Thursday 13 December 2012

shoe dye maxi my zonsets?

Houbo Ren writes to ask about “/n/ and /l/ in linking speech”.

He refers to the advice given on this website (and elsewhere),

When a word ends in a consonant sound, move the consonant sound to the beginning of the next word if it starts with a vowel sound.

Houbo comments, “I can hear that most of the linking consonants can go with this rule but I am not sure about the /n/ and /l/. For turn out, I don’t hear ‘tur nout’: what I hear is ‘turn nout’, which has two /n/s in it. The same thing applies to /l/, as in ‘handle it’, I hear ‘handl lit’ rather than ‘hand lit’. Some teachers in schools here even teach that when handle becomes handling, it should sound like ‘handl ling’, i.e. retain the /l/ in handle and add a new /l/ to be followed by ing.”

With some exaggeration, no doubt, he adds, “I still dwell on (dwel lon? dwe lon?) this question every single second and I really do need a professional opinion.”

I think we need to make a distinction between what native speakers perceive and what non-native learners, in this case Chinese people, perceive. We must also distinguish the linguistic facts, as demonstrated by such matters as minimal pairs and the rules governing the choice of allophones, from pedagogical advice suitable for beginners or intermediate-level learners.

Let us take the linguistic facts first. Phoneticians pointed out long ago that a word-final n sounds different from a word-initial n in an identical phonetic environment. The phrase an aim ən ˈeɪm sounds subtly different from a name ə ˈneɪm. Impressionistically, we can say that the n of an is weaker and more quickly articulated than the n of name. Turn out is tɜːn aʊt, not tɜː naʊt and not tɜːn naʊt (for the last, compare turn nasty).

Similarly, the word-final l of all eight ɔːl ˈeɪt is different from the word-initial l of (soon) or late ɔː ˈleɪt.

This type of difference is more obvious in the case of plosives such as /t/. There is a clear difference in pronunciation between Is the ship at anchor? … ət ˈæŋkə and Is the ship a tanker? …ə ˈtæŋkə. The word-final t of at is not strongly aspirated (and may also change to a glottal stop in some kinds of BrE, while in AmE it regularly becomes a voiced tap); the word-initial t of tanker is voiceless, alveolar, and strongly aspirated.

So from the NS’s point of view the advice given above is wrong. We cannot state as a general rule that a word-final consonant is moved to the beginning of the next word if that word begins with a vowel sound.

In phonology terms, the principle of maximizing syllabic onsets at the expense of codas does not apply across the board in English, at least when we consider minimal pairs and articulatory detail.

For hundreds of further examples, see here.

(Footnote: this is not to deny that it may sometimes be difficult to hear differences of the kind we find here. Indeed, there are several well-known cases where what was originally a word-initial n has come to be reinterpreted by speakers as a word-final n or vice versa. The kind of snake now called an adder was originally (etymologically) a nadder, Old English nǣdre. What we now call a newt was once an ewt or an eft.)

Nevertheless… In standard Chinese, words and syllables do not end with consonant sounds other than n and ŋ. Chinese people learning English are accordingly tempted simply to omit final consonants. As a reminder that these consonants must not be omitted, the advice to transfer them to the next syllable where possible may obviously be useful.

The word handle that Houbo asks about is a special case, because in this word the final l is syllabic. More on syllabic consonants tomorrow.


  1. As someone pointed out recently, Italian speakers have a similar problem with English in that they expect words to end in a vowel sound.

    Back in 1969, I worked for an outfit with a similar solution to the boxes. (I've described this before, but not recently.)

    early on in the Schenker Method course, we would train student to read from transcription:

    aɪ spi: kɪŋ glɪ ʃæn dɪ tæ ljən

    In the earliest lessons each pseudo-syllable was in a separate box, but this was soon dropped — if only because it made it cheaper to print the materials.

    We would dictate 'staccato' unit-by-unit for students to repeat. Then we would dictate 'legato' for students to repeat without the usual Italian aɪ spi:kə ɪŋglɪʃə. In the teaching-training course, we had to read the pseudo-syklable backwards, to prove that we were actually reading the notation, not translating mentally into orthography. Schenker materials would definitely represent turn off as tə: nɔf.

    As you say, a useful fiction.

    I wonder whether Chinese students would benefit from the two-part presentation. Without the transcription this would involve repeating:

    TEACHER: tur
    STUDENT: tur
    TEACHER: noff
    STUDENT: noff
    TEACHER: turn off
    STUDENT: turn off

  2. I'm not sure that what Houbo writes about "handle it" is correct, though. To my (deceiving?) ear, "handle it" does not rhyme with "candle-lit".

    1. 'Kevin':
      1. as I said, I'll deal with this tomorrow.
      2. You MUST give your full name when posting comments. Otherwise, I will probably delete them.

  3. I do not know if Chinese allows gemination (Houbo Ren appears to be Chinese, by all the discussion above), but as a native speaker of a language that does allow long consonants (or same consonants forming a cluster, I like this form better), though only intervocally, I do feel turn out is not turn nout and handle it is not handle lit.

  4. At first, when I saw the box, I thought they were going to be talking about the pronunciation difference between "turn off the highway" and "turn off the light". (I generally syllabify phrasal verbs as if they were single words.) But I guess they picked that example by pure chance.

  5. You can revisit
    (Guess who the anonymous commentator was.)

  6. But in my ingenuous experience English is well-adapted to 'spee king and hee ring it' this way. I can't explain this impression, I just have it.

    Otherwise, how would you explain 'adder' and 'zounds' (God's wounds, they say), or 'the idea riz'? Such things are unthinkable in German, where no such gimmics (like tur ning right or such) is ever possible

  7. Maybe someone should have told the filmmakers of "Porky's" that the "Mike Hunt" gag doesn't really work. But enough of that...

    The word-final t of at [...] may also change to a glottal stop in some kinds of BrE

    What kinds of BrE might have t-glottaling in at anchor? Is this just speakers who also have intervocalic t-glottaling word-medially, and if so, is this just Cockney? I ask because in my own speech (RP), a word-initial vowel inhibits any word-final t-glottaling in the preceding word.

    Also (semi-off-topic, but out of curiosity), is OE nǣdre cognate with modern Welsh neidr?

    1. 1. I don't do glottalling of word-final prevocalic /t/, either. Perhaps the relevant factor is that, like me, you are no longer in the first flush of youth.
      2. Presumably yes. Note that the plural is nadr-(o)edd.

    2. The idea that T-glottaling originated in Cockney is a widespread myth. It was reported in Scotland and East Anglia before it was reported in London.

      As John says above, young people are much more likely to glottalise their Ts than older people. I don't think that there's much of a regional dimension to it any more. Age is the significant variable.

      The Wikipedia article for this is not bad. This blog is referenced to say that Prince Harry uses [?] for /t/.

      Ed Aveyard

  8. Yes it is, as Etymonline (a very reliable resource for English etymology) tells us: "Old English næddre 'a snake, serpent, viper,' from West Germanic *nædro 'a snake' (cf. Old Norse naðra, Middle Dutch nadre, Old High German natra, German Natter, Gothic nadrs), from PIE root *netr- (cf. Latin natrix 'water snake,' probably by folk-association with nare 'to swim;' Old Irish nathir, Welsh neidr 'adder')."

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