Friday, 3 September 2010

a nice ice

An anonymous commentator on yesterday’s blog (meant to be for the previous day) expressed not only disbelief at the suggestion that native speakers of English make a distinction between an aim ən eɪm and a name ə neɪm but also dismay when native speakers (including me) insisted that we do.
The picture above is taken from John Trim’s EFL practice book English Pronunciation Illustrated (CUP, 2nd edition 1975).
Another commentator, going by the name of army1987, supplied a link to a Language Log posting (actually a follow-up to this one). Here you can find sound clips taken from a large spoken (telephone) corpus and test yourself on your ability to hear the contrast.

Measurements of segment duration show that final n, as in an ice (cream) is typically shorter in duration than initial n, as in a nice (day).

Impressionistically, I find the distinction to be relatively robust. OK, like many contrasts it may be obscured in rapid speech, particularly under less than ideal noise conditions; but, as I mentioned in a comment yesterday, I do remember being struck (and irritated) by a French colleague’s repeated mispronunciation of an L as ə ˈnel, which sounds like a knell rather than like what was intended. He was carrying over into English the French habit whereby final liaison consonants are regularly resyllabified with a following initial vowel: my standard example is les États-Unis le.ze.ta.zy.ni.

Historically, the distinction may presumably once have been less robust, judging by the etymology of adder and, in the other direction, of newt. (In the case of orange, from Sanskrit nāraṅga via Arabic nāranj, the reanalysis seems to have taken place in Italian, and the word then came to us via French already lacking the initial nasal.)

The existence of the distinction in contemporary English doesn’t stop us punning over the similarity.

32 comments:

  1. Thank you John. This is yesterday's hotheaded anonymous commentator. I've just bought Trim's book and two cassettes from Amazon -If you can't beat them...

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  2. In China our tour guide insisted our next trip would take only two nours. He couldn't hear the difference, but, of course, he was anything but a native speaker.

    Sheikh Daoud

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  3. Just to round off with a reverse example from Spanish that I enjoy very much.
    The word nitidez means clarity, vividness, sharpness, exactitude, precision.
    Now since the word is feminine, it is often-time referred to as una nitidez /unaˈnitiðeθ/ as in una nitidez brillante when trying to sell some schmuck an expensive TV set.
    Now, as I heard on Spanish Radio awhile back, it seems that many Spaniards understand that word as "anitidez" thanks to the fact that in Spanish there is no hiatus in these "an ice" cases and so /unaˈnitiðeθ/ easily becomes /unˈanitiðeθ/.
    I love the fact that a word meaning clarity and precision cannot be said with neither clarity nor precision.
    Not much of a punch-line, I know, but I haven't worked on my phonology stand-up in ages...

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  4. Doesn't the "s" in "Asian" sound like in "vision"?

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  5. @Sil: not for me or for 68% of BrE respondents born before 1942. See the pie chart in LPD.

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  6. To me the difference is between n̩'aɪsˌhaʊs (syllabic n) and əˈnaɪsˈhaʊs. Thank you for this blog, John, particularly over the last couple of days: it has really made me look again at my assumptions. P.S. As a child of the sixties I agree with Sil: eɪʒn

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  7. Somewhat of a sidebar: here in southern Louisiana the great majority of my students would have no difficulty distinguishing between 'a name' and 'an aim', as the latter is virtually always /ə ˈeɪm/...

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  8. Very interesting about the pronunciation of Asian. I never knew that was a pronunciation. As for "a nice" vs. "an ice", I'm pretty sure I don't make this distinction. This seems supported by the fact that in the Language Log post I was unable to guess what the syllabification was with greater than chance frequency.

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  9. Then there's the phrase a whole nother ball game.

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  10. …which reflects the fact that another is pronounced əˈnʌðə, not *ənˈʌðə.

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  11. And the way I say law and order is regularly mocked as Laura Norder.

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  12. @ Ryan: Yes, just watch David Attenborough sometime. He uses that pronunciation. I know I keep bringing him up, but he does seem to use a lot of older pronunciations.

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  13. LPD shows linking R on the preceding syllable

    "sore ache" sɔːr eɪk

    "saw rake" sɔː reɪk

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  14. This tendency to have final liaison consonants regularly resyllabified with a following initial vowel is characteristic of much of Scottish and Irish pronunciation.
    Metanalysis caused by frequent ambiguities of these kinds have given us surnames like Nash, Noakes, Nalder and Noad and words like newt, nickname, nuncle and nonceword. They also account in reverse for our modern forms of adder, aitchbone, auger, apron & umpire and the familiar name forms Ned & Nell. Other Germanic languages have such forms eg Flemish has a name parallel to our Nightingale that doesnt begin with n.

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  15. Are linking R and intrusive R on the preceding syllable? I always wondered about that.

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  16. mollymooly

    Yes, the Laura Norder mockers think they're being funny. We can only be accused of saying Norder when we speak so rapidly as to omit the d of and.

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  17. JWL

    Yes, that metanalysis sent orange back to its old form in nineteenth century Scots norringe.

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  18. @Anonymous:

    No: linking R and intrusive R cannot be on the preceding syllable, because they only occur in non-rhotic acents. in such accents, by definition, /r/ can only occur syllable-initially.

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  19. From what I remember, I'm not sure John agrees with you one that - I'm pretty sure I remember reading somewhere (in 'syllabification and allophony'?) that he considers linking R to be in the coda. And I often hear myself and others hesitating and leaving an /r/ dangling before deciding that what is to follow won't begin with a vowel after all.

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  20. ...and the proof of that is the minimal pairs we had two or three days ago, e.g. more ice mɔːr aɪs (syllable-final r) vs. more rice mɔː raɪs (syllable-initial r). Linking r is in my view always syllable-final. The defining characteristic of a non-rhotic pronunciation is not that /r/ must be syllable-initial, but that /r/ is always followed by a vowel sound.

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  21. As John was posting, my thoughts on an intrusive-r example were swallowed into the ether. From memory, what I wrote was this:

    I can imaging inventing a circular bar fitting for opening drawers and calling it a draw ring. I would not make it sound like my intrusive-r pronunciation of drawing.

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  22. @JW:

    How would you syllabify words like "marry", "merry", , "sorry", "hurry"?

    I looked at your article on Syllabification and allophony.

    If "marry" is syllabified as /'mær.i/, then you seem to violated the constraint that "phonotactic constraints on syllable structure (as established with reference to monosyllables) are not violated". Even postulating that linking/intrusive R is in the syllable coda, there are still no examples of monosyllablic words ending in /ær/.

    If, on the other hand, "marry" is syllabified as /'mæ.ri/, then another phonotactive constraint has been violated, since there is no monosyllablic word ending in /æ/.

    Shouldn't we conclude from this that the phonotactic constraints on syllables cannot be the same as those on monosyllabic words?

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  23. Isn't Asian pronounced with a VOICED post-alveolar fricative? At least that's the way I pronounce it... in careful speech, anyhow...

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  24. @ Julie: Not for John Wells or for 68% of BrE (British English) respondents born before 1942. See the pie chart in LPD (Longman Pronunciation Dictionary).

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  25. @ Julie (continued): And not for David Attenborough either according to one of our posters (he is born before 1942, so that makes sense).

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  26. So there are two of us here? Okay. I didn't ask that question, but I thought it anyway.

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  27. Shouldn't we conclude from this that the phonotactic constraints on syllables cannot be the same as those on monosyllabic words?
    Indeed (also ʒ can occur in polysyllables but, excluding loanwords, not in monosyllables, etc.). And IMO this would be a better justification for allowing /petr.@l/ than "you can get /tr/ in matter in phrases such as matter of fact".

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  28. BTW, my impression is that /ær er ʌr/ etc., can only occur immediately before a syllabic consonant or a weak vowel (counting final unstressed GOAT as weak); are there any counterexamples?

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  29. @army1987:

    BTW, my impression is that /ær er ʌr/ etc., can only occur immediately before a syllabic consonant or a weak vowel (counting final unstressed GOAT as weak); are there any counterexamples?

    I think that to some extent that's true of TRAP, DRESS and STRUT in general, whether or not followed by /r/. I haven't really thought this through, though.

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  30. @army1987: In my own Massachusetts dialect, "narrate" [ˈnæreɪt]; in RP, "garage" [ˈgærɑːʒ].

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  31. Yes garage is ˈgærɑːʒ or ˈgærɑːdʒ for me. Lots of people in Briatain say ˈgærɪdʒ, however. But I'm pretty sure most people say ˈbærɑːʒ or ˈbærɑːdʒ for barrage. John gives both in his LPD, and I suspect that British non-RP speakers generally follow suit.

    (My accent is RP or near-RP, depending on your criteria.)

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  32. That reminds me of the time (anecdote alert!) that I visited a church in Edinburgh. After the service I was telling a local woman that I had a week off, for which she offered to fetch a glass of water.

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