Ruthie faces literal ambiguity

In the 7/30 strip, on the ambiguity of the word letter; in the 7/31 strip, a play on the name of the letter Y:



The ambiguity of letter. The two principal senses, from NOAD:

noun letter: 1 a character representing one or more of the sounds used in speech; any of the symbols of an alphabet: a capital letter. … 2 a written, typed, or printed communication, especially one sent in an envelope by mail or messenger: he sent a letter to Mrs. Falconer.

Both senses appear in Middle English; the source of the ambiguity lies in Old French and Latin, in a (metonymical) use of the plural not just for multiple characters but for a message composed of such characters.

A notable feature ofthe strip is what Ruthie says when she realizes she and James are talking at cross purposes, with Ruthie intending sense 2, while James understands letter in sense 1:

That’s not a letter, James, that’s a letter!

She uses contrastive accent to distinguish the two senses: no accent on the word in her intended sense (for her, that sense is backgrounded), accent on the word in what she views as an intrusive sense (foregrounding it). Whether James will understand how she’s using accent to convey her intent is another matter.

Why oh Y? For a great many current speakers of English, the question word why and the name of the letter of the alphabet Y are homophones — both are pronounced /waj/ — hence the joke.

But it’s a bit more complex than that. Why is one of a set of English words that for some speakers — I am one — have a voiceless initial approximant /ʍ/ (with some variation in its actual phonetic realization) distinct from its voiced counterpart /w/; some voiceless-voiced minimal pairs:

why – Y, whales – Wales, which – witch, whit – wit, what – watt, whet – wet, where – wear

In general, words with initial /ʍ/ are spelled with initial WH, and most words spelled with initial WH are pronounced with /ʍ/. That should sound a signal: English spelling is very conservative, so that spelling distinctions often indicate earlier pronunciation distinctions. Then when  there are current speakers with a pronunciation distinction that correlates closely to the spelling distinction, you should hypothesize that the pronunciation distinction was more widespread at earlier stages of the language. When you further learn that the /ʍ – w/ distinction is preserved these days mostly in Irish and Scottish English and in the American South — areas off on the edges of their linguistic regions — that should strengthen your suspicion that a /ʍ – w/ distinction used to be widespread in the language, but now survives as a relic.

There turns out to be plenty of evidence that this is so; the retreat of /ʍ/ has been so recent that you can hear the /ʍ/ in old recordings and films, in the speech of older people (like me) from a wider geographical range, in conventions of elevated stage speech, and so on. And of course in the records of phoneticians in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As usual, if you don’t have a phonemic distinction, you’re probably unable to hear the distinction in other people’s speech; my whales – Wales distinction is probably a mystery for you. Meanwhile, you might well have [ʍ] in your speech, but only as an emphatic variant of /w/ — as in You went on a WALK? (walk with a very breathy voiceless initial and with a final aspirated voiceless stop).

2 Responses to “Ruthie faces literal ambiguity”

  1. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    I have the distinction (origin, Madison WI through age 8), but I virtually never found any students in phonology classes, after ca. 1970 (in MA, CA, MD, CT), who had any idea what I was talking about. And when I went to Yale, and learned about the women’s a cappella group “Whim’N Rhythm” I didn’t get the joke for about a year.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      My experience also, in the US and the UK; the voiceless approximant seems to have crashed pretty quickly around 1950-60 in most of the areas that still had it. And there was a strong class component as well (though the working-class kids I grew up with had it; their children do not — there was a certain amount of “kids these days” grousing about it). I trust there are some apparent-time studies on the matter (and maybe some real-time ones as well).

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