Friday, 15 April 2011

pop(u)lar ath(o)letics

I live in a road called Poplar Road. You wouldn’t believe how often people misspell the name of the road as “Popular”.

Poplar is pronounced ˈpɒplə. Popular is ˈpɒpjʊlə or more casually ˈpɒpjələ, and as far as I know it is not normally compressed to a bisyllabic form (except perhaps in Norfolk or south Wales). On the other hand city dwellers may be astoundingly ignorant about the names of trees and other plants, and some perhaps don’t know that a poplar is a kind of tree. So they hear this unfamiliar word as the familiar popular.

Our road was once graced by a row of tall and stately poplars. Sadly, the last one remaining was felled a few years ago.

Here’s
an exchange on Facebook that was picked up by the icanhascheezburger site.

Another word in which people often epenthesize an extra vowel is athlete. The standard pronunciation, following the spelling, is ˈæθliːt. But an awful lot of speakers break up the medial consonants with a schwa, thus ˈæθəliːt. In LPD I give this version a warning triangle.

The same applies to athletics, triathlon, etc. And people then spell them wrong, too.
Just yesterday I heard a television newsreader announce a breakthrough in the treatment of ˌɑːθəˈraɪtɪs (arthritis). I’ve given that one a warning triangle in LPD, too.

Why do medial θl, θr present a problem? There are plenty of cases where we have these sequences across a morpheme or word boundary: heathland, both lanes, hearthrug, death report and so on, and for AmE with love, with respect etc. And θr is a perfectly ordinary initial cluster: three, thrust, through. No one finds it necessary to apply svarabhakti / anaptyxis / epenthesis in these cases, so why in athlete and arthritis?

32 comments:

  1. some sort of urge to turn awkward spondees into iambs? That doesn't really work with "triathlon" though.

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  2. Plain hypercorrection?

    (Is the second vowel of popular really dropped so rarely or only locally?)

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  3. I think Anna Botting may be the only person on TV I heard say pəˈtɪkjʊlə(li). All the others smudge it. Together with, say, ˈtempəʧəz.

    And if people epenthesize athletics, does the IT crowd say ˈæθəlɒn (ˈæθəlɑːn) for Athlon?

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  4. I lived for a short while in Sycamore Road here in Lafayette, Louisiana. A tree that does grow in the US (though the variety called sycamore here is known as the plane tree in Europe).
    However, hardly anyone had ever heard of it and would not know how to spell our street name ...

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  5. One error that I hear quite often from non-native speakers is omission of the yod in words like "popular".

    @Lipman: I think it's precisely this yod that inhibits the reduction of "popular" to two syllables among native speakers.

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  6. oh dear. I was nodding along through the discussion of 'poplar' and 'athletics' until I was brought up short by the realisation that there's only meant to be 3 syllables in 'triathlon', not the 4 that I had always believed. In my defence, it's not a word I've ever had need to use too frequently, but still, rather embarrassing.

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  7. @ ella: Same here. I've always thought that triathlon had 4 syllables. I think that one is a bit more common than the others(æθəliːtpɒplər), at least where I'm from in the Midwest. At least you're honest. On a different note, I've noticed that the epenthesis in æθəliːt (and related forms) seems to be particularly (pəˈtɪkjələrli) common among sports commentators here in the U.S.

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  8. "Arthritis" definitely has 4 syllable in my mental lexicon. In fact, I need constant reminders that it's not spelled "arthiritis".

    This is probably due to the fact that I learned the word from hearing elderly relatives complain about it, rather than from reading it.

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  9. How should I say Volkswagen? The car-maker.

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  10. Um? It's ˈvɒlksˌwæɡ.ən. In British English.

    ˈfɔlksˌvaːg.ən in German.

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  11. I can confirm that in south Wales (at least in Pontypridd) poplar and popular are frequently homophones. There's also a Poplar Road near Pontypridd, and back in the pre-internet days of CB radios there was guy who lived in there who used the nickname 'poplar/popular man'. A successful pun.

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  12. Thanks Phil. Ever grateful.

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  13. Seeing Phil Smith use the quire legitimate symbols ər for what is elsewhere ɚ, I am still surprised at that choice. Yes, I know it's a broad, phonemic description, but wouldn't it be easire just to write r? It's even simpler. [əɹ] is quite different from [ɹ̩] – does any American, e.g, really pronounce the schwa?

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  14. What do we make of the pronunciation æmbləns for ambulance, which was common at least in the south-west of England where I grew up? On the face of it that seems comparable to popular, but as Prof W says that's definitely regional.

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  15. The sound I use for the ar in particular sounds the same as the "lingua-palatal" /r/ (I've never heard that term) the lady does here. I guess it is just an /r/ then. That was just a broad, phonemic transcription though. I wanted to emphasize that I don't pronounce the first r in the word, but I do pronounce the second one.

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  16. But a broad, phonemic description is just what it was not, since you seem to agree that the (final) -ar in 'particular' sounds the same as the (usual realization of) the curiously named "lingua-palatal" /r/, except presumably for any extra length conferred by syllabicity and that it _is_ just (a realization of) an /r/. Even if anyone does pronounce the schwa, it has no separate functionality, and economy of hypothesis requires that we do not hypothesize that it represents a phoneme standing in that position or even mark syllabicity in cases like this. The same applies to any possibility of [əl] in pəˈtɪkjlr/prˈtɪkjlr as far as I can see, though not of course to the variant with [ʊl].

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  17. Precisely. Why is the schwa there if no one pronounces it and it's complicates things (one of the principles of IPA transcription being simplicity, no?)?

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  18. @Phil: As far as I know, it's [ˈvoʊkswægən] here in the US, probably by anology to the English word "folk".

    While we're on the topic of unused schwas, I'd like to bring up the case of "sophomore" - dictionaries invariably list it as trisyllabic with a schwa in the middle, but I always hear people say it disyllabic, with [...fm...] - the trisyllabic version sounds totally unnatural to me. What's up with that?

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  19. Okay, well I'm still learning. How would you recommend that I transcribe it?

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  20. @ Lazar: I've never seen my pronunciation of catch (with DRESS) in dictionaries either, which is really annoying. That's how everyone where I'm from says it. This is OT though.

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  21. The LPD is clear: it gives ˈsɑːf.mɔːr as the third variant in the American pronunciation subsection of the word.

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  22. @ Paul: please consult my LPD! You'll see your version of catch there.

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  23. @Phil:
    ˈfɔlksˌvaːg.ən is not a possible German pronunciation. Due to final obstruent devoicing (Auslautverhärtung) the syllabification can only be ˈfɔlksˌvaː.ɡən.

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  24. John W., if you can't think of a topic for a post once (ha!), could you explain this phenomenon? I saw that some times, eg. for battery, in Ross' strange pronunciation book and first wasn't even sure he didn't mean the older, less open pronunciation of the TRAP vowel in general.

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  25. Lazar, I didn't mean foreigners but native speakers.

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  26. LPD has ˈbætr |i first for UK and second for US. I would have been astonished if it hadn't been first for UK, but I don't think I've ever said anything but ˈbætəri myself. It doesn't sound the least bit pedantic to me, but I have to suppose it must sound dead pedantic to an awful lot of UK speakers. Not I think to US speakers because with the predominance of ˈbæt̬ ər |i over ˈbætr |i the t̬ must accustom them not to expect any affrication. I can imagine that I might devoice or even drop the schwa, or make the r syllabic in rapid speech, but not that I ever have the retracted t and fricative r that I would have in ˈbætri.

    I don't understand what you are saying about Ross's possibly having meant the older pronunciation of the TRAP vowel.

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  27. @Lipman: Did you misread me? I was saying that the [j] is what seems to inhibit reduction of "popular" to two syllables among native speakers. It's non-native speakers who often omit this [j], so I suppose they might be more prone to the reduction.

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  28. ...and my mention of Norfolk and south Wales was related to the fact that these are areas that typically lack the [j], in the first case because of generalized yod dropping, and in the second case because of having a diphthong [iu] (compressible?) rather than the usual [ju].

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  29. Lazar, I don't think I misread you (thought that was clear, sorry), and what you say makes sense to me. I was just asking because if I imagine somebody saying poplar for popular, I don't have the pronunciation of a foreigner before my inner ear.

    Is there a difference between popular->poplar and particular->ptiklar? If so, why? If not, why do I hear ptiklar all the time, and probbly say it too?

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  30. mallamb, I haven't the time right now, so I'll try and make the whole thing clearer later.

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  31. Ordinary words of any language can be represented as strings of phonemes of that language (together with indications of phonemic stress, tone etc., depending on the language). But there are some “words” that are exceptions to this generalization.

    Clicks in many languages are a case in point. The sound represented in English spelling as tut, tut tut, tsk or tsk tsk is articulatorily a single or repeated click (often categorized as ‘dental’, though in English it’s generally actually alveolar) and is used to show disapproval or annoyance. It stands outside the phonological system, since it is not a phoneme of English (no lexical words include it), and it stands outside the syntactic system, since it does not enter into sentence structure (it’s not a constituent of any larger syntactic unit). So we call it ‘paralinguistic’. Note, though, that its meaning and use are language-specific. What applies in English does not necessarily apply in other languages. In Greek or Hebrew the same click sound does not show annoyance, but stands for ‘no’ (a cause of possible misunderstanding and dismay for English tourists asking, for example, if a ticket or room is available).

    Sometimes there is quite a lot of variability in the identity of the ‘same’ paralinguistic interjection. In LPD I agonized over how best to show the pronunciation of ugh, the sound we make when something is extremely unpleasant or disgusting. I finally put
    ʊx ʌɡ, jʌx, ɯə, uː — and various other non-speech exclamations typically involving a vowel in the range [ɯ, u, ʌ, ɜ] and sometimes a consonant such as [x, ɸ, h]
    There are other spellings in use, too, such as yuk, eeurgh, eeeuw.

    The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell puts this into the mouth of his French artist character as èrgue, which implies the pronunciation ɛʁɡ(ə). (I believe the real French equivalent is pouah pwɑ, which must lead to interesting punning possibilities when discussing weight poids or peas pois.) To decipher the cartoon (click to enlarge) you have to know French spelling conventions and be familiar with the mangling English vowels stereotypically undergo in the mouths of the French — and you have to put the result into nonrhotic English, e.g. “murney” = money.

    What started this train of thought was a FB status by my nephew. I haven’t got meh in LPD. It can’t have been around for more than about ten years, if that (can it?). I obviously ought to put it in the next edition. It means something like ‘I’m not impressed’ or ‘I don’t feel very enthusiastic’. It’s pronounced me (like met but without the final t), which IS a string of English phonemes but violates the phonotactic constraint that disallows words ending in the DRESS vowel.

    Was it the Simpsons who invented this addition to our paralinguistic repertoire? Or at least who popularized it?

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  32. After the physical trauma of having a baby about a week ago my wife was prescribed Lortab as a painkiller. Most of the nurses at the hospital, along with my wife, pronounce it lɔɹətæb with an epenthetic schwa. Later in the week I realized that although I pronounce Lortab as one syllable I do insert a schwa into triathlon: tɹaɪæθəlɑn.

    Could these be examples of an inherent human preference for CV syllable structure?

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