Thursday, 10 December 2009

triphthongs, anyone?

In the comments on last Friday’s blog we touched on the issue of words like fire and power: are these monosyllables or disyllables? I mentioned that in LPD I treat them as varisyllabic.
Let’s look at this more closely.
Some authors describe the English vowel system as including not only diphthongs but also triphthongs. Peter Roach (English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th ed., CUP 2009, p. 18-19) puts it like this:
The most complex English sounds of the vowel type are the triphthongs. They can be rather difficult to pronounce, and very difficult to recognise. A triphthong is a glide from one vowel to another and then to a third, all produced rapidly and without interruption.
He lists the triphthongs eɪə, aɪə, ɔɪə, əʊə, aʊə (later giving the example words layer, player; liar, fire; loyal, royal; lower, mower; power, hour) and continues
The principal cause of difficulty for the foreign learner is that in present-day English the extent of the vowel movement is very small, except in very careful pronunciation. Because of this, the middle of the three vowel qualities of the triphthong (i.e. the ɪ or ʊ part) can hardly be heard and the resulting sound is difficult to distinguish from some of the diphthongs and long vowels. To add to the difficulty, there is also the problem of whether a triphthong is felt to contain one or two syllables. Words such as ‘fire’ or ‘hour’ are probably felt by most English speakers (with BBC pronunciation) to consist of only one syllable, whereas ‘player’ pleɪə or ‘slower’ sləʊə are more likely to be heard as two syllables.

I find this account unsatisfactory. If the əʊə of slower is a “triphthong”, it is difficult to see any reason why the əʊɪ of going is not one too. If liar has a triphthong, surely trying must have one.
More to the point, a diphthong is not any old “movement or glide from one vowel to another” (Roach’s definition, p. 17). A word like neon niːɒn certainly has a movement or glide from one vowel to another, but does not contain a diphthong, because it has two syllables. A diphthong is a vowel glide within a single syllable. Ashby and Maidment (Introducing Phonetic Science, CUP 2005, p. 8) put it like this:
Since voice and house are one-syllable words, English diphthongs must count as one V element rather than two. Both voice and house have the structure CVC, rather than CVVC.
Similarly, I would argue that part of the definition of a true triphthong must be that it constitutes a single V unit, making with any associated consonants just a single syllable.
Given that, do we have triphthongs in English? I claim that generally, at the phonetic level, we don’t. I treat the items we are discussing as basically sequences of a strong vowel plus a weak vowel. (By ‘strong vowel’ I mean one that is stressable and the potential input to a weakening rule; by ‘weak vowel’ I mean one that is the potential output of a weakening rule. Diphthongs such as are included under the heading ‘strong vowel’.)
These sequences are subject to two possible processes: smoothing and compression. Smoothing means the loss of the second part of the strong vowel (diphthong). Compression means the squashing of the two syllables into one syllable. Both of these processes are optional (or stylistically determined).
Hence given the disyllabic starting point paʊ.ə power, we can smooth it to disyllabic pa.ə. We can then compress the result to give monosyllabic paə. (This may be subject to the further process of Monophthonging, giving paː.)
Similarly, ɡəʊ.ɪŋ going can be smoothed to ɡə.ɪŋ and then compressed to ɡəɪŋ.
If my definition of triphthong holds, then a triphthong would be generated only if we apply Compression without first applying Smoothing. And my claim is that we do not commonly do that.

43 comments:

  1. I quite agree. The idea of triphthongs probably simply survives because of graphic things, even if these are in a phonemic or phonetic notation rather than in conventional orthography.

    (How do you define syllabicity? When the spectrogram line goes nicely up and down?)

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  2. Do we need to treat diphthongs as being attached to a single mora? I don't understand the motivation for saying we need to say those syllables are CVC rather than CVVC -- there's no reason a CVVC sequence can't be a single syllable.

    Also, for the record, "fire" and "hour" are definitely two syllables for me. It's always hard for me to keep up with all this British pronunciation.

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  3. OK, how about this one then: In Low German (as in Standard German, with some restrictions), syllable-final /r/ is generally realised as [ɐ], usually analysed as non-syllabic ([ɐ̯]). So, for example, Peerd 'horse' /pert/ is pronounced [pʰeɐt]. Few would argue that the [ɐ] isn't syllabic, so the usual transcription would be [pʰeɐ̯t]. In some dialects, the word is /pɛɪ̯rt/, with a phonemic diphthong, and is then realised as [pʰɛɪ̯ɐt] - or is it [pʰɛɪ̯ɐ̯t] then, with a phonetic triphthong? And how could we possibly decide that?

    Doesn't it all boil down to the question what a syllable is and if it is definable on a phonetic basis at all?

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  4. @Ryan: I didn’t say anything about moras. In Ashby and Maidment’s formula the V can obviously be monomoraic or dimoraic. For them CVVC would be a word like chaos, disyllabic.

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  5. I agree with Brotwart about [ə] sometimes being a variant of final /r/. In this case, we can treat [ə] as a semi-vowel (or semi-consonant, in more helpful terms, like the letters usually written "w" and "y") rather than a vowel. But this is confused in English by the inevitable non-rhotic pronunciation of syllables ending in /ər/; in this case, /ə/ is indisputably a vowel. The former set I would argue can indeed undergo compression without smoothing, but the latter set can't: here is the syllable issue.

    I would therefore argue (maybe slightly mischievously) for a transcription of "hour" as /aʊr/ -- it is clearly a monosyllable consisting of a diphthong and a semi-consonant. "Power", however, I would transcribe as /paʊ.ə(r)/ -- here it is the /ʊ/ that is not a vowel, but a semi-consonant. On that basis, I would object to /paʊr/ outside the absurd circumstances of choral music; as you say, "we don't commonly do that".

    I suppose therefore, that, inasmuch as one can say that "power" contains a diphthong, "hour" does contain (at least in non-rhotic dialects) a triphthong, but I am not sure whether that is a particularly helpful analysis.

    One final amusing aside: "layer" for me is about as far from a triphthong as one can get -- to me the natural pronunciation is /lɛːr/, with the /r/ being of the semi-vowel variety. That's definitely compression with smoothing, to the point where uncompressing and unsmoothing it would sound unnatural!

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  6. @James D:

    What is the basis for your distinction between "power" and "hour"? The spelling?

    Would you distinguish similarly between "flower" and "flour", which are etymologically identical? The are homophones (for me, at least).

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  7. @JW:

    You say that "at the phonetic level" we don't have triphthongs in English. This seems to presuppose a phonetic definition of the syllable.

    I am only familiar with the syllable as a phonological notion. Could you say a little more about how the syllable can be defined in phonetic terms? Thanks.

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  8. I can't go along with Lipman's 'there you go', Brotwart. Good old-fashioned 'there you are' is what I have to say. And there we all are when it comes to the syllable, as I have already said ad nauseam. It is not even definable as a phonological unit, if you are a universalist, but it may be language-specifically, if the structure of the phonotagm model which exhaustively accounts for all possible phonological paradigms and syntagms in that language is such that there is a reasonable amount of reasonable consensus that all instances of it correspond to a phonetic syllable, whatever that may be! Mandarin Chinese is claimed to be such a language, and it is widely accepted that even the phonological and phonetic correlates of the enclitic –r don’t really raise questions like the perplexing behaviour of the rs being discussed here. Of course it is also widely accepted that the convention of considering sequences like –iao and –uai to be true triphthongs rather than -jau or -wai etc. is has a sensible phonological and phonetic basis.

    John, I have said before that I like your varisyllabic solutions, and to the extent that one can talk about syllabicity in these cases at all, I think what you say here is effulgent common sense.

    But I think you are too dismissive of the claim that pairs like hire and higher (the examples you gave re Cowell) are even potentially distinct. Your analogy with "brier, where the two meanings have different etymologies, one monosyllabic and one disyllabic" looks like a reductio ad absurdum, but isn’t. To make the claim that brier has even the potential for distinct pronunciations is of course absurd, and the fact that the OED gives a distinctively monosyllabic pronunciation for the bramble/wild rose does not make it less so.

    I gave an explanation of that re Cowell, followed by an apologia for the claim that pairs like hire and higher are potentially distinct. See if you don't think what I say there is a valid argument for 'brier' being a false analogy.

    While I was writing this I see that vp has made similar points, even giving the example flour/flower which I was going to throw at James D in an attempt to get brownie points for having at least some footing in common sense myself.

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  9. I got somewhat used to "there you go" after I had written "therr you gaw" to a friend once, when he ironically explained an English word as originating in Hebrew. He understood after this short video excerpt. Turned into a running gag.

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  10. Well of course the old man's etymology for kimono failed to take account of the fact that the Japanese are the entire complement of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Hebrew and all.

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  11. Clearly I can't answer vp's question addressed to James D : "What is the basis for your distinction between 'power' and 'hour' ? The spelling ?" since only James D can know the basis on which he made that distinction, but when I pronounce each of the two words and note the various positions that my mouth adopts, I am certain I interpolate a "w" into "power" that is completely missing from my version of "hour". On the other hand, hearing (in my mind's ear) the two words as they would be pronounced by a native speaker of RP, I hear no difference at all apart from the initial "p".

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  12. mallamb, ah yes, met one of these once. The Japanese for it is メシュゲ, isn't it?

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  13. Oh I did so hope it was, but sadly it seems it's not in any dictionary!

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  14. mallamb:

    "hire" and "higher" are not even potentially distinct?

    Jones, on the other hand, argues in paragraphs 414-415 of his Outline of English Phonetics (1969),that although

    "The English word [wires], usually transcribed ["wai@z], is often ponounced in a manner indistinguishable from the French word [Oise wa:z]"

    "English people do not as a rule use these reduced forms when [@] is a suffix with a definite meaning. They employ in this case a clearly disyllabic pronunciation which may be symbolized phonetically by [ai-@]. These speakers distinguish [higher "hai-@] from [hire "hai@], [dyer "dai-@] from [dire "dai@], etc..."

    And could someone please explain to me how to use phonetic symbols and formatting when commenting on this blog under Firefox? I can't even paste text into this box. It's so frustrating.

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  15. Right-click on it and select "This Frame" > "Open Frame In New Tab". It took me a while to realize that, too.

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  16. Metallica singer James Hetfield has monosyllabic "ours" (roughly [ɑ̟˞ːz], identical or very similar to "R's") in "Nothing Else Matters", and bisyllabic "hours" (roughly [a̠ˑwɚz]) in "Ride the Lightning". Did he only do this for metrical purposes, or is there a tendency for function words to be smoothed and compressed more often than content words?

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  17. The trouble with English triphthongs is that they not only comprise two or more phonemes, they can also span morpheme boundaries (e.g. "higher"). Would anyone admit a triphthong across a word boundary, e.g. "buy a" in "buy a book"? If so the way is open for even longer -phthong sequences, although they seem to be blocked by the a/an alternation in practice.

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  18. @Sidney Wood:

    I don't think this problem is necessarily distinctive of triphthongs.

    Many non-rhotic speakers may have homophones like "see a" vs. "seer", in the NEAR lexical set, usually described as a diphthong.

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  19. Btw I can say with complete confidence that my mother-in-law has two separate syllables in words like power. Over Thanksgiving, I heard her say "our" as [aβʷəɾ].

    Since her native language is Hindi, and she exhibits the v-w merger typical of Indian English, this is phonemically /aʊwər/, with a semivowel /w/ present between the two syllables.

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  20. @vp

    Yes, NEAR, SQUARE, CURE, and (for some speakers) FOUR all behave in exactly the same sort of way as the "triphthongs" under discussion as far as I can see -- i.e. they're varisyllabic.

    Here in Australia, the first set in particular is generally pronounced as a distinct two syllables by some speakers [ni:.ja], though others use the (older?) monosyllabic version.

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  21. Unless they make a difference in phonetics, I don't see why a morpheme or word boundary should be relevant. It depends on what you're analysing.

    One could also include l, n, m, ŋ with their vocalic/syllabic potential, if you want to boost the plutophthongs.

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  22. I think the existence of smoothing is very exaggerated for the aɪə and aʊə words. They are bisillabic for most BBC speakers and for most British people. Margaret Thatcher would always pronounce these words as monophthongs, but she was the minority amongst RP speakers.

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  23. Ed, I think you're wrong. Listen to people talking about "science and technology" or "firepower". Visit UCL, I'll meet you at the Gower Street entrance - [ga:]. For me, in familiar words the default is certainly smoothing: it requires an extra effort for me not to do it.

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  24. Lipman, were you perhaps intending to type plurophthongs? If so you shouldn’t have been. But I quite like the idea of 'polyphthongs' for some of the Eliza Doolittle classics.

    Levente, you obviously didn’t even read the relevant bits of my post on this thread saying (1) JW was too dismissive of the claim that hire and higher are potentially distinct, and (2) that I had earlier given an apologia for the claim that pairs like hire and higher are potentially distinct, never mind follow my link to the post in which I had given the said apologia! Here it is again:
    http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2009/12/cowell-jumped-over-moon.html?showComment=1260280643650#c3331545634783397018

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  25. My intuition (which may not be reliable):

    - "aɪə words" vary between one and two syllables. Those with an obvious morpheme boundary (like "higher") are generally two, but others, like "hire", are often one. Some of those with no historic /r/ (like "science" and "quiet" seem to vary. The existence of one-syllable forms of words like "science" and "quiet" seems to me to be parallel to the process which leads to the NEAR vowel appearing in words like "theatre" and "vehicle" (which I perceive as two syllables). The one syllable form feels like something more complex than merely [aə], but I'm not sure exactly what it is. (It seems to move forward and then back again.)

    - the other potential triphthongs mentioned by Roach are always two syllables in my speech.

    - I suspect there is some social, generational or regional thing involved with pronunciations like [ga:] for "Gower"; they seem very marked to me.

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  26. JHJ, I hope you don’t think I was saying those with an obvious morpheme boundary (like "higher") are generally two. I do over-specify my pronouncements, but to cut one long story short, I meant that they are potentially two. I wasn’t contesting JW's point that it is normally homophonous with 'hire': it is for me too, even though I don’t do quite so much smoothing and condensing as he does.

    I take it that by saying that for you the NEAR vowel appears in words like "vehicle", and that you perceive it as two syllables, you mean you say [vɪəkl] (or [viəkl]). I have unstressed ɪ~ə, and so say [ˈvɪɪkl]. I would only say [ˈvɪjɪkl] under the same sort of circumstances as [ˈhaɪ.ə]. So yes, [ˈvɪɪkl] looks suspiciously like smoothing (losing the [j]) and condensing (to ɪː), but there is absolutely no way I can perceive it as two syllables, and I feel sure there would be some sort of spectrographic evidence that this is reflected in my pronunciation of it.

    army1987 said...
    Right-click on it and select "This Frame" > "Open Frame In New Tab".

    Thank you for that fantastic tip. I have been mostly dragging text into it, whereupon it tends to become as uneditable as if you type straight into the box.

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  27. JHJ, I hope you don’t think I was saying those with an obvious morpheme boundary (like "higher") are generally two. I do over-specify my pronouncements, but to cut one long story short, I meant that they are potentially two. I wasn’t contesting JW's point that it is normally homophonous with 'hire': it is for me too, even though I don’t do quite so much smoothing and condensing as he does.

    No, it wasn't a reaction to what you said. Apart from the bit at the end about "Gower", everything I said was about my intuition about my own speech, and that is that "hire" is normally one syllable (with what I think of as a triphthong) and "higher" is normally two.

    I take it that by saying that for you the NEAR vowel appears in words like "vehicle", and that you perceive it as two syllables, you mean you say [vɪəkl] (or [viəkl]).

    Yes, or even [vɪːkl]. The process doesn't seem to be regular: there are words which I perceive as having FLEECE plus weak vowel, e.g. "IKEA".

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  28. mallamb:

    Sorry, I must have been very tired :)
    So I agree with you, after all.

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  29. It's sëː wɪːd that vɪəkl goes to vɪːkl but ˈvɪɪkl doesn’t, isn’t it?

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  30. I am very tarred, too... :-)

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  31. @army1987: The monosyllabic pronunciation of "our(s)" is extremely common, to the point where I'd consider it a word-specific case. For example, I grew up (in suburban Massachusetts) using the monosyllabic pronunciation of "our(s)" without any other trace of smoothing in my speech. The disyllabic/triphthongal pronunciation of "our(s)" still strikes me as a bit elevated, and I only use it when I make a conscious choice to use it.

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  32. I suppose I ought to say something in response to the criticism of my unsatisfactory writing about triphthongs in my elementary textbook aimed at beginners in English phonetics. In explaining the basic phonetic facts about diphthongs at this level, “any old glide from one vowel to another” is a diphthong, and the /iːɒ/ in ‘neon’ is just as much a diphthong as the /ɔɪ/ in ‘coin’ until you have a satisfactory delimitation of what is or is not a syllable of the language. Likewise, “any old glide” from one vowel to another and then to another is a triphthong at the phonetic level. Of course, for the English accent described there is a well-established set of diphthongal syllabic nuclei that is a subset of all possible diphthongs, and these are presented in the book. A small number out of all possible triphthongs is also presented as being present in English, since I believe it is important to make learners of English phonetics aware that a small number of underlying three-vowel sequences may be pronounced practically as monophthongs. In talking of triphthongs, I make no claim that these have some special status as vocalic units in English phonology. I state quite clearly that they are sequences of certain diphthongs and a following schwa. If I felt it would be helpful to include triphthongs made of diphthongs plus /ɪ/ (as in ‘trying’), I would happily do so, but I don’t. At more advanced levels of description it may well be helpful to students to invoke ordered processes like “smoothing” and “compression”, but I’m afraid I thought I could manage without them.

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  33. David Marjanović12 December 2009 at 21:28

    I have a phonetic definition for "syllable" ("I know it when I hear it", and I still don't understand how anyone who's non-rhotic can interpret fire or (h)our as a single syllable. It's not possible to even sing them as such, try as I might. Unless, of course, if compression to [ɑː] respectively [aː] is applied – I had thought this was ent[ɑ̈ː]ly nonstandard, a regional feature like G[aː] Street?

    Or is this my German background showing? In German such words are not only unambiguously bisyllabic, they are always written with an extra e, even if it's not etymological, as in Feuer and Mauer ( = "wall", from Latin murus). Even in dialects like Viennese, which turn all diphthongs into monophthongs, these words retain two syllables.

    I have no problem with the Standard Mandarin triphthongs. I think the reason is that they don't go "forwards and backwards" – they are smooth curves on the vowel chart, without any strong bends, so that (for some of them) whether they are di- or triphthongs depends on the speed of speech.

    "The English word [wires], usually transcribed ["wai@z], is often ponounced in a manner indistinguishable from the French word [Oise wa:z]"

    (Not that it matters, but the French oi isn't really [wa], at least not for most people. So, I really doubt the "indistinguishable" part.)

    So yes, [ˈvɪɪkl] looks suspiciously like smoothing (losing the [j]) and condensing (to ɪː), but there is absolutely no way I can perceive it as two syllables

    That's the difference between [ɪɪ] (two syllables) and [ɪː] (one).

    I was taught to say [ˈvɪɪkl] – two syllables, which need not have the same pitch (for example).

    In explaining the basic phonetic facts about diphthongs at this level, “any old glide from one vowel to another” is a diphthong, and the /iːɒ/ in ‘neon’ is just as much a diphthong as the /ɔɪ/ in ‘coin’ until you have a satisfactory delimitation of what is or is not a syllable of the language.

    I think there's a difference in how fast the transition is; in coin, I think I move the tongue throughout, while in neon the movement is restricted to a shorter period*. But someone should measure this properly, if it hasn't already been done.

    * Accounting for the fact that the English /iː/ is more commonly a diphthong itself, [ɪi̯].

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  34. David Marjanović12 December 2009 at 21:31

    [ˈvɪɪkl] – two syllables

    Three of course, the third being [kʰɫ̩].

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  35. "It's not possible to even sing them as such, try as I might."
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYiahoYfPGk#t=159 "Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way." And that's definitely not a monophthong.

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  36. Wow what a blog, i really liked the comparison made between diphthongs and triphthongs, this was very informative and useful for me as taking new knowledge. i would love to know like this from you, thanks for sharing.

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  38. If we where more careful in the way we speak i believe it would be easier to recognize the triphthongs that are present in the language.

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  39. My pupils made me to cut off triphthongs from the compound vowels sail on the vowel boat model mast. It led to corroboration of a@ and o@. So diminuendo triphthongs were just an illusion, created by the effect of the final R. I'd better had clung to the true prophet JCW.
    Humbly
    Valdas Banaitis
    from Lithuania

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  40. Can you guys give me a list of 20 words that contain thiphtongs? And i will also need words that use the sound "j" from "garage".. I will really appreciate it.

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  41. Why most, if not all, phonemic charts do not include triphtongues?

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