Monday, 22 October 2012

the ending -d

Some of the unsolicited queries about English phonetics that I find in my inbox are easily answered. Zheng Yong’s was one such.
One book for Chinese Primary tells [= says] that "liked" is re[a]d /laikd/. What is your point [=opinion]?

I’m sure he really knew the answer already, so I made it short and sweet.

The book is wrong.

It's wrong because liked is pronounced laɪkt. The past ending -(e)d is pronounced as ɪd (or əd) when attached to a stem ending t or d, and otherwise as d with a stem ending in a voiced sound, but as t with a stem ending in a voiceless sound. So we have t in clapped klæpt, coughed kɒft, kissed kɪst, wished wɪʃt, touched tʌtʃt, and, yes, liked laɪkt.

That’s the story for students and teachers of EFL phonetics, anyhow. It is supported, for example, by the fact that missed is pronounced exactly the same as mist (both mɪst), while passed is a homophone of past, and backed rhymes exactly with act.

Those whom people in linguistics (not EFL) call phonologists, however, may argue that the underlying representation of liked is indeed /laɪk+d/ (or, for followers of Chomsky & Halle, the more abstract pre-GVS /līk+d/). They would say that the underlying representation of the past ending is /d/, but that an obligatory rule of voicing assimilation causes this /d/ to surface as [t] when attached to a stem ending in a [-voi] segment. Or, equivalently, that there is a constraint on the value of the feature [voi] that causes [-voi] to spread from the end of the stem to the end of the word. (For a worked example of this idea as applied to the English plural ending, see here.)

Be that as it may, I can’t end this little discussion without mentioning the many West African speakers of English who pronounce the ending as [d] after voiceless stems just as after voiced ones, and operate voicing assimilation in the other direction. That is, they pronounce kissed as kizd and liked as laigd. How widespread this is in Nigeria or Ghana I can’t say, but it certainly exists. All the same, I don’t think my Chinese correspondent would consider it relevant.


  1. Well, [laikd] is much better than [ˈlaiked], a pronunciation which is not so rare even among "advanced" students. My advice to them is that it would (perhaps, what do you think?) be better to omit the final [t] or [d], instead of adding a syllable which masks the shape of the word completely... But nobody listens to me, boohoo!

  2. 1. The link doesn't work. It looks as if the text of the URL has a wiki element that should have been deleted.

    2. Generative phonology is, indeed, counter-intuitive and difficult. But I wonder why you think TEFL-ers are more antipathetical than others. The rules for pronouncing the -S and -ED morphemes are elegantly simple accounts of just what an EFL teacher needs to have explicitly in mind. Few teachers know this because of the notation in which these rules are presented.

    Personally, I find phonology much easier to comprehend than phonetics. I believe that what most TEFLers study (if they study anything at all) is closer to phonology than phonetics. I studied Phonetics for TEFL at two universities. At neither did we get ear training. We learned enough articulatory phonetics to (hopefully) understand learners' difficulty, and enough phonology to read pronunciation dictionaries.

    If only your lexical sets had been around, John. Now that really would have been a help to the trainees. We weren't interested in all the realisations of that set of phonemes — still less in all the IPA symbols needed to make the distinctions.

  3. 1. Thanks. Now repaired.
    2. Not antipathetical. It's just that in my experience many EFL people use the term 'phonology' where linguists (including me) would say 'phonetics'. Thus IATEFL has a SIG on Phonology, but they're interested in teaching pronunciation, not in discussing OT.
    3. It's scandalous that anyone could be taught Phonetics without doing any ear training. Commiserations.

  4. The link requires a "/wiki" inside it:

  5. It seems to me that the problem with phonology may be that you may have to figure out what is going on in people's heads. For instance, I think my internal phonetic representations of bag, beg and bog are /bæg/, /bɛg/ and /bɔg/, but I actually pronounce them more like [bæɪg], [beɪg] and [bɔʊg] because these three vowels diphthongize when they come before a /g/. But other people who also pronounce beg the same way I do, rhyming with vague, might have an internal phonetic representation /beɪg/.

  6. Very interesting. This post intrigued me enough to make me post my first comment. I am an English RP speaker, born in Derby and still with slight traces of that accent, speaker of several languages professionally, and pretty versed in phonetics in an amateur way.

    I am pretty sure I don't say [bakt] but [bakd], [laikd], and so on in "touched", "wished", etc. The effect is even clearer when there's liaison with a following vowel [ai laikd it]. But I do seem to say [koft], but [klapd]. For me, 'backed' is clearly distinguishable from 'act'.

    I haven't worked through enough examples to test whether there is a rule operating here to do with the nature of the preceding consonant. Nor do I think it's a non-aspirated 't' being mistaken for a 'd' - in liaison it's clearly a 'd'.

    Could there be a regional pronunciation here, (guessing) perhaps in those accents that also put an extra -g in the -ng phoneme (sorry for the limitations of the iPad character set)? Or is it just me?

    1. David - Please supply your full true name. Otherwise your post may be deleted.

    2. I don't see how it's even possible to say something like [laikd] in isolation. But I'm intrigued by the idea that one might say [laikd ɪt].

    3. Every time I try something like [laikd] or [bakd], I end up with [laigd] and [bægd]. I am no native speaker but I still find it difficult and ambiguous to even imagine saying bagged for backed.

    4. Ellen, I don't think it's by any means impossible to say [laɪkd], conceding that it's against English phonological rules (at least for most of you).

      Many EFL students (like myself) find it difficult or unnatural to pronounce 'cars' the RP way as [kʰɑːz̥], devoicing just the last part of [z] and managing a different VOT from their first language. In this case it's just a matter of turning off voicing and back on, which is more difficult than saying [kt] or [gd] by English speakers, not impossible. If the two plosives overlap sharing the compression stage, it could be argued that [kd] and [gd] may be virtually indistinguishable, but if they have to separate release phases the distinction can be made easily.

      Hernán Ruiz

    5. Hernán Ruiz,

      I've tried [kd] again, keeping the first part voiceless, and have managed something like [kʔd] (or maybe [ʔkd]), but [kd] still seems impossible in regular speech -- much harder than 'cars', I must say.

  7. Coming from Nottingham, I suspect that my near-RP accent is similar to that of the other David from nearby Derby. There's no doubt in my mind that I say bækt not bækd. And I'm equally convinced that anybody training for TEFL should be able to perceive such objective if counter-intuitive facts.

    That's the sort of ear-training that I'm sure all Phonetics Departments servicing the TEFL courses do give. The ear-training I didn't get (twice) is in cardinal vowels and the minutiae of symbols for phones in different accents. What phoneticians are up against is:

    1. Trainees on the whole are near-RP speakers. In my day, the majority who had not been to public schools in the south of England didn't see any important difference between our accents and those of the minority who did. The articulatory descriptions we studied didn't seem to exclude us. We thought it was all RP. I get the impression that young people nowadays find it easier to identify themselves as non-RP.

    For any generation, RP is not what we feel we have to teach. The goal is to get students using the right phonemes — each preferably realised in not too foreign a sound, and certainly not in a sound that could be mistaken for a different English phoneme.

    2. In any case, students no longer rely on teachers as the main influence on their pronunciation. Access to recorded speech by native speakers is incomparably easier than when I started teaching. And access to live speech with native speakers is now easy in places where it used to be nigh on impossible.

    3. IPA is a great barrier for many students who do not intend to study phonetics in depth. Yes, if you wan't to be able to use pronunciation dictionaries with students, then you need to learn a body of symbols. But again it's the vowel quality that upsets things. We teachers don't see the merit in distinguishing ɑ from a, ɛ from e, ɒ from ɔ from o. These things mean something to me now, but were of no real interest to me in my role of English teacher.

    If I were designing a phonetics course for TEFL, I would include:

    • familiarity with John's lexical sets

    • enough articulatory description to facilitate teachers in recognising simple problems in articulation, and explaining them to students

    • enough fluency in IPA to read both RP and GenAm listings in pronunciation dictionaries

    Many trainees might with to go further, but I think that should be optional.

  8. I think I see what the Optimality Theory entry is trying to show.

    Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I see a proposed framework that predicts what say if we add an -ED morpheme or an -S morpheme to any noun or verb that we encounter for the first time. The framework would be identical for the two morphemes — except for the constraints on *SS and presumably something like *DD.

    Anything that explains two sets of predictions in an unified way has obvious attractions for a language teacher — attractions soon dissipated when you see the notation and the complicated expression of the rules and their ordering.

    The most recent phonology I'm familiar with is Generative Phonology which makes similar predictions— without the over-arching framework. Without the ambition to be a theory of everything, it can state four rules without the need for complex integration. Each is constructed in the same way with the same notation. Although this is difficult, it's manageable after the first rule.

    Either approach aims to predict the abstract phonemic form that a speaker creates. The plural or past-tense forms of newly created nonsense words can only be based on abstract mental habits — aka 'rules' — not on data collected and analysed by phoneticians.

    It's this abstract phonemic structure that interests teachers. If you say Pronounce it with a voiceless s because the t in' cats' is voiceless, then you are offering a phonological explanation. The same is true when you think in those terms but use very different words.

    There is, though, an argument against the degree of generalisation that ambitious versions of Phonology propose. The rules for -ED are just too general. They fail to predict, for example that the verb learn can have as past tense form both lɜ:(r)nd and lɜ:(r)nt as well as derived adjective adjective form ˈlɜ:(r)nɪd.

    1. -ED is a graph for the regular past tense ending, whose realization is /d/, with devoicing to /t/ and syllabification to /ɪd/ in specified circumstances. The use of /t/ in learnt, burnt, dreamt /drɛm(p)t/ is not an instance of -ED, as these verbs are irregular weak verbs. What is more, they are not universal in English. I have them as variants for the regular learned, burned, dreamed, as evidently you do too, but most Americans do not.

      The irregular weak verbs that are general in the Standard dialect mostly also involve some other change such as (historical) vowel shortening: thus crept, kept, slept, wept, dealt, felt, knelt, meant. I think only bent, lent, rent, sent, spent, built, where there are no alternatives *bended, *lended, *rended, *sended, *spended, *builded, reliably exhibit simple irregular /t/.

  9. John Cowan

    Bended knee is alive and well.

    1. As is "builded" : "And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?"

      Philip Taylor