Saturday, February 27, 2010


While perusing Not Always Right the other day, I came across a post entitled The Rule Deep-Ends On How Cute You Are. I was nonplussed; deep-ends? Certainly I'm familiar with the deep end of a pool, but as a verb? It took me the entire reading of the post to realize they were playing on the (in my opinion, mostly orthographic) similarity of "deep end" to "depend".

I think the main reason for my confusion is that I always, even in careful speech, pronounce "depend" as dǝ.ˈpʰɛnd, rather than di.ˈpʰɛnd. "deep end", on the other hand, is ˈdip.ˌɛnd. Thus, even if we treat both as single phonological words, "deep end" is different in stress, aspiration, and vowel quality. I can't tell if the assumed transparency on the part of the author is due solely to orthographic similarity, or if most people (or at least the author) have the unreduced vowel quality in the first syllable.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lather, rinse, repeat

There was recently quite a bit of interesting discussion about a Language Log post on the semantics of "this page intentionally left blank". Levi Montgomery posted that it reminded him of "the instructions to 'Lather, rinse, and repeat,' apparently ad infinitum." I was struck by this comment, because historically and upon careful thought, I don't find anything recursive about this statement.

Levi apparenty interprets this injunction as being of the form (A --> B --> return to A). This would indeed lead to infinite hair washing, with the user lathering and rinsing until the eschaton. But I rather have always interpreted the instruction as having the form ((1: A --> B); repeat 1). Thus there's no recursive loop, merely a second execution of the two events A and B. Or to phrase it another way, for me there is no way of deriving wide scope of repeat so that it includes lather, rinse, and itself. For me it can only apply to lather and rinse. I'd be interested to find out if more people get Levi's interpretation or mine, and why.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I was musing the other day about the PP (prepositional phrase) complement to "enamored". My intuition is that "enamored with" is more common in modern times, but that "enamored of" is the original and prescriptively "correct" usage. Checking with the OED more or less confirms this, though the original usage, unbeknownst to me, is "enamored (up)on". "Enamored of" was the next oldest usage, and "enamored with", though listed as a possibility, didn't have any examples.

Now to check modern frequency:
enamored upon: 833 ghits
enamored on: 6380 ghits
enamored of: 644,000 ghits
enamored with: 667,000 ghits

So it appears that my intuition was marginally correct, though with the inaccuracy of google results counting, there may be no significant difference between "of" and "with". More unexpected was the auto suggestion "enamored by", which gets 128,000 hits, less than the two recent usages, but far more than the original Middle English preposition. More surprising still is "enamored for", which gets a respectable 20,100 hits (though google enjoins me to correct it to "enamored of"). Many of these look to be merely a sequence, e.g., "names that mean enamored for girls", but there are some legitimate usages: "Armored and enamored for obama in DC". As a check I ran a couple other prepositions (under, from, beside) to see if in fact all are attested, but none of these three seemed to have any legitimate hits. So people using "enamored by" and "enamored for" seem to have that as the phrase.

What does it all mean? I don't know. But based on the auto suggestions from google, people are pretty unsure of which preposition to use, though "with" and "of" are by far the most frequent.

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).