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Lenition, Not Voicing

President Barack Obama’s idiolect has a phonetic feature that hasn’t been noticed in the public press, viz. the non-standard pronunciation of the verb congratulate and its derived verbal noun congratulation(s) with a “voiced” [ǯ] for standard “voiceless” [č] corresponding to the intervocalic letter t. (One heard it yet again today [May 17, 2009] in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.) This is actually a fairly widespread (mis)pronunciation. In effect, this is the process by which intervocalic fricatives (hissing and hushing sounds) that are “voiceless” in other positions are rendered with their “voiced” counterparts between vowels; thus the well-known pronunciation of greasy in Southern American dialects as grea[z]y.

There is an explanation, but it’s one that necessitates disabusing oneself of the established characterization of English as a language with distinctive “voicing” in its obstruent (= true consonant) system and facing the fact that English (like German and Serbo-Croatian, for example––or Japanese, for that matter, pace the conventional view––and unlike Russian) is rather a language with distinctive “protensity,” i.e., with the opposition tense vs. lax. Thus the series p, t, k, etc. is to be understood as being opposed to the series b, d, g, etc. as tense vs. lax.

Two of the features by which obstruents are distinguished in the languages of the world are voicing and this so-called protensity feature. They correspond to the traditional distinction between fortis and lenis sounds. (The more familiar modern terms are voiced vs. voiceless and tense vs. lax.) There are several phonetic properties that accompany the distinction between fortis and lenis sounds, such as the presence vs. absence of the vibration of the vocal bands, aspiration, and so on. All of these phonetic properties are in fact relevant in a general sense but not important to the particular phenomenon at hand, which is the lenition of an intervocalic obstruent, namely [č],  resulting in President Obama’s [ǯ]. The reason why it is a matter of principal importance to call this process by its right name––lenition––rather than “voicing” is that only then can we understand why it happens at all. (Note that orthography is helpless here as an explanans, since the letter t is “voiceless.”)

Noted in an earlier post was the fact of the neutralization of phonological distinctions in so-called positions of neutralization, whereby only one of the opposed terms appears in such positions and “represents” the opposition. Here, the obstruent that occurs between vowels is in just such a position, and the representative of the opposition between [č]and [ǯ]––the very one that distinguishes between, say, batch and badge––is what is conventionally called the “voiced” one, i.e., the latter. But calling it “voiced” is wrong phonologically, no matter how right it is phonetically, for the following reason.

The most universal realization of an opposition in a position of neutralization––in phonology as in all of grammar––is the so-called “unmarked” member of the opposition, which is defined as the relatively general or unconstrained member, its “marked” counterpart being relatively specific or constrained for the feature at stake. One could say that positions of neutralization are diagnostic––for native learner and analyst alike––in that they conduce to the evaluative designation of members of oppositions in terms of markedness, a designation that imparts sense to form and without which phonology and grammar would cease to be a coherent structure.

As a general matter, in languages with distinctive voicing in their obstruent system, the marked member of the opposition is the voiced (lenis) member, and the voiceless (fortis) member is unmarked. Contrariwise, in languages with distinctive protensity, it is the tense (fortis) member that is marked and the lax (lenis) one that is unmarked.

Consequently, those speakers who, like President Obama, have a lenited obstruent in congratulations, where the norm has its unlenited counterpart, are (unwittingly, of course) simply realizing the natural drift inherent in the sign function of all positions of neutralization by pronouncing the unmarked lenis sound for t. It just so happens that the norm in this case overrides the drift, but some speakers (probably from childhood) are nonetheless impelled by what the Germans call Systemzwang (“the systemic force”) to innovate in their individual grammars along lines that have the inherent potential of becoming the norm in the long run.

Even in this minute respect, one could say that the new president is only being true to himself as an adherent of the innovating variety of contemporary American English.



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