Friday, 8 October 2010

wondering about wandering

One of the songs our choir is practising for our Christmas show is I wonder as I wander, which is a “traditional Appalachian carol” or, according to another account, was “written in 1933 by John Jacob Niles from a fragment of a song he heard sung during an evangelical church fundraising meeting”.

I notice that our singers find it quite difficult to pronounce the two verbs accurately. They sometimes seem to sing aɪ ˈwɒndər æz aɪ ˈwɒndə. I even caught myself doing it when not concentrating properly. Here’s a fragment of our tenor 2 rehearsal track that we use for practice: see what I mean.

Presumably we all agree that I wonder (how Jesus the Saviour did come for to die) should have the STRUT vowel, thus ˈwʌndə (or perhaps the Appalachian equivalent ˈwəndɚ); while I wander (under the sky) should have the LOT vowel, ˈwɒndə (or ˈwɑndɚ).

Or are there people who pronounce the two words as homophones? Some subset of the English people who have ɒ in one and among? Or do some people neutralize the two vowels in the context of a preceding w?

Failing that, I think the difficulty may be due to the difficulty of parsing and understanding the phrase I wonder as I wander out of context and of identifying the appropriate word from the spelling in each case.

Wonder is one of those words in which the STRUT vowel is spelt o instead of the more usual u (compare under, thunder, asunder, which rhyme with it), while wander is one of those words in which the LOT vowel is spelt a instead of o (compare ponder, yonder).

Confusing.

36 comments:

  1. In "A fish called Wanda", Archie the lawyer betrays himself and tries immediately to correct things: "Wanda! I wonder..." or something like that.

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  2. Yes, some people do use the LOT vowel in both. I have often seen spellings of "wander" when it should say "wonder", but cannot remember seeing it the other way around.

    Another case of the LOT vowel being spelt a is the word "want". Every pronunciation dictionary gives /wɒnt/ although I have never understood why they don't include /wənt/ as well (possibly as a weak form).

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  3. Not that it has any relevance for how native speakers pronounce these words, but merging /ɒ/ and /ʌ/ is a fairly consistent feature of English as spoken by native speakers of Danish (dog = dug = dock = duck).

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  4. I have /ɒ/ in "one," "among" and "tongue" and indeed "wander", but I have the FOOT vowel in "wonder."

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  5. I also used to have a dentist called Dr. Wanda who had stickers for the kids saying "what a WANDA-ful smile." However, I do not think these were homophones for any of Wanda's patients.

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  6. Ingenioso hidalgo8 October 2010 12:28

    "I think the difficulty may be due to the difficulty of parsing and understanding the phrase 'I wonder as I wander' out of context and of identifying the appropriate word from the spelling in each case."

    I'm not a native speaker of English, but I think you're very probably right.

    As far as non-native speakers are concerned, I'm under the impression that pronouncing "wonder" with LOT is a very common mistake. Other examples are "front" and "worry".

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  7. I've always been confused about how to pronounce "wonder" and "wander", but your examples are very clear. Thank you!

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  8. What about Jn Major's regular use of /ʌ/ in 'want'!
    I'm not Anon 1 or 2!

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  9. At a performance of The Mousetrap in London a few weeks ago, the detective character repeatedly pronounced 'wander' for 'wonder', resulting in the humorous 'I've been wandering about you...'. Interesting, I thought, that a speech-conscious actor should use such a pronunciation.

    David Crystal was at the same performance, unless it was a look-alike

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  10. On the one hand you have the central to northern dialects of England that have some darker back vowel in wonder. But for those who contrast strut and lot vowels, I suggest tongue-twisting effect. I've experienced this in other choir music too, but can't recall an example just now.

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  11. I think another variable one is "won" (past tense of "win"), which rhymes with "one" for some people but with "wan" for others.

    (And for yet others, it rhymes with one word but they think they rhyme it with the other one - or that they "should" rhyme it with the other one.)

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  12. ˈwɒndər for "wonder" does exist as a Northernism, surely, like c/ɒ/nstable. Which is why it sounds so totally wrong for John Cleese's very RP character in A Fish Called Wanda.

    I see this as another victim of what's happening to words like "wort", "amok" and so on.

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  13. You are not alone. Barbara Streisand sings "I wɑnder as I wɑnder" (though not consistently), whereas Vanessa Williams sings "I wʌnder as I wʌnder" (also not consistently). Both have the LOT=PALM merger, like most Americans. Alfie Boe does not, and he consistently sings "I wʌnder as I wʌnder", or if he doesn't, it's beyond my ability to hear the difference: people with /ɒ/ for LOT perhaps may. Amiduffer sings it badly, but when he gives the title, his head rolls up and he pauses disfluently and speaks slowly, suggesting that he's trying not to say one of these garbled forms. I haven't heard anyone say or sing it with the vowels distinct but reversed, but who knows?

    In any case, how is your choir singing ordinary in the third line? The music forces the word to be bisyllabic, but is the /d/ present or absent (traditionally in the American South it was absent). And what stressed vowel are you using?

    (Historical note: This word underwent a lexical split in AmE. Ordinary, with three (BrE) or four (AmE) syllables retained the original sense. Ornery (as it is conventionally but foolishly spelled; ornry would be better) has two syllables, and underwent the semantic shifts 'ordinary, usual' > 'inferior, unpleasant' > 'irritable, mean-spirited, cantankerous'. The two words are now felt to be different — except in this song, where the pronunciation is that of ornery, but the sense is 'ordinary'. According to the OED3, ornery has now spread to BrE, sometimes pronounced as a trisyllable, which is clearly a spelling pronunciation.)

    Finally, is the following noun people (seemingly the most common), creatures (what I grew up with), or sinners? You seem to make it Jesus the Saviour in the second line, but Jesus our Saviour is also heard. (Note that this word takes -our even in AmE spelling, though only when capitalized; a nicety often ignored nowadays.) There is no substantial doubt about John Jacob Niles's authorship of the song as we have it, but of course the folk process ("learning a song, forgetting some of it, adding bits of your own, and then teaching the song to someone else, complete with changes") has been at work since his day too, altering this and that.

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  14. My Cardiff based choir is rehearsing Mendellson's Athalia, in German. This week we had a German speaker rehearse pronunciation with us.

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  15. This is a linguistic equivalent of the Stroop effect.

    We have "wonder", which by ordinary spelling rules should be LOT but which is pronounced STRUT.

    And "wander", which by ordinary spelling rules should be TRAP but which is pronunced LOT.

    The proximity of these anomalous spelling/pronunciation relationships seems to overwhelm our brains. Well, mine at least. The experience is a mild version of the Stroop effect, where meaning and color are similarly mismatched.

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  16. Daniela Martino8 October 2010 19:13

    A NNS myself and English teacher as I am, I can say that the trouble with this phrase is the fact that both words appear to be too close together in this phrase... kind of a tongue twister for a NNS.
    Other phrases of this kind could be: a word about world war II ...
    Anyway, how come you can have a weak form on a content word, like 'want'?

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  17. I agree with Daniela Martino: I can't imagine ever pronouncing want as wənt.

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  18. Content words can have weak forms although it's not as common. LPD states that there are non-standard weak forms for "go": gʊ, gə.

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  19. Thomas has neatly pointed out the biggest problem with my pronunciation.

    The next one is the s/z-merger.

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  20. As a bilingual speaker of Korean and English, I maintain virtually all phonemic distinctions found in native speakers of English, but I sometimes have trouble keeping apart the pairs /ʌ/ and /ɒ/, and even /ɔːr/ and /ɝː/ after /w/. Korean prohibits rounded vowels after /w/, so it took some time to learn these distinctions. This may not be relevant at all for native speakers. But it doesn't seem entirely implausible to me either that the preceding /w/ might make maintaining the distinction between unrounded and rounded vowels that follow slightly more difficult even for native speakers.

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  21. @Sili, true, but merging s/z is done by large groups of NNS of English, whereas the STRUT-LOT merger is much rarer.

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  22. I was sceptical of the idea of go as ; but then I thought of the colloquial term for a chamber pot, a gazunder, so named because it 'goes under' the bed.

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  23. @ John Cowan: our version has "poor ornery people like you and like I", with two syllables for "ornery", so ˈɔːnri.

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  24. Weird, for some reason I thought "wander" had TRAP, though I'm sure I must have heard at least one native speaker pronouncing it.
    No problem with "a word about world war II", but I once took almost a minute to realize that a Spaniard by wO:k didn't mean "walk" but "work". And I did get the equivalent of the Stroop effect when a Kiwi uttered a sentence containing many words like "sacks" [sEks], "sex" [sIks] and "six" [s@ks] -- my brain couldn't undo that chain shift that quickly, so I started interpreting their "sacks" as "sex", their "sex" as "six" and their "six" as "sucks".

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  25. I make that 'ɑnri. For some reason, the word slipped into my rhotic accent without the 'r.' Another word where I learned the written and spoken forms separately and had trouble matching them up.

    "Wonder" matches "won" and "ton." "Wander" matches "wand" but not "hand." There's a rule there somewhere.

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  26. @ Julie: /'ɑnri/ has an "r" doesn't it?

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  27. If you go to the iTunes store, you can listen for free to a snatch of John Jacob Niles himself singing the phrase.

    Like the rest of his grotesque, sorry striking singing voice, the vowel sounds are unusual. His vowel in wonder is indeterminate, and would be just as persuasive as wander. His vowel in wander is remarkable — with a strangled quality I think may be pharyngeal.

    My feeling is that it's the singing that squashes the vowels together. Our instinct is to nasalise the vowel as soon as possible and delay the closure of the [n]. And the nasalised versions of the STRUT and LOT vowels seem to be less clearly distinguished than the purely oral versions.

    I find it difficult to believe that the phrase I wonder as I wander was part of the fragmentary folk sone that Niles collected. The tune is plausible, and much of the rest of the lyrics. But the phrase that gives it Niles' title is just too unnatural to sing — as shown by John W's choir and the singers noted by John C.

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  28. In L.A. ''wonder'' and ''wander'' are dangerously close, the same is true of ''lust/lost'' which are both [läst] in fast speech, and ''last'' is just slightly fronter [last]...

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  29. @Geoff: I meant the first 'r' in 'ornery.' I learned the word as if it were spelled 'onnry.' And it's not that common in educated speech, so I've never heard it pronounced any other way.

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  30. @ Julie: I think I've heard it both ways now that you mention it. I actually thought those were two separate words. It's not common in educated speech? I'm educated and I use it.

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  31. Hmmm....Is it possible that it's just a local difference? I know that after 30+ years in Sacramento (including my college years), I can no longer say it unselfconsciously, although I certainly grew up saying it, and my parents use it regularly.

    If they're separate words, I have no pronunciation for the one and no spelling for the other. Doesn't mean they're not, though. Does anyone have any difference in meaning?

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  32. I'm a native SSBE speaker and they've always been homophonous for me.

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  33. @ Julie: Well I'm a male and you're a female (I think). According to studies, females tend to sound more standard than males. That might have something to do with it.

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  34. @Geoff: Although my writing is pretty standard, my speech isn't quite. I didn't grow up listening to educated people. My family's fame is in commercial fishing; my brother and I were the first to have the opportunity to get a college education. I still have the occasional double negative and an "ain't" here and there to show my small-town upbringing.

    I don't know that 'ornery' is actually nonstandard, only that it doesn't seem to show up very often in 'standard' speech and writing. I hear it when I visit home.

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  35. I just wish I could carry a tune so I could sing during a church service.

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  36. I never noticed that that Christmas tune carried such a complex phrase! Perhaps when we are singing we slow down the phrase making it not seem like such a Tongue twister! Either way, I will be sure to note my pronunciation on any future songs!

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