Tuesday, 6 December 2011

clossal slebs

Several times recently I have noticed the newspapers referring to ‘slebs’, by which they mean ‘celebrities’. Duly on guard against the recency illusion that leads us to think things we’ve just noticed must therefore be new phenomena, I checked in the OED. I find that the first citation there is from 1996, so a good fifteen years ago.
Shortening a word in colloquial speech is nothing new. Compare bus, phone, mic, etc., and also street cred (credibility) and now peep(s) (people). But what I want to discuss here is the loss of the schwa from səˈleb(rəti) (= DJ’s sɪˈlebrɪtɪ): the word is shortened not to its bare stressed syllable leb, but to sleb.

Most cases of compression involving schwa loss are found in the phonetic environment of a following liquid plus a WEAK vowel, as in historically hɪˈstɒrɪk(ə)li, camera ˈkæm(ə)rə, factory ˈfækt(ə)ri. Hence we regularly find compression in the adjectives moderate ˈmɒd(ə)rət and separate ˈsep(ə)rət, with their weak-vowelled suffix, but not in the related verbs to moderate ˈmɒdəreɪt and to separate ˈsepəreɪt, where the phonetic environment is a following STRONG vowel.

So what we have in ‘sleb’ is not mainstream compression, because the vowel in -ˈleb- is strong. Comparable examples that spring to mind are the colloquial possible loss of schwa in terrific təˈrɪfɪk ~ ˈtrɪfɪk, colossal kəˈlɒsl̩ ~ ˈklɒsl̩, correct kəˈrekt ~ krekt, and perhaps pəˈhæps ~ præps (OED p’raps dated 1745). I can’t recall seeing any discussion of this in writing anywhere, though it’s something I’ve talked about in practical phonetics classes often enough. (There's probably something in Gillian Brown or Linda Shockey’s books on the phonetics of colloquial English.) In the rough-and-tumble of rapid conversational speech I suspect that this reduction can be found for any word with the initial string obstruent—schwa—liquid. But it is presumably much rarer in words such as career, collide, forensic, giraffe, Goliath, Jurassic, Korean, peruse, salacious than in the everyday words mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Very occasionally the reduction becomes lexicalized, as for those speakers whose citation form for police is pliːs rather than pəˈliːs (or dialectal ˈpoʊliːs etc.). There’s also pram, from perambulator, for which the OED’s first citation is dated 1884. Usually, though, we remain aware of the difference in pronunciation in pairs such as plight – polite, crowed – corrode, Clyde – collide, even if we sometimes pronounce them identically.


  1. I'm not sure reduction is really that much rarer in words like career/Korea or giraffe, even despite the resulting uncommon cluster in the latter. B(a)lloon comes to my mind, too, and certainly suppose, nearly lexified.

    Is there a difference in aspiration between sport and reduced support?

  2. I think at least part of the problem here is trying to represent a gradient process using an essentially binary segmental transcription (where either something occurs, or it doesn't). I suspect many of the schwas following voiceless obstruents (as in e.g. career) will get devoiced in more rapid styles. Differentiating between a "devoiced schwa" and plosion will always be somewhat arbitrary...

  3. Perhaps it is meant to rhyme with pleb.

  4. Consider also words beginning with a bare schwa like about, which often is [baʊt] 'bout, I think we could generalize this to "even schwa can be reduced in unstressed initial syllables in colloquial speech", with a caveat that an initial consonant cluster make it less likely.

  5. Reminds me of hearing on the radio some years ago a report about the Commonwealth Games and the performance of the /ˈkneɪdɪən ˈknuɪsts/

  6. John, aren't all your examples, except sleb, good old muta cum liquida? And sleb is at least obstruent+liquid.

    I believe that seeing any reductions as the consequence of rapid tempo is too easy. Did latin 'augustum' become contempory [u] ('août') simply because the French speak fast? I doubt it. That's the result of a chain of orderly reductions according to phonological processes that were active during various intervening periods.

    Undoubtedly, 'sleb' takes less time to utter than 'celebrity', and can be seen as an increase in information rate (more morphemes/second). But 'sleb' itself can be pronounced slowly and carefully. An alternative explanation is that reductions like this are the result of active choice to skip sequences.

    Whatever the cause, schwa seems always to have had a low life expectancy between obstruents and liqids.

  7. +1 to most of Lipman's examples, but not support, maybe just because there is a minimal pair there.

  8. Lipman's example "giraffe" got me thinking about how this interacts with the /dr/ to /dʒr/ and /tr/ to /tʃr/ shifts I have.

    I think "giraffe" can in principle end up starting off like "draft". (I'm not sure that the initial clusters are exactly the same, but they're very similar.) On the other hand I'm sure "terrific", with initial /tər/, can't end up starting like "triffid".

    Words like "factory", where the loss of the schwa has been lexicalised for me, do feel like they have /tʃ/: I'm inclined to transcribe /ˈfaktʃrɪ/ etc. Words where the schwa loss hasn't been lexicalised, like "moderate", generally don't, but "restaurant" is an exception for some reason: that has an affricate even when it has three syllables.

  9. I've known at least one Felicity whose name was shortened to ˈflɪsɪti. Or perhaps that should be
    fˈflɪsɪti with more-or-less syllabic f.

  10. I know a Beatrice who pronounces her name [bitrɪs]. I do it too when speaking to or of her, but it's hard, because I am very used to [biətrɪs] for everyone else. (That's a trisyllable, not a bisyllable with a diphthong.)

    In one of her introductions to the Divine Comedy (there are three, one for each cantica), Dorothy Sayers says that she has used "Beatrice" throughout in such a way that those who pronounce it as a trisyllable in the English fashion, or as a tetrasyllable in the Italian, can work it into the meter equally well. In the few cases where an extra syllable would be metrically impossible, she has used "Beatrix" instead.

  11. My mother's second name was Beatrice, always pronounced [bitris], so that takes us back to 1900.

  12. Gillian Brown does indeed discuss elision of (among other things) vowels in her Listening to Spoken English. But her examples are generally more extreme than simple elision of ə.

    One with ə and more elided is [ˈgʌbm̩n̩t] government. Another is [ˈækʃlɪ] actually. From my memory of her lectures, I believe her favourite is [ˈstrɔnri] extraordinary. Or rather her second-favourite elision after satisfying the knees of the working people — i.e. the needs.