Tsunami variation

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Bill Poser's post on the English onset of (the word) tsunami provoked 99 comments so far, many of them of the form "I'm from X and I say Y". One of the things that we've learned in the past 50 years is that the "I say Y" part of such statements is almost always false.

This gap between phonetic intuition and phonetic fact is a special form of the observer's paradox. Just as we behave differently when we're aware of being observed by others, we also behave differently when we imagine observing ourselves. And this particular case features not just the general tendency for (real or imagined) citation forms to sample the most highly-elaborated end of normal variation, but also the specific response to a whiff of social evaluation in the air. In the case of tsunami, we have an obviously foreign word whose pronunciation violates English phonotactic norms, and responses to such situations typically carry sociolinguistic messages.

In order to see whether the pronunciation of tsunami is really variable, as I expect it to be even in the speech of highly-educated Americans in formal contexts, I took a look at yesterday's All Things Considered story "Tracking A Tsunami Barreling Across The Ocean".  The story is introduced by Robert Siegel, who pronounces tsunami twice, both times with initial [ts].  His first performance is (as expected) especially careful, and the initial affricate is correspondingly strong, with a 50-msec stop gap before 100 msec of fricative noise:

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He backs off a bit on the second performance, with about 20 msec of silence before about 80 msec of frication:

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I'd predict that in a more casual setting, Mr. Siegel would use initial [s] some fraction of the time.

Christopher Joyce, the reporter who delivers the body of the story, uses tsunami five times. I hear [ts] just once, in a context that also happens to be the only one following another voiceless stop consonant (around 2:28 in the story):

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The other four sound (and look) to me like just [s]:

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And the pronunciations by other voices in the story — a scientist from NOAA, the harbormaster in Crescent City CA, etc. — all seem to me to involve [s]. A sample:

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The point? It's not that initial [ts] in English tsunami is right or wrong. Rather, it's that the pronunciation of educated Americans is variable.

I'm also arguing that pronunciation-intuitions are not worth much, though I admit that the evidence in this post doesn't address the point directly. However,  the great majority of the pronunciations in this NPR story are [s]-initial, suggesting that our commenters who claim that they always use [ts] are either atypical or mistaken.

My money is on mistaken. It wouldn't surprise me to find that all of the speakers in the NPR story would assert, if asked, that they pronounce tsunami with initial [ts].

Update — to compare the pronunciations in a different demographic, listen to the Fox News segment "Incredible Video: Massive Wall of Water Sweeps Ashore in Japan", 3/11/2011, where I count 14 instances of tsunami, all with initial [s].

And James Fallows also uses initial [s], in an interview on NPR with Jonathan Raz (who uses initial [ts] in his broadcast performances here and elsewhere during the past few days). Here's Fallows:

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Fallows has lived in Japan, and knows how the word is pronounced in Japanese. I'm sure that he could produce an excellent initial [ts] if he chose to — not to speak of the quite different Japanese /u/ sound.

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123 Comments »

  1. language hat said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    I definitely pronounce it with [ts], and even if only a portion of those who claim to actually do so, it's absurd to attack the English spelling as somehow particularly egregious. As Mark said in the previous thread, it's no more or less weird than any of the many, many other borrowed words whose spelling isn't intuitive and/or whose pronunciation doesn't come naturally to many speakers. Would Bill have us write "zar" for tsar because that's how most people say it?

    [(myl) I don't have any problem with the spelling of tsunami -- even if it were uniformly pronounced with initial [s] (as it clearly is not), things like that are surely way down in the noise as a contribution to English letter-to-sound irregularity. However, I believe that there's good reason to doubt intuitions about pronunciation, in this case as in most others.]

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    I'm certain that I always say "tsunami," not "sunami," but that may be because I know Japanese. On the other hand, I always say "tsetse fly," not "sese fly," but I don't know Setswana. I was saying "tsetse fly" way back when I was a little boy in rural Ohio, having heard it in the context of soldiers who returned from World War II with sleeping sickness.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    @Language Hat

    Yes, and how do most people pronounce "Mozart" — despite its spelling?

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Sunami for tsunami is more than reasonable for native speakers of English (self-deception aside), and is equivalent to the Japanese choice of pronunciations of surippa for slipper and miruku for milk. What I find annoying is the willful emphasis of virtually inaudible Japanese syllables by (American) English speakers. Such syllables occur in words with i and u vowels, as in Hiroshima, or Fukushima, pronounced in Japanese much like hiroshma and fukushma, but pronounced by English speakers as hiroSHEma and fukuSHEma. How does this happen and why does it persist?

    [(myl) It happens (and persists) because there's a pattern in English of penultimate stress on foreign words with final vowels, originally generalized from the large number of Latin, Italian, Spanish, etc., borrowings where this is typically the right thing to do.]

  5. Ben said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    Tsunami entered the Turkish language in 2004 after the Sumatra earthquake. Turks have trouble not just with initial [ts] but with words beginning with two initial consonants. In the case of tsunami, they did what is natural to them in such cases: add a vowel. However, the Turkish spelling has remained tsunami but the pronunciation is (invariably?) [tusunami]. This is unusual as older borrowings have the pronunciation reflected in the spelling: istasyon, kulüp and the like.

  6. N said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    @Victor Mair

    Mozart /motsart/ has /ts/ in coda position, not onset/word-initially like "tsunami", which is not very cool in English. So that's a rather different question. We also have "plates" which has /ts/# without being reduced to /s/#.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    @Mr Fnortner: Because most English speakers, including me, don't know how to pronounce Japanese. I think, by the way, that we Americans are particularly likely to say "hiroSHEma" and the British are more likely to say "hiROshima".

    Next: machete, chapparal, and a common British pronunciation of machismo. Then we can discuss the way potato and tomato got their final os, or whether Americans really mispronounce pasta.

  8. N said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    And thank you Dr. Liberman for this post. New motto: "trust Praat, not people"

  9. Alan Gunn said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    I suppose the "I say Y" business at least tells us that the speaker at least tries to say Y, and that in turn suggests that they sometimes do. I doubt that many Americans would say that they say anything other than "zar" for "tsar," to borrow Language Hat's example.

  10. dw said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    Given this information, might one not postulate underlying phonological /ts/, with an optional realization rule simplifying syllable-initial /ts/ to [s]?

    As mollymooly pointed out in the original post, that's what is regularly done in the parallel case of "asked" being realized sometimes (in more formal situations) with [skt] and in others with [st].

  11. Marc Ettlinger said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    The acoustic analysis is, of course, telling but what I'd also be particularly interested in is whether English speakers make some covert gesture acknowledging the 't'. This may be what's driving people's intuitions of their own /tsunami/ pronuncation. A brief, but complete, tongue closure pre /s/ may not really register in the acoustic signal, but would definitely go a long way towards understanding the mystery.
    Also, the acoustics after different consonants would be interesting, i.e., post-vocalic /ts/ (probably t-deletion) and might have subtly different acoustics than post-t /ts/ (perhaps longer /t/ in previous word as compare to /t#s/.

    Also, those that spent any time in Hebrew school might hit the /ts/ correctly as it's valid in Hebrew. So:
    Bob Siegel – possibly
    Christopher Joyce – probably not.

    [(myl) There's an articulatory and acoustic continuum between what we symbolically represent as [ts] and [s], of course, with different amounts of differently complete occlusion, different durations of silence, different rates of noise onset, etc. And in fact it's quite common for a small stop-like region to appear between a preceding sonorant and [s], especially when the preceding sound is [n] (or the nasalized vowel that may be the only phonetic residue of the nasal phoneme). There's a good example in Christopher Joyce's pronunciation of comprehensive, just before his second rendition of tsunami:

    This is the process that leads "tense" and "tents" to become homophones for some speakers (though it's important to note that most people who regularly introduce a small voiceless stop between the nasal murmur — or nasalized vowel — and the voiceless fricative still distinguish the two words, at least statistically, in terms of the distribution of durations involved.]

  12. Keith Ivey said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    I might say /tsar/ for "tsar", but it's definitely /zar/ for "czar", which is a word I run into more often. I'd never write "tsar" to refer to a government official, as opposed to a Russian emperor.

  13. army1987 said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    Given this information, might one not postulate underlying phonological /ts/, with an optional realization rule simplifying syllable-initial /ts/ to [s]?
    Positing a rule changing /ts/ to [s] but leaving /tS/ and /tr/ alone (does anyone fail to reliably distinguish between chip and ship, or train and rain?) would sound quite ‘artificial’ to me.

  14. bfwebster said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    I suspect I usually say "sunami" but I always think the 't'. :-)

  15. LDavidH said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    I agree with Liberman: people often don't realise that their pronunciation of a word or a phrase is different from how it's written (and thus from how they think it "should" be pronounced). Although I live in England, English is my second language; I also lived for many years in Albania and used Albanian (my third language) on a daily basis. As a learner of both languages, I would often make comments like "oh, you don't say it thus but thus", and people would vehemently deny it! One typical example would be the fact that many (if not most) Brits pronounce "prints" and "prince", "mints" and "mince" exactly the same, or that in Britain, "due" and "Jew" sound identical (at least to me) – I'm sure a lot of folks would deny this!

  16. Jonathan Lundell said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    I say tsu, but that may be at least in part because I spent several years in Japan, and my pronunciation (though not my vocabulary) is at least decent.

    I suggest that there's a parallel phenomenon to ML's suggestion that we're often wrong about our productions (which suggestion I do not dispute in the general case): that we're also often wrong about what others are saying. It never occurred to me that 'sunami' was a common pronunciation; I tend to hear 'tsunami'. I think.

  17. Xmun said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    ML: Bill Poser's post on the English onset of (the word) tsunami provoked 99 comments so far, many of them of the form "I'm from X and I say Y".

    Well, mine wasn't. Mine reported what I *hear*.

  18. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    If you really want to have fun with this idea, ask an American who's never heard about glottal stops how he pronounces "button." (Isn't that actually an exercise in introductory linguistics classes?)

  19. Xmun said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    @Victor Mair

    See Auden's "Metalogue to the Magic Flute", which has the couplet:

    You cannot hoard or waste a work of art:
    I come to praise but not to see Mozart.

    However, elsewhere in the same poem he has such lines as "We know the Mozart of our father's time" and "But Mozart never had to make his bed," etc.

  20. Xmun said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    Expletive deleted, my typing! Auden wrote:

    I come to praise but not to sell Mozart.

  21. Elinor said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    I don't think I could be definite about how I pronounce "tsunami" because I rarely say the word (though it may possibly be worth noting that there is an old pun floating around in north-east England which plays on the similarity of "tsunami" and "Toon Army" – the latter being a collective term for Newcastle United fans). However, I do know that I have a work colleague called Aki Tsuchiya, and when I have to pronounce her name in full, I definitely give the "ts" its full value. This is because her first name ends with a vowel, so the T in Tsuchiya tends to tag itself on to the end of that, and I say something like "Akit Suchiya".

    I'm native to the UK, incidentally.

  22. SimonMH said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

    @Xmun, Auden is having a laugh there…

  23. Nat said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    @language hat.
    But neither post is attacking this as a particularly egregious spelling. As Mark Liberman points out, the issue doesn't come up in this post, and in Bill Poser's post he says that it's "yet another example of insane English spelling". Which means not that it's especially insane, but rather that it's typically insane. Which is perfectly compatible with it being "no more or less weird than many, many of the other borrowed words…."
    Happily, I'm teaching straw-man to my students this week.

  24. Melissa Fox said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    Interesting. I had been sort of vaguely planning to comment not insisting that I say anything in particular, but reporting that I'm in DC and I hear initial [ts] all the time (for values of "all the time" approximating about 60%). I was going to say, okay, sure, initial /ts/ is disallowed in English, but English rules don't apply to borrowed words. But of course I haven't looked at spectrograms of the radio reports I've been hearing; I now suspect it must be that I'm mostly hearing initial [ts] only in my head because I know the word is spelled with a 't'. Huh.

  25. Chris Waters said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    This is interesting and certainly agrees with my expectations (as well as my own observation that I couldn't detect a personal preference either way). I suspect the original post wouldn't have had such a flurry of replies, though, if Bill hadn't claimed that pronouncing the initial "t" was wrong, which not only contradicted many people's own feelings, but every dictionary cited in that thread. MYL's conclusion that "the pronunciation of educated Americans is variable" seems much more reasonable, and merely contradicts the two dictionaries I found that listed only the "ts" pronunciation.

    I admit that I mostly ignored the self-reporting in the earlier thread, but (aside from the discussion of what dictionaries say) the thing that most intrigued me was Bill's suggestion in that pronouncing the initial "t" could be/become a prestige marker. My reaction was just the opposite, but I live near the California coast where signs with "Tsunami" printed on them are a common sight.

  26. Hermann Burchard said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    @myl: That "educated Americans" slip back to popular phonotactics (is that correct use of the term) reinforces my agreement with Dr Martinus Luther saying: "Man soll dem Volk aufs Maul schauen."

    [(myl) When borrowed words become nativized, in any language, they generally adopt the phonological and phonetic norms of the new language, no matter who the speaker is. However, there are segments or sequences with marginal status -- like the velar fricative in loch or Bach, or the 'ts' in tsetse and tsunami, where some variation remains. Even in those cases, even educated people are more likely to normalize the segments in question than they usually realize, especially in casual speech.]

  27. Chris Waters said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    N@10:47: I suspect it would be hard to distinguish my pronunciation of "plates" and "place", especially if I was speaking rapidly.

  28. Hermann Burchard said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    Add to above @myl: Man soll dem Volk aufs Maul schauen: Which is what you are doing, allowing "educated Americans" into the "Volk," to be part of the crowd, which we socially well-adjusted folks crave and depend on. BTW, the observer paradox (Labov) adds to trouble from linguistics being the science for which the map is the territory, against Korzybski's tenet: Each time a linguist pronounces on language he is changing the topic, his story is in danger of becoming false. The linguist who observes himself and tells about his/her observation must keep in mind Melissa Fox's "Huh," where she hears others pronounce tsunami the way she knows it is spelt. I am becoming confused myself at this point . .

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    But if it's not uncommon for tents and tense to be homophones in practice (or prints and prince), then the claim that tsunami is special because word-initial ts is not found in non-borrowed English words seems rather less impressive. Take another consonant cluster: /ks/ is not found word-initially in non-borrowed English words but it is found elsewhere (typically spelled "x"). There's a Russian female given name that is typically transliterated "Ksenia" or "Kseniya" to cue the pronunciation, because the spelling Xenia (which references the same ancestrally Greek name) would for Anglophones cue the pronunciation "Zenia." As with /ts/ in tsunami I doubt that's beyond the capacity or competence of an Anglophone. But perhaps those who subjectively believe themselves to be articulating the /ks/in Kseniya would likewise be more variable in practice.

    Variability of acoustically-discernable practice aside (and in addition to the difficulties apparently inherent in self-reporting, I was exposed to Japanese in boyhood so I'm not a good example of "regular" educated AmE usage in any event), it does seem significant, to build on the point others have made, that so many people at least believe themselves to be using /ts/ for tsunami while virtually no one believes themselves to be doing anything special with the cz in czar that would make it pronounced differently from "zar."

  30. John Walden said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

    I remember being cross at being told, by Stanley Ellis, that nobody ever said anything other than 'Wendsday' and 'hambag". To this day I'm sure I don't.

  31. Peter Taylor said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    However, the great majority of the pronunciations in this NPR story are [s]-initial, suggesting that our commenters who claim that they always use [ts] are either atypical or mistaken.

    Surely it only suggests that your educated American commenters etc.? What proportion of the people who commented on their pronunciation were educated Americans?

  32. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

    A bunch of at-least-somewhat educated Americans are familiar with Hebrew or Japanese, and pronounce tsaddik or tsushin just fine. I understand Bill Poser to be saying that *even those* people, when speaking English rather than Hebrew or Japanese, will (unconsciously?) substitute s for the initial ts in an assimilated loan-word like tsunami, because of their understanding of what English words are "supposed" to sound like. Do I have that right, as a statement of what (some?) linguists believe? Is it widely noted in analogous situations?

  33. Ellen K. said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    Chris Waters: I suspect the original post wouldn't have had such a flurry of replies, though, if Bill hadn't claimed that pronouncing the initial "t" was wrong

    But Bill Poser did not claim that pronouncing the initial "t" is wrong.

    Fascinating how people are reading things into what he wrote that aren't there, and then complaining about those things they read into it.

  34. the other Mark P said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    I remember being cross at being told, by Stanley Ellis, that nobody ever said anything other than 'Wendsday' and 'hambag".

    I tried once to get a class of 14 year olds to understand that "Hungary" is not pronounced the same as "hungry". They insisted that they were pronounced the same. As it was 28 to 1, I suspect that like most people I actually say "hungry" even as they mentally think they are saying "Hungary".

  35. Adam said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    Does this mean people necessarily deceive themselves about how they pronounce things? I get the observer's paradox, but I don't buy that it's that simple.

  36. Stuart said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    I really enjoyed this discussion, especially the illustration of how unreliable one's on perceptions of how one speaks can be. I would say that I remember "ts"unami having been standard in NZE when the word was first becoming mainstream and supplanting "tidal wave", but that now "sunami" seems much more common. That might well just be the recency illusion, though, so I'l stick to what I do know, that in my own idiolect, "ts"unami has definitely become "sunami".

  37. William Steed said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

    @Ben WRT Turkish – it's also noticeable that Turkish has borrowed from English, using a high back rounded vowel, or perhaps just from its standard transliteration. If Turkish had borrowed it directly from Japanese pronunciation, it's likely that it would have been borrowed with the high back unrounded vowel the two languages (supposedly) have in common.

  38. Mark Mandel said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    MYL appended: "Update — to compare the pronunciations in a different demographic, listen to the Fox News segment "Incredible Video: Massive Wall of Water Sweeps Ashore in Japan", 3/11/2011, where I count 14 instances of tsunami, all with initial [s]."

    I just watched that video. I have avoided videos of the quake & tsunami up till now, partly because my daughter is in Japan (she's OK). I wasn't counting, and I didn't try to use Praat or anything similar, but it *seemed* to me that the anchorwoman was using initial [s] while the meteorologist was tending to use [ts]. (NB: In addition to all the previously mentioned possibilities for misperception and misreporting, the meteorologist was on the phone to the studio.)

    [(myl) I think you might be projecting. MP3s of the Rick Reichmuth's first two pronunciations of tsunami are here and here -- or below if your browser supports the audio tag with mp3s (Note that many browsers don't, and Firefox won't play mp3s -- don't get me started on that).

    A spectrogram of the first one is below --

    Note that there is no stop gap between the frication noise at the end of "large" and the initial frication of "tsunami".]

  39. Dan T. said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    The homophones that some people above deny do figure occasionally in puns, like "Someday, my prints will come", applying a song about a prince to the situation of waiting interminably for one's photos to arrive in the days before digital cameras. Similarly, I remember a girl in school when I was a kid who liked to say "Intense!" as a generic exclamation for everything; then the class went on a camping trip, and the next time she said that I responded "That's how we're camping… in tents!"

  40. Alan Curry said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    At the risk of being another one of the "I say Y" people… army1987's comment brings up an interesting point. chip is rendered as [tS] by linguists with their fancy IPA, implying that the "ch" sound is equivalent to a "t" sound followed by an "sh" sound, but really it isn't. I don't say "tship", which would sound different from "chip". I don't know if any English words that actually have a "t" sound followed by an "sh" sound in the same syllable. I wonder if something similar is happening with tsunami. Is there single sound which is being written as [ts] because IPA lacks a representation for it, like it does "ch"?

  41. GeorgeW said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    Is there anything that would predict [tsu-] > [su-] and [tsi-] > [ti-] (in tsetse) for (most) English speakers?

  42. GeorgeW said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

    I would also point out that for the Christian English speakers I have heard, [tsi-] is pronounced [zai-] in the familiar Hebrew word 'Zion.' In fact, it is also spelled with a [z] in English.

    Of course, the vowel is a victim of the Great Vowel Shift, but this should have left the initial [ts] unscathed.

  43. Julie said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

    @George: I think a preceding 'k' would do it.

    I think the word "the" may possibly have that effect in some speakers, but I can't see why.

  44. Ben said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    @William Steed
    No doubt that it comes via written English. Had it come through the spoken language then they would probably be saying sunami!

    Another example of this would be the Turkish work cunta, which is English's junta. Had it come from Spanish, then they'd write hunta.

  45. annieone said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    Here in Brazil, i keep hearing "teesunãmi". it reminds of a rock concert by the Police, with fans shouting the trisillabic "Estingue" instead of Sting.

  46. Juergen Lorenz said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

    @Alan Curry
    But of course, there is. When we emigrated from Germany, we were about to go to "Tchicahgo, Illinoiss." It took some time for us to exchange the hard "Tch" for a soft "Sh."

  47. Chris Waters said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

    Ellen K.: But Bill Poser did not claim that pronouncing the initial "t" is wrong.

    Ok, he said, "English does not allow" it. It's a pretty fine distinction between the two, and I'd actually take "does not allow" as a stronger claim. Of course, we both know he didn't mean that in a prescriptivist sense—I actually defended him against such a charge in the earlier thread—but I still think that his claim, however worded, helped trigger the barrage of replies.

    In Bill's further defense, I will say that MYL's evidence suggests that even when English does allow the syllable-initial [ts], it does so more reluctantly than many people might have guessed, including, apparently, the two lexicographers for the American Heritage and Collier's Online dictionaries who offered the initial [ts] as the sole pronunciation.

  48. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    I know nothing of the history of Hebrew pronunciation, but is an initial /ts/ in the word Englished as "Zion" a modern development? Wikipedia says "Tiberian vocalization: Ṣiyyôn." See also English (via KJV) "Zipporah" v. transliterated Modern Hebrew Tsippora/Tzipora/etc.

    Scanning the relatively few column inches of ts-initial words in the American Heritage Dictionary (1st ed.), the one I think I probably use the most in speech is "tsuris," which I believe I do pronounce at least some of the time with a /ts/.

  49. Hermann Burchard said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    Off-topic:
    Just to brag a little on the old country.. somewhere I read German is unique in allowing long strings of voiceless consonants. Still looking for five in a row: "Hauptstraße" may not count because some may challenge "s" and "r".

  50. dw said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    chip is rendered as [tS] by linguists with their fancy IPA, implying that the "ch" sound is equivalent to a "t" sound followed by an "sh" sound, but really it isn't.

    English has three phonemes found as the initial consonants in the words "chip", "tip" and "ship". The first is best represented in IPA by /tʃ/, second by /t/ and third by /ʃ/, but that does not necessarily mean that one is identical to a sequence of the other two. All representations of phonemes in IPA or any other symbolism are to some degree a matter of convention.

    (BTW a potential minimal pair is "cat shit" vs. "catch it", although this is not really satisfactory because the different word boundaries may also play a role.)

  51. dw said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 10:57 pm

    @Hermann Burchard

    English has four consecutive voiceless consonants in "sixths" (/sɪksθs/, although they are rarely all articulated).

  52. Alexander Kavka said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

    @Hermann Burchard:
    Swedish allows long clusters of voiceless consonants, typically based on the triple suffix -sk-t-s (adjectival -sk +neuter gender + genitive). Mikael Parkvall, in his book "Limits of Language", achieves 8 consonants in a rather artificial but fully grammatical sentence. To appreciate his example, you must imagine two families, the Norén family and the Herbst family, both wealthy enough to employ housemaids (this is upper-class Sweden in the 1930s). The sentence, if I remember it right, is: "Varför skulle ett Norénskt hembiträdes förkläde vara smutsigare än ett Herbstskts?” ('Why should a Norén family housemaid's apron be dirtier than that of a Herbst family housemaid?')
    The wonderful word "Herbstskts" is pronounceable, but it may take some practice.

  53. Will said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

    @dw, I also couldn't think of a minimal pair without word boundaries, but my first thought when I read that comment was to pronounce the word "crouch". Now, I know the CH here is in coda position and not onset. But I feel like people would tend to pronounce the made-up word "croutsh" exactly the same way. I'm wondering if @Alan Curry could chime in here (tshime in here?) — do your intuitions agree with mine about "croutsh"?

    (And yes, I know that the whole point of this post was that intuitions can be startling incorrect, but I still think it's interesting to discuss the intuitions people have).

  54. Joe Fineman said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

    I was astonished to discover, here & then in the AHD, that "tsar" counts as a mere spelling variant of "czar" and that /zar/ is the dominant pronunciation in all senses. In my dialect (idiolect?), "tsar" & "czar" are distinct words, pronounced /tsar/ & /zar/, and meaning the Russian emperor & the special boss, respectively. If asked before I looked it up, I would have said that /tsar/ for the boss was grotesquely pedantic, and /zar/ for the emperor archaic & mildly vulgar.

  55. Alan Curry said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 12:32 am

    Indeed "croutsh" would be hard to distinguish from "crouch". This doesn't tell us much though, since there aren't any English words that end in "tsh". They would be a subset of the set in which "tsh" exists in a single syllable, which I still believe is empty. Any pair of words showing the ch/tsh distinction must be multisyllabic. I can't think of any good ones. "courtship"/"core chip"?

  56. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 12:48 am

    @J. W. Brewer: In ancient Hebrew and still in Yemenite Hebrew, the first consonant in Ṣiyyôn was an "emphatic s". I hope you know what that means, because I don't. This is according to Wikipedia, which agrees with other things I remember reading. In most speakers' modern Hebrew, it's /ts/.

    The Septuagint has σιων, somewhat to my surprise, and the Vulgate has Sion, which I must have known. Luther has Zion (all from the invaluable biblos.com). Wycliffe and Coverdale have Sion. I wonder whether the King James translators got the Z from Luther.

    @Marc Ettlinger: Yes, I suspect that Hebrew school had a lot to do with my pronunciation of tsunami with a /ts/.

  57. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 12:50 am

    @John Walden: Good thing you weren't told that everybody says "Wendsdee", a claim I've heard.

  58. Hermann Burchard said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 1:25 am

    @dw:
    lol — Do you mean as in "clothes" pronounced /cloz/?

  59. Ellen K. said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:06 am

    @Chris Waters: There is a difference between an observation and a judgment. Bill Poser did one. It may or may not be a correct observation, still, it was an observation. You are claiming it was a judgment, but there's nothing in his post to indicate judgment.

  60. John Walden said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:37 am

    @Jerry Friedman. I'd be literally livid.

  61. LDavidH said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 3:29 am

    @Alexander Kavka: Well, yes, in Swedish, the word "Herbstskts" is theoretically possible – but as a native Swede, I must say I would never ever say it! I found it very difficult, if not impossible, to say it in a natural way, and I would not create that kind of word naturally.

  62. Janice Byer said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 3:30 am

    Regarding the pronunciation of Hebrew words, my late Jewish husband, for what it's worth to our discussion, assured me niceties of pronunciation my WASP ear struggled even to hear were for those born to Hebrew to speak, and not for us otherwise to suffer to inhibit good faith appropriation of words sincerely and perfectly meant.

    My imperfectly voiced Hebrew caused DH to cringe only at Seders. Tellingly, it was whenever I read from the Haggadah passed to each and all in turn, in happy creation of a communal service traditional to Passover, much appreciated and understood by me, albeit the latter only in translation. To be convincing, I need to speak my own little truth.

  63. John Atkinson said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 4:07 am

    I haven't read all the comments yet, but everyone I've read so far claims to have [(t)su(:)nami], with [u] or [u(:)]. The way I say and hear it is with a syllabic n, either [tsn.a:mi] or [sn.a:mi], which would surely correspond to phonemic /(t)sənami/. Do others (I mean those who stress the second syllable, as seems standard) really hear a "u" there?

  64. Tom S. Fox said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 5:22 am

    @Alan Curry: “chip is rendered as [tS] by linguists with their fancy IPA, implying that the "ch" sound is equivalent to a "t" sound followed by an "sh" sound, but really it isn't. I don't say "tship", which would sound different from "chip".”

    Do a little experiment: Record yourself saying “tship” and “chip”, play it back, and try to hear a difference.

  65. GeorgeW said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 6:14 am

    J.W. Brewer: " . . . is an initial /ts/ in the word Englished as "Zion" a modern development? "

    I assume you mean a development of modern Hebrew? I don't think so. The pronunciation given in "Hebrew for Theologians" regarding Biblical Hebrew is like that in 'tsar' presumably the affricate [ts].

    Also, the Omniglot description is [ts].
    http://www.omniglot.com/writing/hebrew.htm

  66. Nightstallion said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 6:44 am

    »If you really want to have fun with this idea, ask an American who's never heard about glottal stops how he pronounces "button." (Isn't that actually an exercise in introductory linguistics classes?)«

    … I've just been amazed to find out that according to Wiktionary, the US pronunciation is indeed (or at least sometimes) /ˈbʌ.ʔn̩/ – I've never heard or pronounced it as anything other than /ˈbʌ.tən/…

  67. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 7:06 am

    @Nightstallion

    Amazing!!! I had always THOUGHT that I pronounced "button" as /ˈbʌ.tən/, but now I just tested myself several times and find that I actually pronounce it as /ˈbʌ.ʔn̩/. **However, if I were teaching English to a foreigner or giving a very formal speech, I would be careful to enunciate the word as /ˈbʌ.tən/.**

    I was both surprised, and a little bit disappointed in myself, to discover that in normal speech I say /ˈbʌ.ʔn̩/. In general, Mark's Rule (about "I say Y") lives.

  68. Frans said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    @Hermann Burchard:

    Off-topic:
    Just to brag a little on the old country.. somewhere I read German is unique in allowing long strings of voiceless consonants. Still looking for five in a row: "Hauptstraße" may not count because some may challenge "s" and "r".

    That's no different from Dutch hoofdstraat. I don't know about native speakers of German, but I think I'd be far more likely to "drop" (or at least lessen the presence of) the /t/ while speaking than the /s/ or the /r/.

    In Dutch the consonant cluster is /ftstr/ (/hoftstrat/) whereas in German it's (presumably) /ptʃtr/ (/haʊptʃtraːsə/ or something like that).

    Anyway, on topic, I didn't even realize that English people didn't pronounce a /p/ in psychiatrist until I heard it drawn out into syllables (I think by Frasier) as sy-chi-a-trist. I've since corrected a number of Dutch people when they pronounced it with a /p/ while speaking English, and I've also come to realize that I was mispronouncing various other words (like tsar). I've also heard tsunami with an [s] a couple of times, though it was my (perhaps mistaken) impression that [ts] is more customary. While I pronounce ps words with an s without thinking these days, I largely still have to make at least a semi-conscious effort to drop the /t/ in words where /ts/ seems natural to me.

  69. GeorgeW said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    "M-W Collegiate Dictionary" online gives the middle consonant in 'button' as [t]. However, when listening to their rendition it sounds very much to me like a glottal stop. There is a clear contrast with the ODE pronunciation in BrE. which is clearly a [t].

  70. Frans said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    That's no different from Dutch hoofdstraat. I don't know about native speakers of German, but I think I'd be far more likely to "drop" (or at least lessen the presence of) the /t/ while speaking than the /s/ or the /r/.

    I just realized that's a little unclear. I meant the /t/ in the middle, so the pronunciation could potentially become more akin to /hofstrat/, though it's probably more appropriate to insert some less enunciated variety of /t/ instead. Palatized t ([tʲ]) might be a good candidate.

  71. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    Well, Jerry Friedman and GeorgeW do not seem entirely in accord on pre-modern Hebrew pronunciation, but let's get back to Dr. Poser's claim, which is that English accepts /ts/ as a consonant cluster EXCEPT word-initially, such that whether or not Anglophones will accept /ts/ in loan words depends on the position of the cluster within the word. But the rendering of Hebrew proper names in traditional English translations of the OT does not, afaik, use "ts" as a spelling or pronunciation in non-word-initial positions where English phonotactics would uncontroversially accept it. E.g., the same Hebrew letter (and sound?) which commences "Zion" also comes out as "z" in the name of Amaziah, King of Judah, whose name as pronounced in Modern Hebrew is apparently sometimes transliterated "Amatzia." This suggests to me that the Anglophones of four centuries ago (whose exposure to whatever passed for fluent Hebrew speakers in those days was admittedly limited) did not perceive /ts/ as the Hebrew sound they were trying to render. By contrast, I assume those Anglophones who can't or don't manage the /ts/ in "tsunami" have no trouble with "Mitsubishi" (although they may break up the syllables differently than would be done in Japanese?). On Sion v. Zion, btw, note also the early variability in spelling between Elisabeth and Elizabeth, and that the Vulg. has "Amasias" for Amaziah.

  72. language hat said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    Hermann Burchard: somewhere I read German is unique in allowing long strings of voiceless consonants.

    You'll have to take a look at Georgian sometime!

  73. GeorgeW said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    @J.W. Brewer: I think the [z] in Zion supports Dr. Poser's claim. Were [ts] an acceptable onset in English, the word would be written and pronounced [tsion]. Instead, English speakers repaired the Hebrew word to fit our phonology.

  74. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    My initial response to the original post was "I think we pronounce the ts here at least some of the time" but then I remembered how many times I have thought I pronounced things one way and discovered I pronounced it another way. A quick and unscientific listen to the conversations around here (and there've been a lot: we had a small mandatory evacuation and a large spontaneous one due to faulty information on the Spanish language radio stations) indicates that we're really inconsistent here (Santa Cruz/Central Coast California).

    My speculation is that hereabouts the pronunciation is affected by other words in the sentence — not just the one directly before it — and the specific conversational context. Are we more likely to pronounce the ts if we're talking about an event, a general concern, or a brand name (lots of things have a tsunami brand name)? It would be interesting to check.

  75. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    sorry for double posting, but @John Atkinson: I am absolutely certain that the presence of the u in the first syllable also varies a lot around here, possibly depending on the word's position or function in the sentence?

    I think "They're predicting a tsunami" would have the u: and "The tsunami was bigger than expected" wouldn't.

  76. PrettyPinkPonies said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    I'm American, and I have a half-voiced retroflexed flap in "button", NOT a glottal stop. In fact, in my ideolect (Rhode Island/Newport Irish), intervocalic t and d are indistinguishable within a word, a not uncommon Americanism. I'm not sure why I don't have a glottal stop there, but I don't.

  77. army1987 said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    I don't think the grounds to consider /tS/ a phoneme are much stronger than those to consider /tr/ a phoneme (nitrate~night rate), or indeed most other consonant clusters (the /k.w/ in /lu:k wO:rm/ lukewarm isn't the same as the /.kw/ in /blu: kwO:rk/ blue quark, is it.) I'd just say that the syllabification is part of the specification of the pronunciation of an English word (Wells 1990).

  78. army1987 said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

    As for Wednesday, my dictionary only gives /wenzdeI, -I/, which accurately describes what I do most of the times. I think sometimes I do have a few milliseconds of [d] between the /n/ and the /z/, but I don't think I ever pronounce it with more than two syllables, even in isolation.

  79. David said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    @Victor Mair Actually, most ESL teachers are sure to teach their students that /t/ is pronounced as a glottal stop when medial and followed by an unstressed syllabic /n/, as in 'Britain', 'kitten', 'button', etc. I know I do with my Chinese students.

    PS I'm a former student and good friend of Chris Beckwith. You two should really write a book together on linguistics.

  80. Hermann Burchard said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    @Alexander Kavka: The Herbstskts example is splendid. Jag älskar den vackra Svenska flickorna! (My one and only Swedish sentence memorized from trip to Ångermanälven, ~1953.)

    @language hat: Always wondered about Tiblisi, and Dmanisi (1.85M year old human remains), difficult for my tongue, although two voiced consonants. But am unable to read Վրացերեն script — yet.

    @GeorgeW: acceptable onset in English, inadvertently prescriptive?

  81. James C. said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    Just south of Vancouver BC there’s a town called Tsawwassen. People either pronounce this as [təˈwɑ.sən] or [səˈwɑ.sən]. It is almost never [tsəˈwɑ.sən], and using that pronunciation as a newcomer typically elicits correction from someone who has lived in Vancouver for a long time. The first time I referred to the town (and its ferry terminal), I was immediately corrected by two different locals.

  82. Faith said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    I always assumed the spelling "Zion" came into English via German. Isn't initial z usually pronounced "ts" in German?

  83. Meagen said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    A friend of mine wrote about his experience with Japanese emergency procedures. I think you'll know why I linked this at LL. :)

    http://www.kalzumeus.com/2011/03/13/some-perspective-on-the-japan-earthquake/

  84. GeorgeW said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    @Hermann Burchard: "acceptable onset in English, inadvertently prescriptive?"

    Absolutely not. I have no objection to [ts] onsets, it just isn't natural to English like many other sound segments and combinations allowable in other languages.

  85. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    I probably say "sunami" at least half the time even though my wife's last name begins with the Japanese Tsu- syllable and I usually pronounce the tee in that. Even there, I'm sure it comes out Suchiya at least a quarter of the time.

  86. dw said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    I don't think the grounds to consider /tS/ a phoneme are much stronger than those to consider /tr/ a phoneme (nitrate~night rate), or indeed most other consonant clusters (the /k.w/ in /lu:k wO:rm/ lukewarm isn't the same as the /.kw/ in /blu: kwO:rk/ blue quark, is it.)

    But your /tr/ and /kw/ can't occur in coda position. /tS/ can and does: in fact I think it would be the only stop-initial cluster that could occur morpheme finally.

    On the basis of my own speech I would analyze words like "train" as actually beginning /tSr/ rather than /tr/.

  87. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    (myl) It happens (and persists) because there's a pattern in English of penultimate stress on foreign words with final vowels, originally generalized from the large number of Latin, Italian, Spanish, etc., borrowings where this is typically the right thing to do.

    But the traditional anglicization of Latin words ending in īCa uses the English "long i" ([aɪ]), as in vagina, angina, saliva. Pronunciations like [pə'ti:nə] for patina seem to happen when the Latin has a short i and the stress is on the antepenult. (For what it's worth, I use what I think of as the traditional pronunciation, ['pætɪnə].) In Spanish and Italian words (especially names) the stress is also often wildly misplaced.

    [(myl) The "penultimate stress on vowel-final foreign words" generalization is sometimes etymologically wrong for Latin and Romance borrowings (though I think those cases are a minority of borrowings) -- but the validity of the generalization as a fact about English doesn't depend on being etymologically correct. There are also plenty of cases where the generalization doesn't apply, e.g. phenomena, radula, etc. But it's still a pattern that exerts a pretty strong pressure in the case of (for example) 3- and 4-syllable Japanese words ending in (orthographically simple) vowels.]

  88. army1987 said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

    @Meagen:
    Oh dear.
    Is there *any* language with a word for "excessive preparation"? :-)

  89. J Lee said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

    I'm with dw. I don't even have an alveolar gesture in /tr/. West Coast thang

  90. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    @GeorgeW and J. W. Brewer: I agree that initial /ts/ must not have existed in King James's English. However, I'm not sure how much you can deduce from the King James transliterations. They consistently represent the yod as "j", although "y" would have matched Hebrew pronunciation. They also write "b" where the pronunciation is /v/, though they don't merge the exactly parallel "ph" with "p" and "th" with "t". I imagine this has more to do with ancient Greek phonology than with English. For an example from another language, Italian translations use Sion like the Vulgate, though Zion would be much closer to the Hebrew, if I'm not mistaken.

    If anyone's interested in more information on the Biblical pronunciation of the tsade, Wikipedia says, "The so called 'emphatics' were likely glottalized, but possibly pharyngealized or velarized.[61][62] Some argue that /s, z, sʼ/ were affricated (/ts, dz, tsʼ/).[61]"

    [61] Blau, Joshua (2010). Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.

    [62]Rendsburg, Gary A. (1997), "Ancient Hebrew Phonology", in Kaye, Alan, Phonologies of Asia and Africa, Eisenbrauns, pp. 65-83

    @Nightstallion: I say [ˈbʌ.ʔn̩], and so do most Americans I know. The way it usually works for me, as far as I can tell, is that I say the [bʌ], I stop the air flow with my tongue in the [t] position, I close my glottis, and then I restart the air flow with a glottal stop without moving my tongue (much). As the air can't go out through my mouth, it goes out through my nose for a syllabic /n/. Maybe [ˈbʌ.tʔn̩] would be a better transcription? However, I don't think I'm consistent.

    If you don't say this, I'll bet you can hear people who do. (Disregarding MYL's principle that I'm probably wrong about my pronunciation.)

    Where I live in New Mexico, some young Hispanic people say something like [ˈbʌ.ʔɨn], with nothing t-like at all. (I'm just mentioning this in hopes of tempting MYL into some language tourism.)

    @army1987: I got 9000 hits (not checked) for "overpreparation" and 1,000 for "overpreparedness". There must also be many for "over-preparation", etc. The numbers are still rather small.

  91. dw said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 10:32 pm

    @army1987:

    Sorry to drag this thread even further off-topic, but you've gotten me thinking. I think the strongest case for /tS/ as a unit phoneme is by analogy with /dZ/. /dZ/ is well-established in all positions in common core vocabulary, while /Z/ is very marginal (completely absent from native Germanic words and present initially or finally only in very recent loans such as "beige" or "genre"). I believe that some accents even merge /Z/ with /S/ or /dZ/. One can therefore argue that there is a good case for /dZ/ to be a unit phoneme, rather than a sequence of /dZ/. And, if /dZ/ is established as a unit phoneme, then by symmetry it makes sense for /tS/ to be a unit phoneme also.

  92. James Kabala said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 10:57 pm

    "I imagine this has more to do with ancient Greek phonology than with English."

    In the case of j, I think the motive was that so many yod names were already spelled with j in English – e.g., John, James, Jeremiah, Jerusalem, and of course Jesus Himself – that a conservative (from an English point of view) transliteration was necessary. (Of course Greek and Latin spellings underlay this use of j in the first place.) With some other letters, however, the KJV translators seemed willing to introduce new spellings. Zion was definitely a break with the previously used Sion.

    Japanese also lacks a word for looting, by the way:

    http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/12/orderly-disaster-reaction-in-line-with-deep-cultural-roots/

  93. wm tanksley said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

    I found a good linguistic quote on this page:

    http://www.kalzumeus.com/2011/03/13/some-perspective-on-the-japan-earthquake/

    "Because Japanese does not have a word for excessive preparation."

    In context, I'm almost certain that this was deliberate mockery of the linguistic mistake.

    -Wm

  94. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 12:29 am

    @James Kabala and everyone else: Just forget what I said about "J" in the KJV, please.

    From the Book of Ioshua:

    "1 Nowe after the death of Moses the seruant of the Lord, it came to passe, that the Lord spake vnto Ioshua the sonne of Nun, Moses minister, saying, 2 Moses my seruant is dead: now therefore arise, goe ouer this Iordan, thou, and all this people, vnto the land which I doe giue to them, euen to the children of Israel."

  95. Will said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 2:42 am

    I had thought that the t was silent, like the p in pseudo–not because of the limits of anglophone tongues, but that the letter just wasn't pronounced. But I now realize there would be no good reason to have a silent letter in a transliteration of a Japanese word.

  96. ?! said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 3:36 am

    I pronounce the word more or less like in Japanese. The sound in Japanese isn't quite as "ts" like in Yiddish "tsuris", he 't' is a little subtle, so sometimes it does sound just like an s. As someone may have mentioned in the other thread, the つ sound in Japanese really isn't so similar to "ts" in English. For example it can be hardened- づ and the result isn't really "dzu", it is more like a soft "du" – which is how I input it in my Mac interface.

    Today I was listening to a report by an NHK reporter who survived a horrendous experience in Sendai and the interpreter, who seemed to have a Japanese accent, pronounced tsunami as "toonami" in English.

    I have heard it said that if you repeat "eight suits" multiple times, the "t s" in the middle sounds more like the Japanese sound.

  97. Ben Hemmens said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    @ Victor Mair:

    Aha yes, Moser, the composer.

    This pronunciation never occurred to me until recently, when I heard some Australians being interviewed on their impressions of Austria on the car radio. For a second or two, my wife (who spent time in Australia) and I both thought: what Moser was ever famous enough to be known down under? And then we realized it was Mozart they were talking about.

    Which led me to the subsidiary question of who the most famous Moser in history would be? My guess is the cyclist Francesco Moser, Italian, but from Trento, practically on the Austrian border.

  98. James Kabala said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    Jerry Friedman: Good point. I had temporarily forgotten that this was the before the rise of the clear I/J distinction. Those names were still pronounced with a /j/ sound though, right?

  99. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    Jerry F.: I think conjectural reconstructions of ancient Biblical pronunciation are a red herring because what matters is the pronunciation of Hebrew Anglophone translators of the 16th and 17th centuries would have been familiar with. They wouldn't have known the "Biblical" pronunciation of Hebrew any more than they would have known the conjectural reconstruction of classical Latin pronunciation that only started getting taught to those of us who learned Latin in the 20th century. Based on the sort of in-depth scholarly expertise that only comes with 10 or 15 mins of fiddling around on wikipedia, there seems some chance that the Hebrew they were exposed to may have been the once-prestigious/now-obsolete "Tiberian" pronunciation, which apparently did not have /ts/ but instead either had /z/ or some weird thing where the relevant wikipedia article sticks in what looks like an IPA symbol that seems not to be actually attested in the IPA. In rendering Old Testament proper names, the KJV deviates frequently and sometimes systematically from the Vulgate tradition its translators would have known (which is preserved in the Douay-Rheims), and there are probably scholarly articles that have been written about the details to their approach, although I don't know if "Sion" was pronounced unvoiced in English circa 1600 such that the respelling "Zion" was supposed to cue a difference in pronunciation. All of which is to say that "Zion" as an English loanword is not a helpful parallel for "tsunami" absent confidence that the source language in the specific version Anglophones experienced it at the relevant time the word was being lexicalized into English actually had word-initial /ts/ and I do not, as a tentative and preliminary matter, have that confidence. It does seem potentially relevant that Mozart gets pronounced as "Motsart" while "Zimmermann" rarely gets pronounced "Tsimmermann," but that may be just because the "z" spelling cues English orthographic conventions except for very very well-known celebrity proper names.

    On the other hand, I was struck by the case mentioned above of words spelled with initial ps-. I am part of the presumably very small subset of AmE speakers who have along the way taken formal classes in both Japanese and ancient Greek, yet I definitely attempt (subject to limitations of observer data) to use /ts/ in tsunami but would never under any circumstances use /ps/ in "psychologist" or "pseudo-intellectual," unless perhaps I was trying to be jocose. I have no theory for this seeming lack of parallelism.

    Another Japanese test case: Kyoto (and also the second syllable of Tokyo) starts in a fashion that's outside usual English phonotactics, because the "ky-" onset can only, I think, be followed with the vowel found in "cute" and "Cuban" and isn't found before other vowels. So probably a lot of Anglophones actually pronounce Kyoto as if it were spelled (in romaji) Kiyoto. But this is something that someone with a bunch of tapes of tv/radio programs and a spectrograph could study.

    Speaking of Japanese orthography, I took a perhaps excessive and childlike delight in the "hiragana" article in the Scots version of wikipedia which I googled up by accident: "It is mair easier tae read nor the kanji (the seestem based on Cheenese chairacters) whilk maun be learnt wird bi wird, acause ance the 46 hiragana seembols haes been learnt, the reader kens whit wey tae pronounce them."

  100. Hermann Burchard said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    @wm tanksley: In Patrick's blog why you use Japanese for “tsunamis” and “typhoons” but actually typhoon is of Hellenic origin as noted by Wikipedia: "Predating its Chinese use, the etymology of typhoon is from the Greek τύφειν (typhein), to smoke, which later made its way into the Arabic language (as طوفان Tufân) to describe the cyclonic storms of the Indian Ocean." The storm which stranded Saint Paul on Malta is a τυφων in the Hellenic NT. Strange but true.

  101. Mary Kuhner said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

    My aikido dojo in the US has to deal with "tsuki" which we use to refer to a fist punch. We can hear that our Japanese colleagues don't pronounce the "u", but we can't duplicate what they do, which seems to be "tski". So we vacillate, as far as I can tell, between "suki" and "ski" and "tsuki" all of which are wrong….

    In compound words we merrily attach the t to the previous syllable, so a midline punch "munetsuki" is "munet-ski". I cannot hear the difference between that and the correct pronunciation "mune-tski" but I bet there is one.

    I had to see it written, several years after learning the word, to realize that "munetsuki" is a compound containing "tsuki". (Though I really should have known that Japanese syllables cannot end in T.) Dojo Japanese is a weird beast altogether; I worry that Japanese speakers will wonder what the heck I am saying….

  102. David B Solnit said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    My vital 2 cents: I think I say /ˈbʌtʔn̩/ for "button." That is, alveolar stop (which being an oral stop necessarily includes velar closure) followed by simultaneous glottal and velar release.
    I may say /ˈbʌʔn̩/ sometimes also, but when I deliberately produce it that way it sounds kind of British to me.

  103. hector said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    Okay, since I read your post, I've been paying attention to myself. Do I pronounce "tsunami" with a "ts" or do I just think I do? And the answer is, I do, but I often (depending, presumably, on the rhythm of the sentence and the state of my breath at the time) tap very lightly on the "t." The primary reason for the inconsistency is the following "u," which, like most native English speakers, I tend to overpronounce compared to the Japanese, who elide or just tap it very lightly. It's not easy to say "ts" with a following "oo" sound.

    In Vancouver, we have a large Greek community, and in the seventies, Greek restaurants became ubiquitous, and many people learned what tzatziki is, and learned to pronounce it with an initial "ts." Whether this is the correct Greek pronunciation, or merely a simulacrum, I don't know, but the point is, "ts" is easy to say with a following short "a."

    P.S. I have always said "Wednsday." And although resistance is futile, "Wensday" continues to make me wince. Fortunately, as I age and my attention weakens, it often slips by me unnoticed, so I wince less.

  104. Graeme said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    Against the backdrop of the humanitarian toll, it is almost sweet to find such passionate debate about pronunciation and etymology to describe such a force; at times like these it is most obvious that our words are but jumbles of noise straining to give a labelled order to it all.

    Once upon a time these logomachies made sense, when we spoke blindly, removed from the scenes we tried to imagine; now the images, scientific diagrams etc are before our eyes in minutes.

    In the end, it is endearing that English would have at least two words for the one phenomenon. If nothing else, it gives the poets some choice.

  105. Tadeusz said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    I think that the best way to listen to one's pronunciation is to record an utterance and listen to it after several days. Introspective judgements are not worth much. And it is not bad to have some phonetic training …

  106. David Marjanović said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

    I remember being taught (ESL) to pronounce Wednesday as /ˈwɛnsdɪ/ (two syllables). No intrusive [d], no [z], and probably a devoiced /d/ (but I didn't notice, because the /b d g/ of southern German are as completely voiceless as those of Mandarin). I later noticed that -/dɪ/ even in the names of days of the week is very rare, but I hadn't noticed the rest of the variation described in this thread.

    chip is rendered as [tS] by linguists with their fancy IPA, implying that the "ch" sound is equivalent to a "t" sound followed by an "sh" sound, but really it isn't. I don't say "tship", which would sound different from "chip". I don't know if any English words that actually have a "t" sound followed by an "sh" sound in the same syllable.

    Very good observation! What's going on with English "ch" is that the "t" part of it isn't really [t]: the tip of the tongue is already where it's going to be needed for the "sh" part. So, in full pedantry mode, it should be transcribed into IPA with a "retracted" diacritic under the "t" part: [t̠͡ʃ] rather than just [t͡ʃ].

    Polish is famous for possessing both [t̠͡ʃ], spelled cz, and a genuine [t͡ʃ], spelled trz. There are minimal pairs, for instance czy "or" and trzy "three". If you say [t͡ʃ] too slowly, you risk ending up saying [t̠͡sʃ].

    I wonder if something similar is happening with tsunami. Is there single sound which is being written as [ts] because IPA lacks a representation for it, like it does "ch"?

    Could be, because the English /t/ is by default apical (the tip of the tongue rests against the edge of the alveolar ridge and is then pulled back), while the English /s/ is laminal (the tongue just lies flat against the alveolar ridge). Where English does have /ts/ clusters in native words (hats, that's, <let's, hatstand…), the /t/ becomes laminal, but when a loanword with initial /t͡s/ comes up, I wonder if some people try to use the default apical [t̺] and then find it very difficult to go from there to a laminal [s̻] — the apical [s̺], which occurs in European Spanish and in Portuguese for instance, sounds too close to [ʃ] to English ears.

    In most European languages, /t/ is always laminal, so this question doesn't come up. And Polish has only one /t͡s/. :-)

    somewhere I read German is unique in allowing long strings of voiceless consonants. Still looking for five in a row: "Hauptstraße" may not count because some may challenge "s" and "r".

    The s — [ʃ] — is of course voiceless, but the r isn't for many native speakers. On the other hand, in northern and probably central Germany the [p] isn't released.

    You might want to try schimpfst, though [p͡f] is a single phoneme…

    I know nothing of the history of Hebrew pronunciation, but is an initial /ts/ in the word Englished as "Zion" a modern development? Wikipedia says "Tiberian vocalization: Ṣiyyôn."

    That's Semitist transcription. It stems from the fact that the Arabic cognate of that phoneme is [sˤ]. The common ancestor was almost certainly an ejective consonant, [t͡sʼ], but it took the Semitists at least 100 years to figure that out, even though ejectives survive in several Semitic languages today, even in a few dialects of what's left of Aramaic.

    I'd just say that the syllabification is part of the specification of the pronunciation of an English word

    Not directly, of course.

    The /t/ in night is unaspirated because it's at the end of a word, while the first one in nitrate is aspirated. That's what the distinction is.

    Tiblisi

    Tbilisi, with /tb/.

    Isn't initial z usually pronounced "ts" in German?

    Every z is always pronounced [t͡s] in German. Even in words of Greek or Hebrew origin.

    Well. I was quite shocked two years ago when I encountered someone in northeastern Germany who pronounced Zone with [z]. Must be Russian influence in East Germany (the person in question was clearly born well before 1989).

    I had thought that the t was silent, like the p in pseudo–not because of the limits of anglophone tongues, but that the letter just wasn't pronounced.

    Which letters are pronounced in English is of course due to English phonotactics. The p in pseudo- and psych- and everything else is pronounced in Greek, French, German, Russian and so on, and native speakers of those languages need to be taught to consciously drop it when they learn English.

    Those names were still pronounced with a /j/ sound though, right?

    Not in English.

    In Vancouver, we have a large Greek community, and in the seventies, Greek restaurants became ubiquitous, and many people learned what tzatziki is, and learned to pronounce it with an initial "ts." Whether this is the correct Greek pronunciation, or merely a simulacrum, I don't know

    Ts τσ is [t͡s], tz τζ is [d͡z]. Using δζ is not an option, because δ isn't [d] (in most environments) anymore, it's [ð] as in English this, that, they and so on.

  107. dw said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 12:57 am

    The /t/ in night is unaspirated because it's at the end of a word, while the first one in nitrate is aspirated.

    Not sure whether this is what you meant to say: the first /t/ in "nitrate" is either syllabified with the first syllable (in which case it is likely unreleased or replaced by a glottal, and almost certainly not aspirated), or with the second syllable (in which case it is starting a non-initial, unstressed syllable and therefore at most lightly aspirated, and any aspiration is likely consumed by the /r/).

    You could have given, say, "tight" as an example in which the first /t/ is aspirated.

  108. D Sky Onosson said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 1:55 am

    @ dw

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iMeBxNcZf0

    At about 6 seconds into this video the word nitrate is pronounced in a voice that would not be out of place in my dialect. The first letter t is clearly aspirated (also sounds retracted), and to my ears (though I haven't loaded it into Praat) the r sounds devoiced also.

  109. Ellen K. said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 7:40 am

    I agree, the first t in nitrate is aspirated. I wouldn't have thought so thinking about it, but saying the word, yup, definitely. For me, at least.

    I would also say the 2nd syllable is not unstressed, but carried secondary stress.

  110. Mark Dunan said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    As a ten-year resident of Japan, I've been pleased to see more and more Anglophones master the pronunciation of "tsunami".

    Now I'm hoping to see something similar with the syllable /tyu/ (IPA [tju]) in Japanese. Native words don't contain it, and it exists on the periphery when importing loan words. When talking about the magnitude of an earthquake, the established English-imported Japanese word is /magunichuudo/ マグニチュード, but after the quake, the Emperor came on television and amde a short speech, and he used the more accurate /magunityuudo/ マグニテュード, which is almost never heard from regular Japanese speakers. It'll be interesting to see if other Japanese speakers pick up on this.

    (My own English, from Brooklyn and New Jersey, has a [tu] sound there.)

  111. dw said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    @D Sky Onosson, @Ellen K.

    In the YouTube video, the second syllable of "nitrate" appears to me to carry primary stress, which isn't something I think I've ever heard before (and I wasn't able to find evidence of this realization in a quick scan of reference dictionaries). Even secondary stress on the second syllable sounds odd to me.

    You learn something every day. Apologies to all :)

  112. James Kabala said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    "'Those names were still pronounced with a /j/ sound though, right?'

    Not in English."

    Really? So how (for example) did Iames/James I or Ben Ionson/Jonson or Iohn/John Winthrop pronounce their own names?

  113. D Sky Onosson said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    @ dw

    I hear primary stress on the first syllable, though it's admittedly not very strong in this example (I just searched youtube for "nitrate" and posted the first video that had the word spoken in the first few seconds). No apologies necessary! I just couldn't imagine how to pronounce "nitrate" (or any syllabic onset with tr-) fluently without aspirating the t.

  114. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

    @David Marjanović and James Kabala: Maybe David is using /j/ for the initial sound of yes and James is using it for the initial sound of James?

  115. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 12:23 am

    @David Marjanović and J. W. Brewer: Here are the questions about Zion as I see them.

    Why did the King James translators write Zion when all their predecessors wrote Sion? Am I right in thinking that writing "z" for tsadhe was their only change in romanization, possibly aside from the spelling of some familiar names?

    Could they have decided to follow Martin Luther, for whom Zion must have been the natural spelling?

    Would they have heard [ts] from European Jews? Could that have sounded more like [z] than [s] to them, as it does to some modern people?

    Could they have heard some kind of "emphatic s" from Middle Eastern Jews, which sounded like [z] to them? Could they have thought that, being Middle Eastern or as close as possible to Tiberian, it was "right"?

    What is the history of the "emphatic s" pronunciation of tsadhe in the Middle East? Would it have existed when the Old Testament was being written? By the time of the Tiberian Masoretes (750–900 AD), possibly under Arab influence?

    I realize some of those questions may be unanswerable.

  116. Charly said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    I'll put myself down as someone who says "sunami" and knows it! :)

  117. Ben said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    All I know is if you want to be really annoyed, start paying attention to the inconsistent flapping of NPR commentators!

    [(myl) "Annoyed"? We tend to more interested in variation than annoyed by it. Well, OK, sometimes we're amused as well.

    Anyhow, could you give some examples of what you mean, with links? "Inconsistent flapping" is not something that I've noticed on NPR, and I tend to think that I would have.]

  118. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    J.W. Brewer

    although I don't know if "Sion" was pronounced unvoiced in English circa 1600 such that the respelling "Zion" was supposed to cue a difference in pronunciation.

    Sion College in London, founded 1630, is now pronounced with an unvoiced S, though I don't know if that's original, or a more recent development.

  119. Ben said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

    I have lots of examples of the flapping deal on NPR! I used to collect them. (Everyone needs a hobby.)

    For simplicity's sake, I'm using T for an aspirated t and D for a flap.

    I don't remember who said this:
    [seaTle] instead of [seaDle] for "Seattle"

    Patricia Murphy (KUOW, Seattle's NPR affiliate)
    [forDy-eight] as expected
    but [forTy-five] where [forDy-five] is expected

    unknown announcer (national)
    [senaTor] alongside [democraDic]

    Susan Stamberg (national)
    [ciTy] alongside [ciDies]

    Deborah Brandt (KUOW)
    [staTe of washington] where [staDe of washington] is expected, but [staDe of the economy]

    Patricia Murphy (KUOW)
    [social securiTy numbers] but [universiDy of washington]

    Peter Sagal
    mathemaDical (as expected) alongside activiTy

    don't know the name of the host, "Marketplace"
    [varieTy] alongside [varieDy]

    Peter Sagal
    biTTen (where you wouldn't expect aspiration OR flapping!)
    briTain, but manhatn (as expected)
    clinTon
    creaTed and relaTed alsongside exciDed
    twenTy
    geDing (as expected)
    universiDy
    goDi (for "Gotti")
    noT officially over
    marTin amis
    starTed
    auTomaTic (two non-flaps!)

    I think there's a lot of linguistic insecurity going on, for want of a better term. Commentators on NPR seem (to me) uncomfortable with the idea of sounding "sloppy" or "careless," so they—unconsciously—aspirate Ts instead of flapping them, but only sometimes.

  120. dw said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 12:41 am

    @Ben:

    I have noticed a lot of NPR inconsistency in "Clinton" too.

    (As a native Brit, I often get weird vibes from NPR-style news announcers because they tend to blend generally formal speech with features that in England would be very out of place in such speech, such as [ʔn] in words like "mountain".)

  121. un malpaso said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    I say "tsunami" with a very subtle initial t… but I think that's just because I took Russian as well as lingusitics in college, and therefore I am used to saying "tsar" as t-sar, even in English conversation, and I think I have extended the initial "ts" to other cases since I enjoy pronouncing it so much :)

    Good point, though.. even those of us who think we "know" languages are subject to the same subtle unconscious forces that make us all think we, ourselves, know the "right" way.

  122. John Matthesen said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    I picked up this thread via a linguistic forum based in Berkeley.

    The only comment I need to add is that I'm greatly relieved to find out I'm not the only one who's been going crazy over the whole [ts] thing.

    Now I can sit and stew with comfort, knowing so many others are at least aware and pondering all the reasons.

  123. Jed Chandler said,

    March 24, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

    I reached this page while trying to decide how to pronounce 'tsunami'. Since the disaster in Japan it's been, understandably, the topic of much conversation. Since I speak Japanese and have lived there I would naturally pronounce it as it is said there with each syllable of equal stress and duration. But is this correct practice when a word is evolving a separate pronunciation in English?

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