Saturday, June 27, 2009


Betsy Lowe emailed me an interesting observation last week, noting that in the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", the lyrics go "He drew his bow across the strings and it made a evil hiss" (not an evil hiss). She commented that she commonly hears this a-before-a-vowel pattern in native Southerners, and thought "that was incredibly unusual because Italian and the other Romance languages I've dabbled in, and now Hungarian, go to great lengths to PREVENT two vowel sounds from running into each other. E.g.: not 'e una altra cosa,' but 'ed un'altra cosa,' in Italian. In Hungarian, 'a' is 'the' or 'that', and if the following word begins with a vowel, then it becomes 'adz.'" This brings up an interesting point about syllable markedness, which is that syllables without onsets are marked, and thus many languages have epenthetic consonants or allomorphs to avoid a sequence of two vowels across a morpheme or word boundary. Besides English, Italian, and Hungarian, there are the Algic languages, which all have personal prefix allomorphs that are CV or CVC, depending on whether the stem begins with a consonant or a vowel. For instance, in Blackfoot the stem for 'dream' is paapáó'kaan, while 'my dream' is nipápao'kaani. The stem for 'boat' is aahkioohsa'tsis, but 'my boat' is nitááhkioohsa'tsisi. The 1st person prefix has allomorphs ni- and nit- to avoid onsetless syllables. Feel free to post examples from languages you're familiar with in the comments.

As a native of Atlanta, GA, I can't say I've noticed the prevalence of "a V-" pronunciations in Southern English, but as a native of Atlanta, GA, I didn't have much contact with natives of the deep South. Please comment if you have supporting or complicating evidence for Betsy's intuition. I'll close with a link to the song on YouTube, where you can hear that it really is əivl̩hɪs, rather than ejivl̩hɪs or əʔivl̩hɪs. The part in question is around 1:20.


Ryan said...

Russian avoids vowel clusters to some extent, and having one or not creates a meaning contrast. For instance, the pronoun "he" in genitive case is у него. "He has a car" would be У него есть машина. Now, the possessive pronoun "his" is его, and this cannot take the н, so "His sister has a car" would be У его сестры есть машина. You also don't find н attached to the front of names, so that the genitive case of Антон is у Антона.

Custos said...

Hungarian 'the' before vowel is 'az', not 'adz'. Misspelt, I hope. :)

Faldone said...

I don't know about the other languages but the n in English an was there from the beginning. It got lost before consonants through the magic of assimilation. I don't think English has any particular dislike of vowel combinations. Some dialects, notably non-rhotic ones, will add an r between words when the first word ends in a vowel and the second one begins with one, but the n in an is not there to avoid a vowel cluster.

Anonymous said...




Chris said...

Isn't the indefinite article in N. American English reduced to schwa in a wide variety of environments? Is it the following consonant that's triggering this, or something else? Just wondering.

linguistlessons said...

Indeed. I don't think anything's triggering it, though. I think it's just the general tendency toward clitic reduction.

Viaggi studio said...

That's true, but these days people from all over the words are showing their interest in English and they are very curious to learn that.

Chinese are growing their skills in English and no doubt they will be speaking very good.

vp said...

It is interesting that "the" before a vowel is often reduced to a schwa followed by a glottal stop in American English. In my native British English, this never happens. "the" has the vowel of "happY" and there is a hiatus into the vowel of the next word.

For example "the apple" is often


in the US but always


in Britain.

I now live in the US, but I still tend to use a British-style hiatus in these phrases. I've noticed that this often leads to difficulties in communication.