Friday, 4 December 2009

the Cowell jumped over the moon

Shin Tokuma tells me he was listening to BBC R4 as he drove along. He thought he heard people talking about a “Simon Cow”, but then realized it was actually “Simon Cowell”. How could his confusion have arisen? he asks.
Being a NNS, he was inclined to blame his poor listening skills, but (knowing his ability as a former UCL student) I don’t think he has any reason to blame himself. Cow and Cowell can sound very similar in some English people’s speech.

OK, Cowell is basically ˈkaʊəl. But (1) the diphthong plus schwa sequence might be subject to smoothing and compression, and/or (2) the schwa might be swallowed up in the final dark [ɫ], which in turn (3) might become vocalized.

(1) Smoothing is what turns aʊ.ə into a.ə, as when power is pronounced as ˈpa.ə. Compression makes this one syllable rather than two, paə, often also making the result a monophthong, paː, pɑː. This may make power a homophone of par, pa. So Cowell can be kaəɫ, kaːɫ and is a potential homophone of Carl kɑːɫ.
(2) Many (most?) English people make vowel rhyme with owl, towel with foul. That is, we have lost the distinction between aʊə and in the environment of a following ɫ. So Cowell is generally a homophone of cowl.
(3) With L vocalization, widespread in southeastern England, there is no alveolar contact for the segment and the older ɫ turns into a back, usually rounded, vocoid, conventionally written o. The only difference between cow and cowl, Cowell is then that the latter may have a somewhat different timing in the tongue movement, greater overall duration, or a slightly different target for the end of the resultant diphthong. Compare the similar vow - vowel, boughs - bowels. If there is a difference, it may well be one of those intriguing cases where the speaker believes he is making a difference but the hearer can’t perceive it reliably.
Particularly in noisy conditions, as when Shin was listening to his car radio.

14 comments:

  1. That reminds me of the difficulty I have in distinguishing my daughter's pronunciations of "arrow" (where her /r/ is more w-like) and "owl".

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am definitely for (2) the schwa swallowed up in the final dark [ɫ]. In fact it seems rather unlikely to me that (1) the diphthong plus schwa sequence might be subject to smoothing and compression. I just can't see Cowell as a potential homophone of Carl. Can it be for you, John?

    So yes I agree with (2) Many (most?) English people make vowel rhyme with owl, towel with foul. That is, we have lost the distinction between aʊə and aʊ in the environment of a following ɫ. So Cowell is generally a homophone of cowl.

    But anyone who got involved in the farrago over seven and Severn will think I have finally laid down the melancholy burden of sanity when I also claim Cowell and cowl as a minimal pair. This checks out with Jowell and jowl, and probably any others I could think of. Once again I stress that I mean a potential minimal pair at the upper limit of distinctive realization.

    I have a very back allophone of /aʊ/ before ɫ generally (parallel to the öʊ I reported re wholly-holy) and I find it's backer still with the greater overall duration you mention, which in my case I would like to say can even take the form of a syllabic ɫ. I now think we should have been looking at Howell (/həʊɫ̩/) as well as whole and hole!

    – Compare the similar vow - vowel, boughs - bowels. If there is a difference, it may well be one of those intriguing cases where the speaker believes he is making a difference but the hearer can’t perceive it reliably.

    Yes it may well be. I admitted to that over seven etc. and said that I therefore didn’t imagine it was a functioning opposition in the overall system. But here I am not so sure. Even in L-vocalized Estuarine I seem to hear a (potential) simple opposition væɔ~væo, as well as væoː etc., with the "somewhat different timing in the tongue movement, greater overall duration or slightly different target for the end of the resultant diphthong", and I think that distinction is even more marked in bæɔːz~bæoːz for morphological reasons.

    Of course it may equally well be that I am a hearer who believes he is perceiving a difference that the speaker can’t make reliably!

    ReplyDelete
  3. @JW

    I am interested in your decision to syllabify words like "power" as disyllabic /aʊ.ə/ rather than as a single triphthong /aʊə/

    This contrasts with your treatment (in Accents of English) of words like "near" as diphthongs /nɪə/ rather than disyllables /nɪ.ə/

    Could you say something about what justifies this distinction? How would you syllabify "fire"?

    ReplyDelete
  4. @vp: In LPD I treat all such words as varisyllabic. For me power has exactly the same sequence as Howard and the first part of nowadays or of how about it. Lyre and liar, like hire and higher are normally varisyllabic and homophones (if people claim they are distinct, try them on brier, where the two meanings have different etymologies, one monosyllabic and one disyllabic). However people from Northumberland or Scotland, who have minimal pairs of the type tide vs. tied, may genuinely distinguish them.
    @mallamb: no, for me the starting point of is not as back as my ɑː, so smoothed compressed power and par remain distinct (for me, the speaker; but many hearers don't easily hear them apart).

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'd like to claim a minimal pair for cowl-cow even after 1+2+3, with a darker ending for cowl and hardly any rounding for cow. That's subjective. Maybe I should check on spectrograms. and see if anyone else can pick it up. Normally you wouldn't need to differentiate between "he gave the cow to Mary" and "he gave the cowl to Mary". If the topic is farms or cars you're home anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  6. – no, for me the starting point of aʊ is not as back as my ɑː, so smoothed compressed power and par remain distinct (for me, the speaker; but many hearers don't easily hear them apart).

    Thank you, John. That’s what I thought. I couldn’t imagine you having Cowell as even a potential homophone of Carl.

    But I don’t think I smooth and compress as much as you. For me too the starting point of aʊ is not as back as my ɑː, but I don’t usually get as far as paː for power. I may get as far as paə, which of course I distinguish from pɑː at least as much as you, but it's certainly not as stable as my ɔə (which it seems to me is not much less opposed to ɔː than it was for DJ!) Mostly I seem to say what your admirable varisyllabic conventions enable you to transcribe as pa.ə. I seem to have some sort of a pulse in it. And often at least the ghost of a ʊ.

    But as may be clear from my earlier post, when it comes to Cowell as a potential homophone of Carl, it is not for me the a vs ɑ opposition that prevents it. Because I have this [ɑʊ] allophone of /aʊ/ before ɫ. So it is the varisyllabicity, the much less wraith-like [ʊ] in the context of the ɫ (never I think separated by a ə but usually syllabic or near–syllabic), and the greater darkness of the ɫ itself in Cowell. I have a less dark ɫ in Carl, and even in full. (My Christian name has appeared on here a few times, but I am not Michael Howard. Or even within a million miles of him. And to further avert the suspicion that I am, I put [ʊ] in square brackets because normally for me it's something like [ö].)

    All these things come into play for the distinction between Cowell and cowl that I tried to explain earlier.

    ReplyDelete
  7. May I say, I'm glad to know that phenomenon of the vocalization of the [l] is not just delegated to the US. I'm in the midst of directing Ain't Misbehavin', and, just last night, I was trying to coach two actors to be able to pronounce "vocal" and "yokel". In the midst of song, they were simply [ˈvoʊkoʊ] and [ˈjoʊkoʊ]. The interesting thing is that the actors had a very hard time processing the bringing of the tongue-tip to the alveolar ridge.

    Now, I realize where this originates. The actors are African-American (in Detroit where the lines of migration from the South are very clear); many of their ideolects originate in Southern accents. This vocalization has been occurring in the American South for an incredibly long time. My truly Southern friends (I'm of pseudo-Southern roots), have really interesting pronunciations like [ˈmɪjən] (million), [ˈwɪjəm] (William), or [bɑːo] (ball).

    As a voice/speech coach who spends as much or more time adjusting pronunciation rather than observing it. I'm glad to know this occurrence is not isolated to the US.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hello Michael,
    [ˈmɪjjən] (million) and [ˈwɪjjəm] (William) etc. I seem to hear all the time, but I take it you think [ˈmɪjən] and [ˈwɪjəm] are more truly Southern. Or are they allegro variants? The [bɑːo] (ball), is reasonable, having such a low unrounded vowel, but Br vocalizers can go to [bɔ(ʊ)w], [bɒow] etc. Quite a lot of them have lost the distinction between that and 'bowl'. It may be my imagination, but I think that loss is more noticeable in e.g. bald/bold.

    I'm a bit surprised you think the non-geminated [ˈmɪjən] and [ˈwɪjəm] are more truly Southern, and would be interested to know what you think of the Southern US informant's examples I described on another thread:
    http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2009/11/bank-balance.html?showComment=1258387467723#c2266593074953108076

    My informant was a Professor of Linguistics who was a native speaker of that dialect, but serious discussion of the oppositions he reported was not greatly facilitated by the fact that he fell about laughing at his own accent. So did I (in case he was pulling my leg, but he wasn’t of course).

    ReplyDelete
  9. Sorry about the double posting. The server gave me an error message saying it had not been able to post, and giving me error codes to report. Just as the last time it did that, it told me to try again, but last time there was only one post.

    I report this here because I don't suppose the server's error report will go anywhere.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Michael and Mallamb,

    When I listen to my internal accent model of Southern American speech, I can certainly convince myself that I'm hearing [ˈmɪjən] for "million". When I try to hear the geminate [ˈmɪjjən] my inner model rebels, however. After chewing over the matter proprioceptively, I think I understand why.
    In quite a few American speech varieties, postvocalic /l/ is realized, as Michael says, with no raising of the tongue tip. This happens in England as well, but there is often a concomitant advancement of the lip corners. Hence Mallamb's (after JW) [bɑːo]
    But I think most American /l/ relaxers leave out the lip rounding. So it seems to me that I wouldn't hear [ˈmɪjjən] but I might very well hear [ˈmɪɯjən]. What I'm trying to get at is that when I vocalize the l at the end of the first syllable, my tongue is arched high and quite back, and my lips are not at all rounded. The second syllable must begin further forward at /j/. So I don't really hear/feel a geminate.

    ReplyDelete
  11. John, there are quite a few tedious wrangles on this thread, but I do hope you can spare a moment to read my post of 05 December 2009 10:43. I really am curious to know what you think of my attempt to analyze why I think the distinction I make between Cowell and cowl is at least as stable the one between Cowell and Carl.

    You will see that the reason "it seems rather unlikely to me that (1) the diphthong plus schwa sequence might be subject to smoothing and compression" is that I don’t do so much of that as you, and that although I do have 2) the schwa swallowed up in the final dark [ɫ], it makes it syllabic. I would like to say almost compulsorily so. And as I have said, it is also darker for me than in cowl [ka̠ʊɫ]. Perhaps this is what makes my already back allophone of /aʊ/ before /l/ even backer before this [ɫ].

    When I said of the wholly~holy debate that "I now think we should have been looking at Howell (/həʊɫ̩/) as well as whole and hole" I marked the ɫ in that as syllabic, intending to show that I would also do that for Cowell. But the ̩ is pretty much a casualty of the odd assortment of fonts this software allows, isn’t it? So rejoice, again I say rejoice in your varisyllabicity convention. The examples you have given above amply demonstrate its superiority to the curious ə̩ of the Abercrombie passage you posted. So what do you think of /həʊ.ɫ/ and /kaʊ.ɫ/ or [höʊ.ɫ] and [kɑʊ.ɫ].?

    Does any of this ring any bells with you?

    ReplyDelete
  12. I've just encountered a similar example today, from a genealogist. A man named Walter had his death registered as Warter. I assume the person reporting the death said something like "wawta" for Walter. The clerk writing it down was presumably non-rhotic, and consequently wrote (orthographic) war... which rhymes with Waw...

    ReplyDelete
  13. JW wrote
    – hire and higher are normally varisyllabic and homophones (if people claim they are distinct, try them on brier, where the two meanings have different etymologies, one monosyllabic and one disyllabic).

    The brier/briar that OED claims to be exclusively disyllabic (obviously for the usual etymologizing reasons) is the tobacco-pipe wood (ˈbraɪə(r)). This is the sort of alleged disyllabicity we found in the OED and elsewhere when we were discussing 'iron' (OED ˈaɪə(r)n).

    And the one it claims to have the possibility of being distinctively monosyllabic is the bramble/wild rose (OED braɪə(r), ˈbraɪə(r)). It actually explains this:

    "The word is historically a monosyllable, but poets have often made two syllables of it, a pronunciation supported by the spelling briar."

    So the only etymologizing there is to give the transcription of the monosyllabic variant first.

    If anyone other than the OED does claim they are even potentially distinct, and even I can't imagine that, it would be one of my cases of the upper limit of distinctive realization.

    But potentially distinct is what that upper limit makes hire and higher, because of their different degrees of varisyllabicity, due to their different morphological structure, which is actually clearer than in the case of cowl and Cowell!

    Thus even if you normally smooth and compress the hire/higher distinction to extinction, you still have the possibility of making higher distinct with respect to hire, but not vice versa. Thus for example you may make it fully disyllabic to distinguish it from high.

    And this potential for even one-way distinctiveness is sufficient to give the allophone sets different identities and establish "distinctive function".

    ReplyDelete
  14. The name can be confusing specially if you are not used to listen to it, or if you are not paying close attention. But I wouldn't blame people, it's just hasd to listen sometimes to the radio speakers.

    ReplyDelete