Metal v. medal

« previous post | next post »

Paul Krugman, "My Lawn Guyland Roots Are Showing", The Conscience of a Liberal, 11/24/2013:

I see that some commentators were wondering why, in an earlier post, I wrote “pedal to the medal” instead of “pedal to the metal”. The answer is, typing fast, and writing what I heard in my head. The truth is that sometimes, usually when I’m tired, I do hear myself referring to a bottle of water as a boddle of oo-waugh-duh — gotta get the three-syllable pronunciation there.

I’ve never made a conscious effort to change my accent, and I know from recordings that a bit of the Noo Yawk is still there, but four decades in academia have, I believe, flattened it out into Mid-Atlantic neutral most of the time. But not always, and sometimes not even when I write.

Several commenters noted that Prof. Krugman's explanation is too narrow:

I'm confused by this post. Are there a lot of Americans who sharply differentiate those words? I mean, the whole point about the phrase is that it rhymes.

Generic American accents pronounce metal as 'medal' too, actually.

Those observations are essentially true, though terse. One commenter  offers a more extended explanation:

In American English the contrast between d and t is neutralized between vowels. The actual sound is a quick tap of the tongue. Words with these sounds are still distinct, however, since a vowel before a voiced consonant (d) is longer than a vowel before an unvoiced consonant (t), and this length difference has been preserved even though the voiced/unvoiced consonant contrast has been lost for d/t between vowels. Compare rider/writer. The d and t are pronounced the same, but the i of rider is held a bit longer before the tap consonant is pronounced.

This is less accurate and also less relevant.

It's true that in many (but not all) American varieties of English, the phonemes /t/ and /d/ both become the voiced alveolar "tap" or "flap" [ɾ] when they precede a vowel and are not in the onset of its syllable (see "Raising and lowering those tighty whities", 3/20/2005, for some further details).  This happens in some varieties of English outside the U.S. as well.

It's not true that this happens "between vowels" — thus it doesn't happen to the /t/ in "attack", but it does happen to the /t/ in "parting" and (for many speakers) to the /t/ in "panting".

Nor is it true in general that "the length difference is preserved". Most Americans pronounce latter and ladder in exactly the same way, though many feel instinctively that these words are different in sound. In some other cases the lexical distinction is maintained by other means, despite flapping and voicing: thus some speakers have a raised and fronted vowel in write versus ride, and maintain the vowel-quality (and perhaps some vowel length) difference in writer vs. rider. (For some background and discussion of interesting further developments, see e.g. Josef Fruehwald, "The Spread of Raising: Opacity, Lexicalization, and Diffusion", 2008.)

But none of this is strictly relevant to the metal/medal/mettle case. It's true that for most Americans, these words are homophones. But the second syllable is pronounced as a syllabic /l/, not a vowel; and the /t/ or /d/, though short and voiced, is not a flap, but rather a voiced stop released into that syllabic /l/.  Like flapping, this is an aspect of the more general lenition of non-onset consonants in American English; but it's not flapping.

Here's the pronunciation of medal from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary entry, and the corresponding spectrogram:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here's the same thing for metal:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And to illustrate a true flap, metaphor:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Those pronunciations are all rather precise and even hyper-articulated, as is appropriate for isolated dictionary examples. In more natural speech, the closures in medal and metal would be even shorter and weaker, and might even disappear altogether. But they wouldn't technically become flaps or taps, because the following syllabic /l/ keeps the blade of the tongue pressed against the palate.

Share:



81 Comments »

  1. Jeff Carney said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 8:47 am

    I guess that compared to a stereotyped NYC accent, the mid-Atlantic sounds neutral??? Or maybe Krugman's mislabeling SAE?

    [(myl) My guess: having noticed that he pronounced "metal" and "medal" identically, although they are obviously different words (and even related to words where the /t/-/d/ distinction is maintained, like "metallic" and "medallion"), and having hypothesized that this homophony lead him into a typographical error, Prof. Krugman concluded too quickly that his pronunciation pattern in these words is a fault or flaw due to his (somewhat stigmatized) linguistic roots, rather than a general characteristic of North American English.]

  2. Rube said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    I'm always puzzled by the convention of referring to it as a "Noo Yawk" accent. I get the "Yawk", but is there any way that "Noo" can be pronounced differently from "New"?

    Oh, and my mother thought the expression was "pedal to the middle". I guess she never felt the need for speed.

  3. Terry Hunt said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    @ Rube ". . . is there any way that "Noo" can be pronounced differently from "New"?"

    In British English (i.e. on my side of the Pond), the Received Pronunciation (i.e. educated/posh) pronunciation of "new" is something like "nyiooow." (Sorry, I'm not IPA-literate). Various regional accents and registers depart from this.

  4. Rube said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:17 am

    @Terry Hunt: thanks for that. You live and you learn.

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:27 am

    Eye dialect is like that. In old Marvel comics, the Thing always says "wuz," which is not different that "was" in any audible way, but looks less educated somehow. Same thing with the common internet spelling of "wut."

    [(myl) Exactly. But I think that the "lawn" eye-dialect in "lawn guyland" is a reference to the raising of open-o (parallel to ae-raising) that is found in some regional varieties; and similarly the "guyland" part refers to the pronunciation of "long" as [lɔŋg] (or [loɒŋg] or even [luɒŋg]), with a final non-nasal (and non-standard) [g].]

  6. John Hayter said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:39 am

    @Rube – How do you pronounce pew? Does it sound like poo?

  7. Rube said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:16 am

    @John Hayter: No, I don't pronounce "pew" to sound like "poo", and I don't know anyone who does. However, I don't know anyone (and I've been around Canada a bit, geopraphically and socially) who pronounces "new" in the way Terry Hunt describes. I must have heard it in British movies, but it didn't register.

  8. ErikF said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    I live in Canada and (generally) distinguish between "ladder" and "latter" (the sounds resemble the initial sounds in "dapper" and "tapper".) It's a little thing that I don't usually think about; even if someone else doesn't distinguish my brain seems to automatically sort out the sentence from context.

    [(myl) Let's stipulate that you *think* you distinguish between "ladder" and "latter". It's possible that you do pronounce them differently, but the fact that you believe that you pronounce them differently is, you'll find if you check, surprisingly bad evidence.]

  9. Robert Coren said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:38 am

    This is all very interesting, but I'll bet that the fact that Krugman had just typed "pedal" had more to do with his then typing "medal" than "what he heard in his head".

  10. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    I took a trip to Japan a number of years ago, and in preparation learnt a bit of katakana. While there I was surprised to notice that the katakana for New York started with the symbol for the syllable "nyu", and I wondered why they would do that when there was a perfectly good symbol for the syllable "nu", which is how it's pronounced.

  11. Joshua T said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    The difference between New as Nyoo and Noo is Yod-dropping.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    There are quite a lot of possible variants out there if you think of the dozen possible combinations of "[pedal/peddle/petal] to the [metal/medal/mettle/meddle]." Of course at least some of the eleven "wrong" possibilities seem to be extant as deliberate wordplay rather than merely typos / production errors.

  13. dw said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 11:13 am

    I am a ex-Briton living in California. My poor 5-year-old California-born-and-raised daughter occasionally hypercorrects to forms such as "mittle" (pronounced with /t/) for "middle": while I consistently distinguish pairs such as medal/metal, most other speakers she hears don't.

    By the way, may young people here do use pronunciations such as "nyoo" for "new" (IPA something like [niu]): however they do so indiscriminately as a result of a general phonological change — they would use this sound in words such as "noose" as well (where I would have [nu:s]).

  14. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 11:19 am

    Eye dialect is like that. In old Marvel comics, the Thing always says "wuz," which is not different that "was" in any audible way, but looks less educated somehow. Same thing with the common internet spelling of "wut."

    You say that, but I'm sometimes mocked by my (British) friends for pronouncing it "wuz". It's more like "woz" in this country.

  15. dw said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    @Ginger Yellow:

    Yes — in Britain, "was" is generally pronounced as though spelled "woz" — to the extent that some schools have banned that spelling http://metro.co.uk/2013/10/15/you-woz-saying-school-bans-words-cos-theyre-slang-innit-4146984/

  16. Circe said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    "is there any way that "Noo" can be pronounced differently from "New"?"

    I learnt English as a second language in India, where English sounds were often transcribed in the local phonetic script. For that reason, those two words are rather far apart for me. In Devanagari, I would say that the pronunciation of "noo" is closer to "नू" [nū] and that of "new" is closer to "न्यु" [nju].

  17. dw said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

    @Circe:

    It's interesting that you transliterate "new" as न्यु (nyu) rather than न्यू (nyū).

  18. Circe said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

    dw:

    I actually put down न्यू first, but I pronounced the word to myself a few times an decided the vowel was not that long :)

  19. david said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    The sound segment in question is labelled with a 'd' in both sonograms. Was the label computer generated? I hear and see them as different. As isolated words I (who grew up in Baltimore) pronounce them more distinctly different though I might not notice if someone else had them rhyming.

  20. Peter S. said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    Some Americans still reliably distinguish new from noo. I do, although maybe the pronunciation is dying out (I'm in my 50s), but I don't distinguish dew and do.

  21. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    I'm another Lawn Guylanduh (note non-rhotic ending there), and I say and perceive "New York" with a reduced vowel in "New", Nuh Yoahk, or even elided N'Yoahk. Stand-alone "new" is Nyew.

    I remember being startled in college in upstate NY when I noticed the students from the western part of the state did yod-drop, saying "Noo York".

  22. Rebecca said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    Like @Rube, I don't distinguish "new" and "noo", but do distinguish "pew" and "poo". On the other hand, "ew" exists for me on a slinding scale: straight "oo" can register mere annoyance with little disgust, where an ever longer initial "i" means ever increasing disgustingness is being encountered.

    I don't think I make a ladder/ladder distinction, and my iPad dictation hw/sw agrees. In a frame like "I found the latter/ladder to be more helpful", it couldn't tell the difference. On the other hand, it frequently accused me of saying "I found the letter to be more helpful", which I'm pretty sure I do pronounce differently, so I'm suspicious. I wonder which is less reliable on questions like these – speaker judgements, or iPad dictation software?

  23. M.N. said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    One often hears people yelling on the Internet about how terrible it is when they hear people say "would of". I can't think how this could be anything but a spelling error — in what dialects are "the wood of a tree" and "I would have appeared" actually pronounced differently in naturally occurring speech? (In really careful speech, one might pronounce them both in citation form, with approximately equal stress on both. But these peevers claim to hear a difference in ordinary conversation.)

  24. dw said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

    @M.N.

    The answer to your question is "pretty much any non-North American dialect".

    Most varieties of North American English have undergone an innovation whereby the stressed forms of some common words, including "was", "of" and "because", have been recreated from the unstressed forms with the vowel of STRUT. The original stressed vowel was the vowel of either LOT or THOUGHT, as suggested by the spelling (compare "wasp", "off", "cause").

  25. dw said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

    @M.N.

    Correction to my last posting: the unstressed forms of "wood of" and "would have" may well be identical in most accents; however, the stressed or citation forms will be distinguished by different vowels, as well as the possible presence/absence of /h/.

    In England, it's not uncommon to hear people say /wʊd ɒv/ ("would of") for emphasis. That is what at least some of the peevers are complaining about.

  26. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

    I think Krugman's excuse is too facile. Although I am guilty of many a typo, myself, I would never excuse an incorrect word on the basis of its sound. His eggcorn appears to me to be a perfect example of not knowing what he's saying.

  27. Rod Johnson said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

    @Ginger Yellow: yes, I suppose I could have specified that the two were pronounced identically in the Thing's variety, which is after all what I was talking about.

    The [nu/nyu] variation is specific to apicals (t, d, l, n, s, z), I believe. That is, "new" [nyu] became [nu] in North America, and "tune" [tyun] became [tun], but "pew" [pyu] and "queue" [kyu] remained the same. "Noose" wouldn't show the variation (modulo the vowels of young Californians) because it was never [nyus] to begin with (was it?).

  28. Greg Malivuk said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    @Mr Fnortner: I would never excuse an incorrect word on the basis of its sound. His eggcorn appears to me to be a perfect example of not knowing what he's saying.

    Is he excusing the mistake, or simply explaining it? I know I quite frequently type the wrong homophone when I'm going quickly and the only way I can explain this, given that I know exactly what I'm saying and immediately notice the problem upon rereading what I've typed, is that I was mentally saying the words and then typing what I was saying to myself. Can you think of any other explanation for using "d" instead of "t" apart from their sounding the same in that pair of words?

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    Schoolkids (in the U.S., at least) are often given lots of explicit instruction / homework assignments / tests that focus on correctly disambiguating certain homophones distinguished by spelling, e.g. they're v. their, or to v. two v. too. But my impression is that there's not the same sort of systematic explict instruction focused on distinguishing latter from ladder, metal from medal, etc. Maybe it's because the words are less common, maybe it's because the first sort of instruction is actually unnecessary overkill, or maybe it's because via some sort of weird feedback loop whereby because people aren't self-aware that latter/ladder are homophonous in practice they empirically are less likely to mix them up less in writing.

  30. Ken Brown said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    Its not just RP that says "nyoo". Most British people do.

    Old joke or observation: when an American says "water" Brits hear it as "wodder". When an English English speaker says it, Americans hear "wawuh".

  31. Peter S. said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

    J.W. Brewer: I think you're right that American school kids are not given tests distinguishing ladder and latter because we still think of these as containing two different phonemes, despite the fact that they are pronounced identically. I certainly do. The same may be true for prints and prince.

    I don't know how long this situation will last. My impression is that something similar happened with keeng in Southern California English: at first the pronunciation changed but the phoneme remained /ɪ/. But then the phoneme got reinterpreted as /i/, at least for some speakers. And something similar also probably happened in England when the speech went from non-rhotic to rhotic … I expect the first non-rhotic generation or two still perceived 'r's, despite the fact that they didn't pronounce them.

  32. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    @Denis Paul Himes:

    Japanese forms of English words consistently reflect British pronunciation rather than American.
    (Rule Brittania!)

    I imagine this reflects the geopolitical state of the world when the large-scale influx of English words began, and has subsequently become conventional.

  33. Quicksand said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

    We should at least consider the possibility that Krugman keeps his Nobel on the floor of his car.

    (Yeah yeah, "Sveriges Riksbank Prize" etc.)

  34. Sybil said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    I've quick-scanned this thread, so apologies if I missed a previous answer.

    The "Noo" of the alleged "Noo Yawk" is representing a Yod-dropping, as Joshua T said. At least, that's my take on it.

    I tried to analyze my own (Boston ->Washington DC ->30 years in NYC) pronunciation, and we all know what an exercise in frustration and how misleading that is.*

    I concluded that "Noo" simply represented the failure of the "Yod" in "New", and maybe some other vowel-altering softenings. For sure, before coming to New York I pronounced "coupon" as "coop-on", but my mother did not. Yet I would have pronounced "New" as "Nyoo", had I not had that beaten out of me (metaphorically). Don't know why my mother language isn't my mother's language, but there you are.

    I'm now a native Noo-Yawker. (Which I pronounce something like "nuh-yohker".)

    * Have I just committed a linguistically interesting failure of parallelism? I'd be so proud if that were so.

  35. The Ridger said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    I was positive that I could distinguish – hearing and speaking – "rider" and "writer" – right up to the day a co-worker and I completely confused the movies "Ghost Rider" and "Ghost Writer". Neither of us could.

  36. chh said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

    @david- the audio samples and their spectrograms will naturally sound and look different- they're two different productions, after all. Are you saying that the differences you're seeing in the spectrograms are differences in some acoustic property that people use to distinguish 'd' and 't'? What one?

  37. Sybil said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

    @the Ridger – But can't you tell that the Beatles are singling about a paperback "writer" and not a paperback "rider"?

    Which only shows we don't sing what we say, I guess.

    Singing brings out different aspects of articulation.

    OK, I bet this has been said before here. I'm just slow.

  38. Sybil said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

    @Quicksand:

    yeah, me too.

  39. maidhc said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

    Are there people who pronounce metal and mettle differently? It seems like a very fine distinction to me. I'm one of those people who tries to pronounce metal and meddle differently, but doesn't always succeed.

  40. Tairy said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 7:28 pm

    Petal to the medal.

  41. D.O. said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

    What this kinds of mistakes (and I'm guilty of many of them) tell us about relationship between memorization/storage/retrieval of word's meaning, sound, and spelling?

  42. david said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:49 pm

    @chh They sound different and the spectrograms look different but both spectrograms are labelled 'd' for the segment between 0.25 and 0.30. How was this typo generated?

  43. Mr Punch said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:09 pm

    I find that I tend to say Noo York, but Nyu Orleans.

  44. Sybil said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

    @Mr Punch: well of course you do!

  45. dw said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

    @maidhc:

    "metal" and "mettle" are homophones for me. I'm not aware of any variety that distinguishes them.

    @Mr Punch:
    Although I generally pronounce "new" as "nyoo", I do often drop the yod in "New York". This is partly in homage to the local accent, but mainly to to avoid two consecutive syllables with the /j/ ("y") sound.

  46. chh said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

    @david

    I don't think it's a typo… Both sounds are [d]s, so they're both labeled (presumably by Mark) as 'd'.

    You can tell they're both [d]s because they're both voiced (which I'll admit is a bit hard to see, at least for me, in those light spectrograms).

    [(myl) Look at the waveforms -- voicing clearly continues through the short gaps. As for whether they "sound different", I'm willing to bet a substantial sum that if we collected 100 similar isolated readings of the two words from speakers of similar varieties of American English, no one would be able to label accurately which spelling was being read in which case -- or even to guess at a rate significantly higher than chance.]

  47. Rhodent said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

    While I don't doubt that Mark's statement that the /d/ in "medal" and the /t/ in "metal" "wouldn't technically become flaps or taps, because the following syllabic /l/ keeps the blade of the tongue pressed against the palate" is true for most Americans, it most certainly is not true for me, and I can't help but wonder if it might not have been true for the writer of the the comment he is referring to. For me the second syllable of either word is not a syllabic /l/ (it's more like an unrounded [o]), and since the tongue doesn't stay against the palate, the t/d does indeed become a flap for me. I could easily see the writer of that comment doing something similar with his/her pronunciation of "medal" and "metal" and not realizing that his/her accent is not typical for Americans in this regard.

  48. TR said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 12:27 am

    But they wouldn't technically become flaps or taps, because the following syllabic /l/ keeps the blade of the tongue pressed against the palate.

    How does that make it not a flap? Ladefoged's Course in Phonetics says that "A tap or flap is caused by a single contraction of the muscles so that one articulator is thrown against the other"; Wiki adds "The main difference between a flap and a stop is that in a flap, there is no buildup of air pressure behind the place of articulation". These descriptions seem equally true of the sound in metal as of that of metaphor. And John Wells mentions battle as an example of a tap with a lateral release.

  49. Ellen K. said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    @Sybil. Yes, it's easy to tell that The Beatles are singing "Paperback Writer" (not rider). But it's got nothing to do with vowel length. It's music… vowel length is determined by the note length. No, what makes it easy to tell is context, plus the fact that they, who are British, pronounce the T with a quite clear T sound. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taADLPtyDb0

  50. kkm said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 12:56 am

    I would not unquestionably accept Krugman's explanation of his error as the only possibility. Many typos have the form of letters jumping over from neighboring words. To get an illustration, google for "bell beppers" (5K+ ghits) and "pell peppers" (700 ghits). Neither has any basis in phonetics, of course.

  51. Narmitaj said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 1:51 am

    @ Ken Brown: Old joke or observation: when an American says "water" Brits hear it as "wodder". When an English English speaker says it, Americans hear "wawuh".

    I was in a restaurant in LA with a fellow Brit, who asked for some water (with a distinct 't', not a glottal stop). The waitress said "Whaddya want? Mustard?"

    [(myl) And then there's the RP speaker named "Peter" whose American acquaintances wondered why he had the eccentric name "Pizza".]

  52. Plane said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 7:38 am

    As an adult, I learned about a distinction between "clear /l/" and "dark /l/". I grew up near Chicago, and I came to the conclusion that I lacked a "clear /l/" at all, and I was assured that this was quite normal for people in my region. But then I learned that even in a dark /l/, the tip or blade of the tongue is supposed to touch the roof of my mouth–something I never learned to do, and in fact I find quite difficult! As far as I can tell, I only ever have what Wikipedia calls secondary articulation–either velar or pharyngeal–in my /l/.

    I feel like I do flap the /d/ in metal / medal, and if I'm not mistaken about this point, then I wonder if it's because of how I pronounce /l/. In many words, I can consciously use the tip of my tongue when I articulate /l/, although I feel quite silly doing so–but in the case of metal / medal, I can't figure out how it's done, even when I'm being slow and careful!

  53. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 8:40 am

    In the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.) there's an AmE preference poll regarding [nju:] vs. [nu:]. 86% of respondents preferred [nu:].

  54. john taylor said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 8:52 am

    Perhaps he meant petal to the meddle?

  55. Rhodent said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    @Plane: It sounds like your post-vowel /l/ is similar to mine which I described in an earlier post. I may be able to help you figure out how to articulate the /l/ in "medal" and "metal". Basically, what you want to do is pronounce the word like you normally would, except when you touch the palate to pronounce the t/d, leave your tongue touching the palate for the rest of the word.

    Also, I'm curious: what do you do when you pronounce the word as part of a phrase where the next sound is a vowel? For example, how do you pronounce "medal of honor"? For me, the /l/ reappears, with the result that my tongue touches my palate twice (once for the /d/, then a second time for the /l/). Do you do this, or does the /l/ come out more like a /w/ in those circumstances?

  56. Tom Stickler said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 9:10 am

    The is no confusion between "wood of" and "would have".

    Perhaps the confusion is between "wood of" and "would've", the contraction.

  57. GeorgeW said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 9:32 am

    @Jens Ørding Hansen: I think I read somewhere that there is a generational thing with those over 30 tending toward [nju:] and those under 30, [nu:]. I am in the [nju:] generation.

  58. Jake said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 9:57 am

    If the distinction between /t/ and /d/ is neutralized between a stressed vowel and a following unstressed vowel, how come I sometimes come across Americans who usually say, e.g., "abili[ɾ]y", but occasionally say "abili[t]y". Yet I don't think these same people would ever say, e.g., "rea[t]er" (for "reader"). Are these people part of the minority of Americans who do have an underlying distinction between those two phonemes in that environment? I'm not a linguist, so I hope that made sense.

  59. Jason said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    @Mr Fnortner

    His eggcorn appears to me to be a perfect example of not knowing what he's saying

    Not proven. Some people's natural reflex is to spell the way they hear. This happens to me, but only sometimes. II'm usually a great speller, but when I've been writing and thinking in a foreign language for a while, when I switch back to English my spelling becomes completely disrupted and I start mixing up homophones all over the place. I assume some people have this problem all the time.

  60. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    @GeorgeW: Yes, in fact there's a graph in the Longman dictionary that charts the variation by age according to the poll. No exact age brackets are provided, but the proportion of respondents preferring [nu:] varies between around 94% for the youngest and 63% for the oldest respondents.

  61. Rodger C said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    @Jake: I think there can be a slight secondary accent on the "-ty" in "ability."

  62. Anthony said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

    Once I start thinking about the details of how I pronounce a word, I can't reliably reproduce how I'd say it in casual (or formal) speech. "Noo Yawk" and "Nyoo York" and "Nyork" all sound reasonable to me. My wife does pronounce the yod in "New", barely. She's from Iowa and has lived in California nearly 20 years.

    Relatedly, I grew up in Delaware, whose second city is Newark. Newark, DE is pronounced differently than Newark, NJ by people behind the nylon curtain (northern Delaware). They yod-drop the city in Jersey, and the 'a' is much more clearly pronounced for the Delaware town. People in the SF Bay Area pronounce Newark, CA the way I grew up pronouncing the Jersey city, not the Delaware one.

  63. Victoria Simmons said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    My Southern mother tried to replace 'noo' and 'Toosday' in her speech with 'nyew' and 'Tyewsday,' because she thought it sounded more educated and non-Southern. Educated British English is reliable enough about that yod palatalization that, in Brit lit, writers have aristocratic characters indulge in jocular pronunciations and non-U characters exhibit their non-U speech by rendering 'duke' as 'dook' and 'stupid' as 'stoopid.'

  64. Ellen K. said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    Are these people part of the minority of Americans who do have an underlying distinction between those two phonemes in that environment?

    Jake, I think many people have an underlying phonemic distinction in these sorts of words, it just doesn't come out in pronunciation. You'd have to study what's in people's minds to get at the distinction. And as for your example word reader, it's made of two phonemes, read+er, so probably for pretty much everyone it's, mentally, most definitely a /d/. And someone who's illiterate might nonetheless think of metal as having a /t/ due to making the connection with metallic.

  65. Greg Malivuk said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    Yeah, people definitely have a mental distinction, to the point where, as mentioned further upthread, some speakers will adamantly deny that they pronoince the two phonemes the same way. And I think most of us, when pronouncing words carefully, go back to distinguishing /t/ and /d/ the same way we do at syllable onsets.

    (I do however notice myself sometimes devoicing and aspirating what should be a /d/, which is an especially bad hypercorrection to make when I'm speaking carefully, as that almost always happens when I'm talking to speakers of other languages.)

  66. hector said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    Yesterday, after reading this thread, I heard a young Vancouver, B.C. woman being interviewed on the CBC pronounce the city's name "Vankyoover." This is definitely not standard, and I'm unaware of ever hearing it pronounced this way before.

    Now, this woman may be a one-off, but she was very articulate, and given the post above saying young Californians are using the "nyu" sound, I wonder if this habit is drifting north along the coast.

  67. John Q said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

    Greg says, "I know I quite frequently type the wrong homophone when I'm going quickly…."

    Me too. Most commonly, "their" for "there".

  68. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

    In her novel With No One as Witness Elizabeth George writes "undo reverence."

  69. Mark F. said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

    Two disjointed comments:

    I listen to the Jodrell Bank Observatory's "Jodcast," and I've noticed that both Brits and Americans distinguish "meteor" and "media", but using different parts of the word.

    There's a lot of talk about [nu:] vs [nju:] as pronunciations of "new." Is [nIu:] an alternative? That's what I hear myself saying. I didn't think I pronounced "few" and the first syllable of "fusion" the same way, but now I think I do. But I still think it's the [Iu] diphthong, not [ju]. Am I probably wrong?

  70. dw said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 1:52 am

    @Mark F:

    There's a lot of talk about [nu:] vs [nju:] as pronunciations of "new." Is [nIu:] an alternative?

    Definitely. In fact, the Middle English pronunciation was something like [niu] (which later became [nju:] and then [nu:] in different varieties).

  71. Mark Dunan said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 10:44 am

    "wouldn't technically become flaps or taps, because the following syllabic /l/ keeps the blade of the tongue pressed against the palate"

    Wait; I thought almost all New Yorkers — I'm one myself — had only the "dark l" in which the blade of the tongue is nowhere near the palate. Krugman presumably uses dark l, particularly at the end of a word.

    "Light l" is one of those sounds that I couldn't even hear until I consciously tried to hear it. Back when I was about six years old, and having just moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, I was sent to a special speech class in elementary school because one of the teachers insisted that I pronounced a "w" rather than an "l" at the beginning of my brother's name, "Luke". She insisted that I was saying [wu:k] and when I got home my parents said there was nothing wrong with how I said my own brother's name.

    Not until I studied linguistics formally, nearly two decades later, did I found out about the other kind of [l], and since my first day learning a bit of Mandarin, where I accidentally started to say lai 来 with a dark l before catching myself, I can now hear both types.

    But I don't think Krugman will have the light l if his speech is the New York / Long Island dialect that he claims to have.

  72. Martin Barry said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    There's an evident problem for phonetic description in the way the pseudo-d in medal etc. is pronounced. Mark suggests that the sound is not a tap/flap because it has lateral rather than median release; at the same time it's plainly not a canonical alveolar stop because the hold phase is necessarily shorter than the [d] e.g. in AmE redeem or BrE bidding. John Wells's term (which someone mentions above) "tap… with lateral release" is awkward, because the closure-release sequence isn't formed by tapping in the sense usually applied to median taps (viz. a single articulator forming a momentary closure). In this case we're looking at a momentary closure formed by one articulator (the tongue tip) and rapidly released by the movement of another (the side of the tongue). Perhaps we need to go with Wells's use of the term, and accept that the defining characteristic of a tap is aerodynamic rather than strictly articulatory: i.e. its essence is a closure too brief to yield an increase in intraoral pressure, rather than a closure formed by movement-towards swiftly followed by movement-away by one and the same articulator.

    Scottish English has something interesting to match AmE metal/medal, namely the behaviour of (usually) tapped /r/ when followed by /l/. girl has (I think) the same pseudo-tap as AmE metal/medal, and once again this is pronounced differently from the sequence [d] + syllabic [l], as might be heard in BrE middle. As far as I can tell, the International Phonetic Alphabet doesn't provide a symbol for the tap with lateral release.

  73. Mark said,

    November 30, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    um, how do you download the merriam-webster wave file in a form that can be opened in an audio-editing program?

  74. chh said,

    November 30, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

    Mark- you should be able to right click and save on "Click here to listen with your default audio player".

    myl- duh, thanks for pointing that out about the waveforms.

  75. richardelguru said,

    December 2, 2013 @ 6:59 am

    I'm a British RP speaker, but my first wife was a teacher and an American (not necessarily in that order) and for years (till I saw it written down) I thought there was a drug called *riddalin.

  76. milt boyd said,

    December 2, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    My pronunciation seems to be overlooked in this discussion. "medal" is said with a "d", but "mettle" and "metal" are said with a glottal stop in informal situations. I was born and lived for some 20 years in the Blackstone Valley of Rhode Island. medal/metal are nowhere close to homophones for me.

  77. etv13 said,

    December 2, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

    So are there people who just can't sing, for example, "Autumn in New York", "New York, New York", or "How 'Bout You"? I don't see how anyone could fit a yod in any of those lyrics with a straight face.

  78. Joe Fineman said,

    December 2, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    I pronounce the glide in "new", "duty", & "tune", but I have a strong feeling that that is an affectation due to having been told, early on, that skipping it was vulgar. (I was born in 1937, and I spent most of my childhood in southern California among highly literate & linguistically self-conscious people.)

    Likewise, "ladder" & "latter" are not homophones for me, but I can't be sure whether the difference is only in the length of the vowel or also in the voicing of the consonant; I think it is both, but it's hard to try it out on myself without affectation. Certainly, I would consider it vulgar if a songwriter rhymed "ladder" with "matter", and I remember some years ago raising my eyebrows and a schoolchild's misspelling "puddle" as "puttle".

  79. Joe Fineman said,

    December 2, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

    The last "and" should be "at".

  80. m.m. said,

    December 8, 2013 @ 7:18 pm

    Peter S. said,
    My impression is that something similar happened with keeng in Southern California English: at first the pronunciation changed but the phoneme remained /ɪ/. But then the phoneme got reinterpreted as /i/, at least for some speakers.

    in my experience, most speakers perceive it as such nowadays. i wouldnt even contain it to southern california, but much of the west at least.

  81. BP said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 5:21 am

    Concerning neutralizations of this kind, German linguist To. Röttger claims that syllable-final neutralization in voicing ("Auslautverhärtung") in German is actually an incomplete process, that is, speakers produce minimal pairs slightly distinct and can still distinguish them. A paper as a first start:
    http://timo-roettger.de/app/download/5793381101/Winter++R%C3%B6ttger_The+nature+of+incomplete+neutralization.pdf

    I would really be interested in some comments.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment