Tuesday 13 July 2010

STRUT and commA

(As a further experiment, I’ve coded this posting in such a way that it should appear in the font Segoe UI for those who have it. Those who don’t, but have Lucida Grande, will see that. Those who have neither will see their default font.)

There’s an old limerick that goes like this.

ðə ˈwɒz ə jʌŋ ˈmæn əv kælˈkʌtə
əˈflɪktɪd ət ˈtaɪmz wɪð ə ˈstʌtə —
 hi ˈsed pəpəˈpliːz
 wʊdʒu ˈpɑːs mi ðə ˈtʃiːz
ən ðə ˈbəbəbəˈbəbəbəˈbʌtə.

I wouldn’t normally use this even for exemplification nowadays, not only because Calcutta has been renamed Kolkata (Bengali কলকাতা ˈkolkat̪a) but also because we know that we should not mock the afflicted.

However it does illustrate an interesting phonetic point. The issue is whether the STRUT vowel and the schwa are allophones of the same phoneme (realizations of the same underlying phonological unit) or not.

Some would claim that this is a non-issue, because STRUT is always stressed and schwa is never stressed. This argument might work if we define stress lexically, but it will not hold if by stress we mean a rhythmic beat in running speech.

The advantage of using a strongly rhythmic verse form such as the limerick is that we hold the rhythm constant as we play around with vowel qualities. And in my speech I feel, and believe I make, a clear difference between the last line as transcribed above and two other possibilities,
 ðə ˈbʌbʌbʌˈbʌbʌbʌˈbʌtə and
 ðə ˈbʌbəbəˈbʌbəbəˈbʌtə.
I can, if I choose, produce both ə and ʌ either stressed or unstressed.

There are though, I know, many other speakers who would not feel able to make any such distinction. They are the people who think of above as having the same vowel sound in each syllable.

This is what I referred to in Accents of English as ‘the STRUT-Schwa Merger’, adducing such variably distinct pairs as an orthodoxy vs unorthodoxy and a large and tidy room vs a large untidy room. It is presumably responsible, via restressing, for the AmE strong forms of of and from (compare BrE ɒv, frɒm).


  1. That really looks classy, but I wonder whether this will appear in it. The ɒ is a bit weird though, isn't it?

  2. Somewhere between alpha and Ichthys, which I'm told is the same in Christianity.

  3. Well I know there are all sorts of tags and things that aren't permitted in Comments, and I felt defeated by my attempted study of the page source of this, but couldn't you put something global in the style sheet for Segoe UI? It does distinguish the problematic click symbol, the ᵻ and ᵼ (1d7b-c) etc.

  4. That was to John of course, in reaction to the melancholy observation that the Comments font is still disappointing.

    I would just lurve the ichthyological ɒ if it matched the ɑ.

  5. The Segoe UI bold is more "greek small letter turned alpha" than "latin small letter turned alpha", though the non-bold glyph has a straight stem.

    If that makes it more distinguishable then it's a good thing.

  6. Korean, as spoken by the dwindling number of speakers that preserve phonemic vowel length contrast, is an example where a mid back vowel close to ʌ and a mid central vowel close to ə are allophones of the same phoneme /ʌ/, represented in hangul as ㅓ. This is the only Korean vowel whose quality changes appreciably according to length (although /a/ may also qualify). Contrary to English, the ə-like allophone is used for the long, stressed vowel and the ʌ-like allophone for the short, unstressed one.
    Like most younger speakers, I myself don't distinguish vowel lengths consistently, so this phoneme will almost always be ʌ-like for me in natural speech.

    On the topic of fonts, could Lucida Sans Unicode be added to the stack for those without Segoe UI or Lucida Grande?

  7. I have not discovered any way to specify a style sheet for blog postings. What I did for today was to apply a "span" tag to the whole posting, namely
    <span style="font-family: 'Segoe UI', 'Lucida Grande';">.
    I have raised a query on the Blogger discussion board about how to specify a font for people's comments, but have had no reply so far.

  8. When I copy and paste into Word, I do indeed get the English text entirely in Lucida Grande. The Bengali appears in a font called Free Serif, which for purposes of Bengali is identical with Free Sans. (I also have Free Monotype, but this lacks Indian characters.)

    I don't know where Free comes from, but I do know that I actively acquired my only other font with Bengali characters: ALPHABETUM Unicode devised by a Spanish mediaevalist with a huge repertoire of exotic characters.

    Substituting ALPHABETUM for Free is, I think, an improvement. I prefer the look of the letters. More importantly, the line spacing returns to normal. The Free fonts force the line of text down to allow for extra spacing at the top in characters such as ঈ or ী or ঁ.

    The line spacing problem caused by Free disappears when I substitute Jongseong's recommended Lucida Sans Unicode for Lucida Grande.

  9. I've rediscovered a link for ALPHABETUM.

    I see that Juan-José Marcos is officially a Classicist, but he has done an awful lot with Mediaeval Latin.

  10. John, many thanks for raising the Comments fonts question on the Blogger discussion board. I'm sure John Maidment will be keeping an eye on the state of play, too. He seems to have worse problems with his blog fonts.

  11. mollymooly, you have alerted me to the fact that my comment about the ichthyological ɒ might be misunderstood. I meant the unturned version of your "greek small letter turned alpha" would also be no bad thing. I personally am glad of all the visual help I can get.

    Even the Greeks write alpha like an ascenderless Italic d nowadays, and I have always written ɒ as an ascenderless Italic b, tho I have encountered some other funny ways of writing it. So neither ichthyological variant would require to be actually written like the Christian Ichthys. They would just as you say be more distinguishable in print.

  12. They are emphatically not allophones for me. In addition to the minimal pairs you have cited, I have a single lexical item, "does", which can receive either schwa or STRUT when stressed (the STRUT version being more emphatic). I don't know how common this is: I grew up with a near-RP accent in the English Midlands.

    So, in the limerick:

    There was an Old Man in a tree,
    Who was horribly bored by a Bee;
    When they said, 'Does it buzz?'
    He replied, 'Yes, it does!'
    'It's a regular brute of a Bee!'

    the third and fourth lines don't rhyme if I choose to use my schwa for "does" (I have no such choice for "buzz", which can only have STRUT).

  13. @vp: I have something similar, but with "but". There's also the case of "Ms", which I pronounce /məz/ and which definitely doesn't rhyme with "buzz".

  14. Regarding restressing, I've noticed that some people have /æ/ as a strong version of the article 'a' (typically only in contrastive situations for emphasis), rather than /ej/. Is this just a weird emphasis effect, or do you think that's a new underlying form created by restressing?

  15. vp, I think the merger is a matter of American accents. But I wonder where the stressed schwa variety comes from anyway. But most importantly - yes! We sang that in our school choir ages ago. Back then, I didn't even realise it was a limerick. The stress in this musical setting was on the [z], by they way.

    The stressed schwa is all the more interesting as it isn't followed by a(n historical) /r/, as in were, as it were, which most people today pronounce with the NURSE vowel when stressed, not with the SQUARE vowel, probably because it's basically a stressed schwa.

  16. vp

    I misread your English Midlands as East Midlands, which was puzzling. You seemed to be describing the same accent conditions as mine, and yet my buzz will always rhyme with my fully-stressed does.

    My parents were both RP-speakers for different reasons — my father went to a boarding school and my mother paid for elocution lessons. So RP was my target accent, and any East Midland (Nottingham in my case) influence was fragmentary and unsystematic. When as a little boy I once said come with a FOOT vowel, my mother pounced to weed it out early. She knew the value of an RP accent in every sense — including monetary value.

    My STRUT vowel may have a slight Nottingham quality, but failed to merge with my FOOT. And my does is either stressed with a STRUT vowel or unstressed with a commA vowel. You seem to have a stressed schwa — which to me would be a distinct third sound — for use in stressed does.

    I may be misreading John's Accents of English, but I take him to say that in the East Midlands you either distinguish STRUT and FOOT or you don't, while in the West Midlands it may vary from word to word. Could this lie behind your does-pronouncing repertoire?

  17. JHJ

    I have a stressed schwa in Ms — but I don't feel it to be an English word.

    That's not an intellectual judgement. Instinctively and unthinkingly, it's just like including a foreign word in an English sentence.

  18. @David Crosbie:

    I grew up in the West Midlands (Birmingham). I fancy that what happened is this: my schwa in "does" is regional while my STRUT in the same word is RP, and rather than one supplanting the other they both coexist in my phonological ecosystem :)

  19. Regarding the phoemic home for schwa, it's largely a matter of linguistic creed. Schwa is at one end of a range of pronunciations of can, but, on etc from fully accented to fully reduced, and is then a weakened version of each respective vowel phoneme. OK in some creeds, not in others.

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  21. Neither /ˈprɒd.ʌkt/ v. /ˈprɒd.əkt/, nor /ˈɪnd.əs.tri/ v. /ˈɪnd.ʌs.tri/ constitute minimal pairs of course, but I believe for both words there are speakers for whom the difference between the two variants is clearly discernible. Whether you ascribe this difference to degree of stress or to a “weak-strong vowel” distinction, is a matter of linguistic taste, I suppose. I’d personally favour the latter, which is probably yet another important innovation by J. Wells. (Although in strictly diachronic contexts I’d prefer the traditional “reduced” v. “full” vowel, but this is merely a matter of terminology.) Otherwise nearly all vowel phonemes in Present-Day English should be claimed to have the schwa as a sort of "allophone" (as some dictionaries actually do -- if only implicitly -- and transcribe the schwa with various vowel symbols in italics).

  22. For a minimal pair, how about:

    /səb/version: an act of subverting
    /sʌb/version: a subdivision of a version

  23. The former is sub'version, the latter 'subversion or 'sub'version. In American Southern accents, the stress might be somewhat equal (not sure exactly), but there COMMA and STRUT are the same in all positions.

  24. I am astonished to hear people speak of pronouncing Ms. with a vowel other than KIT, the vowel of Miss and Mrs. Perhaps this is because the word originated in AmE and came into BrE in written form? I have even seen it spelled Miz or Mizz in dialogue, when used for direct address rather than as a title.

    (In AmE, Ms. has pretty much displaced Miss as a title for women above the age of discretion, leaving women who marry the choice of changing to Mrs. or keeping Ms. — my mother was Mrs. Cowan, my wife is Ms. Cowan. Miss remains in use for directly addressing a situational-servant such as a store employee or waitress.)

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  26. John Cowan

    It came into Britain in written form, and that is how it has stayed in my experience.

    Yes, I've heard Americans say miz, but that's not really relevant.

    My guess is that the British speakers that I've heard have generally swallowed the word. And it's not unusual to hear it

    -- completely unstressed
    -- with stressed schwa
    -- with stressed or unstressed syllabic z

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  28. @John Cowan: Ms as /məz/ is given in the OED for both British and American English, as the second pronunciation in both cases. The OED's "American" transcription merges schwa and STRUT, but its "British" one (Upton's) does not.

    @Richard Sabey: I have STRUT in both of those (due to the Northern tendency to use full vowels before consonant clusters) and agree that they differ in stress as described by Lipman.

  29. JHJ

    Now that you mention it, I see that I too can use the STRUT vowel in both. Thus I have three possibilities:

    sʌb'vɜ:ʃn — 'act of subverting'
    səb'vɜ:ʃn — ditto
    'sʌb 'vɜ:ʃn— 'subdivision of a version'

    I can't imagine saying the third other than as two quasi-words.

  30. "Of" and "from" still have the LOT vowel in much of the American South. This might be changing though.


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