Friday, 12 April 2013

money tree policy

Puns that work for some do not necessarily work for all.

Here’s a witticism from a letter-writer to the Guardian a month ago. But I suspect that this pun doesn’t exactly work for anyone at all, though it is close enough for us to get it.

The Bank of England has a Monetary Policy Committee, which is in the news from time to time.

As we all know, money does not grow on trees, though if it did the tree it grew on would be a money tree.

The pronunciation of monetary is ˈmʌnɪt(ə)ri, with variants ˈmɒn-, -ət-. We can disregard the question of the vowel in the first syllable, which for some (most?) is the same as that of money, while for others it has the spelling-pronunciation vowel of monitor (which immediately destroys the pun). Let’s concentrate on the weak vowels. Is the rest of monetary pronounced as in money tree ˈmʌni triː?

Not for those who have a lax happY vowel, phonetically similar to KIT rather than to FLEECE (like me). For me, monetary ends with trɪ, which feels and sounds different from my tree triː. On the other hand my money also ends with ɪ, which I can readily identify with the second syllable of monetary. If, though, in the second syllable of monetary I had a schwa ə (as many do), rather than my weak ɪ, then that too would destroy the pun, because this schwa could not be mistaken for my happY vowel.

To make the pun work you need a tense happY (so that -tary = tree), but you also need a lax happY (so that money =mone(t)-). And you can’t have it both ways at once.

A strong, AmE-style suffix vowel in -ary destroys the pun, too, since tɛri could not be mistaken for tree. To save the pun you need not just to weaken but actually to delete this vowel, since təri could not be mistaken for tree, though tri might.

All in all, then, standup comics wanting to tell people a joke depending on this pun would have to be remarkably careful in their ‘diction’.


  1. How widespread is "money" as /mɒni/? The writer might use this pronunciation combined with /mɒnɪtəri/. It's noted as an occasional pronunciation in Sheffield in Urban Voices. This letter comes from Coventry (in the West Midlands). I don't know much about Coventry speech but, as many STRUT words have /ɒ/ in the West Midlands, it seems likely that /mɒni/ would exist there as well.

  2. the spelling-pronunciation vowel of monitor - Are you sure it's not simply the traditional pronunciation, while ʌ might be influenced by money in more recent times?

    Not that in the individual case, either could be the cause.

    1. Er, couldn't.

      (Phillip Minden)

    2. OED suggests ʌ in monetary is a 20th-c. phenomenon. IMO monetary is a learned word with an obvious connexion to its Latin etymon (and pronounced accordingly), whereas money had been through all the French sound-changes before it entered the English language, so the connexion with monēta would not be expected to influence the pronunciation.

  3. I wonder if there is a correlation between whether a pun "works" for a given listener and the response that it is most likely to elicit. The traditional response to a pun (at least, in the UK) is a groan, and there is even a term "groanworthy" use of which is almost entirely restricted to the domain of puns. Would a pun be more likely to elicit a groan if it worked perfectly, or is a groan a more likely response if the phonetic match is less than perfect (as in money tree / monetary for most speakers of <Br.E> ?). My suspicion is the latter : we groan because the match is less than perfect, and the groan is a reflection of our mild disapproval of that fact.

    Philip Taylor

  4. On a related note, (as you'll know from the email I sent) I was wondering about the use of i to represent "either ɪ or " in the happY vowel. I guess certainly it is convenient not to have to list both alternatives explicitly the whole time when discussing a range of speakers/accents (such as in LPD) rather than just transcribing one person's speech. Yet by the same argument I guess for example a could be used to represent "either æ or ɑː" in the BATH vowel, a shorthand which would similarly simplify descriptions covering a range of accents, but this isn't done. If I've understood correctly, the justification for using i for happY (but not, say, a for BATH) is that it only occurs in positions where any phonemic contrast is neutralised. And yet there clearly is the occasional contrast, as the failure of the pun to work fully seems to demonstrate. For examples of actual pairs, I am an RP speaker with a tense happY vowel, and I contrast studded/studied. A friend of mine originally from near Manchester tells me he has a lax happY vowel so does not contrast these but does contrast Andy's/Andes, which I don't. Clearly people have thought about this and decided it isn't too much of an issue and that it's fine to use i when transcribing words like studied or Andy's, but how come? Thanks.

    1. P.S. I'll just mention here also the set that I mentioned in the email: taxes (revenue) = tæksɪz, taxes (rare, plural of taxis = arrangements, etc) = tæksiːz and taxis (cabs) = "tæksiz". I assume that no speaker actually has a three-way distinction, making it confusing to have three different transcriptions.

    2. Alan

      I would never volunteer the word taxes as a plural form of taxis. However, I can easily imagine having to read it aloud. I would then make exactly that three-way distinction that you describe.

    3. Some old versions of the Oxford English Dictionary used such a symbol for the two main variants in BATH. Jack Windsor Lewis notes this at point 18 here.

      At least some of these versions also included symbols to acknowledge that not everyone pronounces "fir" and "fur" the same way. It was a complicated system.

      A problem with your studded/studied pair is that some people pronounce the second vowel of studded with ə. LPD allows for both ɪ and ə in such words. I wonder if it would be worth having a symbol that covered both these options in one go.

    4. Ed: A symbol to cover all options in one go? The principle, procedure and practice are already there. It's all a matter of how far you're prepared to go down the road to abstraction. For English, we're accustomed to writing /l/ for anything varying between bright [l], dark [ɫ] or vocalized to [w] or [o] etc. For the second vowel of studded/studied, just write /i/ and let everyone fill in [i], [ɪ], [e], [ɛ], [ə] etc as appropriate for them.

    5. Sidney:
      In LPD, the nursES and startED words have both ɪ and ə spelled out. Your principle doesn't seem to be there in those cases. I think that it's a decent principle, although I don't think that we can use /i/ when it's already being used for a different purpose in LPD.

    6. For the second vowel of studded/studied, just write /i/ and let everyone fill in [i], [ɪ], [e], [ɛ], [ə] etc as appropriate for them.

      That doesn't work for those of us (such as me) who contrast "studded" with "studied".

    7. @Ed:

      Wikipedia's IPA for English uses /ɨ/ for what might be called the rabbIt lexical set -- which I think is fine.

      From the point of view of my own accent (combining a weak-vowel distinction with happY tensing), I find the willy-nilly use of /i/ to be highly unsatisfactory. Just the other day I was protesting to our good host about the use of /i/ to represent the first syllable of "deteriorate" -- does anyone actually have a vowel qualitatively like FLEECE in that syllable?

    8. Some Americans definitely have the FLEECE vowel in deteriorate. I do, and Merriam-Webster gives KIT as the main pronunciation, but FLEECE as the alternate one.

  5. For me, monetary belongs firmly in LOT=PALM, and this is the chief current pronunciation shown by and the AmE version of ODO. RHD2 and AHD4 use different pronunciation symbols for LOT and PALM words, and both use their LOT symbol in this case. All four show STRUT as a variant pronunciation.

    Does taxi really have a happY-vowel? The OED says so, but its article hasn't been updated since 1910. I imagined that this has been tensed even among non-happy-tensing speakers.

    Ed: I don't think there's any point in such a symbol, as those of us with the Weak Vowel Merger pronounce all instances of unstressed /ɪ/ that have not been happy-tensed away as /ə/ anyway.

    1. It would be useful for those of us with a three-way weak vowel contrast: studied vs. studded vs. "stud had" (as in "I went to get my mare impregnated, but the stud had gone home", with unstressed "had").

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. John Cowan

      Does taxi really have a happY-vowel?

      I don't understand. Are you saying that happy and taxi have had different phonological histories since 1910?

      For me taxi is one of the words which defines the happY vowel.

    4. vp: What is the difference between your three cases, then?

      David: Well, that only shows my ignorance, I suppose.

    5. "studied" has /i/

      "studded" has /ɪ/

      "stud had" (with unstressed "had") has /ə/

    6. John Cowan

      David: Well, that only shows my ignorance, I suppose.

      Now I'm totally confused. There seems to be a joke there somewhere, which I'm not getting.

      If taxi and happy have different final vowels for you, that surprises me. But I can't disbelieve you, and I wouldn't want to.

      PS I would generally make the same three-way distinctions as vp for studied~studded~stud'd. Just as I would make Alan's three-way distinction between taxes (revenue)~taxes (rare plural of taxis (arrangements)~taxis.

      I seem to have a pathological aversion to using the KIT vowel finally in words like taxi and study. Adding plural-forming {s} or past-forming {d} doesn't make it any easier.

  6. I think I have tensing (1) in study, taxi, happy, and happier, but not in studied, studies, taxis, and happiness.

    (1) Other Sherpas are available.

  7. I'm a happY-tenser (cf my surname below) but, for me, happY is apt to lax before a consonant in fluent speech. So I might lax it in "money tree", unless I was speaking unusually slowly and carefully. For me, this laxing is obligatory before the inflections -s and -ed ("studded" and "studied" alike must have the lax [ɪ], likewise taxes and taxis) but is otherwise only an option, so "monetary" can be ['mʌnɪˌtʃɹi]. Rapid speech blurs the distinction between [i:] and [i]. The pun works for me.

    ɹɪtʃəd 'seibi

    1. Richard

      I'm a happY-tenser ... but, for me, happY is apt to lax before a consonant in fluent speech.

      Same here, Richard. I guess we could call ourselves happY-tensers but, at times, HAPPi-GO-LUCKi-laxers. And, at other times, mixed HAPPi-GO-luckY.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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