[t]-less -ists

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Following up on "Weak t", 4/6/2017, I wouldn't want you to think that Donald Trump's pronunciation of "scientists" is unusually under-articulated. Here's Barack Obama from his 5/2/2009 Weekly Radio Address:

Just the "-tists" syllable:

And the same thing routinely happens to other -ists words as pronounced by other Americans. Here's Terry Gross from her 9/29/2014 interview with Lena Dunham — "Your father and your mother are artists":

Just the word "artists":

And Carrie Fisher, from her Fresh Air interview — "And the barber was the pimp, and the manicurists were the hookers":

Just the word "manicurists":

The Fisher conversational telephone speech dataset has 76 instances of "scientists" — and a handful actually have the fully [sts] sequence:

But the great majority don't — 27 of a sample of 30 that I checked. And the same is true for other -ists words in that dataset — artists, dentists, terrorists, …

Here's an example of "communists" — "…would advocate capitalistic ideas just because their- their parents were communists":

Of course many of these words are further simplified phonetically — that last one is something like [kɐmjɪs]:

Overall, my impression from a quick survey is that Americans pronounce -ists words with final phonetic [sts] less than 10% of the time, even in phrase-final position in relatively formal settings. But this lenition is entirely unstigmatized and therefore is rarely if ever noticed.


  1. aaa said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

    In my opinion the final recording sounds more like kʰɔː.m̩.nɪst̚ .

    [(myl) Cases like this one are far too co-articulated for the beads-on-a-string segmental metaphor of the IPA to be very useful, in my opinion. But [ɔ]? ]

  2. random lurker said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 12:49 am

    I've noticed this in relation to word like communist(s) and fascist(s) but I've always explained it to myself as the speaker saying the word "Communist" or "Fascist" as in ideology, not "communists" as a group of people.

    But given the fact that you can find a lot of -ists examples where the s should really be there but isn't pronounced, I have to rethink my position.

  3. Lazar said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 4:43 am

    For my part, I alternate between something like [sː] in casual speech, and something like [st̞s] in more deliberate speech – [t̞] being a slit fricative like in Irish English. I think I hardly ever manage a true [sts].

  4. MD said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 7:46 am

    @ aaa: It's definitely not [ɔ(ː)] in the 1st syllable, but I won't nitpick about the rest of your transcription. Here is a recording of 3 different linguists saying [ɔ]. Their [ɔ]'s are all a bit different, but none of them sound like the vowel in communists above. [ɔ] is similar to the vowel of all in most native accents of English. BTW, who is that in that recording? Whoever it is, he has a strong Great Lakes area accent.

    @ Lazar: You're from somewhere near Boston, right? My impression is that the slit fricative is a little bit more common there as a realization of /t/ than in most of the US. Specifically, I hear it in the post-vocalic, pre-pause context. If that's right, it wouldn't be that surprising if you know a thing about the ethnic composition of the area.

  5. Lazar said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 11:35 am

    Yeah, I'm from Worcester. I have heard slit fricatives like that in post-vocalic pre-pausal position, although for me /t/ is consistently an unreleased stop there.

  6. Rodger C said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 11:55 am

    Many of my students routinely write "-ist" as the plural of "-ist."

  7. MD said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

    I hope this isn't too off topic, but to my ear capitalistic above sounds almost like [kɛ̝əpɫ̩ːɪstɪk], where [ɫ̩ː] is about as long as the ital part of the word would be in citation style. This makes it sound similar to the nonce word *capalistic. But I admit my ears aren't as good as they used to be.

  8. Rubrick said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 11:22 pm

    I've decided to pretend that the Fisher dataset consists entirely of transcriptions of telephone conversations with Carrie Fisher.

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 5:07 am

    MD: I'm pretty sure that's wrong, and 'capitalistic' does have something corresponding to the /t/. And the final word, indeed, is so reduced it could well be 'Communist' instead of 'communists'.

    The slit fricative probably occurs naturally in this position, even in those that don't have it elsewhere – I think I sometimes use it. Finally I don't think at all this is special to -ists – any word ending in -st is liable to reduction in its plural; e.g. my normal forms of 'posts', 'ghosts' don't have any /t/.

    If simplification of /sts/ goes without notice, what about that of /stʃ/? Certainly I've never been comfortable with the pedantic dictionary forms of 'eschew' and 'Rothschild', and the middle sound of 'Khrushchev' is /ʃ:/ as much for me as (independently) for today's Russians.

    k_over_hbarc ay yahoo.com

  10. MD said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 11:37 am

    @ Andrew:

    Maybe so, but I wonder if that kind of reduction could happen in really fast native speech. I didn't really care if it was communist or communists. I just commented on the quality of the stressed vowel.

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