An exchange, a few days ago, between Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky and her daughter Opal (who will be 5 on Wednesday), as reported on the On the Other Hand blog:

Complaining about my desire to pick up the Lego: “You are a FEEN. An evil FEEN, I tell you! Wickedness!” “A fiend, you mean?” “Not a feed, a feen! An evil nasty horrible thing.”

Clearly, Opal was aiming at (her version of) the word fiend, except that for her, the final [nd] cluster has been simplified. When her mother produced her own version of the word, with a [d], Opal took the [d] to be the salient phonological feature of the coda and disregarded the nasality (which might have been realized in her mother’s speech merely as nasalization of the vowel) — so she perceived her mother’s production as an instance of the word feed.

It’s easy to disregard vowel nasalization as a cue for a nasal stop in lexical representation, especially when many speakers have spontaneous nasalization of vowels. Listeners learn to disregard spontaneous nasalization and so sometimes fail to detect a lexical nasal; HADLE is a surprisingly frequent misspelling of HANDLE, as on this website devoted to handle bags (or “hadle bags”, as the webpage has it).

6 Responses to “Evil FEEN”

  1. David W. Fenton Says:

    Here I was expecting a post all about fairies or Wagner. Or both.

    David W. Fenton

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I know many people who pronounce “handle” as “hannel”, too.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To The Ridger: “handle” as “hannel” is just ordinary “flapping”, but with nasal rather than oral stops. For most speakers, the result is a nasal flap, not a simple nasal, but if you’re not a phonetician you’re going to identify the result as an ordinary nasal stop.

  4. Grant Barrett Says:

    Arnold, I assume you are aware that fiending rendered as “feenin” is common beyond your charming granddaughter.

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Grant Barrett: yes, I knew about fiending ~ feenin, though I’m sure that Opal isn’t aware of this verb. The cluster simplification isn’t especially remarkable. I was much more impressed by Opal’s interpretation of her mother’s fiend as feed.

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Two comments from Eve Clark.

    1. Eve notes the treatment of final nasal + stop by some of the children studied by Charles Read twenty or so years ago (book-length treatment in Children’s Creative Spelling (Routledge)). These were (English-speaking) children who, having learned the names of the letters, devised their own spellings. Wonderful stuff. There is plenty of variation here, but one recurrent phenomenon was the spelling (in words pronounced with final nasal + stop) of this coda as a plain stop, as if the nasalization “belonged to” the preceding vowel (and since the alphabet doesn’t have separate letters for oral and nasalized vowels, nasalization is just disregarded). So tent would be spelled TAT. (A represents both the tense and lax front mid vowels — the tense vowel because the name of the letter A is [e], the lax vowel because [e] is the vowel phonetically closest to [ɛ].)

    2. Considerably younger children are not of course taken up with spelling, but with deploying the productions they can manage in such a way as to convey contrasts that they perceive but do not yet produce. The 1986 paper “On the acquisition of final voiced stops” by Eve Clark and Melissa Bowerman (Fishman et al. (eds.), The Fergusonian Impact, Vol. 1 (Mouton de Gruyter)) looks at the early phonological acquisition of two children, Damon and Eva, noting that one step in the acquisition of final voiced stops uses the sequence of nasal plus voiceless stop to achieve this effect: the nasal contributes voicing, the voiceless stop contributes the place of articulation.

    So Damon had [pɪŋk] for pig at 1:8,1 and 1;8,8.

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