Wednesday, 9 December 2009

’t oughtn’t to be

Jack Windsor Lewis’s blog often takes up issues originally raised in my own blog, so I am sure he will be happy if I do the same in reverse. In his blog piece number 236, Apostrophes and Corrections Contractions, he says
It’s perfectly commonplace to hear “it was” and “it is” with the weakform /t/ for “it”, although mainly only stressed and in initial positions in prosodic units.

I have been trying to think up examples that would meet his criteria. This is quite difficult, because stressing (in my terms, accenting) (it) was or (it) is in phrase-initial position is pretty rare. (You would only do it if you want to emphasize the polarity or the tense.) However, here goes.

(1) (Why are you bringing that old matter up?) It ˈwas a ˈlong time a\/go, | after \all.
(2) Complaining about the cold? | It ˈis \/winter, you know.

Would it be “perfectly commonplace” to hear ˈtwɒz in (1)? No, it wouldn’t. The usual BrE pronunciation would surely be ɪʔ ˈwɒz. In colloquial style the it might disappear entirely, leaving just ˈwɒz. But ˈtwɒz, with what Jack thinks of as the weakform /t/, is surely very stylistically marked, belonging in a mock, faux-antique style, just like its written equivalent ’twas.
In (2) ˈtɪz is not so stylistically marked, because of the customary resyllabification of it is as ɪ.tɪz (attested by the aspiration and non-glottality of /t/). So if we suppress the first syllable we are left with ˈtɪz.

There is a regular option in colloquial speech to suppress initial pronouns and auxiliaries, as in Sure? (= Are you sure?), Got it? (= Have you got it?), or Found it! (= I’ve found it!). We can suppress lone initial pronouns, too: Must be Jim (= It must be Jim), Think I’ve gone wrong (= I think I’ve gone wrong). But under this option I don’t think you can suppress half a pronoun.

25 comments:

  1. I suppose 'tis and 'twas may still exist in various dialects, but all the examples I can think of are archaic, poetic, or Irish.

    'Tis the season to be jolly ...
    'Twas the night before Christmas ...
    'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves ...
    'Tis by Frank McCourt

    ... and so forth.

    I found a paper on the subject of 'tis vs. it's but it goes over my head. I expect you'll be able to extract something useful from it.

    http://icame.uib.no/ij28/peitsara.pdf

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  2. My impression - subjective but not influenced by an obsolete image of RP, I think - is that while the written forms 'tis and 'twas are perceived as humorous or simply belonging to a different time, people use them in everyday speech oftener than the think.

    In the case of 'tis, this happens less, because of the competing contraction it's, but under such circumstances as you describe above, it does occur, in particular if the stressed is is followed by (even more stressed) other words.

    A common form, but I could be wrong there, seems to be [ʔ̩ˈtʰɪz], with a syllabic glottal stop. The funny thing is, when you start with a null onset rather than with a glottal stop, as most people do in most cases, you get a syllabic nothing that is virtually there, maybe expressed through the downward part of a slight nod.

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  3. And [t̩ˈtʰɪz] or [tːʰɪz], of course.

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  4. In my dialect of Cornish English, 'tis and 'twas are certainly alive and kicking.

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  5. Alive and kicking as all the above-mentioned examples may be, is the "is" or "was" stressed?

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  6. I don't think I use 'tis and 'twas but mockingly.

    In the second example I can hear my self saying /ɪz/winter or /z/winter.

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  7. I think after a vowel or diphthong, it's not rare, I think, to hear 'tis:

    Is it? No tis not! Or: Is it? No tisn't!

    Does version B below strike you as Shakespearean?

    It's not strange to see an elephant in a zoo, but A. in a [ˈbɑːɹɪˈtʰɪz]. B. in a [ˈbɑːˈtʰɪz].

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  8. Moreover, I think the contraction survives in a glottalised age: in a [ˈbɑːɹɪˈʔɪz] or in a [ˈbɑːˈʔːɪz].

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  9. @Kraut: in my examples they don't have to be, but they can be (which is the point).
    @Lipman: in a [ˈbɑːɹɪˈʔɪz] OK (for people who use more glottal stops than I do), in a [ˈbɑːˈʔːɪz] very odd. But anyhow these are not initial, as JWL requires. (I could have come up with hundreds of examples like that. It's manoeuvring accented "it was/is" to the beginning of a sentence that I find hard.)

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  10. I think that Lipman hit the nail on the head (partially, at least) with Is it ? No tisn't, for whilst I don't think I still use any of 'tis, 'twas or 'tisn't, I can hear as clearly as anything (in my mind's ear) schoolyard disputes of the form 'Tis ! 'Tisn't ! 'Tis so !' (or 'Tis too) and so on. I am certain I am not mis-remembering these.

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  11. @JW: "This is quite difficult, because stressing (in my terms, accenting) (it) was or (it) is in phrase-initial position is pretty rare."
    What about as standalone answer-retorts, meaning "Oh yes it is/was!" ?

    I'm Irish, and use 't sometimes, but only as unstressed existential it. It's nice ('Tis nice?) that you can combine 't with n't for doubly shortened 'tisn't, 'twouldn't, etc.

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  12. Yes, John, [ˈbɑːˈʔːɪz] is very odd. But Lipman usually has a point, and I think I see what he's getting at. It's a bit far-fetched, because you have to imagine a speaker who is not above using more glottal stops than you do, but hypercorrects linking rs, and has such a horror of the Shar of Persia that he says \/bah i' \is. [ˈbɑːˈʔɪːɪz] would be conceivable as a very allegro form of that, but not I think as a development of [ˈbɑːˈtʰɪz], as Lipman proposes.

    Would you give it more credence if the glottal stop had the ɪ-colouring I have given it there, and the transition from ɑː that it implies, with perhaps a bit of creaky voice thrown in? I have seen spectrograms of geminated ‘ayin in some Arabic dialects (in which it's supposed to be a stop) in that sort of context that look like that.

    And I would say that what Lipman is getting at with [ʔ̩ˈtʰɪz], [t̩ˈtʰɪz] and [tːʰɪz] is "it 'tis", which I have heard all my life all over the place, with no particularly strong emphasis.

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  13. Sorry, this software apparently won't do the superscript ɪ which I typed in MSWord for the ɪ-colouring.

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  14. mallamb, by [ˈbɑːˈʔːɪz] I really meant a glottalised bar 'tis, not a hypercorrectly eliminated linking r. I take it I'm simply overimagining what's possible or probable.

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  15. – by [ˈbɑːˈʔːɪz] I really meant a glottalised bar 'tis, not a hypercorrectly eliminated linking r.
    I know you did, and didn't, and I did try in my discussion of it to make it clear that I could not imagine it as the former, but only as the latter, saying it "would be conceivable as a very allegro form of that, but not I think as a development of [ˈbɑːˈtʰɪz], as Lipman proposes."

    – I take it I'm simply overimagining what's possible or probable.

    Well, I hope it is clear from what I said in that discussion that I realize we're both stretching it, but I sympathized with your observation that people produce such bizarreries "in everyday speech oftener than they think".

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  16. Must say I was a bit surprised by the syllabic null onset myself.

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  17. By the way, Jack's blog is entitled "Apostrophes and Contractions", not "Corrections".

    I can perfectly imagine myself saying accented [tɪz] or [tɪznt], when contradicting someone. Don't think I'd ever do it with "it was" or "it wasn't", though

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  18. "It's not" can be [tsnat] in my AmE. "I thought at first the affricate might be ejective, [bV?tsnat], just glottalized."

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  19. You're so right, John C.

    Lipman, I think I would be more amenable to the suggestion of a zero or near-zero allophone of /ɪt/ in some of these examples, inc of course 'snot for John C's.

    BTW, re ‘ayin, would you have been exposed to Palestinian Arabs' Hebrew and adopted their ‘ayin at any point? I have thought on occasion that an epiglottal trill comes into it!

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  20. The word verification's comment on that was to ask me to type 'spaced'!

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  21. mallamb, I'm sure I've heard that kind of `ayin, but I don't remember if it was Palestinian Arabic. I like the understated kind of `ayin, clearly there, but not forced. A fricative or an approximant, not a stop or a trill. (Dialects that have a geminated `ayin are a different matter, of course.)

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  22. I think Jack Windsor Lewis' Yorkshire residence has influenced his post on this subject.

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  23. Terry Pratchett has made note 'twas...

    Jackrum sighed. 'There's a song,' he said. 'It starts 'Twas on Monday Morning, all in the month of May---'

    'Then it is about sex,' said Polly flatly. 'It's a folk song', it stars with 'twas, it takes place in May, QED it's about sex. Is a milkmaid involved? I bet there is.'

    [from 'Monstrous Regiment']

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  24. David Marjanović12 December 2009 at 21:46

    geminated ‘ayin in some Arabic dialects (in which it's supposed to be a stop)

    The epiglottal stop? :-9

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