Saturday, February 6, 2010

Vowels and consonants

I'm constantly struck by how many people seemingly refuse to believe in syllabic consonants. For instance, in my dialect (Standard American, or very close to it) there is absolutely no hint of a vowel in words like "word" or "bird". Yet many phonologists transcribe these words either as having a sequence of schwa plus /r/, or as the "r-colored schwa". I see no reason to posit any difference between the /r/ in the nucleus of "bird" and the /r/ in the onset of "rib". There surely must be a slight phonetic difference, but this is to be expected, because one is in onset position, while the other is in nucleus position. This is analogous to the slight difference between /u/ and /w/, or /i/ and /j/. One clue that it really is an /r/, and not a schwa plus /r/ sequence, or even an r-colored schwa: we get orthographic minimal pairs like "fur" and "fir" that are pronounced identically. This would be fine if they were clitics or unstressed syllables, where vowel reduction could neutralize both to schwa, but stressed "fur" and "fir" even in immaculate careful speech, are to my knowledge phonetically identical (I welcome any evidence to the contrary).

One reason people cling to the belief that syllables must have vowels is doubtless English orthography. Except for "rhythm", I can't off the top of my head think of any words that orthographically have a supposedly syllabic consonant (unless you want to count words like "icicle" that end with an orthographic vowel; feel free to post other examples in the comments if you find them). So in words like "butter", "bottle", and "button", where the second syllables contain a syllabic consonant, we still see a vowel in the written form (and presumably there was a vowel in the historical pronunciation).

Another reason is that we are taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that vowels are in some way the defining characteristic of a syllable. Many people are taught this in school, and become so dependent on orthography that some (native) speakers will even claim that the "th" sound in English (an interdental fricative) is a sequence of /t/ and /h/ (I swear I'm not making this up). However, orthography is always an imperfect clue to pronunciation, and English orthography is far from perfect, since its focus is on preserving the historical source of a word rather than transparently showing the pronunciation (NB: unlike many, I don't necessarily think that makes English orthography "worse" than a phonetically transparent orthography).

In English we have a limited number of syllabic consonants, viz., /n/, /m/, /l/, and /r/, i.e., sonorants. However, many other languages even use obstruents as syllabic. Berber and Bella Coola both utilize almost any consonant as a syllable nucleus; Bella Coola has entire vowelless sentences. What it comes down to is that there is no binary distinction between consonants and vowels; there is only the gradient sonority hierarchy, where sounds higher on the scale are more likely to be syllable nuclei, and sounds lower down are more likely to be syllable margins. For instance, within the five most common vowel quality distinctions, /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, and /u/, /i/ and /u/ are classified as least sonorous, and are widely used (as /j/ and /w/) in syllabe margins, whereas /e/ and /o/ are more sonorous and rarely used as glides (as far as I know only in a few Papuan languages, and /o/ probably in Blackfoot), and /a/ is never a glide (unless perhaps /h/ is the consonantal version, an intriguing but questionable claim). For some languages, only the most sonorous sounds (vowels) are used as syllable nuclei, but other languages allow also the most sonorous consonants (sonorants) and others consonants lower yet (fricatives or even stops).

13 comments:

vp said...

One clue that it really is an /r/, and not a schwa plus /r/ sequence, or even an r-colored schwa: we get orthographic minimal pairs like "fur" and "fir" that are pronounced identically. This would be fine if they were clitics or unstressed syllables, where vowel reduction could neutralize both to schwa, but stressed "fur" and "fir" even in immaculate careful speech, are to my knowledge phonetically identical

I don't follow this argument. Why can't both "fur" and "fur" be phonemically /fər/?

Is there an implicit premise that schwa cannot be stressed?

linguistlessons said...

Yes. I should have mentioned that schwa can only occur in unstressed syllables in English. Some have claimed stressed schwa in other languages (viz., Salishan), but I remain dubious of any claim of stressed schwa in any language.

vp said...

schwa can only occur in unstressed syllables in English

In non-rhotic English accents like RP, there can be no doubt that the stressed vowel in a word such as "fur" in phonetically a lengthened schwa. For example, here is Wells in "Accents of English" vol. i, p. 137: "Phonetically, it [the vowel of "nurse"] is a relatively long unrounded mid central vocoid, [ə:]; in GenAm, though not in RP, it is r-coloured. Both the r-coloured and non-r-coloured vowel type are extremely uncommon as stressed syllabics in languages of the world other than English".

This Google Books link might work if we are lucky.

Ryan Denzer-King said...

It's not a schwa, but rather as John Wells puts it "an ɜː (= strong mid central vowel)". Mid central, yes, but schwa, no. I'll see if I can find out a bit more about stressed schwas, because several languages are claimed to have them.

vp said...

@Ryan:

It's not a schwa, but rather as John Wells puts it "an ɜː (= strong mid central vowel)".

Well, there are two different definitions of schwa given at Wikipedia:

* "An unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in some languages, often but not necessarily a mid-central vowel. "

* "The mid-central vowel sound (rounded or unrounded) in the middle of the vowel chart, stressed or unstressed."

If you are using the first definition of schwa then, by definition, it can never be stressed, and it would be a waste of time to investigate the possibility of stressed schwa in any language.

I assumed that we were using the second definition of schwa, since that is the only one that seems to make sense in the context of the original post. In that case, schwa is the stressed vowel in RP NURSE. Wells confirms this by using the IPA symbol for lengthened schwa [ə:] when describing this vowel phonetically. He follows a tradition of using the symbol /ɜː/ rather than /ə:/ for the _phoneme_ of the NURSE vowel in order to avert the visual confusion that would result if there were two phonemes /ə/ and /ə:/ in the system. (This practice is not universal: I believe that Daniel Jones used /ə:/)

JJH said...

For an example of stressed schwa in English (RP, not sure if you would hear this in AE), how about the contemptuous "The fool!" said with two equal stresses, the first with a high pitch and the second with a low pitch? I have heard this categorised as "stress without accent".

linguistlessons said...

As an AE speaker, it's a bit hard for me not to get high pitch on "fool" rather than "the". However, even when I do manage it, stress is definitely on "fool", i.e., "the" has accent but not stress. I'd be interested in hearing a recording of an RP version.

Rob said...

Welsh has stressed schwa, as do some northern british english accents

Just us - Just me said...

If you're interested in syllabic consonants, try looking at Slavic languages, particularly South Slavic languages. Those languages have loads of them. Macedonian's orthography even respects that.
See the examples:
прв [pr̩v] (first)
'рчи [r̩tʃi] (snore

vp said...

But the syllabic trills of the Slavic languages really are consonants phonetically.

The approximants used by most English speakers at the beginning of words like "Red" [ɹ~ɻ], "Wed" [w] and "Yes" [j] are from a purely phonetic point of view vowels, in that they do not result in any build up of pressure in the vocal tract, or cause any turbulence. They are considered consonants at the phonological level because of their non-syllabicity.

However, when similar sounds are used syllabically, as in the syllabic cores of "goose" [u] or "fleece" [i] or (N.American) "nurse"[ɚ], there is no reason, either phonological or phonetic, to consider them consonants.

linguistlessons said...

However, I think there is a phonetic difference in oral constriction between /j/ and /i/. Impressionistically, I feel like the constriction is significantly more with the consonant versus the vowel.

Just us - Just me said...

Well in the original post it says that many people refuse to believe in the existence of syllabic consonants. Was he just referring to the English language or in general?
I consider the Slavic syllabic consonants to be a more concrete proof of their existence than any case you can find in English. Afterall, they even regulated their spelling accordingly.

Just us - Just me said...

>>but I remain dubious of any claim of stressed schwa in any language.

There's stressed schwa in Romanian, my native language.