Wednesday, 25 August 2010

some day my prints will come

Dan Schneider asked:
Do you happen to know what the difference is between /pænts/ and /pæns/ or /faɪ.næns/ and /faɪ.nænts/? Whenever I look up the IPA of of words like these, ending in either /-ns/ or /-nts/, they seem to fit with the actual spelling of the word. For example, finance doesn't have a T in it, so the IPA shows /faɪ.næns/, and pants does, so therefore you get /pænts/. In my mind, (I'm from Massachusetts, USA) I don't hear or make any sort of difference between the two. I feel like I always say /ns/, but I could be wrong. I can't seem to find any sound clip online that shows the difference between the two, and I can't really imagine what the difference would be. I feel like putting the /t/ in there would be to cumbersome to do in everyday speech.

In my reply I explained that essentially it’s a question of the timing of the articulatory movements. To go smoothly from [n] to [s] you have to release the tongue tip before creating the velic closure (= raising the soft palate). Conversely, if the soft palate movement is completed first (thus preventing nasal escape), before the tongue tip leaves the alveolar ridge, there is a moment during which no air can escape: this is then perceived as [t].
So it all depends on which moves first, the tongue tip or the soft palate. (The cessation of vocal cord vibration can take care of itself.)

I natively make a firm distinction between the two possibilities. My
prince has [ns], my prints has [nts] (or [nʔs]). But I know that many people don’t make any such distinction.

In my experience Americans usually pronounce both words like my prints.

Speakers who have this epenthetic plosive normally do so whenever a nasal is followed by a voiceless fricative within the same syllable. If the nasal and fricative are in different syllables (e.g. inside, uncertain, consider — you have to buy into my views on syllabification here), there is no epenthesis. So Dan can get a model for plain -ns- by considering his consider.


  1. I'd read all that, but I'm busy with my micro-stethoscope - I have the patients of a gnat.

  2. I've heard some American Southerners pronounce else like elts (fictional word). I'm not sure if this is a related phenomenon. I'm an American and I believe I make a distinction between prince and prints. Most people do in my experience, unless my hearing is bad, which it very well might be after all the loud music I've listened to.

  3. "You can raise welts
    Like nobody else,
    As we dance to the Masochism Tango"

    -- Tom Lehrer

  4. There are non-standard dialects of Italian where /s/ ans /ts/ always merge as [ts] after sonorants, even across word boundaries. In formal contexts sometimes I've overcompensated for that by using something like [iz̃s] for /ins/.

  5. I'm pronouncing both as [pɹɪ̃ns]. I don't know if this is typical mid-Canadian speech but it seems that my tongue dislikes English glottal stops in place of /t/. While we're at it, perhaps I have a tendency to smooth over "nt" in general because I pronounce "winter" as [ˈwɪ̃ɾɹ̩] too.

  6. In my experience the main difference between UK/US pronunciation of 'prince' is how many syllables they give the word. I'm sure I've heard a Texan get four in there.

  7. I don't detect any trans-Atlantic difference in the prevalence of the prince-prints merger. In my experience both the US and the UK have a majority of merged speakers.

    The parallel use of [ntʃ] in a word like "financial", on the other hand, strikes me as typically British (though not RP).

  8. When I was first learning English in Northern New Jersey as a child I definitely noticed [ntʃ] in words like 'tension', 'mention', and 'attention'. I remember being mystified by this pronunciation as I didn't find it indicated in dictionaries. I still use [ntʃ] in those words.

    On the other hand, I firmly distinguish 'prince' and 'prints'. I'm aware of the epenthetic 't' because it is indicated in the LPD, but I don't remember noticing it in real life; I'll have to listen for it.

    'Financial' didn't become a part of my vocabulary until later, when I left the US, and here I use [nʃ]. I don't know whether the typical Northern New Jersey pronunciation of 'financial' would use an epenthetic 't' here.

  9. Where in Northern New Jersey, anyway?

    I have epenthetic /t/ in all these words. I find it odd that there's no such phenomenon in /nz/ words, though, leading to a /z/ : /ts/ opposition in such words as tens:tense.

  10. For what it's worth, I lived in Bergen County, just across from New York City. I spent less than two years there as a child a long time ago, and I didn't speak English at all when I first got there, so I can't really say anything about Northern New Jersey pronunciation with any confidence.

  11. My intuition is that "prince" etc are underlyingly [nts]. But that's only an intuition and I'm open to argument.

  12. Doesn't one have to make a huge effort not to say prince like prints? In fact, I can't, and I wonder if people only imagine that they can say /ns/ at all.

  13. Can you say a word like "incisive" without putting a [t] between the first and second syllables? Then you are perfectly capable of producing a [ns] cluster. You simply need to do the same thing in a syllable-final environment.

    It's rather uncharitable to project one's own difficulties onto other speakers. It took me years of effort to produce a trilled "r", yet I never doubted that a large proportion if the world's population produces trills with ease.

  14. vp, it ain't necessarily so that Paul can say a word like "incisive" without putting a [t] between the first and second syllables. Or a word like "consider", which JW suggests, saying there is no epenthesis if the nasal and fricative are in different syllables, even for speakers who have this epenthetic plosive whenever a nasal is followed by a voiceless fricative within the same syllable. For I am continually hearing it in that very word. Though perhaps words like "consider" and "concern" are more likely to generate it than a word like "incisive". And words like "inform", "confirm" etc can have an analogous epenthesis.

    And I sympathize with Paul in his suspicion that people only imagine that they can say /ns/ at all. Provided that by /ns/ he means [ns], that is – if they can't say that without an epenthetic t, then that t is not functional. I think a lot of people do imagine they are saying [ns] when they are saying [nts], and not exclusively non-phoneticians influenced by the orthographic spellings, but even quite a few phoneticians influenced by the phonological spelling /ns/! I suppose at a pinch most people can say it, even if it's not functional within their idiolects, but I wonder if even in RP there are enough idiolects with a functioning opposition in that position for it to be consistently functional or carry much communicative weight in the overall system. My own idiolect would conform to JW's rule about the nasal and fricative being in different syllables, including liaisons such as in "Prince Andrew", but I think I have free variance in "Prince Charles", in spite of the potential succession of affricates. I would certainly never have the epenthesis in "Princess Royal", but might well in "princedom". "My prince will come" would still be quite likely to have it, as the w doesn’t invite much in the way of liaison.

  15. There are three changes that have to be made to get from [n] to [s].

    * A slight opening in the alveolar closure (A)
    * Closing the velar opening to the nasal passages (N)
    * Turning off voicing. (V)

    If we assume that it is impossible to do any two of these absolutely simultaneously, then there are 6 possible orderings, giving 6 possible sequences:

    * ANV (A, then N, then V): [nz̃zs]
    * AVN: [nz̃s̃s]
    * NAV: [ndzs]
    * NVA: [ndts]
    * VAN: [nn̥s̃s]
    * VNA: [nn̥ts]

    Of these, only two feature an epenthetic [t].

  16. Well, there's also the additional possibility/ies of gliding the nasal, so that you never have to "release" the alveolar closure. The result is a nasalised vowel + nasal glide, or a even straightforward nasal vowel. This is typical e.g. in Polish (and, of course, English as spoken by Poles). But I think it's also heard in some American accents (in the South?).

  17. English isn't the only language where this happens.
    You will find quite a few results on czech Google when seeking "mandžel" instead of the correct "manžel"(meaning husband), or "orandžová" instead of the correct "oranžová"(meaning orange colour).