Ling wars in Dingburg

Today’s Zippy has Dingburgers, drawn into camps on issues of linguistic variation and usage, slinging lots of technical terminology:

Most of these features — the glottal stop, NG coalescence, like, awesome, uptalk, whatever, vocal fry (creak, creaky voice) — have been discussed on Language Log or here, because they are associated with a collection of geographic or social dialect characteristics (region, age, sex, class, etc.) or particular styles and registers; they are socioculturally significant, usually in quite complex ways. The remaining three — strident voice, slack voice, and falsetto — are phonation types that have, I think, escaped attention on these blogs

Then there’s the language play in the final panel, where a kid indulges in whateverism, and one Dingburger pegs him as a vocal fry, referring both to the phonation type and to the lexical items fry and small fry. From NOAD2:

fry plural noun young fish, esp. when newly hatched

• the young of other animals produced in large numbers, such as frogs.

small fry plural noun young fish, animals, or children.

• insignificant people or things: high-ranking officials escaped prosecution while numerous small fry were imprisoned.

Then on the two features in the first panel, with illustrative examples in the second: the glottal stop and NG coalescence.

The glottal stop (as an allophone of /t/) is a standard feature of many North American dialects, in a very particular context: after an accented syllable and before an unaccented syllabic n, as in button (BUH-IN in the strip). But it’s also a non-standard feature in a variety of dialects, for example Cockney and related varieties (BUH-ER for butter in the strip) and some Southern U.S. varieties (DIH-EN for didn’t in the strip).

NG coalescence has a complex distribution. Most strikingly it fails in an assortment of northern English varieties. Here’s phonetician John Wells’s discussion in a talk to the Yorkshire Dialect Society, with a section on “Conservative northernisms”:

The first pronunciation characteristic that I want to look at concerns words such as song, hang, ring – words which end in spelling with the letters ng. Now for most of us nowadays these two letters correspond to just a single sound, [ŋ], phonetically classified as a voiced velar nasal. Just as bag comprises three sounds, [bæg], so equally does bang, [bæŋ]. But it was not always so. Until perhaps about 1600, everyone pronounced words of this kind with a plosive, a [g]-sound, after the nasal: [bæŋg]. And of course you can still hear this pronunciation in Birmingham, Stoke, Manchester, Liverpool and even in Sheffield (though not, I think, in Leeds and Bradford).

The innovation of NG coalescence, the change whereby the two letters ng came to correspond to one sound rather than two at the end of a word, was a historical sound change that was resisted in these mostly western parts of the midlands and north, although it caught on everywhere else.

It has interesting consequences from the point of view of the phoneme system of the language, that is to say when we consider how many independent contrastive “sounds” we need to recognize in the language. As long as final postnasal [g] remains, the velar nasal can be considered a positional variant of /n/. Once the loss has taken place, /ŋ/ has to be recognized as a separate phoneme.

Note also what happens when a suffix is attached to a stem ending in historical ng. If we take the word singer, one who sings, we see that for most of us the stem-final [g] was lost just as in sing itself. But in finger, on the other hand, where the [g] is in the middle of a stem, it remains. Hence for most speakers singer [sIŋƏ] and finger [fIŋgƏ] do not rhyme. But in the local speech of Liverpool and Manchester they do, because in [sIŋgƏ] we get just the same sequence as in [fIŋgƏ].

NG coalescence also fails in some American varieties, famously in the NYC area, as in the examples in the second panel of the strip.

A digression, on the excellent John Wells, who has a new book out from Cambridge University Press: Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and General Phonetics. The publisher’s blurb:

How do you pronounce omega, tortoise and sloth? And why? Do charted and chartered sound the same? How do people pronounce the names Charon, Punjab, and Sexwale? In this engaging book, John Wells, a world-renowned phonetician and phonologist, explores these questions and others. Each chapter consists of carefully selected entries from Wells’ acclaimed phonetics blog, on which he regularly posted on a range of current and widely researched topics such as pronunciation, teaching, intonation, spelling, and accents. Based on sound scholarship and full of fascinating facts about the pronunciation of Welsh, Swedish, Czech, Zulu, Icelandic and other languages, this book will appeal to scholars and students in phonetics and phonology, as well as general readers wanting to know more about language. Anyone interested in why a poster in Antigua invited cruise ship visitors to enjoy a game of porker, or what hymns can tell us about pronunciation, should read this book.

Finally, on the three phonation types.

On the familiar falsetto, from Wikipedia:

Falsetto … is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.

It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal cords, in whole or in part. Commonly cited in the context of singing …

Then on the more exotic strident voice and slack voice, again from Wikipedia, which got its information from Ladefoged & Maddieson’s Sounds of the World’s Languages (Wiley-Blackwell):

Strident vowels … are strongly pharyngealized vowels accompanied by [an] (ary)epiglottal [epiglottal or aryepiglottal] trill, where the larynx is raised and the pharynx constricted, so that either the epiglottis or the arytenoid cartilages vibrate instead of the vocal cords. Strident vowels are fairly common in Khoisan languages, where they contrast with simple pharyngealized vowels. (link)

The term slack voice (or lax voice) describes the pronunciation of consonant or vowels with a glottal opening slightly wider than that occurring in modal voice. Such sounds are often referred to informally as lenis or half-voiced in the case of consonants. In some Chinese languages, such as Wu, and in many Austronesian languages, the ‘intermediate’ phonation of slack stops confuses listeners of languages without these distinctions, so that different transcription systems may use /p/ or /b/ for the same consonant. In Xhosa, slack-voiced consonants have usually been transcribed as breathy voice. (link)

Amazing what ordinary Dingburgers know about.

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