Monday 20 August 2012

a Jamaican allophone

When I was working on West Indian English, there were not many observations that I made that were really original. But one that was concerned the semivowel w. I noticed that in Jamaican (and often no doubt in other Caribbean varieties) it has a labial-palatal allophone [ɥ] before front vowels, thus wheel ɥiːl, west ɥes, swim sɥɪm, etc. As far as I know, no one had noticed this before.

As with various other features of Caribbean English, this characteristic can be explained as due to a West African substratum.

In Akan (Asante Twi) of Ghana, to quote Wikipedia,

Before front vowels, all consonants are palatalized (or labio-palatalized) […and the plosives are to some extent affricated]

The name of the language, Twi is accordingly pronounced tɕɥi.

Although the labialpalatal semivowel allophone made it across the Atlantic, the affrication did not: Jamaican twist is tɥɪs, not *tɕɥɪs.


  1. Is it unusual for a language to have [ɥ] but not its syllabic equivalent [y ~ ʏ]?

    1. Korean is another example. The sequence 위 wi /wi/ is phonetically [ɥi] and in the spoken language [ɥ] may also precede /ʌ/ (e.g. the single-syllable contraction of 쉬어 swi-eo [ʃy.ʌ] → [ʃɥʌ]). However, most Koreans except some older speakers in certain regions don't have [y] even though this is the preferred pronunciation of 위 in the prescribed standard and the pronunciation as /wi/ ([ɥi]) is merely allowed.

    2. So... In the end I didn't understand: is it [wi], [ɥi] or with a non-syllabic [y]? The latter, I presume?

    3. Sorry I wasn't clear. According to the usual analysis, 위 wi is phonemically /wi/ (unless it is /y/, which is increasingly disappearing). But as in Jamaican, the underlying /w/ has the allophone [ɥ] in this environment, so the actual phonetic realization is [ɥi].

  2. Possibly. But Twi is a clear case of such a language.

  3. I've always felt the cure vowel of South African English is pronounced /ɥəː/ instead of the usually reported /jʊə/.

    1. There was a post here on SAE CURE a few years ago. However, no one else observed ɥ before ɞː (to use John's transcription of SAE NURSE).

    2. I didn't mean this /ɥəː/ sound is universal in SAE, but it's definitely common.

  4. Do , appear in English too occasionally? For example [tɕ]uesday, [dʑ]uice, si[tɕ]uation?

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