Wednesday 17 October 2012

intervocalic semivowels

One or two footnotes to Monday’s discussion.

1. The spelling of Libya suggests that it should be disyllabic ˈlɪbjə. But all agree that in English it is actually trisyllabic/varisyllabic ˈlɪbiə. (It seems to be disyllabic in Arabic: ‏ليبيا‎ Lībyā.)

2. With foreign words containing an intervocalic semivowel there is a choice when we anglicize them. Which syllable do we treat the source semivowel as belonging to?

  • In some cases we resyllabicate, taking the semivowel into the lefthand syllable to make part of a diphthong. Thus Japanese Toyota トヨタ ˈ becomes English tɔɪˈəʊtə. Kawasaki 川崎 ka ˌɰa sa ki usually becomes ˌkaʊ.əˈsɑːk.i. Sayonara さよなら saˌjoː.na.ˈɾa becomes (in BrE at least) ˌsaɪ.əˈnɑː.rə. Provençal jambalaya becomes ˌdʒæm.bəˈlaɪ.ə, while Spanish playa ˈpla. ja becomes ˈplaɪ.ə and papaya paˈpa.ja becomes pəˈpaɪ.ə. French Bayeux ba.jø usually becomes ˌbaɪˈɜː or ˈbaɪ.ɜː in BrE, while crayon kʁɛ.jɔ̃ becomes ˈkreɪ.ɒn.
  • In other cases, though, we keep the semivowel as a semivowel and put it, as we then must, in the righthand syllable. Thus Malawi is məˈlɑː.wi (not *məˈlaʊ.i). Some people do this with Kawasaki, making it ˌkɑː.wəˈsɑːk.i rather than my ˌkaʊ.əˈsɑːk.i. I certainly pronounce Okinawa in English as ˌɒk.ɪˈnɑː.wə, not *-naʊ.ə (the initial vowel’s going to be different in AmE). There’s no choice, of course, in the case of hallelujah ˌhæl.ɪˈluː.jə, because in English we don’t have a falling ʊɪ̯.

3. Alas, my efforts to explain things clearly in the two previous posts don’t seem to have been wholly successful. Houbu Ren now writes

I don't believe I fully understand the phonological difference between million ˈmɪl jən and ˈmɪl i‿ən. Should I sound ˈmɪl jən like ˈmɪl first and then jən? or ˈmɪ first and then ljən? What would this word sound without the ‿? Would it be the same or just has to emphasize the ən, like ˈmɪ l iən ?

As explained in LPD in the text box about Compression (p. 173 in the current third edition, or p. 165 in the Chinese second edition), ˈmɪli‿ən means “two pronunciations are possible: a slower one ˈmɪl i ən, and a faster one ˈmɪl jən. The uncompressed version is more usual in rarer words, in slow or deliberate speech, and the first time a word is used in a given discourse; the compressed version is more usual in frequently used words, in fast or casual speech, and if the word has already been used in the discourse.”

In the second edition, the entry for million read ˈmɪl jən. Responding to a user’s criticism, I changed this in the third edition to ˈmɪl jən ˈmɪl i‿ən. This allows for a trisyllabic version as well as the usual disyllabic one.

Following my syllabification, you should sound it as ˈmɪl first and then jən.

If the compression symbol were not present, thus ˈmɪl i ən, that would imply that only the three-syllable pronunciation was possible. But that would be wrong, because a two-syllable pronunciation of million is certainly not only possible but also usual.


  1. So, phonetically, are these words pronounced with a [j]: papa[j]a, pla[j]a, sa[j]onara? And, generally, is that the phone one should use in English closing diphthongs or should we aim for a true [ɪ]? Perhaps, though, a tiny bit lowered?

    I didn't know your syllables are phonetic, I never thought you could, that is – should pronounce words syllable after syllable as written down in your dictionary, I only thought that was true of CPD. I mean, a lot of the things are pronounceable and theoretically possible, but I only thought the natural way would be the CPD way. If you asked a layperson to divide the words into syllables, he or she would do it the CPD way.

    1. At the phonetic level, is there any distinction between [j] and [i~ɪ]?

  2. I pronounce the two sounds differently. If they are the same, why are there two symbols and why is one among the vowels while the other is among the consonants?

    1. The difference is standardly defined as one of syllabicity, which is usually analyzed at the phonemic rather than the phonetic level.

    2. But there has to be a phonetic difference between [j] and [i] in a word like yeast. Otherwise I can't imagine how it would sound different from east.

    3. Or, better, in a word like yippie, ˈjɪp i. The tongue positions must be different too.

      Instead of the syllabic l, I'd actually ask whether people pronounce million as miʎon and are there those that say [njʉː]s instead of ɲews?

    4. Clearly there are distinct phonemes /j, i, ɪ/ in English, which, like all phonemex, have distinct phonemic realizations, according to environment.

      However, at the strictly phonetic level, the distinction between [j] and [i], say, is not defined.

      Imagine you were making an "impressionistic" transciption of an unknown language. You hear an isolated phone that could be [j] or [i]. In the absence of any phonemic or higher-level understanding of the language, and on the basis purely of the acoustic or physiological characteristics of that sound, what basis would you have for assigning it to one or the other?

    5. "J.M.R." - unless you identify yourself with your true name I shall delete your posts. You, too, "vp". No anonymous or pseudonymous posts are permitted here.

      No native English speakers routinely use [ɲ] or [ʎ] in English.

    6. It's interesting that you say that ɪ may overlap with j and i. Geoff Lindsey has said that ɪ and e are difficult to distinguish (about 80% down this article). I agree with him. Thank God that I don't have to deal with SQUARE [eə] versus NEAR [ɪə] in reality!

      As a minimal pair for [ɪ] and [j], how about "new" and "knew" in a Welsh accent [or at least some Welsh accents]? I believe that they'd be [nɪu:] and [nju:] respectively. I believe that there is a distinction in such accents between "threw" and "through", but sadly I can't remember which one has [ɪ] and which has [j].

      ɛd e:vja:d

    7. vp, Jason Reid, JMR,

      At the phonetic level, is there any distinction between [j] and [i~ɪ]?

      I think there is. Firstly, I believe [ɪ] shouldn't even be considered here, and words like yippee can be pronounced easily enough to demonstrate the underlying phonetic difference between [ɪ] and [j/i]. A lot of us tend to think of [ɪ] and [i] as the same thing probably because in a lot of languages (English, German, Swedish, Punjabi, Hindi-Urdu, to name a few) they kind of behave as the long and short equivalents of each other; however, if reference be made to a language like Icelandic where there is no such 'association' (don't think this is the right word to describe this), this fact becomes very clear. For [i] and [j] however, I agree with vp that "the difference is standardly defined as one of syllabicity" - but this applies only to the cardinal [i]. Yeast sounds different to east not because of the difference between [j] and [i] but due to the nature of the English /iː/. Note that, for a lot of native Anglophones, /iː/is actually a diphthong where the onset is somewhere lower than cardinal [i] and this follows a rise to a position close to cardinal [i] - so it's more of a [ɪi] which can be audibly distinct from [j]. Even if /iː/ is monophthongal it still is not the cardinal [i] and is hence, not pronounced the same as [j]. A language where /i/ is the same as cardinal [i] or very close to it (as in my native Bengali or French), such /ji-/ constructions are impossible, or even if pronounced are typically heard /i/.

      The same applies for all vowel-semi-vowel corresponding pairs, viz. u~w, y~ɥ and ɯ~ɰ.

    8. I don't agree that phonetically [i] is identical to [j], there is a difference between them, a slight one, though. I believe the tongue is in movement while producing [j]: it starts at a position slightly higher than [i] and moving through the position of [i] it ends up slightly lower than [i]. This is an audible difference, a sequence of [ji] or [ij] doesn't sound like a long [i:].
      If you produce a long [j:] sound and compare it to [i:], you quite obviously may not hear any difference if you focus only on the hold phase of [j:], because you miss the initial and final movements that make it actually differ form [i].

    9. Peter Kingston,

      There is a difference between [i] and [j], but that difference is in the way we use the 2 sounds, as a consonant or as a vowel, not in the articulatory mechanisms.

      "This is an audible difference, a sequence of [ji] or [ij] doesn't sound like a long [i:]"

      Because, [i] isn't cardinal [i] for you and for most of us.

    10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Maybe I'm weird, but I think I do say məˈlaʊ.i. However, it seems to me that there is some leeway with the syllabification of words like these. A lot of times the two possibilities don't really sound that different from each other to my ear.

    It's funny you did a post on this, because I was just thinking about how I pronounce the name Louise. I say ləˈwiz. I don't recall anyone ever telling me my pronunciation was unusual though.

    I have a question: could the l in million be vocalized for those English people who do that? I think the answer is no, but I'm not completely sure.

    1. It's j-vocalized for me in allegro speech: five million [faɪˈmɪjən]. But I think you are talking about w-vocalization.

    2. Yes. I think what you're talking about is more of an American thing. I was wondering if something like [ˈmɪojən] would be possible in England.

  4. No-one from Northern Ireland would pronounce Kawasaki as ˌkɤʏ.əˈsak.ɪ (equivalent to ˌkaʊ.əˈsɑːk.i~ˌkaʊ.əˈsæk.i) because our MOUTH vowel ɤʏ doesn't approximate aw. So we have the choice for papaya, Toyota and sayonara, but not for Kawasaki or Okinawa.

    piː mæk ənɛnə

  5. I actually think Kawasaki is ˌkæwəˈsɑːki rather than ˌkaʊ.əˈsɑːki for most people.

    1. That would not be well-formed in RP-like accents: you can't have a stressed syllable-final æ, while w can only be syllable-initial. (OK, lots of people have a MOUTH vowel of the [æʊ]type, but that's a different matter.)

  6. Japanese slight misprint: Sayōnara さようなら

  7. Spelling mistake: さよなら should be さようなら.

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