Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mary, merry, and marry

For many speakers, including myself, "Mary", "merry", and "marry" are homonyms: meɹi. For other speakers, including my father, there is a threeway difference reflecting the underlying forms: me(j)ɹi, 'Mary', mɛɹi, 'merry', mæɹi, 'marry'. Generally, the distinctive forms belong to non-rhotic dialects, and the neutralized forms to rhotic dialects. This is because in rhotic dialects, intervocalic resonants tend to be ambisyllabic, i.e., they are attached both to the syllable that precedes them (as a coda) and the syllable that follows them (as an onset). An /r/ in coda position tends to neutralize many if not all vowel quality distinctions in the syllable it closes, and thus in rhotic dialects, where these syllables are closed by an /r/, we get all three front vowels neutralized to the [-hi][-lo][+ATR] vowel /e/. For non-rhotic speakers, /r/ can never be in coda position, and thus this neutralization does not occur.

Because of this, rhotic speakers tend not to be able to identify which form is which, even on hearing them produced by non-rhotic speakers (or rhotic speakers who happened to have picked up the distinction in careful speech). I occupy some sort of no man's land in between, since I understand the distinction, and can produce it, but I never use it in normal speech. I probably inherited this from my father, who, while a rhotic speaker, comes from family in New York, and probably heard many non-rhotic speakers (in addition to being a careful and conservative speaker himself). I recently encountered this difficulty on two fronts.

The first was in the TV show "Frasier". The character Niles, a rhotic but very careful speaker, played by David Hyde Pierce, also a rhotic speaker is discussing some former patients with commitment issues who overcame their disorder and were getting mɛɹid, which for a non-rhotic speaker would be "merried". This error seems a bit odd to me, since Pierce was born and raised in New York, was a camp counselour in New Hampshire, and went to school in Connecticut, so he surely was exposed to non-rhotic accents throughout his life. However, if he never acquired the distinction, it would be exceedingly difficult for him to recreate it. Though he didn't make the distinction, he knew that Niles likely would, and thus made a guess at one of the forms.

The second was my wife Amanda, discussing a coworker, with a New Jersey accent, who wished her a mæɹi Christmas. What the coworker actually said was almost certainly mɛɹi, but to a rhotic speaker like Amanda there is little, if any, perceivable difference between to two.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I feel like I have to comment at least a little on Na'vi, the language of the Na'vi people in the new movie Avatar. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm quite interested to do so soon, though I'm assured it does not revolutionize cinema as much of the press seems to claim. Paul Frommer was in charge of creating the language, and recently did a guest post on Language Log about some linguistic aspects of Na'vi. Since he's the creator, I see no reason to give a summary of the language (his description is well worth reading), but there are a couple things I can comment on.

One thing I like about Na'vi is that it uses ejectives. I don't like it for some scientific reason like "most languages have ejectives" (only about 15% do); I just like ejectives. They're fun to pronounce. I'm a bit nonplussed as to why Frommer chose to represent the glottalization with an "x", though: /p'/ is represented as px, /t'/ as tx, and /k'/ as kx. My guess would be that it makes the language look alien, which is as important a consideration as any when you're coming up with an alien language for Hollywood. Clearly Frommer has put a lot of thought into Na'vi; he even goes into restrictions on syllable structure. And these aren't just any random restrictions, but logical ones actually utilized in many natural languages. He remarks that only /f/, /s/, and /ts/ can appear as the first member of a consonant cluster. Now, I'm a bit dubious about the naturalness of this class in terms of actual occurrence, but at least theoretically it makes good sense; it's an exhaustive collection of the language's voiceless fricative phonemes (of course, /ts/ is not a fricative, but we can lump it under an ad hoc collection of "fricative phonemes" if we assume that affricates display edge effects, and since these sounds are the first members of clusters, the relevant edge of /ts/ would be the /s/ part). On the other hand, I don't think there really are any languages that do this. Some languages do allow only fricatives as the first members of complex clusters, but usually this is a class like /s/ and /hl/ (the lateral fricative; don't make me dig up my Unicode chart, I'm using Haida practical orthography), as in Haida. This is perhaps a more natural class because these are both coronal fricatives. Frommer's generalization is certainly theoretically warranted by some assumptions, because there seems to be something special about voiceless fricatives and clusters. But (as I argued in my M.A. thesis) it seems to be something special about coronal voiceless fricatives; I don't think we should expect to find, e.g., an extrasyllabic /f/ at the beginning of a complex cluster as we find extrasyllabic /s/ (claimed for English by Roca & Johnson, claimed for Blackfoot by me). On the other hand, for those who don't aspirate the /t/ in "fifteen", there's always the question of whether they syllabify it as fif.teen or fi.fteen.

Hopefully none of this seems like criticism of Frommer's language, because I certainly don't mean it as such. In a world populated by underdeveloped, Indo-European-influenced conlangs, it's nice to see someone as knowledgeable and dedicated as Frommer take the time to give us an artificial language that's interesting. I'd be interested in finding out a bit more about Frommer himself. All I can find is that he's in the business school as USC, and that he's referred to as a "linguist", but I haven't been able to dig up what linguistic research he's done, or what he looked at for his Ph.D. or M.A. (both from USC), if indeed either of those degrees were in linguistics. There are a lot more interesting things about Na'vi that you should read about in his Language Log guest post, but I've already run on for a while, so I'll end it here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Could I get some binding indices, please?

This is actually a rather old news article, but I've only just now got around to blogging about it. The lede read "In an emotional interview, Whitney Houston opened up to talk-show host Oprah Winfrey about the pivotal role her mother played in getting the singer back on track." Wait, what? Whose mother? What singer? It's pretty unreasonable to expect that someone wouldn't be able to parse this sentence, but it still strikes me as very odd. First, there's the inevitable ambiguity in "her mother". This is resolved by pragmatics, since we assume that since Whitney Houston is the topic of the passage, "her mother" naturally refers to Houston's mother. However, syntactically this could just as easily be Winfrey's mother. (This is why I maintain we need a proximate/obviative distinction in English: "Whitney Houstonwa opened up to talk-show host Oprah Winfreyi about the pivotal role omotherwa played in getting oma singerwa back on track". When I mix Blackfoot and English I like to call it Blinglish.)

But the most serious "hey wait a minute" moment for me is the use of "the singer" toward the end of the sentence to refer to Whitney Houston. I would think that strictly speaking, this sentence should be ungrammatical by pretty much any version of the binding theory you adopt (classic GB, R&R, or Ken Safir's FTIP). This has to to with reference, which I think is captured nicely by Ken Safir's version of binding. Once we've established the context with an R-expression (referring expression, i.e., any noun phrase that's not a pronoun or an anaphor), we need to use the most dependent form for each successive instance of a coreferent NP. "Her mother" is fine, but it would be weird to say "Whitney Houston's mother"; that's why we have pronouncs. And "the singer" just seems really odd to me. I would expect "in getting her back on track". I assume they reverted back to an R-expression for Houston because it had been so long since the initial mention, but it's still very marked for me, perhaps even ungrammatical.

This is because you can't have an R-expression coindexed with a previous R-expression. If we say "Whitney Houston picked up the singer's clothes at the dry cleaner's", we want to ask "Wait, whose clothes did she pick up?" This violates whatever theory of binding you subscribe to, unequivocally. Luckily, actual language use is much more fluid, and clearly that was an acceptable sentence to someone, again, probably because of the distance between the two expressions, but I don't have to like it.