Thursday, December 18, 2008

scope problems

Recently Disaronno has been running commercials for different cocktails you can make with their liqueur. The two I've seen recently are "Disaronno on the rocks with milk" and "Disaronno on the rocks with ginger ale". These strike me as very odd. It's not that you can't have a mixed drink "on the rocks". While I most readily associate the phrase "on the rocks" with straight liquor (viz., scotch), it's quite common to order a margarita on the rocks, or a manhattan on the rocks. The problem for me lies with scope.

"Scope" refers to how much of a given sentence or phrase a word modifies. For instance, the phrase "dirty blond hair" could mean either someone with blond hair which is rather darker than "blond" hair ([[dirty blond]hair]), or someone with blond hair who hasn't showered in a while ([dirty [blond hair]]). In the Disaronno commericals, I think my problem is that to me a drink is on the rocks or it isn't. You can have a scotch on the rocks with a twist, but not a scotch on the rocks with soda. The latter would be a scotch and soda on the rocks. Likewise, "Disaronno on the rocks with milk" annoys me, because I feel like "on the rocks" should have scope over the entire drink, not just the liqueur. "Disaronno with milk on the rocks" is fine, but the way they phrase it clashes with my usage.

P.S. I'll be out of town for winter break for the next two weeks, so the next new post will be 1/5.

Monday, December 15, 2008

the weakness of h

I'm in the midst of writing a paper on stop aspiration in Navajo, which is never regular glottal aspiration like we have in English, but instead palatalized, velarized, and/or labialized. One of the issues I'm grappling with is why the glottal fricative h is a fairly weak phoneme. I have the intuition that it is, both as a speaker of a language that has /h/, and by looking cross-linguistically at languages that have an orthographic h (and thus an historical h) but not a pronounced h, Spanish in particular.

Spanish has the letter h in its orthography, but it is never pronounced, and Spanish speakers are often unable to correctly pronounce the glottal h of English, instead substituting the velar fricative [x] found in Spanish (represented orthographically by j and sometimes g). British English has h-less dialects and h-dropping. I'm a bit puzzled by the prescriptive rule for using the article "an" before a word beginning with h, since I've been told h-dropping in British English is fairly low-class, and thus I fail to see how this pronunciation was immortalized in our rules for good writing.

These facts, combined with the relative rarity of h cross-linguistically when compared to stops or other fricatives, have given me the impression that h is indeed weakly represented somehow, most likely because it is more difficult to perceive clearly than other fricatives. However, I've so far been unable to find any good literature on the matter. I suppose I can always posit the weakness of h myself, but it's always preferable to back up one's own opinions with citations.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

VP ellipsis gone wrong

I've posted about VP ellipsis before, which is where we leave out the verb phrase in a series of wider phrases when it can be recovered from context (or in fact from any context). Wikipedia supplies the example of I always tell Mary to do the dishes, but she never does, where the elliptical phrase is "do the dishes", i.e., she never does [do the dishes]. The type of example I'm specifically referring to is something like I can and will pass this exam, where we have two coordinated IP's headed by can and will, and the VP is left out of the first for the sake of not being redundant. It would sound strange to say I can pass this exam and I will pass this exam.

Sometimes this can go rather wrong, as it did on one of the recent applications I was filling out for Ph.D. programs. The question was asking what outside fellowships I had applied to, or was planning on applying to. The exact wording was "fellowships you have or will apply to". The reason this fails is because the VP's in this case aren't the same: have applied to vs. will apply to. So normally we would be hesitant to leave out the full VP's, because otherwise the immediate interpretation is "have apply to or will apply to" which is thoroughly ungrammatical. Of course the meaning can be recovered, but it's still quite odd.

Friday, December 5, 2008

syllabic /s/ in Blackfoot

Recently I've begun reworking a paper I presented the Algonquian conference this year so that it'll be in decent shape when the time comes to submit it for the proceedings in January. The paper is all about analyzing the status of the phoneme /s/ in Blackfoot, mostly in Optimality Theory. So in this post I thought I would present some of the evidence I use to claim that Blackfoot has a syllabic /s/.

This claim was (as far as I know) first seriously taken up by Donald Derrick a few years ago (though Don Frantz mentions that he has always assumed Blackfoot to have a syllabic /s/). I recap much of his evidence in my paper, because I find it very telling. Among the data he presents is the use of [ss] as a clapping unit by some speakers (I say some because this has not been reported by all investigations in the Blackfoot phonology). For instance, if I asked you to divide Minnesota into "units" of some type, you would most likely clap out Min-ne-so-ta. Likewise, if you ask a Blackfoot speaker to clap out a word like moapsspi, they would most likely clap out mo-a-pss-pi. The idea that non-vocalic syllable nuclei are pronounceable is pretty foreign to English speakers, even though we do it all the time: shhhhhh!

Derrick also points out (and I've backed this up with my own analysis) that the Blackfoot syllable is maximally simple if we assume syllabic /s/. This is desirable because it would be exceedingly odd for a language with as few sounds as Blackfoot to have syllable structure as complex as Blackfoot does without positing syllabic /s/. Once we treat [ss] as a syllable nucleus, however, the Blackfoot syllable template becomes maximally simple.

In my paper I also point to the fact that Blackfoot does not allow onset geminates (i.e., long consonants are divided between 2 syllables, e.g.,, yet [ss] appears in many places where it cannot be ambisyllabic. I need to look into this more, since until recently I was unaware that onset geminates had even been posited for certain languages (I assumed they were a phonological impossibility, and this may change some of my analysis).

The final small piece of evidence is that fact that /s/ acts weird in many other contexts, so why not syllable nuclei? It's the only phoneme that can form complex onsets, and Blackfoot has several Cs affricates (at least /ts/ and /ks/, and possibly also /ps/). So /s/ clearly has a special status in Blackfoot even without the claim of syllabicity.