Monday, 30 August 2010

speleothems

When in Barbados recently I learnt a new word, speleothem ˈspiːliəʊθem. It refers to any underground rock formation, more precisely to “secondary mineral deposits formed from water in caves”. Examples include stalactites and stalagmites. According to the OED, this word was coined (from Greek) as recently as 1952.

On the island we visited an impressive series of limestone caverns, Harrison’s Cave, which has only recently been developed as a tourist attraction. You are driven around underground in a “tram” (wagons pulled by a tractor) through tunnels and caverns full of stalactites, stalagmites, and other, um, speleothems. Somewhat reminiscent of Postojna in Slovenia, it’s well worth a visit.

I was struck by the fact that our guide, presumably a native Barbadian, pronounced stəˈlæktaɪt and stəˈlæɡmaɪt (or with stæ-). These are what I take to be the American stressings of stalactite and stalagmite, in contrast to the British ˈstæləktaɪt and ˈstæləɡmaɪt. Given the generally British orientation of Barbadian English, I would have expected rather to hear initial (or perhaps final) stress.
I don’t think I have ever heard penultimate stress in these words in BrE. Nor, as far as I recall, have I heard a strong vowel in the penultimate syllable (ˈstælæktaɪt, ˈstælæɡmaɪt), despite the fact that the OED allows only for the strong vowel.

In fact the OED pronunciation entries are rather odd: they imply that BrE can have either stressing and always a strong medial vowel, both of which claims seem to me to be at best dubious.For what it’s worth, initial stress is what Chomsky and Halle’s SPE rules would predict for stalactite #stælækt+īt# and stalagmite #stælægm+īt#. Their Main Stress Rule imposes stress on the final heavy syllable, then the Alternating Stress Rule converts this to antepenultimate, preserving the strength of the final vowel. The American, penultimate, stress pattern, as used by our Bajan guide, would necessitate marking the pronunciation of these words as exceptional.

To remember which is which, stalactite or stalagmite, I regret to say that at school we learned the mnemonic "first the tights come down, then the mites will grow up".

20 comments:

  1. It refers to any underground rock formation

    When I read this, I understood you referred to independent music styles, possibly Carribean.

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  2. Our school version was somewhat more seemly: "stalactites cling tightly to the roof, stalagmites might one reach the roof" ...

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  3. I gave them initial stress as a kid until I learned better from hearing other Americans say them. Our mnemonic was "Stalagmites have a 'g' and grow from the 'ground'."

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  4. I just remembered it by the form of the letters T and M. (I probably didn't come up with this.) Especially the former is a good graphic image.

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  5. This American's pronunciation of stalactite and stalagmite has always stressed the first syllable. Phonemically, it is exactly the same as the BrE ˈstæləktaɪt and ˈstæləɡmaɪt. Those are the pronunciations I learned at school, and the only pronunciations I've ever heard.

    Perhaps some Americans say it the Bajan way - anything is possible - but it's a new one on me.

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  6. If the stress had come out of the wish to contrast the two, one would expect it to be on the ultimates, though it wouldn't be entirely impossible for it to be on the penultimate in theory.

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  7. "I don’t think I have ever heard penultimate stress in these words in BrE. Nor, as far as I recall, have I heard a strong vowel in the penultimate syllable (ˈstælæktaɪt, ˈstælæɡmaɪt), despite the fact that the OED allows only for the strong vowel. In fact the OED pronunciation entries are rather odd: they imply that BrE can have either stressing and always a strong".
    Judging from the entries in the Oxfd Dict of Pronunciation, when OED3 gets round to revising the entries, John, we'll be happier with the revised versions.

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  8. Br.Eng. speaker born 198930 August 2010 at 15:44

    For me:

    "stalactite" /ˈstæl.əɡ.taɪt/
    (note the /g/ instead of /k/)

    "stalagmite" /ˈstæl.əɡ.maɪt/

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  9. Contra Amy Stoller, I (an American) have never (to my recollection) heard or heard of the initial-stress pronunciation. Not all American dictionaries even list the initial-stress pronunciation, though all the ones I could find list the medial-stress version.

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  10. As a pupil in the (Northern California) Bay Area in the nineties I learnt to pronounce the two terms like the OED describes in terms of vowels and stress but with /g/ in stead of /k/ in both instances:
    /ˈstæl.æɡ.taɪt/
    /ˈstæl.æɡ.maɪt/

    I've never heard the stress put on the penultimate syllable, but I can imagine the talking Webster dictionary saying it like that in its Dopey NPR pronuciation.

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  11. AJD,
    Contra Amy Stoller, I (an American) have never (to my recollection) heard or heard of the initial-stress pronunciation. Not all American dictionaries even list the initial-stress pronunciation, though all the ones I could find list the medial-stress version.

    Yes, that confirms the statement about US dictionaries in the etymology (curiously not the pronunciation) for the OED entry for stalactite as shown in John's jpg of it in today's blog, but there is no suggestion in that entry that the medial-stress version is exclusively US. It's not surprising that both these things surprise me, but it is very significant to me that they surprised Amy.

    At least OED's stəˈlæktaɪt and stəˈlægmaɪt are coherent pronunciations, unlike their alleged ˈstælæktaɪt and ˈstælægmaɪt for the initial-stress versions, which I don't believe any more than John, and Amy tells us she doesn’t use THOSE.

    I'm not convinced by any mnemonic involving stalactites growing down from the 'roof'. Our mnemonic was stalaCtites grow down from the Ceiling and stalaGmites grow up from the Ground. Stalactites form from drips off the ceiling, which is the inner surface of the roof, is it not?

    JWL,
    Judging from the entries in the Oxfd Dict of Pronunciation, when OED3 gets round to revising the entries, John, we'll be happier with the revised versions.

    OED DRAFT REVISION Dec. 2009 does not augur well:
    Brit. / palɪə(ʊ)tʌɪp/, / peɪlɪə(ʊ)tʌɪp/, U.S. / peɪlɪoʊˌtaɪp/ [… N.E.D. (1904) gives only the pronunciation (pæ•liotəip) / pæliːəʊtaɪp/.]
    "A system for phonetic transcription which uses only unmodified Roman letters and other commonly used symbols."

    How ironic. A gauntlet thrown down at 2009's "commonly used symbols".

    BTW the OED treats the palaeo- bit pretty erratically, and erratically erratically as between BrE and AmE where the stress pattern permits reduction of the o, sometimes with ə(ʊ) and oʊ as above, sometimes with əʊ and ə, and sometimes with ə for both, or different combinations of these. Somehow I don't think this is based on any consensus.

    For speleothem it only gives ˈspiːliəʊθem as in today's blog, but other dictionaries give ˈspiːliəθem, which I would have thought more natural.

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  12. Stalagmites might hang from the ceiling. But they don't.

    A bad mnemonic I'm sure, but it's worked for me.

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  13. Lipman,
    I just remembered it by the form of the letters T and M. (I probably didn't come up with this.) Especially the former is a good graphic image.
    Yeah that's the one I used too here in America.

    AJD,
    Contra Amy Stoller, I (an American) have never (to my recollection) heard or heard of the initial-stress pronunciation. Not all American dictionaries even list the initial-stress pronunciation, though all the ones I could find list the medial-stress version.

    Yeah, same here. I've never heard the initial-stress pronunciation from other Americans and I don't use it either. I only remember hearing it from David Attenborough.

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  14. The use of /g/ in "stalactite" by some Americans reminds me of the common pronunciation of "baptism" as /ˈbæbtɪzəm/, and my own pronunciation of "acknowledge" with initial /ɪg/, which I've since modified.

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  15. Lazar Taxon: I have all of those too, unmodified. However, I think it may be neutralization rather than actual sound-change, since none of those originally unvoiced stops are aspirated.

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  16. I'm another penultimate-stressing American. /stəˈlæktaɪt/ and /stəˈlæɡmaɪt/. The mnemonic I learned was that stalactites grow on the ceiling and stalagmites grow on the ground.

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  17. I can't remember ever finding it difficult to remember which is which. In my experience people talk about stalactites a lot more often than about stalagmites, and use the word stalactite a lot more often than stalagmite, so I associate them by frequency and think of stalagmites as "the other one".

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  18. Stalactites must hang on TITE to the ceiling or they'll fall. Stalagmites MITE grow tall enough to reach the ceiling one day if they're very good and eat their Weeties. (Initial-stressing Australian.)

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  19. I wonder if Gadi does say ˈstælægtaɪt or if, like me (BrE speaker from London), they say ˈstæləgtaɪt.

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  20. Regarding the OED pronunciations: if you go back to the first edition, you will see that the middle syllable in both cases (where unstressed) is notated as ӕ̆ (ae ligature with a breve on top): the breve, in the old OED transcription, was a mark of obscuration, and was functionally equivalent to a schwa for normal speech, but indicated the possibility of pronouncing with the 'ideal' vowel indicated in very careful speech or in singing.

    Normally, such combinations were translated into schwas when the OED adopted the IPA, so maybe we have here a transcription error at that time.

    --
    Steve

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