Tuesday, 30 March 2010

FIFA officials

Following on from yesterday’s post about syllabic m...
Beginners tend to look at English phonetics as something static. Each word has its pronunciation. To pronounce a sentence you just string the individual words together, each with its own pronunciation.
But as you move on from the beginner’s stage you realize that this is not enough. Phonetics is dynamic. Connected speech is more than isolated words strung together. To start with, we obviously have to generate an appropriate intonation pattern for the sentence. To do this we have to make decisions not only about tone — arguably, this is one of the least important things we have to decide — but also about which of the lexically stressed syllables to accent. Within each intonation phrase we must choose a syllable to bear the nuclear accent, and possibly other syllables to bear other accents.
But segmental structure, too, is dynamic. We have to pay attention to the phonetic processes of connected speech: form-word weakening, linking, assimilation, elision, syllabic consonant formation, compression. Each of these processes is constrained by the phonetic context, as well as by considerations such as speech rate and degree of formality.
I heard a BBC newsreader recently referring to ˈfiːfrəˈfɪʃl̩z, i.e. FIFA officials. This short phrase is a good example of some of these processes in action.
The citation form or dictionary pronunciation, which mild generativists might call the underlying representation, is
ˈfiːfə əˈfɪʃəlz.
(I disregard the weakening within the lexicon that gives us schwas at the end of FIFA and the beginning and end of official. Deep generativists would no doubt derive official from office. Notice that some varieties of English do not categorically weaken the o- of official as RP does.)
In non-rhotic varieties such as RP this phrase is a prime candidate for r insertion. We have a word ending in schwa closely followed by a word beginning with a vowel sound, which is a phonetic environment in which r insertion is likely. So we get
ˈfiːfər əˈfɪʃəlz (by r insertion)
Any sequence of schwa plus a liquid is a candidate for syllabic consonant formation, whereby the schwa and the liquid coalesce into a syllabic liquid. So we get
ˈfiːfr̩ əˈfɪʃl̩z
(by syllabic consonant formation: the output is syllabic r and syllabic l)
Any instance of a syllabic consonant that is immediately followed by a weak vowel — as for example the syllabic r that we have here — is a candidate for compression, whereby it loses its syllabicity. So we get
ˈfiːfr əˈfɪʃl̩z (by compression)
…which is what I heard. QED.
FIFA ends up as a monosyllable, with a final cluster not allowed in a word in isolation.

9 comments:

  1. Of course r-insertion is much more common in Britain than America. I've been (benignly) teased by Americans for saying things like ˈsɪlər ɪz for "Cilla is".

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  2. Even non-rhotic Americans probably wouldn't go past /ˈfifr̩ əˈfɪʃl̩z/. Rhotic Americans, and non-rhotic Americans without linking /r/ (such as AAVE-speakers) would use a liaison form, roughly /ˈfifə əˈfɪʃl̩z/. I myself (rhotic) might insert an intrusive glottal stop.

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  3. And which way is that a liaison form? It looks to me just like the juxtaposition of the citation forms...

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  4. John W., is there a reason to assume the step ˈfiːfr̩ əˈfɪʃl̩z?

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  5. I would probably use a glottal stop in between "FIFA" and "officials" as well. I don't know how else to say it.

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  6. With two schwas in a row, or one long, or simply one short schwa. For those who don't have the intrusive R, FIFA Fishels might be quite common. (Eastern European Jewish football fans?)

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  7. As regards the last paragraph, I find from playing charades that it's difficult to agree on how many syllables are in words. People never agree on whether near, fear, here, etc. have one syllable each or two.

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  8. My use of "liaison form" above was a brain fart for "hiatus form". Hiatus non-rhoticity is very characteristic of AAVE.

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  9. But segmental structure, too, is dynamic. We have to pay attention to the phonetic processes of connected speech: form-word weakening, linking, assimilation, elision, syllabic consonant formation, compression. Each of these processes is constrained by the phonetic context, as well as by considerations such as speech rate and degree of formality.

    ReplyDelete