Form Follows Function (2): Vowel Alternation

September 15, 2008

Suppose you were reading something–either out loud or to yourself– in which a perfectly familiar word appeared, but one which you pronounced differently–probably, without hesitation–because in context it was clearly a verb rather than an adjective. That’s what would happen in sentences like “It is impossible for any creature to adequate God in his eternity” or “The aptest terms to commensurate the longitude are hard to determine.” (NB: these verbs may strike one as obsolete, but they are attested in The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia [1906]; not so The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [4th ed., 2006].) In both cases, the final syllable –ate would be pronounced with a diphthong [εi] and secondary stress; and this final vowel would differ from that of the adjective–which is pronounced with a [ə] (schwa) in the final syllable and no secondary stress. This particular vowel alternation is completely regular in all verb/adjective pairs ending in –ate, such as delegate, advocate, etc. What is interesting, however, is the distribution of the alternating vowels: diphthong in the verb, schwa in the adjective.
Again, as with the distribution of stress in verb/noun pairs, the explanation has to do with the alignment or coordination of sounds with meanings. But this time there is a twist. The alignment is not replicative as it was with verb/noun pairs–the marked stress aligning itself with the marked category (verbs), the unmarked stress with the unmarked category (nouns). Instead, it is complementary, which means that oppositely valued vowels go with oppositely valued categories. Using the same terminology as before, namely the markedness values of the entities in question, we note that the unmarked vowel–here the diphthong, which is unmarked for the phonological category of tenseness (protensity)–appears in the marked category, viz. the verb, whereas the schwa–which is marked for the category of tenseness as a lax vowel–appears in the unmarked category, viz. the adjective.
Mutatis mutandis, the same phenomenon–i.e. complementary alignment–is to be observed with adjective/noun pairs such as depraved/depravity, sane/sanity, malign/malignity, divine/divinity, where the unmarked (tense) diphthong in the stressed syllable–[ɛi] or [ai]–of the adjective alternates with the marked (lax) vowel–[æ] or [ɨ]– of the noun, since nouns are unmarked and adjectives marked within the category of nominals. It is the alignment of sound and meaning that explains the vowel alternation.


Going to Rack and Ruin in the ‘Stans

September 4, 2008

Two people (nomina sunt odiosa)––one the female host of a morning news program, the other the network’s Pentagon correspondent––are talking to each other on the radio about the war in Iraq, and each consistently pronounces the name of the country differently: one says Ir[á]q with what is called a “broad A” (rhymes with rock) in the linguistic literature, the other says Ir[ǽ]q with what is called a “flat A” (rhymes with rack). Then the topic switches to Iran, and the same difference in their rendering of the stressed vowels perdures. But they both say Pakistan and Afghanistan with flat vowels in the appropriate syllables throughout. When the male co-host jumps into the conversation, the same distribution of variants applies to his speech: he has the broad vowel in both Iran and Iraq but the narrow vowel in the two ‘Stans.

Then a clip is played of a recorded interview with an Army captain in Iraq, who consistently uses the flat vowel [æ] in his pronunciation of the two countries’ names. This interview is followed by one with an enlisted man, whose stressed vowel in the two nomina propria (proper nouns) conforms to that of the officer but differs in the value of the initial (unstressed) vowel, which he pronounces with the diphthong [ai] (rhymes with eye) and secondary stress, viz. [àirǽk]––just as he might the first vowel of Italian, both blatantly down-market, non-standard pronunciations. The interviewer in both cases is the network’s (female) Baghdad correspondent. She consistently—whether interviewing or just reporting from Iraq—maintains the pronunciation with a flat vowel, i.e. Ir[ǽ]q.

Then an excerpt from the governor of Alaska’s speech to the 2008 Republican National Convention is broadcast, and she too says what the enlisted man said, namely [àirǽk], with a diphthong in the first syllable and a flat A in the second syllable.

What’s going on? Why this variation among native speakers of American English in the rendering of the (stressed) sound A?

Before essaying an answer, one needs to keep in mind the following salient external facts about the dramatis personae. (1) The two co-hosts of the program (one based in Washington, the other in Los Angeles) are not in regular contact with military personnel––unlike both the Pentagon and the Baghdad correspondents; (2) the Army personnel are members of that social group by definition, differing only in rank and (probably) education; (3) the Alaskan governor is also the commander of that state’s National Guard and even has a son who is a member of that unit.

Now for some general data about this variation.

Vacillation between [a] (“broad” A)’ and [æ] (“flat” A) is a persistent feature of American speech, particularly in loan words or nomina propria (proper nouns), as in the twofold pronunciation of the stressed vowel of Colorado, Nevada, Iran, Iraq, Milan, and so on. Whereas no true Westerner would be caught dead saying Color[á]do or Nev[á]da, many of them, along with other Americans, do habitually say Ir[á]n, Ir[á]q, and Mil[á]n, instead of the long- standing and traditional Ir[ǽ]n, Ir[ǽ]q, and Mil[ǽ]n. In the case of loan words, including designations of foreign places or things, even where initially there is vacillation between [ɑ] and [æ], as in Viet Nam (cf. the preference for [nǽm] over [nám] to render the slangy [originally military!] abbreviation ‘Nam), American speech in modern times seems to favor pronunciations that speakers likely construe as approximating the donor/original language’s sounds, especially in the case of a smattering of knowledge of foreign, mostly European, languages. In this respect, American speech has tended to diverge from traditional British English––and the older American tradition––where anglicization has long been the norm (cf., for instance, the different rendering of names like Kant or Dante; or of words like pasta and mafia). Viewed from this perspective, pronunciations like Ir[á]n simply conform to a current tendency.

Recently, however, there has been a marked augmentation of the domain affected by the tendency––specifically, to include unfamiliar words, whether or not a particular word is ascertainably foreign and “known” to a speaker as such. In this new situation, the emphasis falls on unfamiliarity: the word in question is either not part of a speaker’s active vocabulary or is used sporadically. It may have been acquired from other speakers who are equally unfamiliar with it. In such cases, the pronunciation is likely to be at variance with the common or traditional pronunciation. Take the recently manifested vacillation in the stressed vowel of the journalistic buzz word (a Sanskrit borrowing), mantra. The foreign provenience of this word is clearly irrelevant as far as these speakers are concerned. Its new transferred meaning––that is, anything repeated as a set piece, especially a political slogan, the dictionary meaning being a type of prayer––is the sense journalists who have the broad vowel have evidently assimilated and foregrounded. But the traditional pronunciation m[ǽ]ntra is either unknown or eschewed. I propose to explain this appearance of [ɑ] for [æ] as deriving from insecure knowledge of the word as such, not its meaning.

This analysis is confirmed indirectly by cases where unfamiliarity cannot be invoked as the reason for [ɑ], but markedness could be.  In a broadcast some years ago of his commentary, “The Nature of Things” (Vermont Public Radio), the naturalist Will Curtis several times pronounced the word habitat with [ɑ] for both of the relevant (stressed and unstressed) vowels. This untraditional pronunciation of a word in common use can be chalked up to its valorization as marked in the sense of “special” or “restricted.” When a speaker accords salience or special status to a word that contains a vowel that can be rendered [ɑ] or [æ], [ɑ] may be utilized as a means of mirroring the marked value of the word in context. Curtis (whose topic was the disappearance of habitat for certain flora and fauna) evidently––and unconsciously––did this with habitat.

This analysis joins hands with the earlier one, in that “unfamiliarity” is one of the concrete meanings of the abstract designation “marked.” The foreignness of words lends itself typically to subsumption under the category of marked value, hence the special or restricted phonetic features commonly found in the pronunciation of foreign words unless and until they are nativized (if ever). This is especially true of names. Thus Yasser Arafat, while he was alive and his name constantly being gibbered in the media, was pronounced with some combination of [ɑ]’s and [æ]’s, although the thoroughly anglicized version––all [æ]’s––is also extant. I once heard a speaker wishing to dignify his ownership of the very expensive car called a Lamborghini pronouncing the first vowel [ɑ] instead of [æ]. The vowel [ɑ], through its occurrence in what is perceived as American “educated” speech in words like rather, as well as in British English (tomato, banana), has become associated with marked (= foreign, formal, “high” style) pronunciation, whence its natural utilization as a phonetic mark of special status.

Imitation of prestige dialects is likely to account for examples like the garden-variety word pistachio or the name Andrea being pronounced with [ɑ] rather than the plebeian [æ]. (The recent appearance of the spelling Ondrea to render the name bears this out. )

Now––finally!––we come to an explanation of the strange distribution of broad and flat A that gave rise to this discussion.

The persons whose speech on the radio served as the source of data about the variation in the stressed vowel of Iraq and Iran break up into: (A) those who are familiar with the traditional (i.e. local, in situ) American English pronunciation by virtue of their contact with military personnel and those close to that speech community; and (B) those who (unconsciously?) think that the correct pronunciation should approximate what they take to be the vowel of the source language––here Arabic and Farsi, respectively. The first group follows the older norm, the second the emerging one. The same would apply mutatis mutandis to speakers who have the broad vowel in the relevant syllables of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

All these data speak in favor of the idea that the historically older urge of Americans to render foreign (European) words “correctly” at the expense of native phonetic norms has been subsumed, as but one specific manifestation, under the newer and more general drive for “authenticity.” Truth is (mis-?)identified with the authentic. Thus, K[á]nt and D[ɑ]nte persist as the only pronunciations in American speech (where the British norm has K[æ]nt and D[æ]nte) not because of a desire to acknowledge the foreignness of the names but because nativizing their pronunciation might run the risk of making one’s acquaintance with them seem less than authentic. Hence it is the avoidance of anything that, through speech, might be taken as a sign of inauthentic knowledge that seems to explain not only the proliferation of Ir[á]q and Ir[á]n but pronunciations like m[á]ntra, pist[á]chio and even h[á]bit[à]t as well.


Form Follows Function (1): Stress

September 3, 2008

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we say perféct when we mean the verb and pérfect when we mean the noun or adjective? There’s a whole set of such contrasts, called minimal pairs, in which the verbal stress is on the final syllable and the nominal stress–meaning either that of a noun or an adjective–is on the initial. Think of prodúce vs. próduce, conflíct vs. cónflict, insért vs. ínsert, frequént vs. fréquent, and so on. Most of the members of such pairs each consist of two syllables, so that the contrast between final and initial stressed syllable holds.
Although, loosely speaking, ACCENT and STRESS can refer to the same thing, in the parlance of linguistics, strictly speaking, STRESS is the term used to mean the emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word or phrase. This is the meaning foregrounded in the mimetic joke about “putting the stress on the wrong sylláble.” The syllable that has that kind of emphasis in a word is called STRESSED, and syllables that don’t are called UNSTRESSED. In English, words can have both a primary and a secondary stress–several in the case of secondary, but only ONE primary stress.
However,  there are also verb/noun pairs where the stress falls on a different syllable, and each contrasting word consists of more than two syllables, like envélop vs. énvelope, interchánge vs. ínterchange, reprimánd vs. réprimand, and so on. Even though in some of these cases the stress need not contrast–réprimand with initial stress does double duty for many speakers as both a verb and a noun–the important and unalterable fact is that no matter how many syllables the word has, if there is a contrast at all, the stress in the verbal form will be NON-INITIAL, i.e. be on one or more syllables closer to the end than in that of the nominal form. Moreover, and just as importantly, THE REVERSE IS NEVER TRUE: there are no English verb/noun pairs which contrast by having an initial stress in the verbal form and a non-initial in the nominal form. Isn’t that curious?
The same invariable relationship between verbal and nominal holds for cases where the noun is an obvious product of NOMINALIZATION, i.e. where a verb phrase is turned into a noun, thus fill ín (“John filled in for Mary”) vs. fíll-in (“John was a fill-in for Mary”), or rent a cár (“You can rent a car at the airport”) vs. rént-a-car (“There’s a rent-a-car at the airport”). Whereas in the first member of each of these pairs the primary stress falls on the final syllable, its nominalized counterpart has primary stress on the initial syllable. We say, therefore, that the stress in the nominal form has SHIFTED in comparison to the verbal form from which it has been DERIVED.
We should always ask ourselves WHY? in such cases. Here the answer lies in the special kind of parallelism–called an ISOMORPHISM–between, on the one hand, the RELATIONAL VALUE of the verb as a category and the RELATIONAL VALUE of the noun (more accurately: the nominal form) as a category; and, on the other hand, the corresponding RELATIONAL VALUES of the positions of stress in each category. Now, what distinguishes verbs from nouns is that every verb NECESSARILY MAKES REFERENCE TO TIME, whereas a noun DOES NOT. When a category in language is defined vis-à-vis another category by necessary reference vs. non-necessary reference to some feature of sound or sense, the first category is characterized as MARKED, and the second as UNMARKED. “Marked” here means “relatively restricted in (conceptual) scope,” and “unmarked” means “relatively unrestricted in (conceptual) scope.” This meaning translates the opposition of marked vs. unmarked into such values as “uncommon” vs. “common,” “atypical” vs. “typical,” and so on.
As with all linguistic oppositions, the same is true when it comes to the relational value of the position of stress in the words and phrases we’ve been considering. In English, for historical reasons, the initial syllable has come to be the “typical” or “unrestricted” syllable as far as bearing the primary stress is concerned. In other words, stress on the initial is UNMARKED, whereas stress on non-initial syllables is MARKED.
It is this PARALLELISM OF FORM between grammatical category and position of stress that accounts for and answers the question, WHY THE DIFFERENCE IN STRESS: non-initial stress correlates with verbal (i.e., non-nominal) forms, and initial stress correlates with non-verbal (i.e. nominal forms). More significantly: marked category goes with marked stress position, unmarked category with unmarked stress position.
At its core, language always displays such isomorphisms. It is these correlations of value that enable linguistic facts to cohere and to form a structure, to be learned by new generations of speakers, and to be perpetuated in the history of a language.


Hypertrophic Designations of Past Time: Avoidance of Placeless Existence?

Over the last decade or more, what used to be the standard manner of referring to events in the past by designating their dates in a prepositional phrase is being replaced by a hypertrophic form whereby the word back is inserted before the preposition regardless of the proximity of the past event to the speech event. Here are some recent examples:
(1) “There was a moment back in 2002 when . . . [opening sentence]” (Caryn James, “Aniston Agonistes: Good Girl, Bad Choices,” The New York Times [all references to the National Edition], 6/5/06, p. B1);
(2) “The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea back in 2001, on 9/11″ (Patricia Cohen, NYT, 2/14/08, p. B9);
(3) “back in January” – said in February (unidentified man, viva voce; cf. [way] back [when]).
One hears such examples constantly on the radio and from ordinary speakers; moreover, the preposition in question can be on or during as well as in (back on Thursday, back during the war). And whereas the appearance of back was formerly conditioned strictly by the remoteness of the past event relative to the speech event––a form of emphasis––now the emphatic meaning is apparently being neutralized: the appearance of back is becoming de rigueur regardless of the degree of proximity of the past event (Cf. the now-common usurpation of yes as a simple affirmative by the previously emphatic absolutely).
How to explain this development? Some more or less speculative explanations come to mind.
First, there seems to be a general tendency in present-day American English in particular toward grammatical hypertrophy of all kinds, i.e., pleonastic formations that have mushroomed during the past several decades.  Among these the most relevant to the insertion of back are constructions with the deictic adverbs (out) there/here, e. g.:
(4) “There are rarely purely ideological movements out there.” (Barack Obama, quoted by David Brooks, “Obama Admires Bush,” NYT, 5/16/08, p. A23)
(5) “There’s a real world out here where people are offered . . .” (Ruth Lewin Sime, letter to the editor, NYT, 6/5/06, p. A22);
(6) “There’s a lot of sadness here.” ([in a context where the place has already been stipulated] attributed to Jamie Dettmer, director of media relations, Cato Institute, in “Columnist Resigns His Post, Admitting Lobbyist Paid Him,” NYT, 12/17/05, p. A15).
These examples can be compared to the otiose colloquial use of at after where and what, as in:
(7) “Where’s your heart rate at?” (female fitness trainer [with a B.A.], viva voce [speaking to a client wearing a monitor], W. LA, 6/5/06); cf. “What’s your heart rate at?”
They are of a piece with the occurrence of the prepositional phrase in place after the verbs be and have.
Returning now to the habitual but redundant use of the locative adverb back with designators of time, I would like to suggest a motivation that might be labeled the avoidance of placeless existence. A past event is by definition no longer existent in the same sense as a present event. This fundamental “non-is-ness” of a past event makes its designation unstable, and thereby in need of extra temporal determination. The most routine way in which all languages fix or anchor time expressions, with their quintessential instability, is by localizing them through the use of words denoting space. Accordingly, the near-obligatory extension of the emphatic word back before prepositional phrases as a designator of remoteness in time to non-emphatic contexts in contemporary speech may be yet another example of what is clearly a general grammatical tendency.