Friday 24 September 2010

never been there

On behalf of Akiko Ohkita, one of his students, Masaki Taniguchi asks what would be an appropriate intonation pattern for the phrase I have never been there in this passage, taken from a junior high school textbook.
The place I want to visit is Korea. My email friend, Mina, lives in Seoul. She writes to me about schools, movies, and music in Korea. I write to her about life in Japan. Korea is close to Japan, but I have never been there.

The textbook says that this been should be pronounced with a weak form, implying that it would not be accented.

Masaki, however, rightly thinks that been can be stressed and may even carry a nucleus in this context. As he says, visit was mentioned at the beginning, but is too distant to be counted as given/old information. He wonders if it would be possible to deaccent been in this context and place a nucleus on the first syllable of never. Are both options possible, he asks, depending on the speaker's mind?

The first thing to say is that the textbook is clearly wrong. It seems to me that native speakers would virtually always choose to place a nuclear accent on been.
kərɪəz \/kləʊs tə dʒəpæn | bət aɪv nevə \biːn ðeə

(Or the nuclear tone might be a fall-rise. In idiomatic English, we’d probably include the word actually, too.) The typical Japanese error, I suspect, would be to accent never but not been:

…* \never been there.

It would be possible to give never a nuclear accent, but only, I think, if there were another one on been.
…\/never | \been there.

Alternatively, it would be possible to place a contrastive accent on I’ve, to convey an implicit or explicit implication.

...but \/I’ve never been there (even though you may have).

This is one of the cases where been seems to function almost as the past participle of go. We say I go there often, I’ve been there often. In this context it is a content word.

Been is not a word for which it is useful to speak of strong and weak forms. Although there may be people who use biːn as the strong form, bɪn as the weak, Americans usually have bɪn as the only form, used in strong position as well as weak, while conversely in BrE there is nothing odd about using biːn in weak positions.

Judging by the spelling mistakes one sees, many people must pronounce been and being as homophones. Not me!


  1. I have always observed that words like "been" which in BrE usually have strong and weak forms have predominant forms in AmE analogous to bɪn which were obviously originally weak forms: "from", "of", "because" with ʌ rather than ɔ/ɒ/ɑ, and "them" with ʌ rather than ɛ for example. When I mentioned earlier that although LPD gives only "ðem, weak form ðəm" for both UK and US, the sound file for US is ðəm, Julie pointed out that reduced "them" is usually əm in AmE in any case. LPD doesn't give that, and I'm sure it's much rarer than it used to be in RP, but why not for AmE? It gives analogous aphaeretic weak forms of e.g. "him" and "her" for both BrE and AmE

    Isn't it revealing that the preference poll for British English "been" (for strong form) has 8% for bɪn? Can you confirm my impression that this is at least as much an independent development as due to American influence?

    As for 'been' and 'being' as homophones, I offer you my Ulster favourites 'cuman beans' 'shuman beans' and 'thuman beans', and e.g. 'shown' and 'showing' as homophones, with the possibility of a slight epenthetic ə in 'shown', if there is a second syllable at all in 'showin'.'

  2. This can result in hypercorrections of 'shown' to ʃoʊin/ʃouiŋ etc. (avoiding the too-open Ulster ɪ variants)

  3. This accenting of 'been' seems to hinge on a common point of efl grammar. That when we mean 'visit', we use 'be' in the perfect aspect and not the usual 'go' - I frequently go to Wales, I went to Wales once, I'm going to Wales tomorrow, I used to go to Wales a lot; but, Have you ever been to Wales? I've been to Wales, I had never been to Wales before.

    This results in students saying 'I've gone to Cardiff' when they really mean 'I've been to Cardiff'.

    So in this case 'be' is acting as a full lexical word meaning 'visit', hence the accent.

  4. The textbook may be doing no more than telling the teacher how to stress the sentence. The authors may actually be aware of the different implications of different choices stress, and may judge that the target learners are not ready for the possible confusion.

    My first instinct would be to stress been. I can see how this could lead the lesson into areas that young learners may not be ready for.

    I for one certainly do regard have been as an aspectual variant of went. I as a learner and my wife as a teacher frequently think about the rationale and explanation of Russian пошёл and ходил, ехал and ездил. A handy simplification is to regard the first of each pair as went and the second as has been. Indeed the final verb can be replaced by the Russian for was in .

    (A lot of people here know Russian. For those who don't, the language makes a lexical difference between go on foot and go by transport. Each pair of words is regarded as the same lexical word with different stems.)

    In 1933, the Alabama pianist Walter Roland (in his persona of the pianist at a 'house party' where the 'house lady' is not supplying drink) sang in perfect rhyme:

    Hey house lady, you sure do treat me mean
    You treat me just like I is not no human being

  5. I'm American (for anyone who doesn't remember), and I don't make been and being homophones, but I do pronounce being with one syllable. It comes out as something like /biŋ/. I pronounce been as /bɪn/ of course. For me, been and Ben are homophones.

  6. The strange thing is, I only pronounce the word being that way when it occurs in human being. If I were to say, "You're being stupid", I would pronounce it with two syllables as /ˈbiɪŋ/.

  7. I'm not sure you can infer from House Lady Blues that "mean" and "being" rhymed for Walter Roland; one might draw the same conclusion from God Save the Queen by The Sex Pistols:

    God save the queen
    She ain't no human being

    ..but I'm sure these words don't rhyme for Johnny Rotten outside the sung context.

  8. Phil, Paul

    Yes, I suppose altering bi:ŋ to rhyme with mi:n would square with that last verse where he rhymes long with corn.

  9. To me (not a native speakers) "Korea is close to Japan, but I have never been there" sounds like it means I've never been to Korea if the stress is on "been" and like it means I've never been to Japan if the stress is on "there". Dunno why.

    (And IIRC "being" is clearly pronounced as bisyllabic in God Save the Queen.)

  10. For me, a plain reading of Korea is close to Japan, but I have never been there puts contrastive stress on I. To get the sentential stress on been /bɪn/, I have to say I've never been there.

    /əm/ is certainly a reduced form, but it is not a reduced form of them, but of hem, the OE 3PL.DAT pronoun, as the OED is I think the only dictionary brave enough to note. English does not normally reduce words by dropping initial /θ/ (though Scots sometimes does).

  11. The situational context in the textbook passage is that the speaker is Japanese and lives in Japan. This rules out the possibility that there would refer to Japan.

  12. As usual this blog is making me think about the tiniest of things and then cracks my mind apart with a new issue to munch on. Thank you!

    It seems we all agree that been is the default word to be stressed in a neutral context. Placing stress on any other words other than the main verb would convey emphasis on a particular element, even possibly conveying contradiction to a previous idea or statement.

    Placing stress on been keeps the statement safely neutral. Stressing there would make it seem one is opposing Korea from other locations (like Japan). This is certainly a second possible reading here, particularly it seems if one has been visiting Japan too (as opposed to simply being born in Japan). And naturally, stressing I've would emphasize one's own past travels in opposition to those of all other persons.

    Paul Carly:"This results in students saying 'I've gone to Cardiff' when they really mean 'I've been to Cardiff'."

    Apparently I speak a different dialect then. I'd say 'gone' more often than 'been' in this context. In fact, I don't consider the two sentences completely equal per se (but almost).

    For me, "I've never been there" states that one has never existed in, and thus never experienced the marvels of, that location before regardless of how one got there (and it's obvious the speaker got there from somewhere anyway!). It places emphasis on the novel experience of a location rather than the journey.

    Both I've never been there and I've never gone there are possible, depending on idiosyncracy.

    As an aside, I notice that in Mandarin things are more explicit because 'have been' would be overtly marked with the "experiential" aspect marker -guo while 'have gone' might be marked with the perfective le marking a specific instance of travel rather than a sum of experiences.

    Why is grammar so confusing?!! Lol.

  13. I'm American, and for me the strong form of been is [bɛn], not [bɪn]. Is this a common variant, or an idiosyncrasy of mine?

  14. Glen

    Well, I for one don't agree that been is the default word to be stressed in a neutral context.

    It's the most natural word to stress in this particular passage because of the information established in previous sentences, and because of the function of but.

    The sentence But I've never been there expresses a contrast, so it's hard to imagine a delivery without contrastive stress. Contrastive stress on I, never, or there is entirely possible — but there's nothing explicit of implicit in the previous text that suggests a contrast. No agent to contrast with I. No assertion to be denied with never. Yes, Japan could be contrasted with Korea, but John tells us that the writer is in Japan and so there must refer to Korea — i.e. there's no contrast.

    That leaves only been to convey a semantically plausible contrast between the nearness of Japan and the fact that the writer has never made that short trip.

    The textbook writers prescribe unstressed been. This could be out of ignorance, or it could be that they were concentrating too much on the sentence in isolation without considering the text as a whole. Or perhaps they were deliberately shielding students from any deviation from the norm of non-contastive sentence stress.

    Imagine a group of friends planning a holiday and working though a mass of suggestions. I've never been there could easily be said by any of the friends with ordinary non-contrastive stress of there and a reduced form of been.

    What makes this awkward in the textbook example is the combination of But at the start of the sentence and Japan at the end of the previous sentence.

  15. @ Tonio Green: I don't think it's an idiosyncrasy. After all, you must have picked it up somewhere. I've read about other Americans pronouncing it that way. I also think I've heard it before now that you mention it. It's interesting though that been and Ben are still homophones for you too even though you don't have the so-called pin-pen merger.

  16. John Cowan,
    > "/əm/ is certainly a reduced form, but it is not a reduced form of them, but of hem, the OE 3PL.DAT pronoun, as the OED is I think the only dictionary brave enough to note. English does not normally reduce words by dropping initial /θ/ (though Scots sometimes does)."

    This is a strangely metachronistic view to take. The undisputed history of the form /əm/ does not change the fact that synchronically it is a weak form of them. However suppletive that history may show this form to be, English does reduce words by dropping initial /ð/: one immediately thinks of /æt/ for /ðæt/, which happens all the time, even in AmE, as attaboy, attagirl etc attest, and it may be quite legitimate to regard this aphaeresis as part of that history, even if you insist on being diachronic about it.

    The OED appears to support me in this under the separate entry for 'em: "In north midland dialects 'em may have arisen from them: cf. South Yorkshire 'at for that." And under hem: "After 1500 them is the standard form, hem (usually written 'em) surviving only as a subordinate weak form, chiefly colloquial, in which capacity it is still used in the south."

    Interestingly some of the citations from 1498 onwards have 'hem, which is already evidence of the identification with them.

    And it is not particularly brave of them to have a separate entry for hem (marked with an obelisk as obsolete, to establish their synchronic credentials, and only given the pronunciation /əm/, to reinforce them).

  17. Sorry, that was meant to be "some of the citations from 1598 onwards".

  18. many people must pronounce been and being as homophones. Not me!

    But of course not. Been is biːn, and being is bɪːn.

  19. John Cowan: Isn't that a bit like saying that 'went' cannot be a past tense of 'go,' and 'are' can't possibly be a form of 'be,' because they have different origins?

    If one pronoun slips into place alongside another, very similar-sounding pronoun with the exact same function, and shares that space for a few centuries, who's to say it doesn't belong there?


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