Monday, 22 November 2010

Ma and Marr

The reason that I was unable to post on Thursday and Friday of last week was I was attending funerals, one on each day.

West Indian funerals are different from English ones. In particular, they are attended by several hundred people, whereas for English funerals there are often no more than a handful of mourners, or at most a few dozen. (Funerals of public figures or particularly well known people are an exception.) For a West Indian funeral, everyone who knew the deceased is expected to attend; and those who did not know him or her personally, but know one or more members of the family, are under an obligation to attend in order to show respect. For funerals in London, special coaches are often laid on to bring mourners from Birmingham or Leicester. Other mourners fly in specially from the United States or the West Indies.

For Friday’s funeral I did not know the deceased, a man in early middle age, but I do know his mother and so was happy to be there in her support.

So now, at last, to phonetics — or rather to spelling and what it implies about pronunciation. Here is an excerpt from a tribute printed on the back cover of the service booklet.
I will never hear you call me Marr again. In non-rhotic English English, Marr is a homophone not only of mar but also of Ma. All three are mɑː. In the context of the following ə in again an r-link is to be expected: if the preceding word were indeed Marr we would call it linking r, but since it is properly Ma we would call it intrusive r. Misspelling Ma as Marr is entirely understandable.

But that is not the end of the story. I do not know who typed up the service sheet, but I surmise that it was someone who grew up in England rather than in Montserrat. Since the deceased’s mother did indeed grow up on the island, I surmise that she herself did not pen the words in question.

The reason is that in Montserratian local pronunciation Ma ‘mother’ is not actually a homophone of Marr and mar (insofar as this name and this word are known on the island). Montserrat English has a rule of Final Shortening. Although long vowels and short vowels are well distinguished, in final position historically long vowels become short. (Details here.) Crucially, however, this rule evidently operated historically before the deletion of final r.

Thus jaw dʒa has a short vowel, but jar dʒaː a long one. Similarly we have snow sno (short) but snore snuo ~ snoː (long), and bay be (short) but beer-bare-bear bia ~ beː (long).

In Jamaican, on the other hand, (i) there is no across-the-board final vowel shortening and (ii) final r is retained.

For someone who grew up on Montserrat it would not make sense to spell Ma as Marr. For a Londoner, it would.


  1. Interesting. I think I remember hearing about Montserrat in the television series The Story of English. Maybe that was Barbados. That was a long time ago so my memory is fuzzy.

  2. I know some sources say RP is meant to have linking R but not intrusive R, but how many people really exhibit that? How many non-rhotic speakers consistently distinguish "Ma again" from "Marr again"? I can't say I do.

  3. Generations of Americans (assisted by at least 14 film versions) have been mispronouncing the name Marmee, a character in Louisa May Alcott's classic 1868 novel Little Women. The four sisters of the title use this name to address their mother, Margaret March. Marmee is certainly not a known hypocoristic form of Margaret, though people may have thought it was intended to be.

    But on reflection, both the characters and the author are from non-rhotic Boston, and it seems clear that Marmee was simply a non-rhotic spelling of something close to Mommy, a word first recorded by the OED in 1848. The match would be perfect if Eastern New England had the father-bother merger, but it doesn't. Still, this particular word could have come in from a different dialect: the first quotation is not easily localizable, but the second from 1858 is from Pennsylvania.

  4. @ Leo

    I don't think people are particularly fussed about 'intrusive r' these days. At least that's what my ears seem to be telling me. Even within a word it goes unnoticed - I caught 'withdrawing' the other day on TV, and I suspect I was the only one who was bothering to listen for it.

    Let's hope it stays a non-issue. Let's hope some ignorant hack doesn't revive it. A couple of letters to the editor, a few outraged articles, a quickly thrown together stocking-filler of a book, and we'll all be slaves to that tedious shibboleth again.

  5. Phil

    I remember that account of Montserrat English in The Story of English. It was about how Irish the Island and its accent were. I believed it then and still believed it until just now, when I followed the link in John's post above. Another linguistic myth, alas!

  6. @Leo:

    If any speakers did distinguish pairs such as "Ma again" from "Marr again" in unstudied speech, we would be forced to conclude that their phonology is underlyingly rhotic, with /r/ in "Marr" but not "Ma".

    I doubt that any such (otherwise non-rhotic) speakers have existed since a generation or two after R-dropping hit England in the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, I would be very interested to hear it.

  7. Paul Carey, vp,

    I think you underestimate the number of native speakers who have the distinction, more or less consistent, of course.

    Paul, I hope you don't transfer your hate to those who just grew up like that at least. :-)

    vp, why would that be impossible? Whether you call it an underlying rhoticity or not, when people grow up consistently hearing linking ars in some words and none in others, this might well keep even without the help of literacy. Look at French with linking and non-linking words ("h muet").

  8. Lipman - so you think some people do make the distinction? Any idea how common it is these days? I have a recent French-English dictionary which indicates optional linking R, but not intrusive.

  9. Haven't a clue. John W., what do you think (or know)?

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  12. @Lipman:

    I didn't say that it was "impossible" for speakers (who are otherwise non-rhotic) to have linking R but not intrusive R in unstudied speech: I simply expressed doubt as to the likelihood that such speakers would survive more than one or two generations after the general loss of rhotic-nonrhotic distinctions such as PALM/START, lettER/commA, etc. If you or anyone else has information to contradict this, I would be very interested.

    I will note in this connection that our host JW has said in Accents of English (p. 225) that he himself distinguishes between THOUGHT and FORCE words in that the former lacks R-sandhi while the latter has it. He does this although he otherwise merges THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE.

    He doesn't say there anything about the few NORTH words where the vowel occurs word-finally -- it would be fascinating to know whether he has (or had in 1982) linking R after "war" or "or", for example. If he doesn't (or didn't), then such a phenomenon could be explained as a survival from the time before FORCE and NORTH/THOUGHT merged. The FORCE set would naturally feature linking R, while the merged THOUGHT-NORTH set would not, because the vast majority of the words where the vowel occurred word-finally would have come from THOUGHT, not NORTH.

  13. Again, I don't understand where this doubt comes from, considering cases like liaison interdite for some words starting with a vowel in French, or lexical raddoppiamento in Italian. These are older than a generation or two.

  14. @Lipman:

    My doubt comes from the fact that I have never observed an otherwise non-rhotic speaker consistently distinguish between linking R and intrusive R in spontaneous speech. This is why I will once again repeat my appeal for actual empirical evidence that such speakers exist, or have existed (ideally recordings, but other evidence or even unsupported assertion would still be welcomed).

    It is possible that my views are biased by my own experience. I grew up non-rhotic, but have now lived among rhotic speakers long enough that I can, if desired, speak rhotically, making all the necessary distinctions between PALM and START, lettER and commA, etc without having to consciously think about it. However, even when speaking in this manner I have to take special care to avoid intrusive R, and am not always successful. This shows that, for me, R-sandhi is a late [r]-insertion rule, rather than, say, the realization an underlying phonological /r/ which is otherwise deleted. Of course it doesn't show anything about anyone else, which is partly why I am interested in this matter.

    I am afraid to say that I don't know to what extent distinctions such as "h aspiré" vs. "h non aspiré" in French are actually followed in practice. There are obvious similarities to the R-sandhi situation in English, but the differences seem significant enough that they don't obviate the need for empirical evidence about English.

  15. vp, thanks for the explanation.

    The problem is that, I think, that while my impression is that there are certainly not so few people who make the difference to a degree, it's very difficult to know whether they just grew up with or whether, maybe even without being aware of it, their later literacy and social factors play a role.

  16. @vp, Lipman: What I think you need is a look at Hannisdal's PhD thesis, as linked by JCW today here. In her data, there is a clear difference in the prevalance of linking vs. intrusive /r/.

  17. @wjarek:

    Thanks for the pointer. However, my question is about the phonological status of linking vs. intrusive R. I don't really consider Hannisdal's data dispositive in this matter, because:

    * Hannisdal's information comes mostly from newsreaders reading prepared scripts. This is far from the kind of spontaneous, unstudied speech that I would consider relevant to discovering whether there the newsreaders have a real underlying phonological distinction between linking and intrusive R.

    * Even in this extremely formal context, 27 of the 30 newsreaders have some intrusive R.

    * Hannisdal does have some data from more spontaneous interview-style situations. She says that the rates for both linking and intrusive R are higher here, but unfortunately she doesn't break down linking vs. intrusive R, or give data for the individual newsreaders.

    * Hannisdal identifies several factors, such as phonological environment, lexical vs. non-lexical words and proper names vs. other words, which affect the incidence of R sandhi in general. It's possible that the different rates for linking and intrusive R can be mostly or entirely explained by these other factors.

    It's notable that Hannesdal says at p. 171 that "speakers have to use their knowledge of the spelling in order to distinguish" linking R from intrusive R. This would seem to concede my contention, which is that there is no underlying phonological difference between them, and the the distinction, to the extent it is made at all, occurs only in non-spontaneous speech as the result of a self-conscious effort to avoid a stigmatized feature.

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