Thursday, 21 April 2011

zee what I mean?

Steve Doerr draws my attention to the fact that for yesterday’s OED Word of the Day, which was monstrous, the first AmE pronunciation given is ˈmɑnztrəs. Here’s the top of the OED entry for this word. He comments
The pronunciation with /-z-/ is unknown to both LPD and CEPD.

…and, I might add, to all other reference books I have to hand — with one exception. That exception is the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation (alongside), which comes from the same stable as the OED.

My gut feeling is that it’s pretty bizarre to claim that Americans (or anyone else) typically pronounce nzt rather than nst in monstrous, particularly since no z pronunciation is suggested for the base form monster. It looks to me more like an individual idiosyncratic mislearning of the pronunciation of a particular word.

Looking further into ODP, however, I find that that doesn’t seem to be the case. In that dictionary AmE z variants, always prioritized, are given not only for monstrous but also inter alia for inscription, inscrutable, inscribe, inspire, instant, instinct, institute, instruct, instruction, instrument and monstrosity. As I say, there is no such variant suggested for monster, nor for demonstrative or demonstrate, nor (for example) for constable, constellation, constipation, constitution, constant, gangster, hamster, inspiration, instructive, instructor, seamstress.

As you can see, I have examined an assortment of words in which the usual pronunciation has nasal plus s plus plosive. But as far as I can see there doesn’t seem to be any consistency in this matter. Do people really treat monster differently from monstrous, inspire differently from inspiration, instruct differently from instructor?

I wonder if Bill Kretzschmar, the author who presumably contributed these pronunciation entries, would care to comment.

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Happy Easter, everyone. Next posting: 26 April.

20 comments:

  1. I'm American and I definitely don't say monztrous.

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  2. I'm an American, and these [z] variants are unknown to me.

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  3. Provided this has a basis in reality - it doesn't sound all that inauthentic to me as a non-American -, it might be caused by a difference in syllable division (mons-trous vs mon-strous, or monstr-ous if you must) and the predeliction for strong secondary accents or strong syllabification.

    Not that this answers the follow-up question why only some words are listed with a z. Or it might, to a degree, with the rest explained away as mere inconsistency.

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  4. Very surprising - I'd haev though any progressive voicing assimilation coming from the nasal would be overridden by regressive assimilation from the plosive.

    In words like absorb, absurd, AmE actually resists the progressive voicing assimilation found in BrE, giving əb'sɔrb, əb'sɹ:d instead of əb'zɔrb, əb'zɹ:d - or even əp'sɔrb, əp'sɹ:d, with regressive voicing assimilation. Strange that the nasal should reverse this trend, but there's more variation in Amercian dialects than is often assumed.

    Maybe we should all just listen out for these pronunciations in future.

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  5. This Yank doesn't have /z/ in a single one of the words you mentioned.

    Pete: I have əb'zɔrb (I've also heard TRAP in the first syllable) and əb'sɹ:d.

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  6. Third-generation native New Yorker, here, and I don't have /z/ in any of the listed words. Nor have I ever heard such pronunciations in any American's speech. My pronunciations of absorb, absurd are the same as Phil Smith's, except that I use /æ/ in the first syllable of absorb fairly frequently.

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  7. I immediately dismissed this for my own pronunciation, but as I was reading through the list of words I noticed that the voicing from the /n/ carries over a little bit in "constitution" for me -- but none of the other words. I tried a few more repetitions in context and got the result. I don't know that I would characterize my pronunciation as /nz/, but interesting nonetheless.

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  8. AmerE native, from Appalachia, and I have the /z/ variant in both monster and monstrous. I just checked with some fellow speakers, all natives from the South, and they some had /s/ and some /z/, although they did not perceive either variant as weird or abnormal.

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  9. I'm from New Jersey - born and bred - and I have never heard a "z" in any of the listed words. The only time I have heard a "z" pronunciation would be in a word like absurd as "abzurd" if it were used for comic effect.

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  10. I checked MW3NID for about 5 words in each of your OED -z- and -s- lists; it prioritizes -z- over -s- in each of them.

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  11. mollymooly: please give details. I looked at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ and didn't find -z- for any of the handful I investigated myself.

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  12. Bill Kretzschmar has sent me this message, with permission to pass it on to everyone here:

    I looked at your blog, and one of the comments gets the answer right away: in words like "monstrous" there are four consonants in a row, and one of the possibilities is reanalysis of the cluster to yield a syllable division of
    ns-tr instead of the n-st in the noun form "monster." Syllable final <ns> can have voicing to yield [nz]. It is quite likely that we did not catch all such occasions in ODPCE, for this and for some other possible variants, because (as Peter Ladefoged wrote in his textbook) we offer more possible variants than other sources for American English. I have been more consistent with such things in the two revisions of my American English prons since the publication of ODPCE, but those revised versions have not appeared in print. One error in your post: we do not say that the first pron in a list of alternative prons is "primary"; we do say that "The ordering of variant pronunciations does not imply that one form is more desirable or 'correct' than another" (ix).

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  13. AmE native, from Illinois: At first glance, I immediately rejected the z pronunciation, but when attempting to read the words in the list with z, I found they did not sound unnatural to me, especially with the resyllabification noted above. I still think I use s most of the time, but I can't be sure now that I don't have z sometimes in rapid speech.

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  14. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ is based on the regularly-revised collegiate. The unabridged
    http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/?refr=U_mwol_promo
    is bigger, obviously, but hasn't been revised since the 60s.

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  15. I'm incapable now of objective self-examinatio, but I feel a bit like Stephen. I'm not how I pronounced the sibilant preceding trəs before I became self-conscious about it, but I'm almost certain it was different from the sibilant before tə(r). A shorter sound in monstrous, perhaps? Less friction? Partial devoicing? That's how I want to pronounce the word now. Bill Kretzscmar's analysis would explain the effect — if it's genuine, that is.

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  16. At first I thought /z/ version didn't sound right (I'm from the mid-east-coast of the US), but today I noticed someone I know (I think from New England) using it in "monstrous", and maybe even in "monster".

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  17. Why do some dictionaries keep showing disguise as /dəˈzgaɪz/ when most people pronounce it as /dəˈskaɪz/,

    At least MW's Learner's Dictionary got it right:
    http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/disguise

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  18. I've lived in many areas around the US and I cannot say that the /z/ pronunciation in those clusters is familiar at all. As a theatre professional, I have worked with people from all over the country, and do not remember ever hearing the pronunciation.

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  19. As an American, I wouldn't be surprised to hear the z when you see the nstr cluster following a stressed syllable (so monstrous, instrument, seamstress, demonstrative). In the rest of the words, especially the ones following an unstressed syllable, the z sounds wrong.

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