Wednesday 5 October 2011

St Martin

Myra Wandry asked about the pronunciation of “St. Maartens”. She meant the Caribbean island.

This island is divided in two. The southern half is Dutch, the northern half French. (Click on the map to enlarge it.) The border between them is the only land frontier between what is technically the Netherlands and France respectively. The Dutch name of the island is Sint Maarten sɪnt ˈmaːʁtə(n). Its French name is Saint-Martin sɛ̃maʁtɛ̃.

In English it is known as St Martin (BrE) or Saint Martin (AmE), pronounced respectively as sənt ˈmɑːtɪn and seɪnt ˈmɑːrtn̩. The three syllables of this name manage to exemplify four phonological variables.

First, there is the prefix Saint, typically reduced in BrE to the weak form sənt or some further reduction thereof (sn̩t, sn̩ʔ, sn̩, sm̩ʔ, sm̩). Americans generally retain the strong form, seɪnt, perhaps glottalling the final plosive (seɪnʔ).

Next there is the rhoticity variable. Historical r is lost in most accents of England and Wales where nonprevocalic, but retained in most AmE.

The t of Martin is not infrequently realized as glottal in AmE, where it is immediately followed by a nasal consonant. In BrE, where it is usually followed by a vowel (see next point) it is more likely to be alveolar.

Lastly, there is the final syllable of Martin. In most BrE unstressed ɪ does not weaken to schwa before an alveolar obstruent or nasal (thus Harris ˈhærɪs, goblin ˈɡɒblɪn). In AmE, on the other hand, it usually does (so ˈherəs, ˈɡɑːblən). In AmE, accordingly, Martin usually rhymes with Parton, Barton, carton; in BrE, it usually doesn’t.

After t or d, as usual, the schwa coalesces with a following sonorant to give a syllabic sonorant, i.e. ən → n̩. So Latin is pronounced ˈlætn̩ and Martin is pronounced ˈmɑːrtn̩. These in turn yield possible ˈlæʔn̩, ˈmɑːrʔn̩.

Despite having Dutch as the official language, most of the inhabitants of the English Dutch side speak Caribbean English as their L1. Some speak Papiamento. One of the most famous things about the island of St Martin is the way aircraft landing at the airport pass just a few feet over a popular beach.


  1. Three corrections John:

    First, the Dutch pronunciation is sɪnt ˈmartə(n). Standard Dutch /r/ is [r], not [ʁ] (although in the provinces of Noord Brabant and Limburg it is common). Also, since Dutch does not have a phonemic long/short vowel distinction, and Dutch /a/ is shorter than comparable English long vowels, I think it's better to not mark the /a/ as long.

    Secondly, and this is admittedly a nit-pick, since 10 October 2010, Sint Maarten is an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. So I wouldn't say it is technically part of what we colloquially call "the Netherlands", and therefore the Netherlands doesn't border France, even on St Martin.

    Thirdly, in the last paragraph you speak of the "English side" of the island. I think you meant the Dutch side there, but that would still be incorrect: English is the lingua franca on the entire island, both on the French and Dutch sides.

  2. Dank U wel, mnr. Hekhuis, for the observation about the Dutch 'r', I was about to insert it mijzelf. However, won't some people in the NL have the 'gooise r' (sort of retroflex, not unlike the American r) in 'St. Maarten'?

    Also, aren't vowels in Dutch really long in front of an 'r'? (no matter whether huig-, tongpunt- or Gooise)? That is what I seem to remember..

  3. Thanks for the corrections, Kilian. (I took the pron of Maarten from my Kramers' Engels Woordenboek, except that I changed r to ʁ because that's what I am accustomed to in Dutch.)

  4. Kilian Hekhuis, do you perhaps know whether Coninck's Groot Uitspraakwoordenboek van de Nederlandse Taal and Heemskerk & Zonneveld's Uitspraakwoordenboek are more or less easily finadble in Dutch bookshops?

  5. Wojciech, you're right that one of the possible realizations of the Dutch /r/ can sound similar to (or even be the same as) the American [ɹ], but even though a lot of people claim so, neither of them is retroflex. The typical American /r/ is not articulated with the tip of the tongue curled back (i.e. retroflexed), but the entire body of the tongue is drawn back, which is also referred to as bunched or molar /r/. Since the audible turbulence is actually produced by the back of the tongue (the dorsum) at the (pre-)velar region, and the tongue body is laterally contracted in addition, the tip of the tongue can't be curled back at the same time. So retroflex isn't really an appropriate term to describe the typical American or less typical Dutch [ɹ], nor is (post-)alveolar.

    Of course, a uvular fricative or trill is also possible in Dutch, besides the alveolar trill or tap.
    The Dutch /r/ does lengthen a preceding vowel phonetically, but that can be considered an allophone of the same short vowel phoneme.

  6. teardrop - it's certainly not the case that all Americans use a bunched-r. Apical-r is still commonly found.

  7. clinicallinguistics, I didn't say all Americans use a bunched-r.
    I said the bunched-r is the typical, not the only allophone.

  8. What I hear with the ʁ, and confess to having imitated all my life, is not actually a lengthened allophone, but a vowel of pretty much the same quality and length as the canonical realization, with a transitional fronted allophone, the ʁ having a curiously "clear" resonance for such an r-variant. You can hear it in the above forvo recording. Is anyone going to explain this?

    What has just occurred to me is that it may have something to do with the loss of the opposition between /x/ and its former /ɣ/ correlate, so that [ɣ] is now pretty much unheard-of. Perhaps ʁ has been moving into the space vacated by that. I've just deleted a post in which I was trying to talk about the virtual absence of an ich-laut vs ach-laut variance, but I got that the wrong way round. Now I find that still sounds like gibberish the right way round. What I meant was that there's not the sort of variance you get in German where it's only very marginally due to positional criteria, and mostly determined by vowel quality. In Dutch I think it is mostly determined by positional criteria, and doesn't really seem to have such discrete allophones, although some have the relatively "clear" resonance I was referring to for the ʁ.

  9. teardrop - have you any references to data that prove that a bunched-r is typical of American English?

  10. @wojciech: Yes, the Gooische r is a good possibility there, at the end of a syllable after a vowel. I myself don't have a fully trilled r in such positions (although no true Gooische r).

    As for vowels in front of r, they are, I think, not that much longer than the traditional "long" (tense) vowels. Lengthening does take place (all allophonically of course) with /i/ and /y/, the only short tense vowels (though /y/ is rare except before /r/): biet [bit] vs. bier [bi:r], fuut /fyt/ vs. vuur /vy:r/. Also, what diachronically was lengthening is now change of vowel quality in the other tense vowels, as in beet [beɪt] vs. beer [bɪ:r], deuk [døʏk] vs. deur [dʏ:r], boot [boʊt] vs. boor [bɔ:r]. /a/ escapes all this, e.g. vaat /vat/ vs. vaar /var/, as do the lax vowels. Mind you: this is about standard Dutch (with trilled or Gooische r). In Noord Brabant and Limburg, the only parts of the Netherlands where /ʁ/ is ubiquitous, the vowel qualities of many vowels is different from those in other parts of the Netherlands, so the above may not reflect what happens there.

    @Duchesse de Guermantes
    I have no idea. I do not know whether there have been reprints, since the originals are from 1974 and 2000 respectively.

    @mallamb: "Perhaps ʁ has been moving into the space vacated by that" - The thing is though, that Noord Brabant and Limburg, where [ʁ] is the only pronunciation, still do have the /x/ / /ɣ/ distinction. So your theory must be flawed :).

  11. Drat. But it wasn’t a theory! Barely even a hypothesis. But I certainly should have made it clear that I was talking about standard Dutch in making claims such as that [ɣ] is now pretty much unheard-of. I was aware that there are areas where the opposition still does survive, and I suppose you only mention two of them because of the coexistence of that opposition and ʁ, which kyboshes my flash of inspiration about them pretty effectively.

    But for nearly sixty years I've been seeing phonemic analyses recognizing the demise of the /x/ ~ /ɣ/ opposition in standard Dutch, or whatever it was called at the time. I admit I was a bit confused as to whether that was Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands or Algemeen Bekakt Nederlands! My first attempts at Dutch had been based on phonetic transcription and explanations of a standard which still had the opposition, and did enable me to pass as a NS in a noisy conference bar, but I was taken under the wing of a posho who told me I spoke like a peasant, and introduced me to the world of bekakt. He was an accomplished linguist, and determinedly retrained me, so that I am now no doubt neither fish flesh nor fowl.

    This is what I confessed above to having imitated, and the ʁ seemed completely entrenched sixty years ago. John himself defended himself against your complaint that Standard Dutch /r/ is [r], not [ʁ] by saying it was because ʁ was what he's accustomed to in Dutch that he changed the r of his Kramers' Engels Woordenboek to ʁ.

    I also got the impression from the first that this ʁ involved the fronting tendency I mentioned above, which gets the hapless bekakt guyed for allegedly saying "deur" for "door", as are certain U-RP speakers for allegedly saying "dine rind abite tine". Notably the Queen. So can't I appeal to your Queen against your exclusion of ʁ and all its works from standard Dutch? I suppose you'll say that lot are Germans, but so are ours.

  12. @Mallamb: Modern standard Dutch indeed has no /ɣ/, except allophonically. "Bekakt", btw, has negative connotations, at least nowadays. I checked youtube for an old Polygoon Journaal, e.g. this one:, where you can hear the presenter having sort of a [ʀ] / [r] alternation (not [ʁ] I think), but the queen clearly has [r]. In the slightly older the presenter has [r]. Something more modern, here: you can hear our current PM with a Gooische R (that is [ʀ] non-coda final and [ɹ] elsewhere), and our famous blond Limburgian with a strong Limburg accent (including /ɣ/ and /ʁ/).

  13. Thanks, Kilian.
    « "Bekakt", btw, has negative connotations, at least nowadays.»

    I think you may be allowing for the possibility that I may need a fool's pardon for having genuinely been a bit confused as to whether when the label for standard Dutch was ABN, it stood for Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands or Algemeen Bekakt Nederlands. It was just my little joke, and the negative connotations of "bekakt" were obvious from the start from the literal meaning, though I have always been a bit taken aback by the use of this and similarly scatological expressions of reverse snobbery even by people who by any reckoning are beschaafd. But surely, neither then nor nowadays have those obvious negative connotations ever involved the exclusion from standard Dutch of pronunciations perceived as "class-conscious" or "pretentious".

    But why do you post a Queen's Speech by the old queen? Don't you approve of the present one? She seems to have a range from [ʀ]-type realizations to zero ones.

    Is your meaning perhaps that canonically speaking Standard Dutch /r/ is [r], with other allophones that have been discussed here? John said something on here recently to the effect that the Queen's English is by definition standard, or at any rate RP. Surely your Queen's Dutch must fit in there somewhere!

  14. @Mallamb: I posted a speech of the former queen for comparison, as she probably dates from the time you and John became familiar with Dutch. She has a notably different (and even more colloquial) accent than our current queen. And yes, /r/ is canonically taken to be [r], although the Gooische r is gaining in popularity.

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