Wednesday 21 April 2010

pre-fortis clipping

Sergio Verdejo writes to ask about the term “pre-fortis clipping”.
Do you happen to know who coined the term and when?

I’ve an awful feeling this may be a term that I myself had a hand in inventing, although I can’t remember the details.
It is not recorded in the on-line OED, whether under “pre-fortis” or under “clipping”.
As far as I remember, it was decided on by a group of phonetics teachers at UCL (probably Michael Ashby, John Maidment, Jill House, and me), sometime in the mid 1980s. This was shortly after the retirement or death of the previous generation of UCL phoneticians (Fry, Gimson, O’Connor, Arnold, Tooley and Pring).
The reason for seeking a new term for the phenomenon was that we found the term “shortening”, as applied to English vowels, unsatisfactory. A “shortened” /iː/, as in reach, is not the same as “short” /ɪ/, as in rich. “Shortened” (i.e. clipped) /ɔː/, as in court, is not the same as short /ɒ/, as in cot. Gimson’s term “reduced” was also confusing, since reduction is generally understood as a synonym of weakening or lenition.
So, rather than speak of “shortened” or “reduced” vowels, we thought it would be better to refer to them as clipped vowels.

I did not use the term “pre-fortis clipping” in Accents of English (1982) — which I presumably would have done had it been available then — but I did use it in the first edition of LPD (1990), as well as in my article ‘Syllabification and allophony’ published in Susan Ramsaran (ed.), Studies in the pronunciation of English, A commemorative volume in honour of A.C. Gimson (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pages 76-86, where I said of Pre-fortis clipping
This is the name which some of us have come to adopt for the rule making the /el/ of shelf durationally different from the /el/ of shelve, and the /iː/ of feet different from that of feed. (Gimson refers sometimes to ‘shortness’ of the sounds involved, sometimes to ‘reduction’. Calling such sounds ‘short’ leads to confusion when pairs of phonemically distinct vowels such as /iː/ and /ɪ/ are also categorised as ‘long’ and ‘short’ respectively; calling them ‘reduced’ is to be avoided since this term for most phoneticians denotes change of quality, a ‘reduced’ vowel being of the [ə] type. The term ‘clipping’ avoids these difficulties.)
English vowels are subject to pre-fortis clipping, then, when they are followed by a fortis consonant within the same syllable. The /f/’s in self, selfish /ˈself.ɪʃ/, and dolphin /ˈdɒlf.ɪn/ trigger clipping, but not those in shellfish /ˈʃel.fɪʃ/ or funfair /ˈfʌn.feə/. So do the /t/ in feet and the /ʧ/ in feature, but not the /p/ in fee-paying or the /k/ in tea-kettle. The vowel /æ/ undergoes pre-fortis clipping in lap, lamp, happy /ˈhæp.ɪ/, and hamper /ˈhæmp.ə/, but not in slab or clamber.

Does anyone know of an appearance in print prior to 1990?


  1. Fascinating. I think this'll help me with enunciating my stops properly. I can actually hear/feel this difference in my own pronunciation.


  2. We have heard the expression "clipped speech" all our lives, and it must have struck you that this pre-fortis clipping was especially characteristic of "clipped speech".

    The option to "Subscribe by email" to the blog entry of the day has been very erratic in its appearance for quite a long time now. Unlike most links on here it is apparently a javascript. Has that perhaps got anything to do with its caducity? And is there anything you can do about it or any setting I can try myself?

    What I do find extremely useful is my All Comments feed:

    This enables one to follow up any interesting new comments even on older blog entries at a glance, instead of having to go through the feeds to individual entries that you provide at the bottom of the page as "Subscribe to Post Comments (Atom)".

    I can't find any such All Comments feed anywhere on your blog at present. Could you include that for the benefit of everyone else?

  3. "Calling such sounds ‘short’ leads to confusion when pairs of phonemically distinct vowels such as /iː/ and /ɪ/ are also categorised as ‘long’ and ‘short’ respectively"

    Could we not just abandon the use of 'long' and 'short' to describe pairs that are different in quality? These terms seem much more suited to describing quantity than quality. I've always found that confusing, and assumed that somewhere along the line someone was being parsimonious with the store of symbols, stretching 'i' to cover /i/ and /ɪ/. A nifty trick if you're limited to a typewriter's inventory of symbols but unnecessary and misleading now.

  4. @Phil:

    I don't think any serious phonologist or phonetician does use terminology "long I" and "short I", but there is a certain tradition attached to them that won't go away in popular usage.

    In my dialect (basically RP) there is a definite distinction of quantity, as well as quality, between /iː/ and /ɪ/, when in the same environment.

  5. I am pretty sure John Baldwin was involved in the discussions to and I think he came up with the term "rhythmic clipping" for the reduction of vowel duration in a stressed syllable when further syllable are added to the same foot. Compare the durations of the stressed vowel in "man" ~ "manage" ~ "manager".

    I think we should also be careful to point out that it is not just vowels which may be clipped. Any sequence of sonorant sounds is vulnerable to pre-fortis clipping. So comparing "lamb" with "lamp", it is the sequence /æm/ which is shorter in the second, not just the vowel.

    One further thing, I seem to remember many years ago reading an article by, I think, Matthew Chen, which compared the occurrence of pre-fortis clipping in various languages. I can't remember the reference, unfortunately, but I do remember that RP English was top of the league in this respect.

    If anyone knows the paper, please let me know. It appeared in the early 1980s at the latest.

  6. @John Maidment,
    Could you be thinking of "Vowel Length Variation as a Function of the Voicing of the Consonant Environment" in Phonetica 22.3:

  7. anonymous

    That sure looks like it. I didn't realise it was as long ago as that. Thanks.

  8. John M
    >RP English was top of the league in this respect.<

    And had featured the "clipped speech" I appealed to above a lot longer than that!

    And of course it had actually been intentionally taught at RADA etc which can't have been without significance. So we have plenty of datable cinematographic evidence of the comical lengths to which the clipping of speech can go, and the extent to which sanity has prevailed, so that now RP has got it just right, as in all matters.

  9. Jack Windsor Lewis22 April 2010 at 11:43

    → Mallamb
    "clipped speech" ..."had actually been intentionally taught at RADA etc "
    It's very trying to say this without any illustration or documentation because it's quite incomprehensible if completely unspecific. Contraction of vowels etc is a paralinguistic device used by all speakers at times.

  10. Yes of course it is. I was only being flippant about the parodic RP in films of the period, as you may perhaps see from my ironic claim of the perfection RP has since achieved.

  11. @mallamb:
    You seem to have some intimate knowledge of RADA teaching goals/methods. Do you happen to know if trilled/flapped r's were taught to actors in the 1940s and 50s?

  12. @vp:

    you wrote:

    I don't think any serious phonologist or phonetician does use terminology "long I" and "short I"

    but in the very post we're commenting on Dr. Wells writes:

    A “shortened” /iː/, as in reach, is not the same as “short” /ɪ/, as in rich. “Shortened” (i.e. clipped) /ɔː/, as in court, is not the same as short /ɒ/, as in cot.

    It was that use of "short" and "long" to describe the difference between /i/ and /ɪ/ that I was referring to as confusing. Perhaps you thought I was talking about the terms "long" and "short" as used to describe PRICE and KIT vowels?

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I don't have access to Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia, but a search thru Google Books offers it up with a 1988 mention (Vols 33-35) of "failure to apply the rule of Pre-Fortis Clipping" in a preview giving part of a list.

    the meta-information in google books is often unreliable. so i'm not sure if this really is a 1988 mention.

    here's a link

  15. Kraut, I hope you are not picking up my irony at my own expense in supporting Jack's implication that I am claiming some sort of academic rigour for a passing anecdotal remark. I have no intimate knowledge of RADA teaching goals/methods. Rather I have known RADA products in my time, and that knowledge was not even intimate (though one attempted to make it so). My impression of them was that they were the sort of boxes of tricks one would expect – some diglossic, some RP or of varying degrees of radaicism, either by upbringing or radaicization, and all stations in between.

    My answer to your question is that I am sure they were taught to actors, as you no doubt suspect. One only has to see the films to suspect it. But at least the flapped r was not necessarily an affectation, as for instance my mother's "pretty s" was (that term may be a bit more obscure, though you may have noticed it, or yet notice it, in the films) – pronounced with a sort of pretty pout to make the pretty sound – bah! My own flapped r in 'very' etc was innocent of all affectation, but I was teased as a child about it, as well as for having a "defective r" [ʋ] elsewhere. I got rid of the ʋ in pretty short order, but only lost the flap very gradually, and still come out with it occasionally.

  16. Professor Wells,

    I need your help. My question has to do with a well-known prayer: the Hail Mary. Is the word "blessed"(art thou among women/are you among women [modern version]) pronounced /blest/ or /blesid/? I listened to an Irish priest on YouTube saying /blesid/ but that was the only example I was able to find.
    Thanks in advance!

  17. Professor Wells, I need your help. In the case of 'vowel shortening' I have some doubts about the rules we have to take into account in the moment that we transcribed. Thanks!

  18. Hi Professor, is there a specific reason why pre-fortis clipping occurs in the first place, or is there no explanation for such phenomenon? Thanks!


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