Monday 29 March 2010

a loaded question

A loaded question is a question with a false or questionable presupposition, and it is "loaded" with that presumption. The question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" presupposes that you have beaten your wife prior to its asking, as well as that you have a wife. If you are unmarried, or have never beaten your wife, then the question is loaded.
Russ Stygall emailed me to ask
When did syllabic_M disappear in English?

Assuming that by “syllabic_M” he means syllabic m, I replied
It has not disappeared. It remains an alternative to əm in words such as blossom, organism etc., and can arise through progressive assimilation in words such as happen, ribbon.
So this is a loaded question. What made Russ think it had disappeared? Perhaps the fact that I do not list it among my list of phonetic symbols for English. That’s because it’s not a phoneme, but a segment derived (when it occurs) from an underlying sequence əm by an optional or variable rule (the syllabic consonant formation rule). I present this in LPD by writing the schwa raised, implying that it is optional. (The absence of any compression mark ‿  implies that the number of syllables is unaffected, and therefore that on the loss of the schwa the nasal becomes syllabic.)

underlying ˈblɒsəm blossom
by s.c.f. ˈblɒsm̩

underlying ˈhæpən happen
by s.c.f. ˈhæpn̩
by progressive assim. ˈhæpm̩

Note that progressive assimilation can happen only phrase-finally or before a following consonant sound. It is OK in happened but not in happening.
In some kinds of English you can change the sequence pm into ʔm.

underlying ˈhæpən happen
by s.c.f. ˈhæpn̩
by progressive assim. ˈhæpm̩
…by glottalling ˈhæʔm̩


  1. For me, and probably for other speakers with split weak vowels, syllabic m almost always occurs post-tonically (after the accented syllables). The only exceptions I can think of are "ambassador" and "umbilical", when said with weakened first syllables.

    In words such as "empirical" or "embarrass" I have a vowel phonetically identical to KIT, which cannot lead to syllabic M.

    [Word verification was RINGE -- an allusion to the distinguished Indo-Europeanist?]

  2. vp,

    I agree with Anon. I'm hard-pushed to imagine "ambassador" and "umbilical" with such weakened first syllables as to be capable of becoming syllabic m. Especially "umbilical" which for me is one of the very few words which make it possible to view ʌ as a different phoneme from ə, as I am not convinced by examples in which the ʌ has any secondary stress, and I admit it's implausible to say that it has any in "umbilical".

    Did you see my most recent answers to your last post on the "scolding" thread we so heroically kept going throughout John's break? I was hoping you still might be able to throw some light on the question of morphophonological length.

  3. @mallamb:

    "Umbilical" may well be influenced by childbirth classes I took in the US :)

    My STRUT phoneme is definitely distinct from schwa. In a word like "unclear", for example, I cannot make the first syllable into a syllabic N.

    Let me get back to you on the scolding....

  4. Is that a syllabic n or a syllabic N (ŋ), vp? Not that either would be possible, because it seems to me that with either of the un- prefixes there is clearly secondary stress. Notice how it actually gets primary stress in German for example.

    Me, not only would I not reduce the ʌ, but I would hardly ever assimilate the n!

    I ask because you haven't been using Sampa, and talk indifferently about syllabic m and syllabic M.


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