Thursday, 22 December 2011

more syllabic consonants

Following on from yesterday’s blog…

As I put it to Michael,
there is in each case also an optional variant involving schwa plus a nonsyllabic consonant.
— to which he replied that he didn’t know what I meant.

I’m not sure how to put it more clearly. I mean that although the word hidden, for example, is mostly pronounced ˈhɪdn̩, it can also be said as ˈhɪdən. Most cases of can be replaced by ən, and vice versa, with no change of meaning. And the same applies to the other syllabic consonants of English. You can say əl instead of in medal - meddle (though that might sound odd or childish, depending on where you come from). For hesitant you can say ˈhezɪtənt or ˈhezɪtn̩t. For blossom you can say ˈblɒsəm or ˈblɒsm̩. For gathering you can say ˈɡæðərɪŋ or ˈɡæðr̩ɪŋ (= ˈɡæðɚɪŋ), or indeed compressed as ˈɡæðrɪŋ.

In terms of phonology, I would say that syllabic consonants are not phonemes, i.e. not part of our underlying sound system. Rather, they are derived by rule from an underlying string of ə plus a non-syllabic sonorant consonant. I call the rule Syllabic Consonant Formation, and it takes the general form
ə [+son] → [+syll] / …

Two segments are reduced to one, with the sonorant consonant retaining its various attributes (place, nasality/laterality, etc) as it acquires syllabicity.

The conditioning environment of the rule (shown here just as “…”) is pretty complex. It varies according to different accents and different speaking styles, and also depending on which consonant is concerned. For ən after a strong vowel plus d, as in garden, the rule is strongly favoured (though evidently now becoming less so in some BrE). With a preceding fricative, as in lesson, it is still favoured, though perhaps less strongly. With an affricate, as in kitchen, it is disfavoured. In common and lion, i.e. after a nasal or a vowel, it is so strongly disfavoured as to be virtually unknown in RP-style English. Although a syllabic nasal following a nasal is a no-no, a syllabic lateral, on the other hand, is fine: channel ˈtʃænl̩.

Although the AmE NURSE vowel could in principle be analysed as a strong (= stressable) syllabic , this would not fit the above rule, which requires a weak ə as part of the input. So I treat the NURSE vowel in both BrE and AmE as a primitive, ɜː ~ ɝː. The second vowel of AmE father, however, does fit, and I analyse it accordingly: ˈfɑːðər → ˈfɑːðɚ.

This is the reasoning behind the notation I use in LPD, where potential syllabic consonants are shown either as əl ən ər əm or as əl ən ər əm, depending on whether a syllabic consonant is more or less likely as the output. The LPD notational convention is that a raised symbol denotes a possible insertion, an italic symbol a possible omission. So ən implies a default , as in hidden ˈhɪd ən → ˈhɪdn̩, while ən implies a default ən, as in hesitant ˈhez ɪt ənt → ˈhezɪtənt.

* * *

video
Here by request is a quick-and-dirty video of me saying ˈhɪdn̩ ˈhɪdən ˈmedl̩ ˈmedəl. Sorry about the poor sound quality.

33 comments:

  1. What about the effect that a syllabic or has on a preceding alveolar plosive?

    A d or t takes on a lateral release before (e.g. puddle ˈpʌdˡl̩) and a nasal(?) release after (e.g. button ˈbʌtⁿn̩)...or is that a sort of velar release?

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  2. Pete - please consult standard textbooks. Yes, in -dl- the d has lateral release, and in -dn- the d has nasal release. But the type of release has nothing to do with whether or not the sonorant is syllabic.

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  3. I’m still not sure I entirely understand the difference between, for example, hidden pronounced [hɪdn̩] and alternatively as [hɪdən].
    Would you be able to post a video in which the words hidden, medal and blossom are pronounced both ways ie. [hɪdn̩] and [hɪdən], [medl̩] and [medəl], [blɒsm̩] and [blɒsəm].

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  4. I’m not sure how to put it more clearly.

    I have a very simple understanding, which is easy to communicate. Of course this could be because it's too simple to be true, but here goes ...

    • If any breath escapes between your d sound and your n sound in hidden, then you are saying something like ˈhɪdən.
    • If no breath escapes, then you are saying something like ˈhɪdṇ.

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  5. @ Shane White
    In the case of "hidden", you can hear the difference here:
    http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/hidden#hide_1
    If you click on the symbol BrE you can hear a schwa between the d and the n. By clicking on NAmE you will have the sound of syllabic n.

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  6. The only difference between ˈhɪdn̩ and ˈhɪdən is the second syllable: vs. ən. Try saying each of these repeatedly and the difference is obvious:
    - n̩n̩n̩n̩n̩n̩n̩ (same as nːːːːː, i.e. just a long nasal)
    - ənənənənənənən (a polysyllable)

    These should sound radically different, even to someone with no knowledge of phonetics. As David says, in the first one there's a continuous stream of air coming out your nose, while in the second one the air comes out your mouth and nose alternately.

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  7. See the video clip I have now added.

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  8. That's excellent. I understand now. Thank you very much John and the other posters above for your help.

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  9. So I treat the NURSE vowel in both BrE and AmE as a primitive, ɜː ~ ɝː.

    IIRC furry usually rhymes with hurry in AmE, hence NURSE ought to be analysed phonemically as a sequence of STRUT plus /r/. Or am I missing something?

    If any breath escapes between your d sound and your n sound in hidden, then you are saying something like ˈhɪdən

    But in a narrow transcription [ə] isn't supposed to mean “any breath”, it's supposed to mean “an oral mid central unrounded vowel”. Hence, I would consider [hɪdn̩] and [hɪdən] as two ends of a continuum, rather than a binary possibility.

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  10. Army: no, the distinction dn̩ vs. dən is either-or. The first implies nasal release: the air compressed for the plosive is first freed up by movement of the soft palate. The second implies oral release: as the plosive ends the compressed air first escapes via the oral cavity.

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  11. @Army: For me (American), hurry/furry/nurse is higher than strut. The vowel in hurry/furry/nurse is also r-colored, not merely followed by an R. The vowel doesn't match up with any r-less vowel.

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  12. A "minimal pair" for this distinction might be "hid an egg" versus "hidden egg".

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  13. Why there is no syllabic nasal in the pronunciation of 'London', even though we see it in 'harden'? What is the nature of environment that doesn't permit a syllabic nasal in 'London'?

    Interested to hear your thoughts.

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  14. Henk: syllabic n̩ is disfavoured after a consonant cluster, and particularly after a nasal plus obstruent.

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    Replies
    1. How about when London has the Cockney pronunciation Lanan?

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  15. "So I treat the NURSE vowel in both BrE and AmE as a primitive, ɜː ~ ɝː."
    I don't think /ɝː/ could pass as a primitive, because it isn't realized as [ɝː], i.e. a rhotacized or R-colored vowel. It is usually either a sequence of a vowel plus [ɹ], or a syllabic [ɹ̩ː], so /ɜːɹ/ would be a better choice with a rule deriving a syllabic consonant from it.

    Besides, phonetically [ɝ] makes as little sense as the term "R-colored vowel" does. A vowel gets "r-colored" when the tongue is raised to a position that makes the airstream more turbulent. But once it gets more turbulent, you can no longer call the sound a vowel. This sound is an approximant, a syllabic one, in other words: "R-colored vowel" technically translates to syllabic consonant on the surface.

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  16. @teardrop:

    According to the standard definitions I've seen in places like "The Sounds of the World's Languages", IIRC:

    1. Vowels are sounds that
    * don't obstruct the airstream enough to produce turbulence, and
    * are syllabic

    2. Approximants are sounds that
    * don't obstruct the airstream enough to produce turbulence, and
    * are NON-syllabic

    3. Consonants are any sounds that are not vowels.

    So the difference between vowels and approximants is solely one of syllabicity. This means that pairs such as [ɝː] and [ɹ̩ː] are almost synonymous ("almost" because there are minor differences in the range of articulations that would be subsumed by each symbol: [ɝː] tells us more about the underlying tongue position, and [ɹ̩ː] tells us more about what exactly the tongue tip is doing to produce R-color).

    Seen in this light, the term "R-colored vowel" makes perfect sense. Neither a vowel nor an approximant can produce turbulence.

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  17. So the difference between vowels and approximants is solely one of syllabicity.

    Really would you consider syllabicity to be the only difference between the first two segments in English yeast, or the last two in French bille?

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  18. @Army1987:

    would you consider syllabicity to be the only difference between the first two segments in English yeast, or the last two in French bille?

    That may not the the only difference between _those particular segments_, but the definition I gave above is the one given in reference texts.

    It is probable that, given any particular language and phonetic context, an approximant will typically be more constrictive than a vowel. However, the overall phonetic ranges for the two categories are the same.

    For example, although in "yeast" my /j/ is closer than my /i:/, my /i:/ in "idea" is actually closer than my /j/ in "yacht".

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  19. Professor Wells, Thank you for the video.

    However the two pairs of hidden, medal sounds almost the same to my ears, I have to say.

    As a South Korean, is there a reason why it is so difficult to tell the difference?

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  20. Dear Professor Wells,

    I have found today's blog-entry very enlightening, and its 3 last paragraphs particularly so.
    Personally, I'd love it if they were to be appended to LPD3's p.799's corresponding article, in the next version of LPD...

    Jérôme Poirrier
    Grenoble, France

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  21. vp:
    "3. Consonants are any sounds that are not vowels."
    Correct. In other words: the border between vowels and consonants must lie between vowels and approximants. And that's exactly why approximants belong with consonants. And if they are consonants, there must be some articulatory difference between vowels and approximants other than syllabicity alone (as the difference in F3 indicates in the spectrogramm), because syllabicity is not a feature limited to vowels only.

    If approximants were always non-syllabic as your reference text claims IYRC, a transcription like [ɹ̩] should be considered ill-formed, which would be quite a surprising consequence, since [ɹ] can very well be pronounced as a nucleus, with a lowered F3.

    If the difference between vowels and approximants were solely one of syllabicity, one should actually consider –weird as it sounds– [i] as a syllabic [j̩], or [u] as a syllabic [w̩] (and [ə] as a syllabic [ɹ̩]), i.e. they'd sound the same, so a sequence of [jijijijiji] or [wuwuwuwuwu] or [ɹəɹəɹəɹəɹə] should sound like monotones of [iː], [uː], [əː], respectively, and we should not be able to hear any alternations or repetitions.
    Now this is most obviously not the case, which proves that this classification of vowels and approximants is wrong. Approximants CAN be syllabic, and when they are, they don't sound like any vowels – of course not, since they're consonants.

    When we pronounce an "R-colored vowel" (with a lowered F3), we actually cross the border between vowels and consonants.

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  22. there must be some articulatory difference between vowels and approximants other than syllabicity alone .... because syllabicity is not a feature limited to vowels only.

    Both vowels and consonants may indeed be syllabic -- for example even a trill [r] may be syllabic in some Slavic languages. However there is no logical implication from this fact that "there must be some articulatory difference between vowels and approximants other than syllabicity alone": indeed the definitions I am citing claim that there is, in general, no such distinction.


    If approximants were always non-syllabic as your reference text claims IYRC, a transcription like [ɹ̩] should be considered ill-formed

    Why? IPA allows symbols such as voicelesss [b̥] and voiced [t̬], using diacritics to contradict the voicing implied in the canonical definitions of those sounds. It similarly allows non-syllabic [e̯] and syllabic [ɹ̩], using diacritics to contradict the syllabicity implied by the canonical definitions.


    If the difference between vowels and approximants were solely one of syllabicity, one should actually consider –weird as it sounds– [i] as a syllabic [j̩], or [u] as a syllabic [w̩] (and [ə] as a syllabic [ɹ̩]),

    Yep. (I think you meant ɚ not ə).


    o a sequence of [jijijijiji] or [wuwuwuwuwu] or [ɹəɹəɹəɹəɹə] should sound like monotones of [iː], [uː], [əː] ... this is most obviously not the case

    (As usual you meant ɚ not ə). Again, I think you're getting confused between the use of IPA for a particular langauge, and the canonical definitions of the IPA symbols. The range of phones covered by [j] in its canonical definition is a superset of those covered by [i] in its canonical definition (it would also include those covered by [ɪ] and possibly even other vowels: there is a lot less precision about tongue position in the approximant symbols). This doesn't mean that a sequence like [ji] must be a monotone, even in what the IPA handbook calls an "impressionistic" transcription. The range of phones covered by [j] and [i] respectively allows plenty of scope for [j] to differ from [i].


    When we pronounce an "R-colored vowel" (with a lowered F3), we actually cross the border between vowels and consonants.

    According to your definitions, "R-colored vowel" is an oxymoron. Does that not make you wonder whether your usage might be nonstandard?

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  23. Among other vowel assimilations (or affectness) in laterals what is not clear is whether not the exonym of BrE or endonym of Welsh of the first /l/ in ‘Lloyd’ is always syllabic for native speakers. Sounds like it.

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  24. I believe I have three different r-colored vowels in my speech, in gird, gored, and gourd. Are there enough IPA symbols for approximants to cover them all.

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  25. Brief answers to the last two:

    nevillkumarfernando: There is only one /l/ in Lloyd. It is never syllabic, for native speakers or for anyone else.

    Peter Shor: Yes. You can attach the IPA 'rhoticity' diacritic to any vowel symbol.

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  26. OK. Then, i have one more question since we know, other than perhaps the exceptions, that two 'l's of a coda syllable suppose to mean that the preceding vowel is a short one. Then the same phonology seems to apply on onsets as well. I am not sure but am also just guessing for these--'Llandudno', 'Llangollen', 'Llewellyn' if so. However, the vowel in 'Lloyd' does not seem to have the short 'o', at least to my ear--rather often a long 'o'. Where is my too wrong point here then, Prof.?

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  27. Oh. I see i am very wrong. It doesn't seem to apply like that.

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  28. vp:
    I see we agree that syllabicity is not the articulatory difference that distinguishes vowels and approximants — but then what is it? Nothing? Then why the two terms?

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  29. Slight tangent perhaps, but today's Word of the Day on the OED web site is 'admiral', a recently revised entry, for which the following pronunciations are given:



    Brit. /ˈadm(ə)rəl/ , /ˈadm(ə)rl̩/ , U.S. /ˈædm(ə)rəl/



    I was surprised to see no pronunciation with -mɪ-. A quick check of the original NED entry (1884) shows (æ·dmirăl) as the only pronunciation.

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  30. hi i want definition of syllabic l
    briefly please

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  31. It's a l sound that you begin pronouncing while your tongue is still touching your palate.

    If you take your tongue away then put it back, then the syllable consists of a vowel followed by a consonantal l.

    (Perhaps it's foolish of me to add to a dead thread on a dead blog, but I keep seeing this question.)

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  32. Can you tellme more about n̩ the place of articulation the manner of articulation if is voice or voiceless please

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