Monday, December 01, 2008

Putting the intellect in president-elect.

I just started listening to a podcast from last week of the Diane Rehm Show. I could have sworn that I heard her refer to first intellect Obama. I agree that he's a smarty-pants but I didn't quite understand why she would call him that. By the time she finished the sentence I reassembled the pieces and decided that she had almost certainly said President-elect Obama.

I've gone back to listen to the line several times and now I see why I misheard. Instead of a clear three syllable pronunciation of president Rehm utters two syllables. Not only that: instead of a clear [ɛ] nucleus on the first syllable it sounds like she's very close to a syllabic "r" [ɹ̩]. So president elect becomes purse-dent elect. And the nucleus of -dent is neutralized to a [ə] or [ɪ] unstressed vowel. With a slightly stressed final syllable of president we have a phrase, purse-dint elect that sounds a lot like first intellect.

Rehm's speech is affected by spasmodic dysphonia which gives her voice a quavering or halting quality. This can make judgment of the voicing very difficult. In this word it could have caused a very quick devoicing of the /z/ making it [s] and perhaps even devoicing the following /ɪ/ which could give the impression of elision or syncope. Voiceless vowel? Yes. They exist. Even in English. It's not clear, however, that this is what's happening here.

So we listen on to see of this was an error or if it is in fact her regular pronunciation. About two minutes into the program she says it again: [pɹ̩s.dənt].

Mixed in here is her pronunciation of constitutional. Around ninety seconds in she says it with what almost sounds like a syllabic [s]. And a few minutes later she pronounces it with a similar quasi elision of the unstressed syllable. Maybe even both unstressed syllables: It's something like [kants̩tuʃnɫ̩] or [kan(t)s(ə̥)tuʃn̩ɫ̩] or some blend of the two. She could be producing three syllables or four or even five. Four tokens is not enough to figure out the representation.

The main reason I wonder about the syllabification and about those vowels being voiceless, is for the sake of patterning. Would her pronunciation of them be the same if the vowels weren't between two voiceless segments? I wonder too about spasmodic dysphonia as a factor. If this were my dissertation and if I knew enough about the voice disorder I'd take the time to gather the data and figure something out. But for now it'll have to remain an interesting question.

1 comment:

  1. Spasmodic dysphonia? If this post is intended to make me feel bad about sarcastically asking how old Rehm was last week... it does.

    On the other hand, isn't that like going into track & field while suffering from polio? (It's always easier to blame the victim)


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