Monday 16 May 2011


(Image by xerones.)

David Deterding expressed some surprise at the LPD entry for comfortable.
The LPD entry for 'comfortable' seems to suggest that the preferred US pronunciation is: [kʌmftərbl]. Is that correct? Does the /r/ get moved so that it is next to the /b/? Actually, the schwa is raised, which means it is optional; and then I am confused. Does the second syllable potentially have a syllabic /r/?

I answered
The r-metathesized pronunciation for AmE is shown in plain type, not bold. That means that the preferred form is the same as BrE, with no r. Its existence is confirmed by Webster's Collegiate etc.

Yes, my convention in LPD is to represent 'syllabic r' (lettER) as raised schwa plus r, bringing it into line with the conventions for syllabic n and syllabic l. If the schwa is "optionally deleted" then the syllable spacing guarantees that the sonorant becomes syllabic. (Unless of course there's a compression mark, in which case it can revert to being nonsyllabic.)

David came back with
Golly, I had never appreciated the distinction between bold and not bold. And I had to look for quite a while to find an explanation of this (p. xvii). I wonder if it might be included in the "typographical conventions" on p. 922, at the end of the book? I guess it makes sense, but hmmm ...... I've been using the dictionary for years, and I never picked up that distinction between bold and not.

I’m sure he’s not alone. My only defence is that it was the publishers who insisted on reducing explanations to the absolute minimum. Since no one reads them anyhow, they said, don’t use up space on them. And they are not to be found anywhere on the CD-ROM.

So let me set out again what it says on p. xvii of LPD.
Many English words have a number of different possible pronunciations. Some of the users of LPD will be teachers and learners of EFL/ESL […], and will look for advice on how to pronounce a given word. For them one main pronunciation, printed in bold, is given at each entry. This is the form recommended for EFL purposes. […] If the BrE and AmE recommended forms are different from one another, then both are given in bold. Other users of LPD, especially those who are native speakers of English, will be interested not only to see what form is recommended but also what variants are recognized. Where pronunciations other than the main one are in common educated use, they too are included, but as secondary pronunciations, printed in ordinary black type. […]
(In earlier editions, and on the screen display of the CD-ROM of the current edition, the main pron is in colour, secondary pron(s) in black.)

Back to comfortable. The entry reads

ˈkʌmpft əb |əl ˈkʌmpf ət əb |əl || -ərb-, ˈkʌmpf ət̬ əb |əl, ˈ•ərt̬-

As usual, a raised symbol stands for an optionally inserted segment. Ignoring the optional epenthetic p and the choices between ə plus a sonorant and a syllabic sonorant, we can unpack the remaining abbreviatory conventions as follows.

main pron, BrE and AmE ˈkʌmftəbl̩
secondary pron, BrE ˈkʌmfətəbl̩
secondary prons, AmE ˈkʌmftɚbl̩, ˈkʌmfət̬əbl̩, ˈkʌmfɚt̬əbl̩

I wonder whether north American readers, in particular, are happy to see a recommended pronunciation with omission of the vowel corresponding to the -or- of the spelling. And how do you evaluate the transfer of the r into the penultimate syllable? And would you voice the t?


  1. To this American, [ˈkʌmftəbl] sounds like something that would only come from someone with an "r-dropping" accent. I would say that it is not a GenAm pronunciation at all. [ˈkʌmftɚbl̩] certainly predominates over it.

  2. PS. I don't think there is any t-voicing in this word. The immediately preceding voiceless fricative seems to rule that out.

  3. I would have chosen ˈkʌmfɚtəbl as the main entry for American English. No voiced t, r-colouring present in the second syllable.

    Is there somewhere an audio file that illustrates the differences between ɚ and and ɝ and and of course ɚ and ɝ? I remember reading a comment on this blog from a New Yorker how to her (and I think it was a she) ər and ɚ represent different phones, which is obvious, but those others are a tiny bit confusing.

    I know that in the first pages of the LPD you mention a word where you say that in both syllables most Americans have a syllabic r.

  4. In Northern Ireland ˈkʌmftr̩bl̩ strongly predominates. There are a few people that say ˈkʌmfr̩t̬əbl̩ (with the r restored to its orthographic position and the t tapped or voiced), but that could be a spelling pronunciation. I don't think anyone says ˈkʌmftəbl̩.

    I've always thought of ˈkʌmftr̩bl̩ as a hyper-rhotic pronunciation - like ˈlɑrgr̩ for lager or aɪˈdiər for idea. To me that seems more likely than metathesis.

  5. As a NNS who has grown up watching copious amounts of American television, I am quite surprised to see anything but ˈkʌmftɚbl̩ as the main pronunciation for AmE. In other words, I agree with MKR.

    Also, I think it would be really helpful to include the explanations on the CD-ROM for the next edition.

  6. MKR said...
    I don't think there is any t-voicing in this word. The immediately preceding voiceless fricative seems to rule that out.

    I'm sure it does in your predominant [ˈkʌmftɚbl̩], and what I hear on the LPD soundfile for US is ˈkʌmfr̥tɚbl, which also blocks any t-voicing. The rhotacization that persists beyond the t sounds weak to me and gets weaker still in the course of the syllable.

    Pete said...
    In Northern Ireland ˈkʌmftr̩bl̩ strongly predominates. There are a few people that say ˈkʌmfr̩t̬əbl̩ (with the r restored to its orthographic position and the t tapped or voiced)

    I get the impression that that t-voicing too can be blocked, either by an r̥ as above or by glottaling. I also suspect the r-colouring can persist beyond the t as in the US examples above. In the absence of NI soundfiles I can only offer you the sublime ˌʌnˈfɔːɹnʔnjn̩ʔlɪ attested for NI 'unfortunately'.

    So rather than metathesis I think that different degrees and directions of assimilation are more likely for pronunciations like these and ˈlɑrgr̩ for 'lager'. Not for aɪˈdiər, obviously. The only thing I've been able to come up with for that is hypercorrection. Like Bristolian aɪˈdɪəl, or 'Bristol' itself for 'Bristow'.

  7. what I hear on the LPD soundfile for US is ˈkʌmfr̥tɚbl

    Wow. I did not hear that at all. What I heard was ˈkʌmftəbl.

  8. Why would I have imagined it? I was transfixed to hear the unexpected rhotacization of those segments. It's only a very slight secondary articulation as I hope I managed to make clear. I don't hear anything of the sort on the UK file, although I do hear an epenthetic p which I don't hear on the US one.

    See if you can't hear the difference between the straightforward UK ˈkʌmp_ftəbl_ and the US ˈkʌm_fʴtʴəbl_. I think my new attempt to represent just the rhotacization of the consonants might give you a better idea of what I'm talking about.

  9. Native New Yorker here, and I agree with MKR, but will add that [ˈkʌmftəbl] is almost certainly very far along the path of complete obsolescence in the USA. Even historically non-rhotic areas of the US have at least variable rhoticity, and I have never heard [ˈkʌmftəbl] in the US from a native speaker. (Doesn't mean it doesn't exist, just that it's "recessive.")

    Personally, I think it is metathesis. Pronunciations such as "idear" occur only in New England (including NYC metro area), so hyper-rhoticity can't possibly account for the rest of the US.

  10. Imagined it? Did I use that word? I don't think so. I hear the epenthetic p too, but not a voiceless r. The actor speaking sounds American, but I just don't hear that r.

  11. Ha! Amy Stoller. It was you who talked about ər ɝ ɚ here:

    And as for that other thing in LPD I've mentioned, this is what I meant (p. xxi):

    Similarly LPD distinguishes between ɝː and ᵊr, as in further ˈfɝːð ᵊr, though many speakers have a similar syllabic [r] in both syllables. All these qualities represent the same phoneme ə, with or without a following r.

    Weirdly, or not, it's [r] and not [ɹ] or [ɻ].

  12. For [kʌmfɚtəbl] in at least my dialect, the t would be a voiced flap, like 'convertible'

  13. I have full rhoticity and speak native AmE, but [ˈkʌmftəbl] is what I say. I also drop the r's in library, February (more precisely, the latter becomes a yod).

  14. Pete: "In Northern Ireland ˈkʌmftr̩bl̩ strongly predominates."

    Actually I pronounce it like that too. I'm a native Canadian from the prairies with, among other things, Irish heritage although not specifically from Northern Ireland as far as I know. An interesting metathesis now that I think about it.

  15. I don't feel up to checking this out, but somehow I think that in 'February' the r got lost independently of the yod surviving after the falling diphthong for u became a rising one, rather than the r becoming a yod. Of course this r rose phoenix-like from the ashes and drove out the yod when enough people had enough schoolmarms.

  16. ˈkʌmftɚbl̩ looks just fine to me. I do generally have an r right before the b,and the t is not voiced. I'm a native of northern California.

  17. It may be that other forces are at work here, rather than [ɹ]-[t] metathesis. From an articulatory perspective, rhoticity in the second unstressed syllable is fairly easily explained:

    We can start with an idealized pronunciation /kʌm.fɔɹ.tə.bəl/ which, at least in my dialect, would actually be closer to [kʌɱ.fɚ.tə.bəl] in careful speech. In rapid speech, each of the sonorants would lenite to syllabic approximants (leaving us with a nearly CV syllable structure) or redundant features, yielding [kʌ̃.fɚ.tə.bl̞]. (What I have transcribed as [l̞] may actually be realized closer to [ɯ], but that is irrelevant.) Somewhere during this process, the rhoticity on the second syllable spreads through the [t] and into the third syllable (the second unstressed syllable).

  18. This happens because [ɹ] and [t] share the same point of articulation, which means that the tongue simply goes from [ɹ]-position and makes contact to form a [t]; when the [t] is released, the tongue returns briefly to [ɹ]-position. The rhotic spread can't go any further (either left or right), since [f] on the left and [b] on the right cannot be made rhotic. This rhotic spread accounts for the voiced [t]: a rhotic [t] is nothing more than a voiced (and in my dialect, slightly retroflex) [t].

    This gives us intermediate [kʌ̃.fɚ.t̬̬ɚ.bl̞] with rhoticity dominating both unstressed syllables. (The [t̬̬] here may actually be [ɾ], but that is also irrelevant here.) Normal rules of vowel reduction encourage suppression of unstressed syllables where possible (compare 'family', etc.) and this is possible with the first unstressed syllable (yielding only a [ft̬̬] consonant cluster) but not with the second, which would result in the cluster [t̬̬bl̞]. (Alveolar-to-bilabial-to-latero-velar clusters have never been very popular.) Deletion of the first unstressed syllable leaves us with our actual pronunciation: [kʌ̃.ftɚ.bl̞]. Rather than switching places with the [t], our original [ɹ] has simply spread through it to the next syllable and then disappeared.

  19. The process in a nutshell:
    /kʌm.fɔɹ.tə.bəl/ idealized pronunciation
    [kʌɱ.fɚ.tə.bəl] ideal realized pronunciation
    [kʌ̃.fɚ.tə.bl̞] sonorant lenition (OT *coda ?)
    [kʌ̃.fɚ.t̬̬ɚ.bl̞] rhotic spread (bound by labials on both sides)
    [kʌ̃.ftɚ.bl̞] unstressed vowel deletion

  20. Sorry about the multiple posts, but I thought it was an idea worth sharing. Incidentally, I like to use uncomfortable as an example of place assimilation:
    /ʌn.kʌmf.tɚ.bəl/ > [ʌŋ.kʌɱf.tɚ.bəl]

  21. OK so if it's metathesis and not hyperrhoticity, why is it found in this word and not in others?

  22. Pete: Methatesis is always sporadic.

    M.A.L. Lamb: Yes, technically /rju/ became /ju/ rather than /ru/ in the sound-changes that led to my dialect; my use of "replaced" should not be interpreted diachronically.

  23. John Cowan: "Pete: Methatesis is always sporadic."

    Never say never (or in this case, "always"). See Language History: An Introduction (2000), p.33: "Metathesis is normally a sporadic innovation, [...] Occasionally, however, metathesis does take the form of a sound law."

    As for the analysis of "comftrbl", I suspect that the notion of semi-syllables might aid in comprehending the path of this syncope.

  24. Thanks for the laugh, Leo. Did you put The Onion up to it?

  25. Not me, but maybe another reader of this blog?

    (I wish you could edit your own comments. I should have pointed out that it's a sound link - nobody likes it when embedded audio takes you by surprise!)

  26. This one didn't bother me, but you're so right about the ones which do, and the embedded videos which do. Do you know a fix for that? I guess it would have to be site-specific, but when I tried even that it took me nearly a day to sort out the mess.

  27. No, I'm afraid not. You might have to take that question to a technical forum. The only treatment I know is to have your system sound at a low volume, so that anything you haven't pushed to the max plays quietly.

  28. As someone who has lived in the US for her whole life, I definitely agree that [ˈkʌmftɚbl̩] is the preferred pronunciation here. I've always said it that way, and only rarely hear it pronounced, say, [ˈkʌmfɚtəbl].

  29. I'm a native New England speaker and I can't say [kʌmftərbl], I have to say [kʌmftrəbl]...


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