Monday, 15 October 2012

derived semivowels

If we define a diphthong as being two vowel qualities in a single syllable, or equivalently as “a complex vowel which changes its quality within a single syllable“ (SID), then we might feel we must recognize rising diphthongs in words such as win u̯ɪn, watch u̯ɒtʃ, yacht i̯ɒt and you i̯uː.

The argument against this is phonological. If we add to our phoneme inventory the rising diphthongs in these words, we shall have also to add those of weave, wet, whack, suave, war, woman, woo, work and yeast, Yiddish, yet, yam, yarn, yawn, York, yearn, i.e. more than the number of simple vowels we have in our inventory; not to mention additional triphthongs that we shall have to recognize in words such as way, woe, wine, wow, weird, yea, yoke, yikes, yowl, yeah. But these nonsyllabic and pattern like consonants (being at the margins of syllables), so it is clearly better to recognize just the two semivowels w and j, and to analyse all the polyphthongs just mentioned as /wV, jV/. A semivowel (or ‘glide’, if you prefer) is articulated like a vowel but patterns like a consonant. We no longer attempt to distinguish on the phonetic level between nonsyllabic [i̯, u̯] and [j, w].

You may be familiar with an indelicate limerick (search here, for example) in which Australia and dahlia (BrE for this flower, with as the stressed vowel) are made to rhyme with failure. Are these good rhymes? Is dahlia ˈdeɪljə an exact rhyme with failure ˈfeɪljə? Well, yes and no. The possible difference between them is not a matter of as against j, but rather of our awareness of the varisyllabicity in dahlia as against its absence in failure. We know that dahlia can optionally be said with three syllables (by some of us, at least), while failure can only have two.

(I was perhaps being too sweeping the other day when I suggested that this whole matter was a question of BrE vs AmE; but it is striking that Kenyon-Knott and Merriam-Webster do not allow for -eɪl.i.ə in Australia, while LPD and EPD do.) Then what about millennia compared with tenure? Peter Roach’s CPD has these as non-rhymes (mɪˈlen.i.ə and ˈten.jəʳ), just as in LPD I have mɪ ˈlen i‿ə and ˈten jə. Merriam-Webster, too, shows the difference here. So do Kenyon and Knott — though at Virginia K&K give -ˈdʒɪnjə but also add ‘esp. New England’ -ˈdʒɪnɪə. At this word ODP, by the way, gives for BrE only vəˈdʒɪnɪə(r) and for AmE only vərˈdʒɪnjə.)

What about a word like happier? It is clear that it can on occasion be pronounced as a disyllable. So if so pronounced, is ˈhæpjə the correct way to transcribe it? And for various, ˈveərjəs? What about DJ’s valuing ˈvæljwɪŋ? Is genuine truly ˈdʒenjwɪn?

We have seen that the reason why we hesitate to regard these as the underlying (lexical-entry, articulatory-target) representations is our awareness that in each case there is the possibility of a syllabic (= vowel) pronunciation in place of the putative semivowel. There are other possible reasons, too.

  • Given that we get noticeable devoicing of j after p in words like pure, why do we not get similar devoicing in happier? (Or perhaps we do?)
  • If the sequence -rj- is so awkward in garrulous, virulent, glomerula that we tend to avoid it by dropping the j, why does the same not apply in disyllabic various, barrier, glorious and so on? There is even disyllabic Istria, which must be ˈɪstrjə.
  • In some kinds of AmE the sequence -lj- in words such as William, million, failure can get reduced to -jj-. Does this happen in volleying and jollier? If not, why not?
  • The ‘semivowel’ solution leads to our treating valuing and genuine as containing sequences of semivowels, -jw-, something otherwise unattested in English and universally unusual.

In supplying a pronunciation entry for any word containing a possible w or j plus vowel, then, we have to ask ourselves: can this semivowel alternatively be pronounced as a syllabic vowel? If yes, then we take it as u, i; if not, then as just j, w. We may not always agree on the answer. As we have seen, British and American lexicographers disagree in the case of Australia. When I transcribed Daniel as ˈdæniəl the other day, I didn’t stop to consider the issue, though if you now ask me I would confirm yes, I can pronounce this name as a trisyllable. But some of those who commented obviously can’t. Anyhow, I also entered it in LPD as ˈdæni‿əl (the possible compression is predictable from context). On the other hand, I entered million in LPD as ˈmɪl jən, only to receive a complaint from one user that I ought to have allowed for a trisyllabic version and entered it as ˈmɪl i‿ən. (So in the current edition I give both.) You can't win them all.

20 comments:

  1. Given that we get noticeable devoicing of j after p in words like pure, why do we not get similar devoicing in happier? (Or perhaps we do?)

    Because the /p/ of "pure" is in stressed initial position, and therefore heavily aspirated.

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  2. Thanks for the explanation, John. It all makes sense, except the bit about Daniel. In my copy of LPD3, this has ˈdæn jəl, not ˈdæni‿əl. Perhaps you were thinking of Nathanael, Nathaniel, which has nə ˈθæn i‿əl?

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  3. There's also the fact that in Scottish English, /u/ tends to be [y], but /w/ is always /u̯/, so /w/ cannot be a shortened version of /u/.

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    1. I don't understand. Are you saying that in Scottish English, a word like watch could be [yɔʧ]?

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    2. I assume just a slip, intended to say that /w/ is always [u̯].

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    3. Indeed -- silly typo. Of course I meant the following: "There's also the fact that in Scottish English, /u/ tends to be [y], but /w/ is always [u̯], so /w/ cannot be a shortened version of /u/."

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    4. Okay. So /w/ in Scotland is a (non-syllabic) [u] just as it is everywhere else in the Anglosphere. At first I thought you had a semivowel /ɥ/ or something, which sounded really interesting so I had to ask about it. It seemed sort of reasonable to me considering that, as you said, /u/ tends to be [y] in Scottish English.

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  4. Re million, and in so far as songs tell us anything, Money for Nothing (by Dire Straits) has millionaire as four syllables.

    (I won't link to it: unlike the music video I linked to on Friday, what I found on Youtube seems to be an unauthorised copy, and you can't be too careful.)

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  5. I notice all the listed -rj- examples happen to have -rjVl-; maybe add "erudite" to that list and "materialist" to the other list.

    Ladefoged makes an exception for ju, allowing it as a diphthong. Aside from history and spelling justifications, it is true that CjV for V other than //u// is rare. Except you still have to allow V = GOOSE, CURE, and schwa (? dunno about STRUT FOOT NURSE and/or FORCE ?)

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    1. If /ju/ or /iu/ is allowed as a diphthong, then we have the dilemma of how words with initial /ju/, such as "uniform", are classified.

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    2. If /ju/ and /iu/ are sometimes pronounced differently (as I believe they are in some American dialects), then you should let pronunciation guide you. If they're pronounced the same, using both /ju/ and /iu/ seems like a bad idea.

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  6. Most French dictionaries always give pronunciations with a semivowel in words like louer /lwe/, marier /ma.ʁje/, and muer /mɥe/. However, at least some people optionally pronounce these without the compression as /lu.e/, /ma.ʁi.e/, and /my.e/. The same goes for many CwV, CjV, and CɥV combinations such as Rouen /ʁwɑ̃/, lion /ljɔ̃/, and nuage /nɥaʒ/, which can be /ʁu.ɑ̃/, /li.(j)ɔ̃/, and /ny.aʒ/ respectively.

    Words like bois /bwa/, atelier /a.tə.lje/, and fuite /fɥit/, however, can never be 'uncompressed' in this manner. For these, I think we have to posit an underlying semivowel. But for the cases where there is the option of pronouncing without the compression, I would like to see this made explicit in the transcriptions, perhaps as louer /lu̯e/, marier /ma.ʁi̯e/, etc. or /lu‿e/, /ma.ʁi‿e/, etc.

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    1. @Jongseong

      I find your analysis excellent.

      Jérôme Poirrier
      Grenoble, France

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    2. I agree, and I think there are other good arguments in favour of positing an underlying representation for French that distinguishes consonant /w/ from semivowel /w/. Consider a simple consonant-initial noun like “garçon” /gaʁsɔ̃/ “boy”; it has derived forms “le garçon” /ləgaʁsɔ̃/ “the boy”, “les garçons” /legaʁsɔ̃/ “the boys”, “ce garçon” /səgaʁsɔ̃/ “this boy”, and so on. For a vowel-initial noun like “arbre” /aʁbʁ/, the corresponding derived forms are “l’arbre” /laʁbʁ/, “les arbres” /lezaʁbʁ/, and “cet arbre” /sɛtaʁbʁ/. Clearly, in all of these cases, vowel-initial words behave rather differently from consonant-initial words.

      The French word “oiseau” /wazo/ “bird” behaves like a vowel-initial word on this analysis: the derived forms are “l’oiseau” /lwazo/, “les oiseaux” /lezwazo/, and “cet oiseau” /sɛtwazo/.

      However, we can also find a French word “watt” /wat/ which behaves like a consonant-initial word, with derived forms “le watt” /ləwat/, “les watts” /lewat/, “ce watt” /səwat/. The difference here seems clear: /w/ can be lexically either a consonant or semivowel in French.

      I understand that the word “ouate” /wat/ ”cotton wool”, “wad (of cotton)” — a homophone of “watt”, though with different gender — exhibits cross-speaker variance in its treatment as consonant- versus semivowel-initial.

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  11. [3rd try] "The argument against this is phonological. If we add to our phoneme inventory the rising diphthongs in these words [win, yacht etc], we shall have also to add those of weave, wet, whack, suave, war, woman, woo, work and yeast, Yiddish, yet, yam, yarn, yawn, York, yearn, i.e. more than the number of simple vowels we have in our inventory"

    Another simple bit of (morpho)phonological evidence: the form of the indefinite article before all those "w-initial" and "y-initial" words is "a" not "an", conclusive evidence of the consonantal status of the initial segments. (Same type of argument as is used By Aaron Crane for French.)
    Adrian Clynes

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