Thursday 31 May 2012

the lightness of being

I started Monday’s blog with this transcribed phrase:

wʌn ə ðə prɪvəlɪdʒɪz əv biːɪŋ rɪtaəd…

As I was writing it, I hesitated over the word being, before playing safe with the uncontroversial (ˈ) biːɪŋ. The reason is that I tend to relax the first vowel in this word, producing something more like (ˈ)(ː)ɪŋ. I can do the same with the phonetically comparable seeing, freeing, agreeing etc., and across word boundaries in phrases such as three in a row, three exams. In fact I can optionally do this whenever is followed by another vowel. This process (or ‘rule’) is optional and variable, presumably influenced by stylistic factors that I cannot quite pin down.

It’s a special case of the general process I call ‘smoothing’, of which more familiar examples are pronunciations such as faə, paə for ˈfaɪə, ˈpaʊə fire, power. I describe it pretty gnomically in LPD in the note on Compression.

Logically, I think we need to distinguish smoothing (= laxing of a tense high vowel, or loss of the second element of a diphthong) from compression (= reduction of two syllables to one). In any given instance you might theoretically have one or the other or both or neither; but I have always been sceptical about the possibility of compression without smoothing (e.g. monosyllabic faɪə, with a putative phonetic triphthong), although other writers seem to accept triphthongs as a possibility in English with little hesitation.

Thus being ˈbiː.ɪŋ can alternatively be ˈbɪ.ɪŋ (smoothed) or bɪːŋ (smoothed and compressed), but hardly monosyllabic *biːɪŋ, just as fire ˈfaɪ.ə can become ˈfa.ə or faə (or the further derived faː), but in my view can hardly be monosyllabic *faɪə.

There’s an issue how best to transcribe the smoothed form of the underlying long vowel or diphthong: do we write it with length marks (as I did in AofE) or without (as I do in LPD and here)? How do I transcribe smoothed throwing? ˈθrəɪŋ, ˈθrəːɪŋ or ˈθrɜːɪŋ? What do we do if slower ends up sounding identical to slur slɜː, as it may? Where’s my lawn ‘myrrh’?

We normally transcribe RP theory as ˈθɪəri, since it’s an exact rhyme of dreary ˈdrɪəri and weary ˈwɪəri. But I suppose that underlyingly it is (or was) ˈθiːəri, and that in this case the smoothing plus compression has been lexicalized.

This whole discussion applies, I think, only to RP and certain local accents of England, and in particular to varieties such as Norfolk. Probably wisely, when teaching EFL we don’t mention anything beyond at most the fire, power types.


  1. "Probably wisely, when teaching EFL we don’t mention anything beyond at most the fire, power types"

    And perhaps, for most EFL purposes, we needn't even mention those. Is not smoothing such sequences likely to make learners sound 'un-English'? I don't think so. Could overdoing smoothing lead to learners' speech being perceived as 'affected' or 'refined'? Perhaps.

    The EFL world is all too keen to assume that our pronunciation model is old-fashioned or elitist. We should do what we can to discourage such an impression.

    1. True. What worries me is more listening comprehension: the issue of understanding native speakers who inconveniently do things like this.

  2. Do you think that your hesitance about considering monosyllabic *[faɪə] is phonetically motivated? I would expect a syllables to have but a single peak of vocal openness. In a monosyllabic word such as Spanish buey, the single peak of openness is on the [e], the other sounds [u] and [i] being less open than [e]. In [faɪə], on the other hand, there are presumably two peaks of openness, since both [a] and [ə] are more open than [ɪ]. On that principle, I would assume that [faɪ.ə] must be dissyllabic. I am not sure whether that is justified, though.

    1. I wa sactually reading that whole thing and since it got already to the bottom of the page, perhaps I should ask here about some transcription choices, not only specific for that post, but for the prevalent school of thought. To which I subscribe, but this is just out of curiosity.

      Since it would be more correct to write ɛə instead of , what happens with ? If that diphthong starts with a mid vowel, which symbol would be more correct, e or ɛ? What happens with ɔɪ and ? Is ɔɪ actually ɔɨ? This vowel chart is making me think so

      After we settle that, what actually happened to all the English vowels since the days of Upper Received Pronunciation? Was ɛ always a close vowel, e? Also, was æ always ɛ and jʊə iuə?

    2. One of the reasons I write the DRESS vowel as e rather than as ɛ is that in many forms of English it is no more open than the starting point of FACE. Smoothed eɪə (as in a day ago) can be identical with SQUARE (as in dare).

      I do not understand your last para. What is/was "Upper RP" (not a term I have ever used), and when were its days? I am talking about contemporary speech, at least if you consider people of my age to be still alive.

    3. Smoothed eɪə (as in a day ago) can be identical with SQUARE (as in dare)

      For me they are indeed very similar: [eə] and [eɚ] respectively, both diphthongs. However, my /ɛ/ is maximally open: indeed, it is differentiated from my /æ/ not in position, but only because the former has advanced tongue root and the latter has retracted tongue root. If I open my mouth as wide as possible and keep my tongue out, as in a yawn, what comes out is a creaky-voiced /ɛːːːːː/.

      at least if you consider people of my age to be still alive

      My first good out-loud laugh of the day!

  3. I wasn't aware of this level of smoothing in RP; very interesting.

    I also hesitate a bit with transcription of my own realization of words such as "being," since as a Californian with raising and tensing of lax GenAm front vowels before /ŋ/ (e.g. my "king" [kʰiŋ] and "keen" [kʰin] rhyme perfectly while "kin" [kʰɪn], with California-Vowel-Shift-lowered /ɪ/, and "king" [kʰiŋ] do not) this creates environments such as:

    "be" /bi/ -> [bi] + "-ing" /ɪŋ/ -> [iŋ]

    leading to a long vowel on the surface realization of my "being" as [biːŋ] (contrast to my "Bing" [biŋ] and "bein'" [ˈbi.ɪn]).

    Interesting that an entirely different set of processes can lead to RP [bɪːŋ].

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