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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.