Epenthesis, IPA, and r-fulness

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John Wells has been posting a lot of nice stuff recently on his daily phonetics blog. The current page (no permalinks yet, alas) discusses epenthesis in toponyms and similar forms — why are graduates of Harrow "Harrovians" while people from Congo are "Congolese"? And what about "Kittitian" from St. Kitts, and "Torontonian", and "tobacconist", and so on? (Some relevant socio-historical information can be found in "Who let the 'n' in?", 1/22/2006; and "Chinian, not Chinese?", 1/26/2006. You may also be interested in the theological implications of such sound-pattern irregularities.)

John also illustrates (and to some extent explains) why people find it so hard to do phonetic transcription from English dictation, and reproduces a nice map of worldwide English r-fulness, due originally to Pétur Knútsson (click for a larger version):


  1. Paul said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 9:28 am

    Epenthetis? Epenthesisis, surely. Or am I getting confused with haplogy?

    [(myl) It was a typo — as is "epenthesisis", for that matter. We're all typing too fast today, apparently.]

  2. [links] Link salad for a Monday | jlake.com said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 9:47 am

    […] Epenthetis, IPA, and r-fulness — More fun linguistic geekery from Language Log. […]

  3. James Wimberley said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    French has some very odd toponyms. Déodatiens are from Saint-Dié, moussipontins from Pont-à-Mousson. Michelin used to give you these names systematically in the good old green guides, [rant] before marketing consultants told them to chuck out the history and geography, go easy on the culture, and replace them by glossy photographs and a random selection of the eateries and hostelries in the red guide. [/rant]

  4. JRH said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    Nice map, but its circle of non-rhoticity for the United States isn’t particularly accurate. (Compare Wikipedia’s map.) At the very least, Florida shouldn’t be circled, unless it’s just an attempt to circle all the New Yorkers in Boca and Miami Beach…

  5. John Cowan said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    In the linked page on the theology of phonology, there are two lines that obviously went astray from a Swinburne poem, possibly "Hymn to Proserpine", but more likely from "The Higher Pantheism In A Nutshell":

    The plural of loaf is loaves, the plural of thief is thieves;But the plural of oaf is not oaves, and the plural of chief is not chieves.

  6. Dan Milton said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    OAVES is one of the recognized plurals of OAF.

  7. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 11:37 am

    Does John Wells ride the same train as Geoff Pullum? I wonder which Google he sees.

  8. Arnold Zwicky said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    To Dan Milton: well, OAVES is an attested plural of OAF, but it's rare (the OED's one cite is from 1858) and certainly not standard.

    There are a number of other attested but non-standard fricative-voicing plurals out there (GRIEVES, with various spellings, for GRIEF, for instance).

  9. Joanna said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

    JRH, the deeply (culturally) Southern parts of Florida are indeed genuinely and non-importedly r-less– especially rural north Florida.

  10. michael farris said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    As a native Floridian (thouugh I haven't lived there in some years) I would say that there's a division between white and black speakers in terms of r-ness.
    Colloquial AAVE in Florida is of course non-rhotic as it is everywhere else. More 'standard' (for lack of a better word) English by black speakers varies.
    I've been a lot less in the panhandle where there might be some non-rhotic areas, but in the peninsula, where I've spent a fair amount of time in rural areas and lived in Gainesville for a number of years and have Florida cowboy relatives, IME white rural English in is rhotic.

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

    I hope it's not considered too pedantic to point out that all English in Florida is imported. Some might consider that academic, or moot, but it remains rather a sore point among others, particularly considering treaties still in effect.

  12. Stuart said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    The non-rhoticity of NZ does have some exceptions, which Laurie Bauer wrote about for a general audience here. There's another article on elements of the NZ accent, including the role of "R", here. That last is a Flash file.

  13. Randy said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    I'll take your pedantry one step further, Nathan, and say that all English in England is also imported. Oh sure, it's changed a little here and there since it was first introduced to the island some 1-2 millennia ago, but no, it wasn't born there.

    I'll take my own pedantry one step further yet and hypothesize that almost all languages are not spoken in the same region in which their ancestral languages were born, and therefore that almost all languages are imported.

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

    Well, Randy, I'll take your redoubled pedantry and square it: Everybody knows Adam invented English, so of course it's imported to everywhere except Jerusalem. But my original point stands.

  15. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

    I thought it was generally agreed that Adam spoke High Dutch.

  16. David Starner said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

    There's always the completely irregular ones, like Bay Staters for people from Massachusetts. (Massholes also appears, but is disapproved of except in the case of drivers.)

    I think it would interesting–and possible enlightening–to make up a bunch of place names and ask people to turn them into adjectives for the inhabitants. In a science fiction world I'm writing in, I've created a place called Petrograd. (Yes, from the Russian city.) My instinctual tendency is to call its inhabitants Petrogravians,

  17. Joanna said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    Michael Farris: I too lived in Gainesville for a good chunk of time and have relatives and friends in small towns in North FL– plenty of r-ful speakers to be sure, but I also came across a few (mostly older, but also some young) r-less white speakers here and there.

  18. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

    David Starner: Rockettes, of course.

  19. Faldone said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

    My attempted humorous name for residents of Flagstaff, AZ was Flagstavians. I lived there for seven years and don't know that I ever heard the official term, if there was one.

  20. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

    Sometimes the epenthesis has a specific explanation: According to the Wikipedia article on Michigander, which takes it from http://www.umich.edu/news/MT/NewsE/091503/lincoln.html, it's first documented in a speech by Lincoln, where it was a blend of Michigan and gander.

  21. Randy said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:36 pm

    Faldone: Flagstaffers?

    S Cauchi: I thought it was Welsh. Or is that the language God spoke to the Welsh when he invented the Celts, before the English language that he taught to Adam was eventually imported to the British Isles?

  22. Philip Spaelti said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

    While it is certainly true that the English in Florida is imported, the point brought up was whether the r-less-ness of (some) Floridan English was imported or not. The latter point is not trivial. r-less-ness in the Americas arose in parallel to the r-less-ness in Britain.

  23. Michael W said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 1:01 am

    Although the apparent dropping of a letter is more natural than adding a sound, I always though "Utahn" looked odd in print. Are there similar examples?

    Residents of Davis, CA use 'Davisites', probably because 'Davisians' sounds weird and not very peaceful. It'd be interesting if the same ending applied to Paris.

  24. Michael Farris said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 3:30 am

    "the point brought up was whether the r-less-ness of (some) Floridan English was imported or not"

    That's an interesting question. When I imagine the most rural, hickiest sounding accent possible for Florida (like a co-worker many years ago who routinely said "Ah seed it" and "Ah knowed it") it's rhotic.
    I'm not exactly sure what that proves but after the first indigenous inhabitants died off (mostly due to European diseases) a lot of the interior was very sparsely inhabited until well into the 20th century. Even the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes in Southern Florida migrated there from Georgia and Alabama.
    My best guess is that white migrants to rural Florida who became crackers and rednecks were from rhotic areas and not part of the same general expansion of European inhabitants in the southern US (except some areas in North Florida).

  25. Paul said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 4:24 am

    MYL: as it happens, "epenthesisis" was a lame attempt at humour — as was "haplogy" — though I do make my fair share of typing mistakes, of course. Sorry if it felt like I was (hypocritically) attacking you for an easily-made slip of the keys/fingers/brain/whatever-it-is-that-causes-this-kind-of-mistake. Hmm. That reads like a non-apology, doesn't it. Let's try again: sorry.

  26. David Letterman said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 5:46 am

    @ Arnold Zwicky, are you sure GRIEVES is a plural and not just the 3rd person of the verb? I can't think of a use for a plural of grief.

  27. Haun Saussy said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 8:20 am

    One more reason to keep Latin alive: it's the best way to account for epenthesis!
    Saint-Dié's predecessor form was Sanctus Deodatus, hence the people of S-D are Déodatiens. Presumably the genitive of Toronto, if referred to in Latin, is "Torontonis," and that's what gives you the epenthetic -n-. Where the Romans feared to tread, e.g., Utah and Congo, you're on your own. Then the human feel for pattern completion takes over.

  28. Laurent C said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    @James Wimberley: if you really need to know them, you may find most names for inhabitants of French places on wikipedia.fr (or specialised sites like habitants.fr).

  29. James Wimberley said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 9:06 am

    I like my cultural diversity to be presented to me on a plate. There's a certain impoverishment in having all our information available on the Internet, but not meeting it on the random walk of life.

  30. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    Sarah, Palin and Tall

  31. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    Whoops, commented on the wrong post. Apologies.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    f/v in singular/plural forms:

    I am wondering about the word eaves: not too long ago I saw a reference to an eave, but wouldn't it be more natural to say eaf?

    The words which keep f in the plural are mostly borrowings. As for grieves as the plural of grief (an Old French borrowing like chief, and a word not often found in the plural), some people must be analogizing according to the pattern of leaf/leaves instead of that of the noun/verb alternations grief/griefs//to grieve, belief/beliefs//to believe.

  33. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    In response to David Letterman's query to Arnold Zwicky:

    @ Arnold Zwicky, are you sure GRIEVES is a plural and not just the 3rd person of the verb? I can't think of a use for a plural of grief.

    Yes, "grieves" is indeed the plural of "grief". Chapman, for example, used it in The Widow's Tears:

    These grieves that sound so loud, prove always light,
    True sorrow evermore keeps out of sight.

    In the New Oxford Dictionary of English "grief" is labelled a mass noun, i.e. having no plural, but it evidently used to have a plural. I don't know when the plural died out, or if it truly has done.

  34. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    See also Goldsmith's The Deserted Village (1770):

    A time there was, ere England's griefs began . . .

    So the plural of "grief" can (or could) be either "griefs" or "grieves".

  35. Arnold Zwicky said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

    To Simon Cauchi on "grieves" as the plural of "grief": you totally miss the point. "Grieves" is not now a standard plural form of the noun "grief". It's been attested historically in this function, and it might even occur in some varieties now, but none of this is relevant to the point at hand. In fact, the point at hand was that non-standard fricative-voicing plurals are not uncommon. They're appropriate to certain varieties, but they're not standard,

    I HAVE NEVER SAID THAT ANYTHING THAT OCCURS IS STANDARD. Nor has any other other linguist.

  36. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    I wasn't asserting anything about Standard English either: I was merely citing a couple of historical examples.

    I can attest — having heard it with my own ears — that some speakers pronounce the plural of "staff" (which they would write "staffs") with a voiced fricative, so that it sounds like the old plural "staves" (I mean [sta:vs], not [steivs]). And I wouldn't call that pronunciation non-standard. It's as standard as the unvoiced pronunciation.

    (The "staffs" in question were people, employees.)

    Getting back to "grief", I'm pretty sure that the plural "griefs" is still current, and that therefore the label "mass noun" given it by the New Oxford Dictionary of English is wrong, or at least not true of all occurrences.

  37. Arnold Zwicky said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    Simon Cauchi: "Getting back to "grief", I'm pretty sure that the plural "griefs" is still current, and that therefore the label "mass noun" given it by the New Oxford Dictionary of English is wrong, or at least not true of all occurrences."

    Well, of course. M>C conversion is routine, and the regular plural of the C noun "grief" would be "griefs". Like "sadnesses", "discomforts", and so on. Dictionaries, even very big ones, rarely list such conversions, because they're so productive.

  38. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

    For what it's worth, from my younger days playing dungeons and dragons, I remember "staves" as a plural of "staff", when talking about things similar to magic wands.

    My spell-checker doesn't approve, though.

  39. Tristan McLeay said,

    September 10, 2008 @ 2:48 am

    What is the question about “ staves ” ? I remember the word from piano lessons in the mid 1990s. I don't understand why it wouldn't be marked in Skullturf's dictionary or why Simon describes it as an “ old plural ”. The most common use of “ staff ” today is of course a mass noun with no everyday plural, but that's a different matter.

  40. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 10, 2008 @ 6:31 am

    I mentioned it as another example of fricative-voicing in the plural, but a historical one. In the sixteenth century (say) there was singular "staff" and plural "staves" (the latter pronounced with the same vowel as that of "staff" but with a voiced fricative). In modern English the plural (now pronounced to rhyme with "waves") has acquired a new singular, "stave", by back-formation, and the singular "staff" has acquired a new regular plural "staffs". (However, musicians use both singulars indifferently, I believe.)
    The point of my 8:06 p.m. post last night was to mention that I have heard the plural "staffs" spoken with a voiced fricative, that's all, and I wouldn't describe that pronunciation as non-standard. It was also a M>C conversion, but that wasn't the point I was concerned about.

  41. David Letterman said,

    September 10, 2008 @ 8:48 am

    1. I can't understand the reason for Arnold Zwicky's intermittent rudeness on this blog, but I do wish he'd lay off, it's very distracting.

    2. To Simon Cauchi: thanks for your reply about grieves, which seemed very much to the point to me. Stave is still the plural of staff, or it was in England in the nineteen-sixties, when I was a boy scout.

  42. Rico said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

    Handel's Messiah has 'griefs:'

    "Surely he hath borne our griefs…"

    His source, of course, was the Authorized Version of the Bible–in this case, Isaiah 53:4. My reprint copy gives the spelling 'griefes.'

  43. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

    marie-lucie wrote:
    f/v in singular/plural forms:

    I am wondering about the word eaves: not too long ago I saw a reference to an eave, but wouldn't it be more natural to say eaf?

    No. "Eaves", like "riches", is one of those words that looks like a plural but isn't one really, though we treat it like one. There is no singular "eave" or "eaf". "Eaves" is derived from an Old English singular noun _efes_. Similarly "riches" is derived from French _richesse_ or more precisely from its Anglo-Norman cognate.

  44. Now I Know My [ei] [bi] [si]’s « 5 Market Blog said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

    […] As an interesting side-note, one of the books we picked up for Benjamin was an English book Times 1000 Word Dictionary by Myra Ellis which also includes IPA transcriptions of words. It, however, includes all the funky symbols and a pronunciation guide and seems generally accurate, although it is not based on an American standard dialect (it was published in Singapore) as it includes words like lorry, pronunciations like [mɛdsn] with two syllables for medicine, and non-rhotic variants as seen in [mɑ:tʃ] for march and [ˈfɪŋgə] for finger among many others (for a nice map on the distribution of r-lessness see here). […]

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