Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Always on my mind

What I love about phonology is how automatic so much of it is. There's so much that we do (or avoid) because of rules (or constraints if you're into OT) that we don't even realize. The example I use as illustration for interested non-linguists is the plural morpheme. What's the plural of dog? What's the plural of cat? What sound did you use to make those words plural? They almost always say 'S' and I explain that there were actually two sounds: [s] and [z].

For some that's immediately apparent. So we move on to slightly less obvious alternation. What's the past tense of dial? What's the past tense of wish? What sound marks the past tense? Even when I explain that the past tense of wish is marked with with [t] a few of them argue. I've had several students argue Well you might say it that way but I say wished with a [d] at the end. That's part of the fun of teaching phonetics and phonology. It's a nice challenge trying to find all the right tricks to convince them without belittling or ridiculing their untrained ear.

But are linguists immune? Well I'm not. Last semester while I was prattling on in some silly 215 Heavilon conversation an officemate jumped up from his chair and started writing on the board. This usually occurs when someone has said something particularly amusing or offensive or confusing. So I wondered what I said. He wrote down an odd two word phrase. Oh wheeze.

What's that? I asked.

That's how you say 'always' he explained.

I was stunned. I thought about it. And I almost didn't believe it. I looked over at another officemate and he nodded.

In the next class period I mentioned it to my students and I noticed a few of them nodding as well. One added You just said it a few minutes ago and I noticed it.

There are a few things going on with that pronunciation that interest me. As a cot/caught merger I'm a little surprised to learn that my pronunciation of the first vowel is even higher and more rounded than the [ɔ] that often occurs before [l]. But then I delete the [l] anyways. And I don't speak with an intrusive 'l' which could have accounted for hypercorrection and [l] deletion. And instead of a [eɪ] diphthong in the last syllable I use something almost like a high front [i]. This is similar to the sundee mondee tuesdee pronunciations that I thought were disappearing. But I don't say those.

Well instead of [ɔːlweɪz] I say something like [oːwiz] tho I suspect that second vowel is more likely a barred-i [ɨ]. Not so far forward as [i].

And now that I think about it the first vowel is probably something closer to [əʊ].

This is like the moment I learned that not everyone's second toe is longer than their big toe.


  1. I understand the reasoning for using [z] as the plural morpheme, but I remember getting into an argument in my intro lingustics class because I didn't feel that I said [z] in "dogs". I still think that, for me at least, "docks" is [dɑks] and "dogs" is [dɑːɡ̥ks] - it's mainly a vowel length distinction.

  2. The alternation is starting to disappear in some speakers. I've heard the [s] after vowels as in boys and after approximants as in bells or bears (think of the 'da bears' SNL skits) and nasals as in flames -- basically after sonorants.

    I haven't heard it as often after voiced stops but I have heard it. Of course the students that I 'correct' are those that I've heard and whose pronunciation I have attested.

    The length of the vowel is probably already longer in dog than in dock because of the allophonic vowel length alternation before a voiced and voiceless stop.

    Think of the three lengths in see seed and seat.

  3. I think that latter-day spellings like "boyz" and "skillz" accurately reflect phonology, no?

    As for oh-ways, we've noticed this also (also = oh-so), particularly among speakers who who pronounce "ea" as "ay": treasure=tray-zhure, measure=may-zhure, etc. I'm not sure there's a necessary relationship between these pronunciations (the "ea" pronunciation might be a historical remnant --?), just a passing (and highly unscientific) observation.


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