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July 30, 2020

Catch 'em, Ketchum

Reading about the Virginia Saltmarsh Mallow got me wondering how the word 'Mallow' is pronounced. My instinct is to say m[æ]llow, but what about marshm[ɛ]llow? Come to think of it, why is marshmallow pronounced with the DRESS [ɛ] vowel in American English? UK English seems to roundly prefer marshm[æ]llow, as to rhyme with 'hallow.' The predominant American form is, I think, marshmellow. But where did this pronunciation come from?

Virginia Saltmarsh Mallow flower, a pale pink flower that looks like a hibiscus. From Wikipedia, taken by Bob P

Another word with an 'a' spelling but an 'e' pronunciation is 'any.' Unlike 'marshmallow,' I can't actually think of any case of someone pronouncing 'any' like [æ]ni. 'Many' used to be pronounced with an [æ] sound, and a relic of this is the word 'manifold,' which comes from 'many' and has an [æ] sound. Under the influence of 'any,' it came to be pronounced as 'menny.' Why 'any' came to be pronounced with the [ɛ] in the first place is unclear, too.

Here is another one - a common pronunciation for 'catch' in American English is c[ɛ]tch. This one is common enough that it formed the basis of a pun name in a popular show. The Pokemon tagline in the 2000s was "Gotta Catch 'Em All." In that vein, the main character was named Ash Ketchum - as in Ash "Catch 'em."

I'm not sure how [æ] became raised in these cases. Any thoughts?

July 21, 2020

I Dream(p)t of Euphonic Insertion - or Phonetic Intrusion

You may be familiar with the question of which is the "proper" past tense form of the verb 'dream': is it 'dreamed' or 'dreamt'? But one form has long since dropped out of discussion: 'dreampt,' a form old enough to be found in Shakespeare's plays. The form 'dreampt' seems to survive only for people invoking an old-fashioned mystique. But whence dreampt - where did that 'p' in 'dreampt' come from?

Romeo: I dreampt a dreame to night. Mer: And so did I. Rom: Well what was yours? Mer: That dreamers often lye.

The 'p' in 'dreampt' was introduced through a phonetic process called 'intrusion due to coarticulation,' or 'euphonic insertion' in the older philological tradition. Intrusion happens due to a fact about how vocal sounds are made. You see, the tongue and lips have to actually move from one place to another when we are speaking. When we write 'dreamt', or [drɛmt] in IPA, the letters abstract away this fact. The cluster [mt] makes us think that the velum lowers to produce a nasal sound, the lips close perfectly, the velum raises and the lips open, and then the tongue strikes the alveolar ridge.

But this sequence is an ideal version of [mt]. The reality is more often as follows, using the example of 'something'. Bold emphasis and paragraph breaks are included for emphasis and readability. (Reetz, 2009)

[...] Intrusions [are] when phones are inserted. These insertions can [...] result from coarticulation. In English, this happens when a nasal consonant precedes a voiceless fricative, as in the word 'something.' In these cases, a voiceless plosive with the same place as the nasal may intrude between the nasal and the voiceless fricative.

Namely, to produce the nasal, the oral pathway has to be closed completely (similar to an oral stop) and the velum is lowered.

Next, in the production of the following fricative, the velum is raised and the plosive closure is released at the same time to allow turbulent airflow for the fricative.

If the velum is closed first and the oral closure is released slightly later, the articulation is the same as an oral stop: an oral closure with raised velum and a release. As a result, an oral stop has been inserted.

For example, chance [t͡ʃæ̃ns] can become [t͡ʃæ̃nts], length [lɛ̃ŋθ] can become [lɛ̃ŋkθ], or something [sʌ̃mθɪ̃ŋ] can become [sʌ̃mpθɪ̃ŋ].

The quote above focuses on nasals followed by fricatives, but the same can happen to nasals followed by stops in a different articulation.

Indeed, English has a rule that nasals + stops must shared the same place of articulation (in other words, they must be homorganic consonants) within the same morpheme. Think of how strange the sequence [anp] would be in English. I bet when pronouncing it, you want to turn that [n] into an [m] to create the comfortable [amp].

'Dreamt' could be analyzed as two morphemes: 'drem' plus the past tense marker '-t', which explains why this non-homorganic (or heterorganic) sequence exists in English.

Em(p)ty Movement

'Dreampt' is not the only word to have a 'p' sound euphonically inserted. In some words, the intrusive 'p' became part of the standard spelling, and therefore part of the standard pronunciation. One such word is 'empty,' which originated as Old English 'æmettig.' Once that middle vowel was lost, the spelling 'empty' with a 'p' appears to have proliferated.

Some spellings came to include this 'p', and other spellings do not include them. H.L. Mencken noted:

Boughten and dreampt present greater difficulties. [...] The p-sound in dreampt follows a phonetic law that is also seen in warm(p)th, com(p)fort, and some(p)thing, and that has actually inserted a p in Thompson (=Tom’s son).

This sort of intrusion occurs cross-linguistically as well. The word 'tempt' in English comes from Latin (via French) 'temptare,' a variation of 'tentare.' It's not clear how that 'n' became an 'm' in the first place, but we can imagine that once someone attempted to pronounce 'temtare,' that dastardly 'p' moved in to create 'temptare.'

There are other types of intrusion other than a [p] being inserted between an [m] and a fricative or alveolar stop. As mentioned above, 'chance' can become 'chants,' and 'length' can become 'lenkth'. The Middle English compendium does have a single citation for 'lenkthe'. I couldn't find a word with [ns] that was spelled 'nts', but I also did not look very far.

Though the spelling 'printce' for 'prince' doesn't seem to exist in Middle Enlish or in today's modern English, the similarity between these two words has not gone unnoticed. The following joke from the Animaniacs series depends entirely on the similarity between 'prints' and 'Prince', as well as the flexibility of 'finger' as a noun and 'finger' as a verb.

Dot: I found Prince! [holding up Prince, the singer]
Yakko: No no no, finger prints!
Dot: I don't think so.

Works Cited

July 13, 2020

Blog Recommendations

Some recommendations, this time of the phonetic variety.

Jack Windsor Lewis's Phonetiblog is delightful for fans of phonetics. It is very much a true blog, as opposed to a site-masquerading-as-a-blog like yours truly.

Peter Roach's "A blog that discusses problems in Wikipedia's coverage of Phonetics" is precisely what it says on the tin. I am a fan of Wikipedia, but I also like to see what goes on behind the scenes. As an expert in phonetics, Roach provides an interesting perspective on issues with the Wikipedia phonetics pages. This is especially useful since a lot of amateur linguists get a lot of their information from Wikipedia.

July 6, 2020

Blog Update + Black Linguists

As the protests in the United States to end police brutality against the Black community continue, I have been thinking about ways in which linguistics can interact with anti-Black racism. Linguistics is pretty White, and the world of linguistics blogging is also very White. I wanted to introduce my readers to some scholars and writers on linguistics whose work I admire. Most of them are on Twitter as opposed to having their own blogs (blogging being increasingly niche nowadays), but if you're not a Twitter person, don't worry - I have linked to examples of their work that you can read off-Twitter.

Kelly Wright (@raciolinguistic). She does a lot of work on experimental sociolinguistics and racial ideologies. This paper shows how sports journalism tends to associate certain fixed phrases with black athletes versus white athletes.

Nicole Holliday (@mixedlinguist) also does sociolinguistic work. This pop article she wrote on Blackness within the context of Beyonce's Formation was an inspiration for this blog!

Some of you may be familiar with the concept of white-centrism and Native Speaker-ism in ESL, but if you're not, then you should read JPB Gerald's paper on how it affects people teaching English abroad.

April Baker Bell (@aprilbakerbell) has a book out called "Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy" which I'm very excited to read! You can also read one of her older pieces here, where she talks about how the assumption that Black American students must be taught White-coded American English to "avoid discrimination" is misguided.

Rachel Elizabeth Weissley (@rachelawiselure) does work on neurolinguistics and sociolinguistics. She has several of her papers available at her own site, including this very interesting one about listeners of different dialects react to African American grammatical constructions.

Duane G Watson ( does research on an area of linguistics that sorely needs more attention - prosody. He takes a psycholinguistic approach to prosody and intonation. Several of his articles are available on his website if you send a quick email.

Kendra Calhoun (@_kendracalhoun) studies the intersection of language and social media. Her thesis on the use and perception of the meanings of "literally" is a look at how young people can also reinforce prescriptivist ideals.

Michel DeGraff (@MichelDeGraff) is a professor of linguistics at MIT and studies the syntax and morphology of Haitian Creole, as well as pedagogical and political use of Creole in Haiti. If you are interested in the formation of Creole languages, you may want to check out this paper.

Anne Charity Hudley (@ACharityHudley) is a variationist sociolinguist with an emphasis on education. Her book, Understanding English variation in Schools, is designed to guide teachers through working with a multicultural classroom.

If you are on Twitter, I also recommend following @Yohimar, @mnpgrue, and @_ravensnest!