Valentine's Day homophony

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  1. Tim said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 10:09 am

    She needn't've played with homophones, which surely would have to've been marked by some sort of pragmatics. (I'm picturing stress on "you" followed by a short pause.) The sentence "I want you more than all the riches of the world" is already ambiguous between "I want you more than (I want) all the R.O.T.W.") and "I want you more than all the R.O.T.W. (want you)." The latter sentence will almost always be true.

  2. KeithB said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    There was a similar thing in Dilbert when his girlfriend asks "Do you love me more than that computer?", and Dilbert responds, "No, I love you more than *that* computer". But he thinks, "Don't ask me about the laptop…"

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    Has there been an LL post on the common 'then'~'than' typo? I can't work out what's causing it.

    Are the two actually homophones in any English accent? Those in the far East that have the mat-met merger? Does the Northern Cities Vowel Shift get you anywhere close? And does that even help, since the vowel in 'than' is generally schwa anyway?

  4. ClockwerkMao said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    As I understand it, it's because treating and as homophones is metanalysis. They're the same word in origin (I'm using etymonline as my source), and my wildly uneducated guess is that they're both subject to a wide variety of pronunciation variations by dialect and stress.

  5. Nathan said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Native Utah English speaker here. I would only ever pronounce than differently from then in some rare moment when I must emphasize the contrast. In ordinary speech both words have /ɛ/.
    But as a spelling stickler, I never ever spell either word worng.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    ClockwerkMao: Your example words disappeared, probably because you wanted them in italics but used arrows or other code in a way that made them invisible (other commenters will know). The absence of the words would have been evident in the window that reproduces the text as it will appear. If you are not sure how to fix this, use " " instead of italics and be sure to check the window under "Submit Comment" before you do submit.

  7. djw said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    Unless he wants ATRITW subsequently to her, I guess…

  8. ClockwerkMao said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

    Oh yeah! Whoops angle brackets. "then" and "than"; I must have the preview window script blocked.

  9. IB said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    In the hidden comic:
    "You're lying to me with homophones!"
    "I… know!"

  10. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

    Don't forget the votey!

  11. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    The link to the votey (the SMBC bonus comic) seems to have disappeared from my post. It's at http://www.smbc-comics.com/comics/20130211after.gif.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    @Pflaumbaum. I don't think the "then" for "than" thing is an accent thing. I think most speakers whatever the accent will usually use a reduced form of "than", with a schwa, /ðən/, since the word is usually unstressed. And while some of us will always think of it as /ðæn/ when typing or writing, and thus never spell it as "then" apparently, some folks don't do that and think it in it's unstressed form, thus leaving themselves open to misspelling it as "then", since, unstressed, "then" and "than" are identical or nearly so.

    If any speakers have these words both having the same pronunciation in stressed form, I think it's not a matter of accent, but of not having learned the standard stressed pronunciation of "than".

  13. Ellen K. said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    Oops… missed a comma before "apparently". That word goes with what follows.

  14. dw said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

    I can reduce "than" from the TRAP vowel to schwa, but "then" always has the stressed DRESS vowel.

    So they're never homophones for me.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

    Why the comma separating "more" and "then?" I feel like this distinguishes a 'then' from a 'than.'

  16. Jongseong said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

    According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, "than" has a strong form with a TRAP vowel and a weak form with a schwa, while "then" only has a strong form with a DRESS vowel. So they are never homophones in this description, in agreement with dw's comment above.

    You can read the relevant discussion on John Wells's phonetic blog, where Wells (the editor of LPD) explains in the comments that he doesn't have a weak from for "then", but perhaps ought to include it in future editions as a possibility (though accompanied by some sort of warning for the benefit of EFL transcribers).

  17. lukys said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

    "Than" is quite often /ðən/ for me, but "then" is never anything but /ðɛn/.

  18. Peter Christie said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    Nathan said:
    But as a spelling stickler, I never ever spell either word worng.

    I smiled a bit. I'm sorry. That was just too perfect (or too imperfect).

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    The comment thread on John Wells' post has someone claiming that than/then confusion in writing is rare in the UK but common in the US, which is certainly consistent with the notion that the words are homophonous for many US speakers (including the cartoonist whose work is shown above and that cartoonist's assumed audience) even if not in most/all BrEng varieties. I take Wells' point that "than" is pronounced in reduced form the vast majority of the time, but pronouncing unreduced/strong "than" with the TRAP vowel rather than the DRESS vowel sounds like a hypercorrection/pretension/spelling-pronunciation to my AmEng ear. I *think* this means that I conceptualize the words as homophonous in the abstract even if pronounced slightly differently in practice because of the ubiquitous schwaification of "than," which "then" is significantly less prone to for, um, presumably some mix of syntactic and prosodic factors.

  20. Charles in Vancouver said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

    While it's true that "then" is rarely if ever unstressed, if the correct comparative word were spelled "then", it would have the same schwa pronunciation. Hence the perception of a homophone.

    "Would of" for would've is one that clearly results from unstressed vowel confusion.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

    I can easily think of situations where "then" is unstressed. In particular, in "If…then…" constructions.

  22. Mike Caine said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum:

    In my type of American English, I think the unstressed vowel in than may be [ɛ]-like at times. However, than is unstressed the vast majority of the time and then usually has some degree of stress I think. So the [ɛ]-like phone which occurs in than at times is probably shorter and more centralized than the [ɛ] in then.

    Stressed then and than are pretty clearly distinct for me (even though I rarely stress the latter). Although my pre-nasal allophone of /æ/ may be somewhat raised, I still make a distinction between pre-nasal /æ/ and /ɛ/. I do, however, think the capital of Austria is /vi'ænə/. Also mayhem and cayenne are /'meɪhæm/ and /kaɪ'æn/, respectively, for me. I don't know why though. Those might just be idiolectal oddities. Surprisingly though, other people haven't seemed to notice them. Some Americans (but not me) seem to have /kɛn/ for can (as in You should try to do it if you can.). I'm from a part of the Midwest that is supposedly accentless, although we know that that's not possible from a linguistic standpoint.

  23. Chris Waters said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

    I often unstress the vowel in "then" when using it as a connector: "first we'll X, then we'll Y".

    Northern California speaker.

  24. Dw said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    @Ellen K:
    I can easily think of situations where "then" is unstressed. In particular, in "If…then…" constructions.

    Not for me. I have been racking my brains to try to think of some context in which "then" could be unstressed (to schwa): all I can come up with are meaningless sentence-initial space-fillers such as "Well then" and "Now then". I'm not even sure about them.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    I'm skeptical about introspective claims that two vowels are phonetically distinct. Vowels don't occupy discrete points in vowel space; if you plot a bunch of tokens, you see some dispersion around the mean value. See this graph for instance—there's a shit-ton of overlap. It would be interesting to record some spontaneous speech from, say, dw above. I'd bet there's substantially more overlap than his/her intuitions suggest. The stuff about the TRAP vowel and the DRESS vowel represents a slightly idealized view, I think.

    My own unreliable intuition is that I don't think I distinguish them consistently. It feels like both have a vowel somewhere in the [ɛ ~ ɨ ~ ɘ] space (note–that's not a schwa). I bet a lot of Northern Cities speakers are similar. I also definitely have an unstressed "then" in utterances like if you don't like it then leave! (I speak a variety that seems to have a lot of reduction to unstressed syllables.)

  26. Dw said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

    I'm skeptical about introspective claims that two vowels are phonetically distinct. Vowels don't occupy discrete points in vowel space; if you plot a bunch of tokens, you see some dispersion around the mean value. See this graph for instance—there's a shit-ton of overlap. It would be interesting to record some spontaneous speech from, say, dw above. I'd bet there's substantially more overlap than his/her intuitions suggest.

    Fair enough. Put it this way: I have the same degree of certainty that "then" is distinct from "than" as that "end" is distinct from "and".

  27. Lester said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

    You're right. There is a lot of overlap there. But do those vowels overlap when they occur in the same phonetic environment? And if they do then is there some other way of distinguishing them, e.g., length (which that graph doesn't show)? I'm only an amateur in linguistics, so please don't be too harsh.

  28. Rod Johnson said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 10:54 pm

    No, that's a really good question–if you gathered a lot of instance of the two vowels in the frame "th_n" would they still have the same level variability? I have no idea.

  29. Roger Lustig said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

    Oh, wait, never mind. I thought she was saying she wanted all the risches in the world…

  30. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

    For me than and as are /ðɛn/ and /ɛz/ (albeit often reduced to [ðən] (or [ðṇ]) and [əz]), and at least in the case of as it's certainly not just me: the eye-dialect spelling <ez> is well attested.

  31. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    Thanks for all the replies.

    I'm a bit confused though. I understand that for some Americans the TRAP vowel is raised towards /ɛ/. But in those accents, does the DRESS vowel really occupy the same space?

    I'm not aware of any pan-pen merger, and the met-mat merger is a Malaysian/Singaporean thing.

    And all that's assuming that than has TRAP for these speakers with any real frequency, rather than schwa…

  32. Ellen K. said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    I think in practice than does not have TRAP with any real frequency for most speakers. Generally, the only time we would use it in it's strong form (with TRAP) is when citing the word, or in mathematics, when labeling , as well as, sometimes, when talking about the mathematical operations represented by those symbols.

    Otherwise, it's a weak form with a reduced vowel, which very well may have a ɛ-like quality.

  33. Rod Johnson said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 8:43 am

    Pflambaum: for a lot of Northern Cities Chain Shift speakers, the DRESS vowel is backed, so it sounds like "druss." I think this is common in other areas too. But there's a lot of variability.

  34. Ellen K. said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    Let me clarify. In the above, I'm not assuming that all speakers have TRAP for the strong form of than. Rather, I'm noting that it only has TRAP in it's strong form. And also, I'm talking about speech, not how we hear things in our head when reading or writing.

  35. Andy Averill said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 8:55 am

    @GeorgeW, I'm also having trouble with the punctuation in the original strip. Couldn't she just be saying "You're in first place, and all the riches in the world are in second place"? Which ought to be a good enough compliment for anybody.

  36. Rube said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    @Andy Averill: Myself, and FWIW, I read it as: "I want some more of you (preferably naked), then I want me big mountains of cash."

  37. AJD said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 9:29 am

    I'm almost certain there are no American dialects in which /æ/ and /ɛ/ are merged, before nasals or anywhere else. However, there are dialects in which historical /æ/ has been replaced by /ɛ/ in a small set of function words such as "can" and "am", and "than" might as well be in the same class.

  38. Dw said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    @AJD:

    I'm almost certain there are no American dialects in which /æ/ and /ɛ/ are merged, before nasals or anywhere else.

    Before /ŋ/ perhaps. The vowel in words like "gang" often seems to approach /e/ in closeness. However, there are few words with the DRESS vowel before /ŋ/: one might expect it in "length" or "strength", but many speakers have plain /n/ in these words.

  39. Mark Lund said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

    @ AJD:

    After a quick Google search, I found this paper by Douglas Bigham. It talks about a possible "pen-pan merger" in Southern Illinois English. I haven't read it yet though.

    @ Dw:

    FWIW, the vowels of gang [geɪŋ] and strength [stɹeɪŋkθ] do sound the same to me (AmEng speaker). But length, oddly enough, seems to have a different vowel than strength. It sounds more like [lɪŋkθ]. That's just my impression of my own accent though. And I'm not trying to claim that all Americans talk like me.

  40. Joseph Myers said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

    So long as homophones are treated equally, supporters of the Bill of Rights will be pleased.

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    AJD's explanation is the best so far. It puts [then for than] in the same area as [of for 've], which is an explicable error because they're usually complete homophones (pace Ellen K., who if I recall right would not agree with this for her own idiolect). And it doesn't require a general merger of /æ/ and /ɛ/ (or /ə/ and /ɛ/) before /n/, or anything like that.

    But does it explain [than for then]? There are 7.6 million Google hits for "It was than that". Are we saying that the two are homophonous but people know there are two spellings, so they're just guessing? In which case, why are there hardly any hits for things like "friend've mine"?

  42. Ellen K. said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

    You must have misread something I wrote, Pflaumbaum. I certainly did not claim they aren't homophones, and did not make any claims at all about my speech in particular. Certainly my own speech is a factor in any generalization I make, of course, but, still, my comments weren't about my own speech in particular. And, furthermore, the generalization I made is that then and than, when unstressed, are identical, or nearly so.

  43. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    Ellen, I had in mind the comments section to a previous post, where you said:

    For me, it seems like the vowel is a bit fronter in "what've" than in "could've" ("could of"), and thus is doesn't match "of".

  44. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

    But it looks like I misremembered your point as querying the homophony of 've and of in general, sorry.

  45. AJD said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

    Okay, I withdraw my 'almost certain' about lack of PEN-PAN merger. Interesting!

  46. KevinM said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

    Or "I want you more than all the people named Richard in the world do."

  47. Scott said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    The words sound nothing alike to me (I'm from Kentucky), no doubt due to me having the pin-pen merger in the word 'then'.

  48. Dw said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 11:12 am

    Pflaumbaum:
    AJD's explanation is the best so far. It puts [then for than] in the same area as [of for 've], which is an explicable error because they're usually complete homophones

    Another similarity is the words "of" and "from". These generally have the STRUT vowel when stressed in North American accents (while in other accents they generally have the LOT vowel). The usual explanation for this is restressing of the unstressed forms with schwa.

  49. Buzz said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

    There doesn't seem to be a single comment about the fact that this is apparently an expression of love from one woman to another. The world is becoming a better place.

  50. Jongseong said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    For Mount Kosciuszko, Wikipedia says the traditional pronunciation has the LOT vowel in the first syllable of Kosciuszko, but the Macquarie Dictionary says the first vowel is STRUT if I recall correctly.

    My theory for the latter pronunciation is that the LOT vowel tends towards the schwa since it doesn't receive primary stress (as is common in Australian pronunciation, e.g. the word 'Australia' itself). But it cannot be completely reduced since the 'Teutonic rule' of English stress would be violated if the first two syllables were both unstressed (the primary stress of 'Kosciuszko' falls on the letter 'u', and 'i' is a separate syllable in the traditional pronunciation). So LOT turns into schwa but is re-stressed as STRUT.

  51. ajay said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

    So long as homophones are treated equally, supporters of the Bill of Rights will be pleased.

    For too long heterophones have treated them as second-class citizens.

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