Tuesday, October 23, 2007

An technicality at worst

I'm not sure I want to write this post. Ben Zimmer's study of (and commentary on) language is impressive reasonable thorough precise entertaining and...good.

And he has been kind enough to leave a few comments here. For all--our thanks. So I don't want to protest too much.

In his wholly reliable style he recently posted over at Language Log about Victor Washington's case against the NFL. Washington seeks fuller retirement benefits because of his injuries. The NFL doesn't want to pay out so much. Washington's plan offered higher benefits if he suffered "a football injury" and the NFL is sticking to the argument that his several injuries don't entitle him to "Level 1" benefits. (Follow this link to read the story.)

The sentence that caught my attention was the following observation by Zimmer regarding arbitrator Sam Kagel's use of "a" instead of "an" in the phrase "a injury."

"The legal emphasis on the word a would apparently be lost if it underwent the regular addition of the epenthetic consonant /n/ to create an before a word beginning with a vowel like injury."

His suggestion makes sense regarding the rhetoric. I'll buy it. I'm not sure about his analysis of the a/an alternation as epenthesis: the /n/ being an additional letter. It is additional if we say the underlying form of the article is a. But historically the form was an which was realized as a before most consonants. In that case "an" alternates with "a" by deletion of the /n/ coda. So at most this is a pure technicality.

But let's say that for the sake of a clear point Zimmer is using the wording of the retirement/disability plan as the underlying form. Since the plan uses the phrase "a football injury" we'll say our input is "a"; and from that form to its reflex in the phrase "a(n) injury" we would expect that /n/ would be added because the new phrase places the article before [i] instead of [f]. But I'm still not sure I'd call it epenthesis in that case.

And I'm not sure that I wouldn't.



  1. Hi Michael, thanks for the careful reading. You're absolutely right that the a/an alternation doesn't represent epenthesis historically, but I was thinking of the synchronic picture rather than the diachronic one. I find some justification for referring to the /n/ in an as epenthetic in Theo Vennemann's "Rule Inversion" (Lingua, Vol. 29, 1972), which specifically discusses the a/an alternation: "The most elementary type of rule inversion is the conversion of a rule of conditioned consonant loss into a rule of consonant epenthesis in the environment which was historically exempted from loss, generalized to similar environments in which no consonants were lost (if such environments exist)."

  2. Excellent. Epenthesis as a roundabout refusal to delete.

    I love the layered of process.


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