Wednesday, 28 October 2009

corn beef and fry rice

Sili (24 October) mentioned the rivalry between “boxed set” and “box set” or “boxset”. A favourite example of this phenomenon that I used to use in my teaching days is “corned beef” (which is what it says on the tin) and “corn beef” (which corresponds to what we mostly say).
The principle this illustrates is that final /d/ in a consonant cluster is susceptible to elision when the next word begins with a consonant sound. In the case of a lexicalized phrase such as corned beef, people learn the pronunciation in its reduced form and may be unaware of the full form underlying it. They then spell it in accordance with the reduced pronunciation, which is for them the only pronunciation.
In Google, corn beef gets 180,000 hits, as compared with 1,450,000 for corned beef, a ratio of 1:8.
The books don’t tell you this, but I think this elision is less usual before /r/. I don’t think I can omit the /d/ from boiled rice.
I certainly can’t omit it in fried rice, where the final /d/ is not in a cluster and therefore not a candidate for elision. In Google fry rice gets 37,000 hits as compared with the 2,190,000 for fried rice, a ratio of 1:59.
In Chinese English, however, fry rice seems to be quite frequent. Here’s a picture of some “fry mushroom”.
In cases such as stir-fry rice noodles I think we have to analyse stir-fry as a nominalization of the verb (“noodles for stir-frying”).


  1. I'd imagine that at least some of the hits for "fry rice" come from perfectly good recipes: "fry rice in oil and add vegetables" and so on.

    "Iced cream" > "ice( )cream" is presumably another of the prototypical examples of this.

    (Also, I'll count this as my fifteen minutes of fame to fifteen people.)

  2. Isn't /d/-elision also impossible before /l/?

  3. There's also "skim milk", which I personally would even write rather than "skimmed milk", though Google indicates "the skimmed milk" is still more common than "the skim milk" by a ratio of about 7:5 (putting "the" before the phrase filters out verb phrases like "do you know how to skim milk?" and "I've never skimmed milk before").

  4. Some or all examples enable people to interpret the skim(med) part in a legitimate alternative way, even if the result sometimes isn't the most intuitive. "Corn beef", for instance, could actually be formed of "corn" and "beef". The test would be to see if the -d'd be dropped if it were stressed on "beef", because "corn bEEf" (as opposed to "corned bEEf") doesn't easily parse.

  5. Which funnily enough is both an unclipped past participle (bouilli) and a nominal adjective ("boulli-style" beef).

  6. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen signs announcing the presence of "close circuit tv"

  7. Thomas

    No it's quite possible and very common.
    Example: old lady → əʊl leɪdi

  8. My dad, from the Black Country, calls it 'corn dog'. Haha!

  9. The books don’t tell you this, but I think this elision is less usual before /r/

    Deletion of final /d/ in consonant clusters is one of the best-studied phenomena in sociolinguistics. Guy (1991) finds the following probabilities of elision before various following segments, all else being equal:

    /l/: .80
    obstruent: .66
    glide: .57
    /r/: .42
    vowel: .19

    So as Prof. Wells suggests, elision is in fact less usual before /r/.

  10. I think the reason that boiled rice doesn't clip is that the /d/ moves to the onset, giving boil drice. Boiled beef cannot similarly become *boil dbeef due to phonotactic restrictions, and similarly with *skim dmilk.

    Skim milk is the standard term in American English. I'm actually surprised that skimmed milk is so common, given how U.S.-centric the Web still is.

    Corned beef by whatever name is a very different product on the two sides of the Pond. The American version is a brine-cured brisket which may be bought uncooked or cooked with various mild spices. Wikipedia says this is called salt beef in the U.K., and is primarily available in places with substantial Jewish settlement. In the U.K. it's finely ground boiled beef with some beef gelatin(e).

    Finally, stir-fry is a direct calque from Mandarin, where such verb-verb compounds are common and productive. It was apparently introduced into English by Buwei Yang Chao 楊步偉, who was married to the great phonologist Yuen Ren Chao 趙元任, in her 1945 cookbook How To Cook And Eat In Chinese.

  11. The different treatment of word-final /d/ before different consonants has been studied. In Deterding (2006), I looked at the deletion of /t/ and /d/ from the end of a consonant cluster before another word beginning with a consonant in recordings from the BBC, and I found:

    before a plosive : 60% deleted
    before a fricative : 49% deleted
    before a nasal : 42% deleted
    before an approximant : 16% deleted

    This confirms that deletion of final /d/ before /r/ (e.g. boiled rice) is less common than before most other sounds (e.g. corned beef).

    Reference: Deterding, D. (2006) Deletion of final /t/ and /d/ in BBC English: implications for teachers in Singapore. STETS Language & Communication Review, 5(1), 21-23.

    Available at:

  12. @John Maidment, old of course easily becomes ol', even before /l/, but do you really think the /d/ can easily be dropped from "boiled leeks"? I definitely wouldn't do that, but then I'm not a native speaker, so I can't be trusted.

  13. Thomas

    In answer to your question: Yes, I do.

  14. John, I'm not sure that stir-fry is a calque on Mandarin. As far as I know, the Mandarin term is just a single verb, chǎo 炒.

  15. John Maidment says he can say 'old lady' with the /d/ deleted, and also 'boiled leaks' similarly with no /d/.

    This raises an interesting contrast with 'boiled rice' mentioned in the original posting by John Wells, where the next word begins with /r/ rather than /l/.

    One possibility is that /d/ deletion is less likely when the /d/ can become resyllabified onto the following syllable. According to this, 'boiled rice' is less likely to exhibit /d/ deletion, because /dr/ is a possible syllable onset, while in 'boiled leaks' the /d/ is much more likely to be deleted, because /dl/ is not a possible syllable onset.

    In the figures I gave previously for BBC recordings, unfortunately the approximants are not separated. I have just looked at the original figures, and there were 10 instances of /t/ or /d/ followed by /l/, and there was deletion in only two of them ('expect long queues', 'expect long delays'), and there were 7 instances of /t/ or /d/ followed by /r/, and only one of these exhibited deletion ('world record') -- so not much difference. Nevertheless, it does seem to me a bit more likely that /t/ or /d/ would be retained before /r/ and deleted before /l/.

  16. Another interesting facet of [d] deletion is that is can't happen (at least for me and those I hear) in words like sandal [sændl], candle [kændl], but it can in words like endless [enləs] fondly [fɒnli]. This contrasts with historical [t] elision in listen, moisten etc. [d] elision doesn't happen before a syllabic l. Maybe one explanation is that syllabic forms a syllable in which it is the nucleus and there is no onset. In other words, syllabic l is a vowel and not a consonant. That doesn't explain why [t] got zapped in whistle though.

  17. Could it have been generalized from the inflected form whistling (compressed to two syllables)?
    (This explanation doesn't word with castle, though, except for chess players.)

  18. hmmmmm...

    If that were the case, why didn't it happen with [d] too? And why can't we (er....sorry, I) say [fɒnlɪŋ] for "fondling"?

    [kjʊərjəsə əŋ kjʊərjəsə]

  19. @John Maidment

    The phenomenon you describe is easier to see if the vowel in the unstressed syllable is acknowledged as such, rather than its coda being analysed as a syllabic consonant. This suggests the explanation that, in words such as candle ['kændəl], the [ə] inhibits the deletion of the [d].

    @David Deterding

    This could be tested by seeing whether or not someone who palatalises the [d] in e.g. "dry" also does so in "boiled rice".

  20. Richard:

    Indeed. We would then have to appeal to some sort of rule ordering or the equivalent whereby alveolar plosive elision is ranked higher than syllabic consonant formation.

    However, this still does not explain words like "whistle, castle, bristle". Did these not also contain a [ə], which should have blocked the elision of [t]?

  21. @Richard Sabey

    I have what I perceive as /dʒr/ as the onset in "dry" and similar words, but I don't notice anything similar happening in "boiled rice", which seems to have a normal /d/.

  22. David Marjanović31 October 2009 at 21:18

    I'm not sure that stir-fry is a calque on Mandarin.

    While it certainly looks like one, there's nothing un-Germanic about it. I can, ad hoc, produce the literal German translation *umrührbraten, which sounds grammatical and comprehensible to me, even though it almost certainly doesn't exist.

    (That said, I haven't read cookbooks in the last 10 years, or in fact ever. No idea how stir-frying is called in German. In einem Wok abrösten? ...anrösten?)

  23. Google Translate, which is quite useful despite its many flaws, thinks the German for 'stir-fry' is pannengerühren.

  24. David Marjanović4 November 2009 at 23:57

    Pfannenrühren (past participle pfannengerührt)? Could be... though a wok isn't really a pan, is it.

    Still odd, because "frying" isn't mentioned or alluded to at all in there – you have to guess it from the "pan".

  25. David: Pannen for pfannen was a mere typo, but Google really does want that inserted ge-; I figured it was not the participial prefix at all but an inseparable prefix as in gehören.