɪ] while some British dialects would elide the penultimate vowel saying [lǝˈbɔ.rǝ.trɪ]. Any readers who know this to be false about BrE please let me know. This may be my over-eager application of a pre-sonorant/post-schwa elision rule.

    If we consider again the words 'rider' and 'writer' we find that the vowel change very ably serves the goal of distinction. So while the purely phonemic underlying form differs only by the voicing of the middle consonant the surface form in AmE differs by vowel quality instead. Here is where I bring back my analogy with a running back. One color commentators will say Man that Emmitt Smith is a hardworking back. Look how he just pushes up the middle and keeps turning his legs when he hits the line and another commentator says But he's nothing like Barry Sanders. Look at how far he runs before he even gets to the line. If they counted lateral yards Sanders would have the rushing record by far! Then the first would argue that Smith did more work by being a receiver as well.

    If we consider the pre-sonorant/post-schwa elision rule at work in both BrE and AmE pronunciation of the word 'watery' we see tit-for-tat surface forms. In some BrE dialects 'watery' is pronounced as two syllables because of schwa deletion: [wɔː.trɪ]. Because the schwa will not elide after a flap the AmE surface form remains trisyllabic: [wa.ɾǝ.rɪ]. We find the same comparison of AmE and BrE 'flattery': [flæ.trɪ] & [flæ.ɾǝ.rɪ]. It goes back and forth and becomes an argument about which types of distinctions are the more virtuous to preserve.

    There is a larger arbitrating factor. When the allophones and pronunciations in question are part of a dialect (as opposed to an idiolect) the ability of the Hearer to understand is already attested. When a dialect recognizes and favours one distinction we use preposterous logic to say that it is out of consideration for the audience that we discard its phonology.

    Okay -- Next time: Buffy's careful efficiency. It's related to this.

    Sunday, October 29, 2006

    Being and Becoming

    Here's a quick question before I say more about Buffy's speech, and I arbitrate between her and Daniel as they contend some points of my previous post.

    Setup: On the Sycamore Review blog Anna alerts us to Jenny Diski's post over at Guardian Unlimited. Diski's post is all about "writing" as a career choice. I perused it. I'll peruse it later. One sentence caught my attention:

    If you are literate (though it's getting to be a much less than universal ability) then, the thought goes, you can write a book.

    Forget around the universe -- here on earth, was literacy a more generally assumed quality years ago than it is now? Is it actually "getting to be" less common than it was?

    I honestly don't know the statistics. And I know that the definition of literacy has changed. But even if the interest in reading books is waning I'm guessing that it has not as much to do with literacy as it does with the easy pap of celebrity magazines.

    Thursday, October 26, 2006

    Speaking Trippingly

    Buffy has a funny habit of pronouncing words both carefully and "efficiently" at the same time (I'll give examples in my next post). I say efficiently because I'm trying to remain neutral on dialectal judgment. One of my professors likes to use the phrase "lazy pronunciation" to describe phonological alternations, but I don't like the implications of "lazy."

    Steven Pinker makes an excellent case against the view that speech markers are the result of lazy articulation. In The Language Instinct he first points out that the same people "who are derided for dropping g's in Nothin' Doin' are likely to enunciate the vowels in pó-lice and acci-dént that pointy-headed intellectuals reduce to a neutral "uh" sound" (180).

    Add to that the diphthongization of the vowels in "tin can" -- leading the words to become disyllabic instead of monosyllabic -- and how can we call it lazy when some words are pronounced with units that are more marked and others with a greater number of units. Northern [kæn] is more simple than [kæ:jǝn]. So the Southern American accent is doing more work -- quantitatively.

    Pinker also makes the argument that assimilative articulation is completely natural. He draws on the analogy that when you reach for a saucer and a coffee cup you grab the edge closest to you and you put your hand in the grasping position before you touch the cup.

    Let's look at another example. I'll make the analogy from walking through a door to the post-stress intervocalic voicing in American English [t] > [d,ɾ]. Imagine walking towards a glass door that you know opens by pushing. Imagine further that you are familiar with this door and know that it opens easily without a strong push. When you approach the door you see there is no one on the other side and you put your hand forwards to contact the door and push it aside while your stride continues. In my observation I have seen that even when the door opens towards the "walker" and even when a knob has to turn to unlatch the door there is still often one foot in motion so that the stride of the walker is barely interrupted -- at most it slows just a bit.

    Is this continuous movement of the feet evidence of slovenly or slurred motion? Would we say that these people are slaughtering the beauty of graceful and careful walking? On the contrary. By anticipation and adaptation this shows balance and agility. How odd it would look if before every door the walker stopped -- put out a hand -- placed palm against handle -- closed fingers around handle -- pulled door -- stepped through door...etc.

    And yet we argue this as the very virtue of a good speaker. When I say "water" with a strict [t] between the vowels I find myself feeling stilted and guilty. That interruption of voice is just as unnecessary as the flat-footed stop in front of a door. In my dialect there is a wonderful allophone corresponding the voiceless and voiced alveolar stop: the alveolar 'tap' or 'flap.' This is not a simple and easy phone. It's a very quick and light lingual articulation. It requires great precision to avoid sounding like the lateral [l] or the voiced fricative usually represented orthographically as 'z' or 'zh'. To argue that this allophone is a product of laziness is like arguing that a running-back is lazy because he runs around a linebacker instead of walking right up to him and trying to push him over.

    Saturday, October 21, 2006

    I Don't Think He'll Keep It Down

    Here's an odd strategy for keeping teenagers quiet.

    According to the Associated Press a woman who thought a 14 year old boy was too loud when playing basketball decided to encourage discourage his noise by standing on her sundeck and dropping her clothes. He ran into the house to tell his parents.

    The linguistic concern here is that the law regarding indecent exposure refers to the perpetrator as one who "exposes his person." So the judge threw out the case. The prosecution argues that elsewhere in California state law is the claim "words used in the masculine gender include the feminine and neuter" so this indecency law is not gender specific and the woman should be prosecuted.

    Is it possible that the masculine includes the "feminine" and "neuter?" Would it be more accurate to say that grammatically masculine words may also refer to people or objects that are not male?

    But I lean towards the prosecution. There is some ambiguity in the wording of the law. It certainly would be gender exclusive if instead of "his person" it refered to "his manhood." And without regard to gender isn't "his person" kind of vague anyway? If I have a coat on my "person" I can still be wearing it as I should -- on my back and shoulders right?

    Wednesday, October 18, 2006

    There's no Lyon in Baseball!

    I know, I know -- It's "Lyons."

    So if translating perceived attitudes into unattested linguistic patterns is to "linguify" then what do we call translating a linguistic behaviour into a claim about attitude? I'm not talking about translating a word into its classical semantic components - denotative and connotative. I'm talking about reading a decision about grammar as a comment on culture. Let's get past the obvious argument that language is a cultural phenomenon and it reveals much about the user. Let's look specifically at the recent firing of Steve Lyons for on air comments that have been called "racially insensitive" (Janie McCauley - AP) and "ethnically inappropriate" (Paul J. Gough - Hollywood Reporter).

    According to McCauley Lyons was commenting on Lou Piniella's heritage. Gough doesn't identify any agenda in Lyons' speech. Here are some slices of the mini-corpus being autopsied.

    Piniella compared the likelihood of an average player repeating a quality performance to "finding a wallet on a Friday night and looking for one on Sunday and Monday, too." He then described exceptional play as "en fuego" and poor play "frio." The stories I found disagreed about which players Piniella was describing.

    Lyons, who apparently doesn't speak much Spanish, said that Piniella was "habla-ing Español" and added "I still can't find my wallet." He further said "I don't understand him, and I don't want to sit too close to him now."

    Of his ungrammatical Spanish McCauley says Lyons was "butchering the conjugation for the word 'to speak'." Is it even more disrespectful if Lyons pronounced the "h"? G-d forbid that he go so far as to add a disrespectful English pronunciation to his insensitive English morphology. What's next? Racist syntax?

    Well sort of.

    Lyons put a joke in the wrong spot. Piniella made a common but weak analogy from athletic performance to material serendipity and then started speaking a language other than English for some vague effect -- a practice canonized by those linguistic-prophet sportscasters at ESPN.

    I'm guessing that the controversy stems from the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a linguistic observation and jocular utterance. Or the merging of them with "habla-ing." The anger - or remedial action - directed at his comment must come from some belief that a comment about language (in the form of his Spanglish word) right next to a comment about a stolen wallet equals his equation of an ethnicity with a proclivity to steal.

    The plot has its antecedent action as well. Lyons has a history of saying silly things that might show disrespect. That history includes questioning one player's commitment to Jewish traditions, commenting on an unfamiliar sight-aid he noticed in the crowd, and claiming that English was another player's second language.

    How dare he mention L2 in a beisbol game?

    Sunday, October 15, 2006

    If You Think A You Must Say B.

    Geoffrey Pullum has an ongoing campaign over at Language Log to defend his claims regarding what he calls "linguification." He provides this example of the rhetorical device, then he comments on it.

    It's difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word 'bisexual' without finding that it is immediately followed by the word 'chic'.

    Instead of talking about mainstream media attitudes, [Alexis Long] linguified the claim, constructing a new statement about obligatory word adjacency in running text.

    Apparently a lot of journalists are deciding to make observations about language that they believe imply something about cultural values. Mr Pullum has heard all the defences of this technique. Too many people have written to him trying to explain that this is just a figure of speech and it's a nod to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and it shouldn't be taken literally and it's often intended to be humorous. And Pullum is fed up.

    What I wanted to draw attention to was simply the strange practice of publishing linguified claims: for example, saying the name X is invariably followed by the phrase Y when it isn't, or saying X is always accompanied by the qualifier Y when it isn't, and so on and so on. Why linguify? I have no idea. It just doesn't look like a good writing idea to me.

    I agree. One of my old pet peeves is the snowclone "I never thought I'd hear _X_ and _Y_ uttered in the same sentence." This one makes no sense considering how easy it is to construct a sentence that reasonably uses two terms that no one thought would ever be related. But what's worse is that the cookie cutter phrase often fills the blanks with two things that are very closely related through controversy. It is common to hear this form generate a sentence like the following:

    I never thought I'd hear "Pope" and "Ozzy" in the same sentence.

    Really? Is it so hard to imagine that a religious leader might have an opinion about the prince of darkness? Or that there might be some completely legitimate reason to mention the Pope and heavy metal music in the same sentence?

    A simple Google search for the exact phrases "thought I'd hear" and "same sentence" calls up 205 results. That's quite a few considering the phrases have to be exact. Change the first exact phrase to "thought I would hear" and you get another 104 sentences. Change it again to "thought I'd read" and you get another 206 results. Let's get rid of the whole first phrase. I searched for just the exact phrase "used in the same sentence" and I got 105,000 results. Not all of them were examples of the linguifi-clone, but seven out of the first ten results were using the formula in question. The rest were about other linguistic issues.

    I thought Mr Pullum's concerns would be easy to relay. I told Buffy about it. And when I borrowed one of Pullums examples, quoting a writer who says that the phrase "spiraling costs...has virtually become a prefix for the words 'health care'" she balked. "But it's a figure of speech" she said. "Writers can do what they want" she said. "It's not like they're actually thinking that this is happening in the language..." and I nod remembering that she really doesn't like to make sweeping dismissals of anything. But she does come through for me when she offers, unprompted, that anything that's overused becomes weak. "If the phrase 'virtually a prefix' becomes too common" she says, "then it becomes a lame cliche."

    Seeing my chance I risk the question "And if linguification in general becomes too common you're saying its a bad writing device?" She realizes what I'm doing. She shrugs her shoulders and says "yeah sure."

    Mr Pullum is a close observer of language formulae. He notices usages that don't stray far from the stencil. And some of those stencils don't show much promise for encouraging creativity or generating fertile ideas.

    I believe the following is his best example. After quoting Daniel Gilbert:

    "Movies, theater, parties, travel — those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce."

    he says

    How's that again? Kids actually damage the record of phonological information in your mental lexicon? Sounds even worse than the worst that parents had previously suspected...

    He takes specific issue with the habit of turning a valid observation "into a claim about language that is wildly and demonstrably false." Can we at least agree just because something is a figure of speech it isn't automatically good writing?

    Wednesday, October 11, 2006

    Webster Slaughters Me.

    More information on my too quick typing. Mr. Kensuke Nanjo Associate Professor of Phonetics, St. Andrew's University kindly forwarded to me his message to John Wells, in which message he writes

    I've read your October 9 blog and found Michael says "What surprises me is the unanimity with which descriptive dictionaries fail to report this common American form."But the pronunciation /eSu:/ (the stress is put on the second syllable) of "eschew" is recorded as the first variant in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2003). /ISu:/ is the second. Since I checked this dictionary when I transcribed "eschew", both /eSu:/ and /ISu:/ have also been recorded as the first and second American variants respectively in my forthcoming Taishukan's Genius English-Japanese Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

    Mr Wells' responds, after finding the forms in question plus the possible pronunciation /eˈskjuː/:

    I wonder what the evidence for this is. To be honest, it looks to me like an uncertain lexicographer covering every possible spelling pronunciation.

    I've said before that I don't like Merriam-Webster. And it's unfair because they don't necessarily get things wrong -- I probably just haven't liked the implications of some of their categorisations and organization. (Had I used the plural to keep a true parallel construction the meaning of that sentence would change inappropriately.) But now I can't remember any solid complaints other than the thin etymology and thinner word history I used to find in the collegiate editions. They are often the odd dictionary, reporting forms and pronunciations that are not found in other sources. And I must see that as a virtue. Having moved away from seeing a good dictionary as proof of correctness, and towards it as a source of keen observation, this avant status wins my admiration -- as long as it's not abused.

    With a remarkable turnaround time the M-W pronunciation editor, Joshua Guenter, writes to Mr Wells:

    While I don't claim to be any more certain than any other lexicographer, I can tell you that the pronunciation of "eschew" as /ɛ'skju:/ in our Collegiate Dictionary is based purely on citations. All of these citations are from the United States. We also have some citations for the pronunciation /ɛ'sju:/, but not enough to warrant its inclusion in any of our dictionaries.

    He adds after some exchanges

    We have an enormous collection of data on 3x5 slips of paper. I don't know how many of these we have, but it must be in the millions. They date back to the 19th century, though the ones dealing with pronunciation mostly started with Edward Artin in the 1940s. Most of the editors spend time "reading and marking" magazines, newspapers, etc., for data. The pronunciation editors write down examples of speech from TV, radio, speeches, conversation, etc. This is what we base everything in our dictionaries on.

    Mr Wells offers a starkly positive endorsement to the people working at M-W:

    It confirms the opinion I had already formed: that in the absence of any more recent dedicated pronunciation dictionary for AmE than Kenyon & Knott (1953, now hopelessly outdated) the best source of information on word pronunciation in American English is the Merriam-Webster Collegiate. And it's the only free on-line dictionary that offers you sound clips.

    [btw update: Merriam-Webster is not the only free online dictionary that offers sound clips., which provides an online American Heritage 4th edition also offers a .wav file for pronunciation.]

    I'm embarrassed that I did not take the time to look up M-W's entry for the word. It's going on my resources panel in the sidebar. For a few day's I will highlight it. I'm offering my hand with head bowed. In fact I'm going back to one of my early posts and crossing out one sentence. (If you read my old post please note that I'm not trying to say that the one plural form is incorrect -- rather that the probable reasoning for the form is based on incorrect historical information. And a shining instance of snobbery ends up backfiring on the shaky brandisher.)

    Sunday, October 08, 2006

    Eschew, Fly, Eschew.

    A few days ago on his phonetic blog John Wells of University College London wrote about eschew:

    Sometimes in reading we come across an unfamiliar word, a word that we have never heard pronounced. Native speakers and foreign learners alike, we may be tempted — rather than looking it up in a dictionary — not only to infer its meaning from the context but also to infer its pronunciation. But English spelling, as we all know, is not necessarily a sufficient guide to pronunciation, and we risk making a fool of ourselves.

    A few days ago I heard a BBC announcer say that someone /ɪˈʃuːd/ violence. This was not a mishearing or mis-stressing of issued, but meant to be the rather rare word eschewed. Those familiar with the word eschew pronounce it /ɪsˈtʃuː/ (or /es-/). All published dictionaries agree that that’s the way it’s said. The announcer ought to have sought advice. But perhaps she didn’t have the script in advance, and had to make an instantaneous guess. Unfortunately she got it wrong.

    I sent an e-mail his way observing that the pronunciation he heard on the air is common in American English -- at least in the midwest.

    He did me the scary favour of posting my missive on his web log. He provides a gentle redress to a few of my mistakes. My use of "became/become" is a bad habit that I'm trying to break. My glib suggestion that eschew might have been influenced by association with shoo is cute at best and most likely naive.

    My coltish ideas continue to reveal my abecedarianism.

    Wednesday, October 04, 2006

    There's No-tre in English. Is there?

    I remember my grandmother calling me "My-cole." It wasn't the diphthongised 'o' of American broadcasting pronunciation. It was more like the Minnesotan/North Dakotan 'o' that I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The 'o' in forever. The 'o' in more not mower. The 'o' in torrid but not token.

    What I always found strange was that she needed that vowel in there. I recognized that she spoke with a Mexican accent (actually she spoke only Spanish) but I didn't realize that she lacked the schwa in her inventory. I thought she should have been saying "my cull." Now I realized that even in English that wasn't an accurate pronunciation. I had no idea then that in English an 'l' could be the nucleus of its own syllable. My first phonology professor spoke with a slight accent that didn't syllabify 'r' -- she would say 'occur' with a stressed middle vowel after the [k]. It sounded like "a color" without [l]. I would transcribe it [əkˈʌɹ] -- cf my own pronunciation [əkˈɹ̩]. (So does this mean that curdle girdle further learner and perhaps even curtain are pronounced with no vowel sounds?)

    So my grandmother didn't have any sound like a syllabic [l] to use. So she revealed a default vowel for epenthesis -- at least before an [l]. But I have to do a little research to see if the default vowel before an 'r' is the same. My prediction is that it would be mid front [ɛ] - or [e].1

    The issue of phonetic translation between languages with different inventories fascinates me. As a child I was so confused when I saw the name shroeder and heard it pronounced ['ʃɹeɾəɹ] rhyming with raider (yes: i realize the schwa might not be necessary if we syllabify the 'r'). Then I heard someone else pronounce the name as if it rhymed with loader. What was going on? So when I learned about the œ sound -- like an [ɛ] with rounded lips -- I figured that some English ears learned to value the rounded articulation and chose the similar available English rounded vowel; and others simply gave weight to the place features and discarded the lip rounding to use the available unrounded English vowel. Why the difference in choice by the English speakers? I don't know. I'll look it up or await any insight offered.

    After I had learned about the mid front rounded vowel I learned about the Goethe. But of course all the high schoolers around me were saying "gertuh" while trying hard to still sound smart. So I had one hell of a time finding his name listed anywhere. I looked for Gerta Gurta Gurte Ghertah and probably even ventured as far as Garta. When I decided to look under "Faust" (I was a slow problem solver) I saw the strange and frustrating reason. Then I developed a vague sense of what happened when I finally heard someone pronounce the name correctly.2

    For some time I thought it might be the effect of mishearing and assuming an accent. Maybe it was common to hear this name in a lofty conversation -- and since we Americans all know that intelligence comes across as a British accent we heard the word as a dropped [ɹ].

    Or maybe it was mere phonetic assumption. The rounding of the mid front vowel might have been interpreted as the commonly rounded 'r'. If heard as a syllabic 'r' we get "gerda" or "gert".

    Considering the pronunciation [gøːtə] I'm thinking it was a combination of these factors. The lengthened quality of the vowel (indicated by the 'ː') makes me think a dropped 'r' was assumed. And this was only supported by the sound of a mid front rounded vowel [ø, œ]that was very close to a rounded alveolar approximate [ɹ].

    Last week I was listening to the local sportcaster covering the Notre Dame college football game. He called the school "Norter Dame." This reminds me of the controversial pronunciation of "Favre." I've heard people blame Brett Favre for not correcting the pronunciation and I've read opinions that it's all because Americans are uneducated and don't know how to speak any language other than their own. The word final French 'r' after a consonant is more like a hard English 'h' than 'r'. I believe after a voiceless consonant like [t] it's pronounced without voicing. This of course will confuse an English ear. I have no idea if this might lead to metathesis (ab -> ba).

    My guess is that this is another instance of effect of a lengthened vowel. Pronunciations of Favre differ here in the states. Some spell it with an accent over the 'e' and say it "fa vray" - some say it exactly like "favour." Some say only Fahv or Fob (rhyme - glob). Brett's father Irv might be an important factor here. It could be assimilation from the '-rv' of his first name to his last name. A pure guess. I'm willing to trade.

    I have heard it demanded angrily that the pronunciation "Noter" is ridiculous. There's no reason to think however that "Notra" is any better. They're both understandable English approximations of the French. In fact if we transcribe the second syllable of "Noter" as a syllabic 'r' it follows the DEP-IO constraint that "Notra" violates by adding a vowel. In that limited sense it's preferable to "Notra". But both are fine. What do the critics suggest? English has no [tʀ]. Let's remember that languages are allowed to be different. And borrowing doesn't require absolute replication. When we try to sound too much like the other language we end up stumbling in the articulation and producing an innaccurate and often laughable result -- like wearing berets and using cigarette holders in futile attempt to be more authentically French.

    1. To my ear the Spanish mid front vowel is closer to the lax [ɛ] than the tense [e]. This is only important when describing the sound to speakers of English. There is evidence in Spanish that [e] is distinct from [ei] though it's very limited. the spellings "veinte" and "treinta" support a phonemic difference but not by immediate example. Veinte might be minimally paired with vente -- a 2nd person reflexive form of "come." For the sake of simplicity the English [e] is illustrated with examples like 'bake' 'pale' and 'tame' -- but it would be more accurate to use words like 'pair' or perhaps 'chaos'.

    2. How did I figure it was correct? Did I just hear a new pronunciation and recognise that since it was a foreign sound it must be correct because no one would use an incorrect foreign sound when speaking English? That's faulty thinking.