Tuesday, 29 December 2009

tattoo


Many of you will have already read about this on Language Log. But you’d’ve read it here first if it weren’t for my self-imposed Christmas blogging break. (Thanks, Amy Stoller, for first bringing it to my attention.)

Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, has had an IPA vowel chart tattooed across his back. Can there be any greater devotion to the cause of phonetics?

The word tattoo tæˈtuː is phonologically unusual, in that it has a strong short vowel, æ, in what I would consider unequivocally syllable-final position. The second t must be in the second syllable, because it is aspirated just like the one in two ˈtuː. Therefore the preceding æ is syllable-final. But æ, like other short strong vowels, does not normally end a syllable. (The Cambridge EPD syllabicates the word as tæt.ˈuː, in my view wrongly: tattoos does not form an exact rhyme with that ooze.)
You can see why a regularized variant təˈtuː, with a weakened first vowel, should also sometimes be encountered. The mystery is why it remains a minority choice.

24 comments:

  1. Could be the influence of the spelling. The first vowel of *|tatoo| might have been easier to reduce than a vowel that's "protected" by a double consonant grapheme.

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  2. Doesn't one typically hear təˈtuːɪŋ, though?

    I was thinking of similar words; lasso came up. I checked the OED which gives ləˈsuː and ˈlæsoʊ; I'm fairly sure that in North American English ˈlæsuː turns up. Close to tæˈtuː but for the stress...

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  3. There are plenty of words in which stressed æ is followed by a single consonant plus a vowel.

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  4. Single consonant phonetically or orthographically? If we're dealing with historical geminates, we might be able to posit an ambisyllabic stop that has lost its extra length. In that case we'd have a phonetically short consonant that closes that syllable. (Although from the OED this doesn't seem a plausible synchronic account for lasso.)

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  5. Tacit, valid, panic etc are all historically non-geminates.
    But that's not the point. I was talking about inmmediately pretonic syllables.

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  6. The instance of [æ] in an unchecked (though not pretonic) syllable that has always puzzled me is in the word "yeah," as spoken here in North America—where, as I understand, it originated. Why would a word as frequently used as "yes" get transformed into something so phonologically anomalous? I gather that it also occurs in Britain, but I think with the SQUARE vowel, isn't that right?

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  7. If I were going to get a tattoo of the IPA vowel chart, I wouldn't have it put on my back where I couldn't even see it. I'd have it put on my left forearm, so I could use it as a reference.

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  8. "aberrant, adessive, affective, allophony, atrophic" - do they meet the criterion of immediate pretonicity?

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  9. Ah, got it. In that case, do we have pretonic short strong vowels before historical non-geminates?

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  10. Kraut: [ə], [eɪ], analogy to other parts of speech from which the word in question is formed &c.?

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  11. I wonder if tattoo originally had initial stress. The stress is certainly initial in the Polynesian language(s) constituting the original source, and the homonyms 'military drum signal' (Dutch) and 'native-bred Indian pony' (Hindi) must also have begun with initial stress. I'd guess that the final stress came from, or was reinforced by, anglophone perception of Fr tatou, from the same nonspecific Polynesian source.

    I think the vowel is that of BAD rather than TRAP in varieties that have that distinction (æ-lengthening in some kinds of Commonwealth English, æ-tensing in some kinds of AmE). Can any native speakers comment on that?

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  12. This may be irrelevant to this discussion, but the "regularized variant" seems to be fairly common in Australia. In fact, I think I've even heard some Australians "tap" (or at least voice) the intervocalic "t" in "tattoo." Sorry if you don't want anonymous posters. I don't quite understand the rules of this blog yet.

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  13. I'm wondering what he would do when/if the symbols get changed? Update the tattoo, too?!

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  14. MKR: for me (in northern England) "yeah" has DRESS, which is also anomalous.

    I have TRAP word-finally in a number of French loanwords, e.g. "fracas" /ˈfraka/ and "patois" /ˈpatwa/. These tend to be shown in dictionaries with PALM.

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  15. John Cowan - I have the "bad/lad" split, but for me tattoo still has "TRAP", not "BAD": tæˈtuː, not *tæːtuː. Is that what you mean?

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  16. tæˈtuː here.

    For context, I merge BATH completely with TRAP. To the extent that I have a split in casual speech, it is only in words where æ is followed by a nasal consonant, more usually n than m.

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  17. I have the KIT vowel in rabbIt and the FLEECE vowel in happY. That means that, for speakers like me, a word such as "retired" is also phonologically interesting: it has the KIT vowel syllable-finally, even though that same vowel can never occur word-finally.

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  18. Why stop at just the vowels? Why not the whole chart, the wimp?

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  19. I say Yahoo with the same two vowels, and I can't see how the /h/ can be in the first syllable.

    I feel a similar syllabification for Yazoo and tabu. I may be deceiving myself, but I think I would add a little glottal support to the /u/ if I perceived it as a self-contained syllable.

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  20. Poor guy's got a voiced velar fricative instead of a close-mid back unrounded vowel. The more tattoo artists make a careful study of typology the better, I say.

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  21. this is my first come to your blog,and i read agood information that you put in here..good job i like it
    keep going thanks.

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  22. The problem is this tattoo will be recognized by maybe 0.1% of the population imo. For others it looks like some occult spells

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