Friday 12 November 2010

facilis descensus Averno: agreed?

Yes, there are plenty of words such as cigar
sɪ ˈɡɑː(r), guitar ɡɪˈtɑː(r), and divide dɪˈvaɪd that have a syllable-final weak vowel ɪ with no tenser variant.

A particularly interesting candidate minimal pair is dissent vs. descent. The first is morphologically dis + sent (compare as+sent, con+sent), with regular lexical simplification of underlying double s. The prefix dis- is pronounced with ɪ (except in Australian-type accents where the only weak vowel allowed in this environment is schwa).
dissent dɪ ˈsent də-

The second is morphologically de + scent (compare as+cent). It has the regular weak prefix de-, which for the reasons discussed this week I write in the third edition with i.
descent di ˈsent də-

These entries are based on my supposition that there are people for whom the two words are not homophones.

It is possible, though, that I am wrong in this supposition. Perhaps I ought to test it out in the next preference survey I conduct.

If I am indeed wrong, and they are homophonous for everyone, then clearly I ought to revert to writing bɪˈliːv etc rather than the 3rd-edition biˈliːv. (Perhaps I ought to do that in any case if the proportion of people claiming non-homophony is very small.)

If on the other hand I retain bi-, di-, pri-, ri-, there are certain cases which still need discussion. Those that worry me sometimes are se- and e-. In secure, seduce etc. I give only sɪ- (or sə-). Likewise in event. On the other hand Michael Ashby persuaded me that I ought to transcribe eleven with i-, though there e- is not a prefix.

The pair diffuse (v.) — defuse is interesting. Although I use strong ˌdiː- in the second myself, so that they are not homophones, many other people weaken the de- and not only pronounce the two words identically, dɪˈfjuːz, but get the meanings confused. While traditionally to diffuse is to spread and to defuse is to render (a bomb) safe, you do sometimes come across references to “diffusing” a tense situation. I would write “defusing”.


  1. Do you really think it's possible that you are wrong in the supposition that there are people for whom 'dissent' and 'descent' are not homophones? I feel sure that like me you don't think that for a moment. I can't even think that they are close to becoming homophonous for everyone. The iː you originally designated non-RP is still there, either (a) as a canonical realization of the phoneme /i:/, which both you and I have said in the course of this discussion we use ourselves (you say of the pair diffuse (v.) — defuse, "I use strong ˌdiː- in the second myself, so that they are not homophones", and I would be interested to know whether that "so that" is resultative, or purposive, as you suggest in LPD, and as I have confessed it is with me, as a quixotic attempt to fight the confusion), or (b) as the IPA [i], either realizing that same phoneme /iː/, or representing (not realizing, as you have dispensed with the Trubetzkoyan archiphoneme in "believing descriptions") the LPD i. The canonical realization [iː] is of course widely substituted even by ɪ enthusiasts in contrastive expressions like "ascent and descent".

    BTW if diˈsent and dɪˈsent etc are to be minimal pairs you cannot in any case say that i is an archiphoneme as obviously there cannot be an opposition between an archiphoneme and one of its terms!

    You mention 'secure', 'seduce' etc. I said earlier that I agree with ɪ or ə for such cases, but can't understand i in 'effect' etc. I would understand it in 'event'! Could you explain?

  2. That's "I can't understand i in 'effect' etc. I would understand it if you used that i alongside ɪ or ə in 'event'! Could you explain?"

  3. One could hypothetically have a stressed prefix in defuse or diffuse due to contrastive intonation. Then I would consider the prefixes to be de- and dif- respectively (whether etymologically justified or not), and distinguish the vowels accordingly.

    When using the usual stress patterns, I think my defuse and diffuse (where the latter is a verb) are virtual homophones most of the time, because my unstressed ɪ and i overlap considerably. Sometimes I may use a strong ˌdiː- for defuse. I hardly ever recall using diffuse as a verb in my personal vocabulary, so I can't tell you much about how I normally pronounce that form (I can imagine I would even be prone to pronouncing it with /s/ as with the adjective rather than /z/).

  4. Jongseong,
    I of course meant a stressed prefix when I made the same point about "ascent and descent" with contrastive intonation, though it seems I didn’t make that explicit. I can't imagine the iː variant in my own idiolect otherwise. So it's a different situation from diffuse~defuse, where an unstressed, or secondarily stressed iː is possible because of the morphological productivity of de- and correspondingly greater awareness of its identity.

  5. Interesting, I've always though "event" had /i:/ like evening. One's never too old to learn.

  6. I notice that I pronounce 'event' as [iˈvɛ̃nt̚] and never [əˈvɛ̃nt̚]. (I'm in Canada.)

  7. Wait, hold on. Perhaps it could be weakened in fast speech to [ɪˈvɛ̃nt̚] now that I think about it, but still I never use a schwa in the unstressed first syllable. I'm certain.

    Then again, the distinction between /ɪ/ and /ə/ can be very subtle to many ears and so I'm not even sure whether I'm pronouncing these two vowels perhaps to distinguish between "dissent" and "descent". Would any average speaker even notice if I did? Hmm.

  8. @ John Wells

    vp said:

    " 'That would be because the /bi:-/ variant [of "believe"] now is (neo-)RP.'

    Do we have any evidence for this? "

    So, do you really think that the /bi:/ variant of "believe" (and the like) is now (neo-)RP?

  9. Donald, are you asking me?
    What I said was "neo-RP" is a sometimes tenser final vowel in happY. There is good evidence for that (see, for example, my contribution to the TV programme "The Story of English", with an interview of a boy then at Winchester school).

  10. @John Wells:
    I too was asking you a question: why you give only ə or _i_ in 'effect', 'efficient' etc, having as you say decided on _ɪ_ or ə for 'event', as for 'secure', 'seduce' etc, for which I said earlier that I agree with _ɪ_ or ə, and with the logic of it. Perhaps it would have helped if I had not miscopied my attempt to make the question clearer. That should have said "I can't understand _i_ in 'effect', 'efficient' etc. I would understand it if you used that _i_ alongside ə in 'event' instead of ɪ! Could you explain?"

    The BrE sound files for 'efficient', 'efficiency' actually have eˈf-. I would understand that too, alongside _ɪ_ or ə. It would parallel what you say of 'affect, ə ˈfekt: "Also, to highlight the contrast with 'effect', sometimes (ˌ)æ-".

    If the _i_ you give in 'effect', 'efficient' etc is likewise intended to parallel that rider, because of speakers who say (ˌ)iːˈfekt, perhaps equally to highlight the contrast with 'affect' (and (ˌ)iːˈfɪʃᵊnt etc, but to no purpose that I can imagine), then I can't understand why you don’t make that explicit, and do what would be analogous with your treatment of the speakers who say əʊˈfenᵗs for 'offence', for which you give ə ˈfenᵗs §əʊ-. The analogous treatment would be əˈfekt ɪ-, §i(ː)-. I would understand that too.

    But surely there is a far greater cohort of less non-RP speakers who say (ˌ)i(ː)ˈvent for 'event'. Why do you exclude them without so much as a §, by giving only ɪ|ˈvent ə- for it? That is what I least understand, and other commentators too since I asked the question. Have I simply got my impression of the cohort statistics the wrong way round? Have you got one of your preference polls for it or something?

    Is this perhaps one of the cases which you say above still need discussion?

  11. Sorry, another cut-and-paste fiasco. Please read "But surely there is a far greater cohort of less non-RP speakers who say i(ː)ˈvent for 'event'."

  12. I did say that "those that worry me sometimes are se- and e-". So yes, I am open to persuasion about event.
    But I'm not so keen on revising effect, especially since it is now a homophone of affect (v.) for so many people.

  13. @ John Wells

    Thanks. But, if the pronunciation (e.g.) [bi:'li:v] does not belong in RP (not even in neo-RP), then (as an anon commented last Thursday) "the symbolization about the non-RPness of the /bi:-/ variant is lost in the new reduced notation".

    The old notation was more explicit in that it used the sign § to show that the /bi:-/ variant is "BrE", but not "RP".

    That was the sense of my (our) question.

  14. Thank you, John.

    With a heavy heart, I take that to mean you are sticking with əˈfekt i-, rather than giving the i(ː)ers the §. It is some consolation that you are at least thinking of evening the odds by giving iˈvent/əˈvent instead of ɪˈvent/əˈvent. The logic of all this is to give əʊˈfenᵗs for 'offence. Gawd help us.

    Re David Attenborough, Lipman said "I was astonished to see that for words such as 'efficiency' or 'entire', the OED online has nothing but [e] for the first vowel, while Macmillan online has nothing but [ɪ], both as British and American."

    I didn't query that at the time, but in response to "words such as efficiency" I should have said "cf OED 'effect'."

    The sanity of people who agree with Wikipedia ɵ for unstressed əʊ (DJ o, with which JW i bears comparison) has recently been questioned on here, so I will merely draw attention to the fact that in the NEW, IMPROVED Upton entries which give nothing but ɛ for the first vowel of 'effiency' and 'efficient', we also find Brit. "/ɨˈfɛkt/, U.S. /əˈfek(t)/, /iˈfɛk(t)/". In solidi!

  15. Sorry, that should have been "Brit. /ᵻˈfɛkt/, U.S. /əˈfek(t)/, /iˈfɛk(t)/", with ᵻ not ɨ and quotes in the right place.

    Will there ever be any input conventions which make all this less stressful? Not that actual Unicode would ever replace OED's rubbishy graphics!

  16. Mallamb - I use the "Transliterator" plug-in for Firefox, ever since somebody here recommended it (thanks!), and it makes IPA input quite easy.

  17. mallamb

    There's a handy-looking tool called PopChar. You can download a partially disabled version to try out from ergonis.

    The only reason I haven't paid for a license is that Mac OS X provides a similar tool called Character Viewer in-built, and thus free of charge.

  18. Those of us who use Linux can install an Input Method Editor, the sort of thing that lets you type Pinyin to enter hanzi, that lets you type X-SAMPA and enter IPA.

  19. I do distinguish "dissent" and "descent", but only in accent:

    dissent is ˈdɪsn̩ʔ
    descent is dɪˈsɛnʔ

    Does anyone else do this? (There are certain words that, for some reason or another, I pronounce differently from everyone else I know.)


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