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.