March 27, 2020

Hindsight is Twenty-twunny

Greetings, readers! Posting to let you know that my family/friends and I are alright. I hope that you are all also okay, and able to quarantine to the best of your ability. These are difficult and stressful times that we've been called on to live in. I'm polishing a Dialect Dissection to be revealed soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a micro-post about a curious little phenomenon I've encountered recently.

How do you pronounce the word "twenty"? For me, it's [ˈtwɛni]. Maybe [ˈtʰwɛntʰi] for some extra oomph. I've heard people with the PIN-PEN merger go with 'twinny' [twɪni], as Taylor Swift demonstrates in her song "22." (But Taylor doesn't otherwise have the PIN-PEN merger.... is this another example of her Southern imitation?)

But I recently found out about a third American pronunciation, which is 'twunny' [twʌni]. I discovered this through the place where all great language misunderstandings happen, which is to say Tumblr.

Some context here: there is a podcast called "My Brother, My Brother, and Me" run by three brothers from West Virginia, who are affectionately referred to as the McElroys. In one episode, they were coming up with humorous variations on the year 2020. They tried rhyming 'twenty' with 'venti' but decided that it didn't rhyme, and ended up deciding that 'twenty' did rhyme with 'funny' and 'honey'. This led to some confusion on Tumblr:

The Reddit thread dedicated to the podcast also had some confused folks:

rookie-mistake: I'm still baffled that anybody claimed venti and twenty don't rhyme

jebedia: They don't! At least, I pronounce twenty, "twun-tee", and venti, "vein-tee".

thenacho1: I pronounce "twenty" as "twoohny". The vowel sound is the same as "book". I don't think anything rhymes with it in my accent.

KillerVelocity: The fact it doesn't rhyme unless you have their exact twunny funny accent makes it all the more bizarre.

If I myself say "twunny," it doesn't sound unusual, and I've probably heard people pronounce it "twunny" before. But I've never noticed that this existed as an alternate pronunciation of "twenty," and now I'm interested to see what processes could be driving this change. I can't think of any other 'tw' words that have the vowel backed like this. 'Twelve' with the 'uh' vowel doesn't sound familiar to me at all.

Some people seem to have "twunny" as an allophone, switching between "twenni" and "twunni". Stack Overflow:

In normal speech, my twenty (especially in twenty-XXX compounds) is very likely to be [ˡtʍɛɾ̃i ~ ˡtʍəɾ̃i]. In rapid or tired speech, frequently even [ˡtʍəɹ̃i], with the /nt/ cluster becoming a nasalised, centralised, postalveolar approximate with no contact at all (I might even write it [ˡtʍə.ɨ̞̯̃i], if it weren’t so diacritically overloaded). – Janus Bahs Jacquet

But it's clear not everyone has it as an allophone. The McElroy brothers, for one, explicitly reject the notion that "twenty" and "venti" rhyme, which suggests that "twehnty" isn't in their mental dictionary. Moreover, the McElroy brothers also have the PIN-PEN merger, as you can tell from a joke they claim the name "Ken" is just "Nick" backwards - a joke that doesn't make sense unless you pronounce Ken as Kin. If anything, they should have a mental representation of it as /twɪnti/, but they don't. "Twunny" doesn't appear to be the result of any rules.

Whence "twunny", then? I haven't found any definitive answers on this extremely pressing issue, but this Scottish ballad may be a clue. This is from an 1886 book on English and Scottish ballads, and appears to be written in some form of Scots:

Nor to the kirk she wud ne gae
Nor til't she wud'n ride,
Till four and twunty men she gat her before
An twunty on ilka side,
An four and twunty milk-white dows
To flee aboon her head.

Indeed, this variation of "twenty" is also found in older Scots texts (alongside many other variations of "twenty"):

TWENTY, adj., n. Also twentie, twintie (Peb. 1805 J. Nicol Poems II. 13), twinty (Sc. 1722 Earls Crm. (Fraser 1876) II. 174; Sh. 1928 Manson's Almanac 186),
†tuinty (Wgt. 1794 G. Fraser Lowland Lore (1880) 69);
†tuantie (Bnff. 1715 W. Cramond Annals Bnff. (S.C.) I. 115),
†twantie (Mry. 1716 A. & H. Tayler 1715 (1936) 286),
twontie (Sc. a.1830 Lord Thomas and Fair Annet in Child Ballads (1956) IV. 470),
twonty (s.Sc. 1962 Southern Annual 29),
' twunty (Sc. 1776 Lord Ingram and Chiel Wyet in Child Ballads No. 66. C. xxii., 1824 S. Ferrier Inheritance II. xxx.; Abd. 1861 J. Davidson Poems 18; Kcb. 1893 Crockett Stickit Minister 77; Slk. 1914 Southern Reporter (17 Dec.) 9; Per., Fif., Lth. 1915–26 Wilson; Lnk. 1951 G. Rae Howe o' Braefoot 74; Rs., em.Sc., Uls. 1973);
twoonty (Abd. 1880 W. Robbie Yonderton (1928) 42; s.Sc. 1928 Border Mag. (July) 107);
toontie (s.Sc. 1873 D.S.C.S. 161),
toonty (Abd. 1880 W. Robbie Yonderton (1928) 63; Rxb. 1923 E. C. Smith Braid Haaick 11, 1966 Hawick Express (26 Jan.) 4). Sc. forms and usages.

The ordinal twentieth is occas. used where Eng. uses the cardinal, e.g. twentieth and second, twenty-second (Sc. 1782 J. Sinclair Ob. Sc. Dial. 227). Among older speakers the rest of the numbers in the decade are expressed as ane and twenty, twa and twenty, etc. [n. and wm.Sc. ′twɪnti; ne.Sc. + ‡′tunti; em., sm. and s.Sc. ′twʌnte, s.Sc. + ′tunti]

"Twunty" dates back to 1776! Notice that alongside "twunty," we also get the "twoonty" that a Redditor earlier spoke of.

There is now a clear mechanism for spreading - this variation of "twenty" developed in Scotland and was probably brought over by Scottish immigrants. West Virginia, conveniently, was settled by the "Scotch-Irish." It seems likely that the distribution of "twunty" (and the much rarer variant "twoonty") in the United States and Canada would match places with heavy Scottish settlement.

What are your thoughts? Do you say "twunty," and if so where are you from? Are you aware of any other explanations for "twunty"? I would have thought the "w" had a backing effect, much like how historical w[a]r became w[ɔ]r, but I can't think of any other words affected by this change.

February 28, 2020

Site Recommendations

I'm always surprised to find out how many people are running linguistics blogs, and how knowledge of these blogs is predicated on either being in a particular space (e.g. Tumblr), a "friend of a friend runs a blog on X" type deal, or just pure chance (googling Praat scripts and happening upon some interesting stuff).

I wish there could be a more connected "lingosphere" as it were. It used to feel like there were few people blogging about linguistics. I've come to realize that there are many, but not a lot of awareness! Likely because these are all passion projects made with the goal of sharing knowledge (much like yours truly :) ).

To that end, I'd like to promote some interesting blogs/sites I've had the pleasure of coming across recently.

Joey Stanley is a PhD candidate in linguistics who writes about phonetics, phonology, and Praat (a software for analyzing sounds). His writing is clear and concise and a joy to read. I enjoy his discussions on Wells' lexical sets and their limitations.

Humans Who Read Grammars is a blog about linguistic typology run by multiple young linguists. The topics are diverse, but if you're interested in the colorful spectrum of language diversity, you're sure to find something there. As an example, a fun discussion on r-metathesis in Germanic languages.

Possessive Suffix, or Ja me räjäytämme sinun possessiivisuffiksisi, is a Tumblr run by a historical linguist specializing in historical linguistics regarding Finno-Ugric. Because it is on Tumblr, it is less article-centric and more based on shorter posts and responding to other linguists. You may enjoy this thread on the difficulty of establishing orthographies for the same language family!

Most of the blogs I mention have an RSS feed, if you would like to keep up with them that way (Joey Stanley's blog unfortunately doesn't). Yes, Tumblr blogs have an RSS feed (though I don't know if there's a way to filter by tag)!

If you have other linguistics blogs that you read, or if you run one yourself, please feel free to post in the comments! You'll notice that I have a definite bias in what sort of blogs I'm interested in - phonology and phonetics, historical linguistics, and some typology. If your recommendation is outside of these fields, no worries. Bring on the syntax and psycholinguistics and pragmatics! We're not picky.

February 21, 2020

The sCreen's sPell

February hasn’t been an easy month for me, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely I’ll make a major post by the end of the month. But to avoid letting the month go by without any sign of life, I’d like to share some observations that probably aren’t worth a whole article but may still be interesting to read.

I’m a fan of the song “Mad About The Boy,” written by Noel Coward. While looking for a version sung by Coward himself, I came across this strange cover by Peter Sellers, which was part of the music “The Magic Christian.”

There’s a lot to unpack here - the unholy mix between some kind of Californian English and Received Pronunciation, the melodramatic performance (par for the course considering the poor reviews for this movie), the ridiculous but era-appropriate panning of the voice hard left and right - plus copious amounts of vocal fry.

But what really caught my ear was Sellers’s pronunciation of “screen” (0:19) and “spell” (0:23)

Normally in English, a consonant cluster of /s/ plus a stop /k/, /p/, or /t/ results in the stop being unaspirated. This is in contrast to the usual situation when those consonants are at the start of a syllable, where they are aspirated. I’ve heard some English speakers impressionistically describe the word “spin” as “s” + “bin” - because /b/ sounds are unaspirated but /p/ sounds are not!

But no English speaker could say that Peter Sellers is saying “s + green” or “s + bell” in this song. He is fully aspirating the stop in “sc[h]reen” and “sp[h]ell.” Impressionistically, I almost feel as if the word has been split into two - how often is an aspirated stop the second member of a consonant cluster in English? Never - the phonotactics of English only allow aspirated stops to be preceded by /s/.

While here I’m describing it as if the “s” were causing the stops to lose aspiration, historically it was the other way around. At some point in the development of Germanic languages, what were originally voiceless unaspirated stops because voiceless aspirated stops. They contrasted with unaspirated voiced (or sometimes even voiceless) stops. You can hear this system in English, German, Swedish, and Icelandic. Dutch is an example of a Germanic language that doesn’t have this distinction - no aspiration.

But this change didn’t affect every instance of voiceless stops. One of the places where this change didn’t occur was a consonant was preceded by /s/, which functioned as a blocking environment. You can hear an example of this in the word ‘stop’/‘stoppen’/‘stoppa’ (all meaning stop) in English, German, Swedish, and Icelandic - the /t/ is unaspirated in these.

I don’t have any examples of a different language that allows /s/ + aspirated voiceless stop consonant clusters, but they’re probably out there somewhere.

For some further reading, here's a Master's Thesis on the origin of aspiration contrast in Germanic languages.