Wednesday, 25 November 2009

constraints on diacritics

Pablo Ugerman, a graphic designer, is developing a phonetic font for a degree project. He wrote to me enquiring about phonetic letters and diacritics. What constraints are there on the combination of particular base characters with particular diacritics?
As far as I know, no one has ever really addressed this question. I replied
In using the International Phonetic Alphabet, the only constraints on combinations of diacritics and base characters are logical ones. For example, the “voiceless” diacritic U+0325 COMBINING RING BELOW can logically only be applied to a base character that stands for a voiced sound, e.g. [m, b, ɓ, u], but not [t, θ, ç, ʘ]. It has a variant, U+030A COMBINING RING ABOVE, used if the base character has a descender, e.g. [ŋ, ɻ, ɡ]. Similarly, the dental diacritic U+032A COMBINING BRIDGE BELOW would usually only be applied to a base character standing for an alveolar sound, e.g. [t, n, s]. However if someone wanted to use it with, say, [b] to show a labiodental stop, that would also be OK. But combined with, say, [k] it would presumably be meaningless.
There is no formal constraint on having multiple diacritics on the same base character.

The aspiration diacritic, [ʰ], is most commonly deployed after symbols for voiceless plosives. The IPA Handbook also shows it with [d], although the article about Hindi in the body of the book instead uses [ʱ] for the voiced aspirated series, thus [bʱ d̪ʱ dʒʱ ɖʱ ɡʱ]. Korean has two kinds of alveolar fricative, one of them often transcribed [sʰ], and I suppose in principle any affricate or fricative can be aspirated. Can approximants? Can vowels? You could call the preaspiration of Icelandic, Scottish Gaelic etc aspiration of the preceding vowel, and certainly transcriptions of the type [kʰaʰt] are in use for such cases.
“Breathy voiced” and “creaky voiced” can only combine with symbols for voiced sounds: [t̤] is presumably a logical contradiction. Nasals can’t be nasalized. And so on.
Are “advanced” and “retracted” only for vowels? No, because they are sometimes used to show dental as against alveolar, prevelar as against velar consonants. What about “centralized”? Vowels only, I think. Is “syllabic” only for consonants? Normally yes, and then only for nasals and liquids. Some students imagine that looked should be transcribed lʊkd̩ (with “syllabic d”), but they are confusing phonetics with morphology. Syllabic plosives are a no-no.
What about combining the syllabicity mark with a vowel symbol? Normally we don’t do that, because vowels are inherently syllabic, so it would be tautologous. But Abercrombie, in his English Phonetic Texts (1964), used a transcription for English in which the syllabicity mark sometimes appeared under schwa to show that it was not part of a diphthong.


  1. Syllabic plosives are a no-no.

    Now how's that with the sound one can, after all, produce in this way? When you close your lips and don't let any air out of your nose either, you can still produce a "gagged preplosive", voiced obviously, by filling your mouth with the air. This is what happens to syllabic nasals when you caught a chill: button [ˈbʌtd̩].

  2. Priceless! Where are you from, Lip? Do you otherwise have nasal plosion? John Cowan says it's usual for American button on the blog comments for yesterday. I think if I had a really bad cold, that would be almost unpronounceable. But I find if I glottalize, it sounds quite plausible. Ergo, glottalization is winning out in these dank rheumy islands for good functional reasons!

  3. So glottalisation is a sequela of common cold? But while it's spreading pandemically, it's still more common in the mild South, isn't it?

  4. What, glottalization? The South of the British Isles? (I will overlook the 'mild'.) No, I don't think it is.

    But you do agree it's an amusing idea that it's a sequela of the need of the natives to communicate in a perpetually enrheumed condition which is endemic rather than pandemic?

  5. John, did you read the rest of the discussion about what I referred to as the canonically falling centring diphthongs re your diphthong schmiphthong blog entry? Probably not, as I had an awful lot to say about it, but you will remember you were talking about the rising versions of them. Well the one you refer to as being symbolized by Daniel Jones as ŭə as in actual is certainly quite likely for the three examples Abercrombie gives with a strictly disyllabic vowel sequence in the passage from English Phonetic Texts (1964) here. In fact the relatively simple clusters before the sequence make it more likely than in the example actual itself, unless you pronounce it ækʃŭəl, in which case you are more likely to pronounce it ækʃəl or ækʃl. Abercrombie obviously thought the default condition of schwa in this position is to be part of a falling diphthong, but was so concerned to mark both vowels as fully syllabic that he did so in this rather bizarre way. Possibly he intended to indicate careful pronunciations. I wonder if he would have had aɪə̩n for the OED and others' mysterious ˈaɪən that we were discussing on the iron or… thread.

  6. Judging by aɷər in the passage I reproduced for you, I think Abercrombie would have written aɩən, with a stress mark if sentence-stressed in context, otherwise without one.

  7. mallamb,

    Of course I agree. If we market it well enough, that theory could be as successful as the ones claiming a Spanish king had a lisp and that's where the Spanish z/c comes from, or that RP was influenced by the Hanoverians' strong German accent.

  8. And much more deservedly successful. Let's go for it!

    John, perhaps I should explain that the OED and others that I mentioned have ˈaɪən (or equivalent in whatever system they use) for the actual dictionary entry for 'iron' but mark no stress in e.g. 'ire'. And OED for example treats 'tired' the same way: taɪəd, so it's not motivated by the idea that 'iron' behaves at all like the morphologically motivated realizations in some dialects.

    So certainly there is evidence in this passage that Abercrombie would have written aɩən (with a stress mark if sentence-stressed in context, otherwise without one), unless he and OED&Co knew something we don't and would have written it ˈaɪə̩n for the greater glory of his use of the syllabicity mark, which incidentally I would have expected to have been better appreciated. Thus the solution (for me at any rate)to the phonological constraints before ŋ that we were discussing re your bank balance entry would be to write drɔɪ̩ŋ, which rather explodes my claim on that thread that "it is definitely a phonological constraint, not a phonetic one: I'm about to take my RSI to the [drɔɪŋ] room."

  9. More years ago than I care to remember, I and some others in an idle moment tried to pile as many diacritics on a single symbol as we could. We started with [ð], added a lowering diacritic to turn it into a voiced dental approximant, added a nasalisation tilde and a wiggle through the middle to velarise it, then a labialisation diacritic, a breathy voice diacritic and a length mark. I am sure we had more than those six, but I can't figure it out now. maybe someone can suggest what others might have been added. It is quite possible to produce the sound, by the way, but I take no responsibility for physical injury or mental anguish if anyone wants to try.

  10. David Marjanović26 November 2009 at 00:07

    or that RP was influenced by the Hanoverians' strong German accent.

    Is either with /ɑɪ̯/ of native origin?

  11. Regarding syllabic plosives: A standby of Phonology I classes is syllabification in Imdlawn Tashlhiyt Berber. It's claimed that tftkt 'you sprained' has two syllables, and the /f/ and the /k/ are both supposed to be syllabic.

  12. A guess is that the f as a non-plosive, though voiceless, might be syllabic, and the the k really comes with a schwa somewhere.

  13. @David: Yes, both pronunciations are native.

  14. Yeah, syllabic fricatives do occur, and not just in Tashlhiyt. A common interpretation of Pinyin si as in Sichuan is [sz̩], and even in English we have the interjection psst! pronounced with a syllabic s.

  15. These unvoiced syllabics are an integral part of the system in Tamazight and can occur on their own, and there really is no more schwa than in psst, which of course is extra-systematic in E.

  16. Should have been more specific. Even in tftkt the k really doesn't come with a schwa somewhere.

    Not sure about shouting matches, but you really cannot shout a word like f.

  17. There's a reduced pronunciation of 'Thank you', which might be written as ''k you!', which used to be heard from bus and tram conductors in the days when they took your money and sold you tickets. Articulatorily it begins with a syllabic [k], acoustically with the silence that is typical of stops. I think Daniel Jones mentions it somewhere.

  18. @mallamb: you can still stage-whisper it at least. (My first reaction was: of you can shout a word like f. This is not US network television.)

  19. Yes I did intend that (rather feeble) joke!

  20. David, is your /ɑɪ̯/ inspired by the title of this blog entry, or by my comments on the over-specification which has led to the ɷə̩ / ŭə / ˈaɪən / ɔɪ̩ farrago above? I could understand [ɑɪ̯] better!

  21. David Marjanović28 November 2009 at 20:54

    A common interpretation of Pinyin si as in Sichuan is [sz̩]

    I've not encountered that as an actual pronunciation. In reality, it's [sɯ], with varying amounts of friction (often none) persisting during the vowel.

    For seriously syllabic fricatives outside of interjections, including voiceless ones, check out Salishan languages...

    (Incidentally, German has both [ps̩t] and [pʃ̩t].)

    David, is your /ɑɪ̯/ inspired by the title of this blog entry

    No. The diacritic is there because that's my preferred way of writing diphthongs; and I used ɑ instead of a because, well, that's how it's pronounced.

  22. David Marjanović28 November 2009 at 20:58

    Articulatorily it begins with a syllabic [k]

    I'd say with a long [kː], not a syllabic one.

  23. – David said…
    – I used ɑ instead of a because, well, that's how it's pronounced.

    At 20.29 on 'heav'nly scansion' you were lecturing us on the use of brackets.

    It is with the greatest gloom and despondency that I have to tell you that the use of brackets in phonetics and phonology has hardly ever been exemplary, but that as on these pages they are not infrequently better left out, and not only for being glaringly obvious, as I say on that thread.

    I think better left out is what they would have been in your /ɑɪ̯/.

    I am thrilled by your preferred way of writing diphthongs but not by ɑ instead of a because, well, that's not how it's pronounced by me. And conventions is conventions in phonetics and phonology as in all human activities, and the way the metaconventions (which are no less conventions) are at the moment, you write either /aɪ/ or [ɑɪ̯].