Thursday, 7 July 2011

silent final consonants

Commenting on bombardier yesterday, djbcjk said
I've always said ˌbɒməˈdɪə. I'd no idea that the second b was pronounced, having never heard it actually said.
This reaction is understandable, given that the second b is silent not only in bomb bɒm || bɑːm but also in bombing and bomber. However I suppose we all agree that bombard is bɒmˈbɑːd || bɑːmˈbɑːrd (or possibly bəm-), and bombardier is formed from that rather than directly from bomb.

Historically and etymologically the relationship is like that of climb – clamber, thumb – thimble, crumb – crumble. In modern English most people do not feel the items in these pairs to have an obvious relationship to one another.

Other words spelt with a final silent b include lamb, comb, dumb, plumb, limb, numb, and (generally) jamb and iamb. Again, the b remains silent in inflected forms such as combing, dumbest. This gives us the interesting pair of homographs written number: the one to do with counting, ˈnʌmbə(r), and the comparative of the adjective numb, ˈnʌmə(r).

Interestingly, the handful of words with final mn, in which the n is silent, all have obviously related forms in which there is a pronounced n. Thus we have damn dæm but damnation dæmˈneɪʃn̩, and similarly autumn – autumnal, solemn – solemnity, column – columnist, condemn – condemnation, hymn – hymnal.

Phonologists in the Chomsky-Halle tradition see these stems as ending in a final /b/ or /n/, obligatorily deleted after /m/ unless a vowel follows across no boundary or just an internal boundary. But they would also see a similar relationship in pairs such as sign – signal, (im)pugn – pugn(acious), (con)dign – dignity. Let’s not go there: in my view it’s orthographic, etymological, and pretty obvious to classicists, but is not part of contemporary English phonetics.

11 comments:

  1. However I suppose we all agree that bombard is bɒmˈbɑːd || bɑːmˈbɑːrd (or possibly bəm-), and bombardier is formed from that rather than directly from bomb.

    In a way, I think I disagree. Yes, there can be no doubt as to the etymology of the 'artillery corporal' rank. But I sense that the USAF 'bomb-aimer' term is felt to derive (and may even derive in fact) by folk etymology from bomb.

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  2. In the first paragraph, it should presumably be
    bomb bɒm || bɑːm
    rather than
    bomb bɑm || bɑːm ?

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  3. I was surprised a while back when I found 'columnist' transcribed with an /n/. I have an /n/ in all the other 'mn' words, but not this one. I've been listening out for it and have caught examples (mostly from newsreaders commenting on the newspaper stories) with /n/, but haven't I also heard it without?

    Does it vary in this word, or are my ears prejudiced by my own usage? Didn't I get this habit by hearing it without /n/ when I learnt the word?

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  4. ˈkɑːləmɪst, Paul?

    P. S. John, and I presume you won't be bothered, I guess to change the comments typeface and size, you have to modify these lines in the code:

    /* comment styles */
    #comments {
    padding: 10px 10px 0px 10px;
    font-size: 85%;
    line-height: 1.5em;
    color: #666;
    background: #eee url(http://www.blogblog.com/tictac_blue/comments_curve.gif) no-repeat top left;
    }

    by adding font-family and increasing font-size, I presume.

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  5. Peter Tan: thanks. Now corrected.

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  6. Paul: In LPD I do give columnist without -n- as a variant. But I think you're definitely in the minority.

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  7. These pairs of words are just cognates where one word has lost the sound and the other hasn't. Though in the case of damn, I suspect the n has never been pronounced.

    This is quite unlike the case of final r in words like care, which really is still in the underlying form but simply silent when final. It's then restored when a suffix beginning with a vowel (such as -ing) is appended: keə -> keərɪŋ.

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  8. I had always pronounced the b in inflected forms like climbing, bomber, dumbest, etc. (though not in climb, bomb, dumb), and thought everyone else did as well. Wasn't until I went to university and people commented on it that I realised the standard pronunciation was b-less. I've gone back to the b-ful (..."beta-tic"?) pronunciation simply because I'm prone to hyper-correction and people tend to understand klaɪmbɪŋ as climbing, but not klæmə as clamber.

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  9. Pete: I think you're wrong when you say "This is quite unlike the case of final r in words like care, which really is still in the underlying form but simply silent when final." The unetymological [r] that non-rhotic speakers use in put a comma in, idea of, Grandma isn't, sawing, etc., can best be explained on the assumption that all variable r's are (for us nonrhotics) INSERTED by rule rather than deleted by rule. See my Accents of English, p. 218-227.
    For EFL speakers it's different, since they - unlike NSs - usually have the written form as primary.

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  10. Oh yeah actually that's right of course - the r is inserted by a purely phonotactic rule so I suppose it's not really there in the underlying form.

    I suppose my point was just that with silent r the re-insertion is a productive process, whereas with those examples above it's not.

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  11. "Condemnable" is another with variable /n/. More striking, inflections of "limn" can sound the /n/; AHD mandates the /n/ in "limning".

    MW gives "condemnor" with variable /n/ and "condemner" never with /n/, though I've never heard or said either.

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