Wednesday 1 September 2010

linking semivowels (ii)

I think we’d better continue yesterday’s discussion for a further day.

Adam Brown very reasonably compares so-called linking /j, w/ with linking /r/, asking and answering his own question.
Is it worth teaching linking /j, w/? Well, one benefit is to avoid an overabundance of "linking" glottal stops in such situations.
I assume you would say the same thing about linking /r/. Just as 'two evils' and 'two weevils' are not the same, so Mark Anthony did not say "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your rears."

Yes, and likewise more ice mɔːr aɪs sounds different from more rice mɔː raɪs — in the same way as an aim ən eɪm sounds different from a name ə neɪm. Syllable-final sonorants are shorter, more lightly pronounced, than the longer, more deliberate, syllable-initial ones.

The difference between linking r and the postulated linking semivowels is that native speakers (of RP-type accents) actually do typically insert an extra segment in the linking-r position. In non-rhotic accents the word more, pronounced in isolation, has a straightforward CV structure, m plus ɔː. Before a word beginning with a vowel, on the other hand, it can contain an extra segment, CVC, m plus ɔː plus r.

The analogy for my would be that in isolation it is CV, m plus , but in prevocalic position (my arms) it becomes CVC, m plus plus j. Since English j by definition is a non-syllabic palatal glide, and since already contains a non-syllabic palatal glide, it is difficult to see what the realization of j might actually consist of in the supposed homosyllabic sequence maɪj. (The case of I yearn or “my yarm” is different, with the palatal articulation now partly in the second syllable.) See vp’s comment on yesterday’s blog made early this morning.

I am confirmed in my view that “linking /j/ and /w/” are figments of the imagination. That does not necessarily imply that they are pedagogically valueless. I am willing to recognize that sometimes teaching something that is not strictly true may nevertheless be justified if it leads to better results than not teaching it. (That is the justification for some of the nonsense I encountered from the voice teacher whose classes on Accents and Dialects I attended anonymously when researching my own book on the subject — telling people to “place” the voice in the middle of the forehead, and suchlike.)

If talk of linking semivowels is a useful technique for getting EFL students to avoid prevocalic glottal stops (“hard attack”), then so be it. That might justify its use by teachers of learners whose first language is, for example, German.
But not of those whose first language is Spanish or Italian.

As for the claim that it is useful to help learners “avoid strong glottal attacks that can cause vocal issues”, I feel I need to see some kind of evidence that glottal stops cause voice problems. If the use of glottal stops really does trigger pathological conditions, you have to wonder how monoglot native speakers of (northern) German manage. In that language all initial vowels normally have a reinforcing glottal stop (“hard attack”). Given that, how do the Germans ever manage to remain in vocal health?


  1. Oh no, I think this advice is very important, and the danger real. The local Northern German term for those sad cases who went too far is "Däne".

  2. Singers, even German ones, are consistently taught to avoid glottal stops.

  3. "Given that, how do the Germans ever manage to remain in vocal health?"
    Well - constant practice strengthens your muscles!

  4. I have the impression that the ɪ in /aɪ/ is often somewhat higher before a vowel than before a consonant; if it's an [i̯] or a [j] depends on what one's definitions of [i̯] and [j] are, I guess.

  5. When I first read "I saw her race", I was expecting to see a Pakistani-looking woman, and only when I was puzzled by that did I realize that "race" was a verb. Would there be a phonetic difference between "her race" as pronoun+verb (as intended) and as a possesive+noun (as I expected)? My feeling (as a non-phonetician) is that "race" would be almost exactly the same in the two cases, but "her" might be a little different.

  6. Leo:

    Owen is pronounced /ˈəʊ.ɨn/, and therefore does not contain a /w/.

  7. I have been saying to my clients for some time that glottal stops in and of themselves are not dangerous - otherwise no Cockney or Glaswegian would have a voice past the age of, say, three!

    There are, at least in English for performers, aesthetic reasons to minimize the use of glottal onset in most initial-vowel words (some obvious exceptions include the expressions uh-oh, and uh-uh, which can't be uttered without the glottal onsets).

    I ask my performing clients to learn to speak without so many glottal interruptions in their flow of connected speech because mastering different skills gives them more command over their speech rather than less. It expands their repertoire instead of narrowing it.

    From there they can choose whether or not to use glottal onsets, and glottal realizations of other plosives, depending on how formal or informal they wish their speech to be in any given situation. Without the skill, however, they have no choice.

    In my civilian clients, I encourage the same mastery of a wide range of speech skills, but I will focus more on skills that promote intelligibility in the community/ies they are likely to address on a regular basis. If not linking through (phantom) /j/ and /w/ is not causing them communication difficulties, I'd spend less time on it. But often it is the client who asks for information on what, for them, is an observable phenomenon. And often I observe that the lack of "linking" - regardless of how it would be scientifically described and notated phonetically - can cause problems in communication.

    I don't disagree with your phonetic analysis; I lack the knowledge to do so, even if I wanted to. But I don't! I'm talking about teaching basic speech skills to a non-phonetician population.

    I wonder if you'd observe less difference between "lesser of two evils" and "lesser of two weevils" when spoken rapidly than when spoken slowly. I think what might happen is that the /w/ in "two weevils" would get less attention in rapid speech, bringing it closer to "two evils." I also wonder how much difference regional accent would make. Might make a lot.

  8. Is it correct to infer from your views in this thread that you deny the assertion that in most dialects of English, including RP-type dialects, a syllable must have an onset, that no syllable can begin with a vowel?

  9. I wrote: "And often I observe that the lack of "linking" - regardless of how it would be scientifically described and notated phonetically - can cause problems in communication."

    That seems like an idiotic statement on the face of it, but I'm thinking of situations where native speakers may be less likely to understand foreign speakers - because so often native speakers listen less, instead of more, carefully, when they hear "an accent." It is the foreigner who is required (socially) to make more adjustments. If reducing the use of glottal stops will help a Japanese speaker get along in an American workplace, I will make a point of working on strategies to reduce the use of glottals, and increase the use of what I find it handy to call linking.

    Okay, I think I'm done now!

  10. My comment wasn't referring to all glottal stops, but only to "strong glottal attacks." An initial glottal on a word isn't a problem (it's certainly not a problem in other positions in a word) - I did specifically mean a strong initial glottal. This is a common cause of vocal problems for cheerleaders, and the same is true of actors who are projecting much more than at conversational level, especially in moments of strong passion onstage, such as shouting.

  11. I do agree with 'athel' in that there seems to be a difference in pronunciation depending on whether race is undestood as verb or noun. On this, I'd like to say two things. First, a non-phonological one, it's very difficult to think of a likely context in which one uses race as a noun in this utterance (with a poetic meaning, perhaps?). Second, on a phonology note, I would say that whereas the noun option would involve one IP (=intonation phrase), the option with race used as a verb could be split into two IPs with the boundary between 'her' and 'race'. Could any of the expert followers comment on whether I may be on the right track? Thank you very much.

  12. That is the justification for some of the nonsense I encountered from the voice teacher whose classes on Accents and Dialects I attended anonymously when researching my own book on the subject — telling people to “place” the voice in the middle of the forehead, and suchlike.

    Yes I remember watching something about the tv series Brotherhood. It showed the dialect coach at work teaching the actors how to do Providence, Rhode Island (where the series was set) accents and he seemed to refer to the head a lot as well. I guess Rhode Islanders articulate sounds in their heads.

  13. Murray: I have never come across the assertion that all syllables have an onset (initial consonant). On the face of it, it is ludicrous. The first two syllables of oasis both start with vowels (and so, in my analysis, does the third - but there many would disagree).

  14. @ John Wells:
    The notion that all syllables have onsets is found the theoretical phonology literature, at least in those theories that permit the notion of empty categories. I presume this is what Murray meant.
    Offhand I can think of John Harris's 'English Sound Structure' (Blackwell 1994) as an example of a work which follows this analysis.

  15. @ Anonymous:
    At the other end of the spectrum, John Taylor also holds that in most varieties of English (not true of other languages, French for example) a syllable must have an onset consonant. With "oasis" at the beginning of an utterance, for example, he would hear a glottal stop as the onset of the first syllable, a glide as the onset of the second, and the /s/ as the onset of the third. Cognitive Grammar, Oxford UP, 2002, pp 88 - 90.

  16. What about the last syllable of "withdrawal" in accents without intrusive R?

  17. It seems the originator of this word linking technique was none other than J C Catford. In his article 'Word-Linking' (English Language Teaching, volume IV, no. 5, February 1950) he describes catenation exercises for sequences of sounds occurring across word boundaries.

    He concludes that C+C sequences must be taught with the usual catenation drills; that V+C sequences don't pose any real problems; that in C+V sequences, the consonant should be taken as the onset of the following syllable; and that V+V sequences can be treated differently according to the nature of the first vowel:

    Y-Linkers are the close front vowels and diphthongs to this position.
    W-Linkers are the close back vowels and diphthongs to this position.
    R-Linkers are those that we are familiar with.
    Zero-Linkers are those which would result in 'intrusive r', which Catford doesn't allow.

    On the nature of these linking semi-vowels, he says:

    'In passing from one vowel to another we usually mark the transitions - the division between the syllables - by a decrease in the force of the breath. In addition, when the first of the two vowels has a closer tongue (or lip) position than the second, the articulating organs make a rapid gliding movement from the closer to the more open position. But these two features, less breath-force than that of neighbouring sounds and a glide from a closer to a more open position, are characteristics of the English semi-vowels [w] and [j]. In many cases it is possible to take advantage of the fact that a kind of embryonic, scarcely perceptible, semi-vowel exists, by instructing the learner deliberately to insert a linking [w] or [j].'

    I've never really found it necessary to go into this with students. Practice and imitation is enough. Extra symbols confuse matters. And it's always bothered me that this kind of imagined semi-vowel linking is the opposite of many speakers' smoothing habits in the same contexts.

  18. @Paul Carley,

    Out of interest, how does Catford recommend that students should realize "Zero-Linkers", especially those between two like vowels (e.g. "Asia and Africa")?

  19. Martin Capell's note seems to have been left unanswered, so I'd like to suggest that there is no likely difference in pronunciation between 'her race[N]' and 'her race[Vb]'.

  20. 'In such cases there is nothing to be done but to practise the transition. The vowel-sequences have to be isolated and treated as material for catenation exercises. They should be practised very slowly at first (with a slow, careful, glide from one vowel to the next), making certain that voicing is continuous throughout, and that the stress is correctly placed. Such cases, however, are relatively infrequent.'

  21. I am always awed by the knowledge on display here, but I am puzzled by the assertion that "“linking /j/ and /w/” are figments of the imagination". In my own area of interest, poetry, there are lines that simply cry out for such a link e.g. Yeats's 'the brawling of a sparrow in the eaves', which I (no doubt naïvely) would transcribe as:


    I do not see how one can omit the linking 'w' when reading this aloud without pausing after sparrow, which to me changes the whole sense of the line. The linking 'j', I will agree, is more dubious...

  22. linking j

    I think so too, and it would paradoxically question the choice of [ði] over [ðə]. (Of course, the variants of the articles are long fixed by now. Still, I find it strange if people emphasise a word by starting it with a glottal stop before the initial vowel, and still use the automatic variant of the article, eg "thi ʔapple", "an ʔapple". Is this more common in AmE?)

  23. I've picked up intrusive R in cases such as "Asia and Africa"; at least, that blocks my instinct to fuse the two neighbouring unstressed vowels in one syllable, which is what happens in my native language. (On the other hand, since I tend to pronounce the English /r/ as a trill or tap if I'm not careful, that makes my I saw it sound too much like I sought it.

  24. army1987,
    On the other hand, since I tend to pronounce the English /r/ as a trill or tap if I'm not careful, that makes my I saw it sound too much like I sought it.

    Yes that's very confusing to us Americans. I've even been confused by native speakers of English who realize /r/ as an alveolar tap. I once heard this Englishman refer to another man as (what sounded to me like) an audible git (he didn't really say git). It took me a very long time to figure out he was saying horrible. Of course he had h-dropping too though.

  25. @Lipman:

    A glottal stop before an initial vowel is definitely more common in AmE than in BrE. For example, in AmE I would expect to hear "the arena" as [ðəʔə'rinə] rather than [ði.ə'rinə] as would be more common in BrE. Similarly for a word after "an", I would not be surprised to hear an initial glottal stop from some speakers.

    I feel that the "linking the" form with /ði/ in AmE is now in a pretty similar state to /hw/ in RP: it's not completely absent but pretty much confined to the speech-trained. When /ði/ is heard for "the" in AmE, it's more likely to be emphatic rather than a sandhi form. I am sure Amy can correct me, though...

  26. Yes, of course you're right about ði - it's just less common in AmE, so I should have asked about a(n) only.

    Concerning ði as emphasis, even that is often rather expressed by a stressed ðə. (Winnie-ther-Pooh, or as it should have been printed in American editions, Winniw-THUH-Pooh. But it's too late now, and millions of American children and ex-children are puzzled.)

    ði also seems to be used for no particular emphasis when the stereotypical American cop is called to the stand or reads a police report.

  27. I say stressed the with STRUT. Like if a teacher were to ask me what the articles were, I would answer, "a, an and the /ðʌ/". I know STRUT is supposed to be checked, but the vowel I use here sounds exactly like it. I've heard other Americans say /ði/ in this situation though.

  28. I'm not used to hearing things utterly unfamiliar to me described as AmE.

    "For example, in AmE I would expect to hear "the arena" as [ðəʔə'rinə] rather than [ði.ə'rinə] as would be more common in BrE."

    Really? Where do you live? I'm in California. I've never heard anything like this. The vowel varies a bit, yes, but a glottal stop?

    Yes, I was confused by Winnie-the-Pooh, but I loved it anyway. I took it literally, as you'd expect, and figured they said ther, er, and so forth.

  29. @Julie

    I'm a Brit exile who has lived in Northern California for just over a decade. And yes, I would expect to hear the glottal stop in "the arena" from Americans my age or younger (mid-30s).

    When I use my British "linking the", I am often greeted with incomprehension.

    How would you say it?

  30. Anonymous #7538,

    yes, you've STRUT=COMMA, I take it. That merger might in fact have enabled it in AmE, because COMMA isn't easily stressed.

  31. Perhaps it's an age difference, then. I'm 50, and have lived my entire life in Northern California. My pronunciation varies from (usually) [ði ə'rinə] to something like [ðʌ ə'rinə], depending on context and speed. No glottal stops in the second; the vowels are blended. The only place I might occasionally put a glottal stop in this context is in the set phrase THE END, at the end of a book.

    I didn't think I was that out of it, but....

  32. Aren't semi-vowels different from the cognate vowels? As far is know, the palatal approximant 'j' is different from the vowel 'I' because there's more constriction in the former. John's blog post seems to suggest that they're the same in terms of articulation. Please correct me if I am mistaken.

  33. Thank you for helping people get the information they need. Great stuff as usual. Keep up the great work!!! KISS English


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