Thursday, 9 July 2009

sloths

Everyone knows that some English nouns ending in f have an irregular plural in which the f changes to v: leaf – leaves, wife – wives, shelf – shelves. Everyone knows this because the spelling changes. (Under the heading of “everyone” I suppose we must exclude certain Scottish people, since if I am not mistaken in Scotland the plural of wife is often wʌɪfs.)
Not so many people are aware that there are several nouns in θ and one in s that exhibit the same alternation, namely the change from a voiceless fricative to a voiced one before the plural ending is added. Thus we have mouth – mouths, truth – truths, house – houses. Hah! the spelling doesn’t show this. But it’s there in the pronunciation: maʊθ – maʊðz, truːθ – truːðz, haʊs – ˈhaʊzɪz.
There are also plenty of nouns ending in a voiceless fricative that behave regularly: cliffs, graphs, coughs; faiths, deaths, osteopaths — and all the remaining nouns in s plus all of those in ʃ (buses, kisses, rushes, dashes).
The list of those that switch voicing is closed: new coinages or borrowings behave regularly. The list of nouns in th that exhibit the alternation is quite short: baths, oaths, paths, sheaths, truths, wreaths, youths, and even with these there are some speakers who treat one or more of them regularly.
At least — I thought the list was closed. But on the BBC R4 programme Home Planet this week I heard a science writer several times pronounce sloths as sləʊðz. (This animal name was touched on in this blog a few days ago.)
You may still be able to listen to the programme here.

16 comments:

  1. By analogy with/interference from "clothes", perhaps?

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  2. Sorry that this hasn't much to do with the topic, but could you tell us, professor, how you gauge the forms without θ/ð? I was astonished once when I saw the OED describes kləʊz as dialectal or vulgar only (for today). (Disclaimer: I usually don't pronounce the θ/ð in clothes, months &c., and I never felt it was non-standard or vulgar.)

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  3. @Lipman: no, it doesn't, since clothes is not the plural of cloth.
    For what it's worth, my personal reaction to the pronunciation kləʊz is that it's not what I say myself: my mental phonetic picture of this word is kləʊðz. It is not a homophone of the verb close. In allegro speech, of course, the dental may well be weakened, inaudible or absent.
    I know, though, that many other people, evidently including you, think of kləʊz as normal.

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  4. Thank you. By the way, in the opposite case, when I hear kləʊðz, I don't automatically assume it's a spelling pronunciation or otherwise artificial. I think I regard both as neutral, just found it interesting that kləʊz was labelled vulgar.

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  5. Maybe, this science writer is an expert in Middle English language and knows that in Middle English, the digraph 'th' stood between two voiced sounds (vowels, to be precise, i.e. 'slowðes') and hence was pronounced as a voiced fricative, similar to the case of Old English plural 'husas', which became 'houses' /haʊzɪz/.

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  6. One interesting example is staff-staves, where "staff" belongs with BATH and "staves" with FACE. (Of course, some speakers have "staffs" instead).

    Are there any other examples are there where the singular and regular plural (with "s") have different stressed vowels? Are there any speakers who pronounce "hoof" with the FOOT vowel and "hooves" with GOOSE?

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  7. (1) To Lipman: I believe that you are correct about the pronunciation of "clothes": [kləʊz] is the older pronunciation, [kləʊðz] a spelling pronunciation (though now the more common one). I can remember reading some writer from the first half of the 20th century grumbling about the then-rising pronunciation with [ð], but unfortunately I can't recall who it was.

    (2) To VP: "Are there any speakers who pronounce "hoof" with the FOOT vowel and "hooves" with GOOSE?" -- Well, I certainly do; but, not having ever had much to do with farm animals, I have rarely had occasion to pronounce the word (also, I am American, so my testimony tells you nothing about UK usage). In a related matter, my viewing of Monty Python's Flying Circus has left me with the impression, correct or not, that the plural of [pʊf] is [puvz].

    (3) Regarding wife–wives, etc., in the US today, "short-lived" seems to be universally pronounced as if the second word were the past participle of the verb "to live" ([lɪvd]), which it isn't, rather than as an inflected form of the noun "life," which it is (hence [laɪvd]; cf. "long-breathed," in which the second word is pronounced [brɛθd] and not [briðd]). It was only when I sang in The Pirates of Penzance, where Gilbert sets the phrase to rhyme with "contrived," that I discovered the -- well, I suppose I can't call it the correct pronuciation, but perhaps I can call it the grammatically and historically well-founded one.

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  8. Re Lipman's comment on vulgar speech:

    My first steps in phonetics were taken while studying a foreign language, not English. It was much later I found and read Daniel Jones, and at every page I thought "I don't do that", and then I began to appear in small footnotes that started "In vulgar speech ..."

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  9. I have another one: moths for me is /mɔðz/. And that has to be analogical, not historical, because in Old English the word was moþþe, with an invariably voiceless (because geminate) fricative.

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  10. Then again, as a linguistic term, "vulgar" doesn't imply rude manners, often not much more than informality.

    Baritonobasso, I know [kləʊz] is the older pronunciation &c., but that doesn't necessarily tell how the variants are perceived today.

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  11. Re clothes as kloze:

    Just been reading the text of an Irish song, found a rhyme clothes/rose

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  12. [humming] Sing a song of sixpence…

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  13. I had a chemistry teacher in the 1960s in Australia who had the quite idiosyncratic pronunciation /ˈbenʧklɒðz/ for bench cloths (rags for wiping down laboratory benches). We perceived it as odd, and of course would mock and imitate it. I don't recall hearing it from anyone since. There is/was a pronunciation /klɔːθ/ for cloth, and I would guess his pronunciation was modified/standardised from /-klɔːðz/.

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  14. In my accent (American, white, born in 1958 just outside the New York City isogloss), all the th plurals have been levelled, though I have /ð/ in the verb mouth and therefore in its inflected form mouths. Since /ð/ is a dead phoneme in English (neither new coinages nor borrowings show it, even when [ð] is present in the source language), this isn't too surprising. M-w.com notes that even people who say mouths with /ð/ are likely to say blabbermouths with /θ/, probably because it is a bahuvrihi compound (a blabbermouth not being a kind of mouth).

    As for staff-staves, surely staffs is always the plural in the sense 'group of officers (military or civil)', and I know some people (though not I) have an innovating singular stave in that sense: barrel-stave is I think universal.

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  15. Oops, editing error: I mean an innovating singular stave in the sense 'stick'. Post in haste, repent at leisure.

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