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April 11, 2019

The Tripping-Dripping Merger?

When you're interested in dialectology, it can be easy to get the feeling that phonologically English - or whatever language you study - has stopped changing in any significant way. Reading about the great changes that happened in the past, it can be hard to imagine something similar happening today. Wouldn't people start misunderstanding en masse? But language is a fluid thing, and the remarkable thing is that it changes right beneath our noses. Those who adopt new changes may not even be aware that they're doing it - and those who listen may not even be aware that a change has occurred. All this, of course, until someone points it out, at which point it can become a Big Thing that everyone is concerned about. But But the process happens naturally and incrementally. The drift from the past isn't apparent at the moment the drift happens, but only when you look further and further back and realize, hmm, perhaps people didn't always talk this way.

This whole introduction is here to justify talking about a potential merger that I've been hearing. It's not something I've read about; it's an observation I've made. The nature of this sort of thing means there aren't going to be any references for it existing. But perhaps others have also noticed it. Here's the description:

A merger is when two sounds that were previously distinct in a language's history become pronounced so that no meaningful distinction can be made between them. When American Southerners pronounce "pin" and "pen" as "pin", that's a merger because now if they say "pin," we cannot tell if they are referring to a sewing pin or a writing pen. And moreover, neither can Southerners without context or explanation ("I'm looking for an ink pen"). This merger also happens only under certain conditions - before the nasal sounds "n" and "m". So to a Southerner, a "pit" and a "pet" are very clearly pronounced differently, but a "pin" and a "pen" are pronounced the same. We can say, to use fancy linguistic terminology, that the distinction between short "i" and short "e" is neutralized before a nasal.

So the potential merger I've been hearing is in the environments [tr] and [dr]. In American English (as in most varieties of English), the "t" sound is voiceless and aspirated (little puff of air) at the beginning of a stressed syllable ('tin', 'attack') while the "d" sound is unaspirated and voiceless at the beginning of a word, meaning that the vocal cords don't vibrate. Both these sounds are voiceless, so the big difference between them is the small puff of air after the "t" - a difference in aspiration.

Now for a while, the sequence /tr/ has been acting a little differently compared to other syllables starting with /t/. To make the /r/ sound, the tongue has to curl up. This means in a fast conversation, the tongue anticipates that an /r/ is coming and can start curling while making the /t/. As it curls, it brushes up against the roof of the mouth, producing a "ch" sound. This is why you hear some people pronounced "tree" as "chree."

This process can also affect /dr/, but /d/ is voiceless. So what happens to something like "dream"? It can become "chreem" as well. (Potentially it could be "jreem" too). Now, I'm not entirely sure what happens to the aspiration in the "chree" case, but if the aspiration disappears, then there's nothing to differentiate /tr/ from /dr/ - both become "chr."

Here's an example from "break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored" by Ariana Grande:

Say I'm trippin' if you want to

A lot of fans thought this line was "say I'm drippin' if you want to" when it came out - and I can understand why. I can't hear any aspiration here, and I can hear some slight affrication. Without aspiration and with the added confusion of affrication, it becomes a lot harder to distinguish this as "tripping".

But can the "tripping-dripping" confusion work backwards as well? Why not! Check out "Finesse" by Bruno Mars.

We out here drippin' in finesse

This sounds very similar to Ariana's "tripping" because they are both voiceless, unaspirated, and affricated. I myself had some confusion with this song when it came out and thought he was saying "tripping in finesse," as if there was so much finesse everywhere he was stumbling over it. But the lyrics are "dripping," not "tripping." That this merger happens both ways suggests then that the distinction between /tr/ and /dr/ has been neutralized.

Now this doesn't mean that nobody will ever be able to distinguish between /tr/ and /dr/ again. After all, there are different levels of enunciation and clarity that one can aim for depending on the situation. In modern pop songs, a casual, "normal" pronunciation is expected. But if Ariana Grande and Bruno Mars were giving an important speech in front of diplomats (for some reason), we might find that they would distinguish between /tr/ and /dr/ by aspirating /t/ and by not including affrication. This means that the distinction is only neutralized in informal speech, but it's still there. If they pronounced them the same no matter the formality level, though, and if they weren't really able to tell the difference, then they really and truly would have neutralized the distinction between /tr/ and /dr/.

I tentatively call this 'new' because I have not encountered any literature on the matter beforehand (though I've heard a lot about 'tree' sounding like 'chree'). However, it's possible and likely that this phenomenon is older than I expect. Have any of you heard this "tripping-dripping" merger before? Do you yourself have it? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Not coincidentally, /tr/ passed through the High German consonant shift untouched, so that /dr/ merged into it when /d/ devoiced across the board. Even when trilled, [tr] is enough like an affricate that it is hard to aspirate.

  2. For me, /d/ is reliably voiced before /r/, which I articulate as a voiced alveolopalatal approximant, roughly [ʑ̝], whereas /t/ is voiceless and aspirated, so there is no merger. (I was born in 1958 just west of the NYC isogloss bundle.)

    1. I myself do voice /d/ in English and do not affricate /dr/ and /tr/ consistently, so "tripping" and "dripping" are distinct to me. I also have not really heard examples of this in speech, mostly in song. If this is a merger, it seems like it might be a nascent one. I was born in the 90s and speak a Floridian variety.

  3. I attempted to post this comment on Language Hat (the grey/gray article) but it doesn't appear to have gone through, so here is an additional clarification for readers who came here from the Language Hat discussion:

    I'm the author of the "tripping/dripping merger" article. I would like to point out that this potential merger between /tr/ and /dr/ is something I've only heard in a handful of songs. I have not heard it in speech, though I will keep my ears perked for it in the future. The article was inspired by the amount of times I (and others) confused "tripping" for "dripping" (and vice versa) in song, where there isn't always enough context to make up for mergers (or ambiguity in interpretation is simply encouraged), and where listening to the examples over and over I could not really detect voicing or aspiration. But I doubt that this is a widespread change. It could be something that only happens in the song register. If it is a merger and it is happening outside song, it could be a nascent one.

    For what it's worth, /d/ tends to be weakly voiced in my idiolect, and /dr/ and /tr/ are distinguished by voicing (and they tend to be affricated). In careful speech, they are also distinguished by aspiration (and lack affrication).

    1. It's gone through now; probably it was in moderation until the Hat rescued it from durance vile. Nobody knows exactly which articles WordPress is going to put into moderation.

  4. So what happens to something like "dream"? It can become "chreem" as well. (Potentially it could be "jreem" too). Now, I'm not entirely sure what happens to the aspiration in the "chree" case, but if the aspiration disappears, then there's nothing to differentiate /tr/ from /dr/ - both become "chr."


    I haven't studied linguistics so I don't know the technical terms, but to me they are still slightly distinct because I always hear "jreem", not "chreem". To my ear, /tr/ words almost always sound like "chr" and /dr/ words almost always sound like to "jr"

    1. In general, I also tend to distinguish them by voicing, both in production and when hearing. But if there is a voicing distinction in the two examples above, it must be rather weak, because Bruno's "dripping" sounds very close to Ariana's "tripping." It could be triggered by a song environment, or perhaps Bruno and Ariana have different ways of distinguishing tr/dr between themselves. It would be interesting to look at other realizations of tr/dr that they may have.