/ol/ vs. /old/

In the One Big Happy from 11/23, recently appeared in my comics feed, Ruthie and her grandfather spar over the choice between /ol/ and /old/ as the PST form of the verbs STEAL and TELL and the BSE/PRS forms of the verb HOLD.

There are, as it turns out, two quite different phenomena here, one having to do with the choice of an inflectional form (the PST of STEAL), the other having to do with the omission of word-final /d/ in casual pronunciations in connected speech (in the PST of TELL and the BSE/PRS of HOLD).

Ruthie’s grandfather, however, treats the two phenomena as comparable, and also, unreasonably, treats the casual pronunciations as requiring correction.

/stold/ as the PST of STEAL. Background. The standard variety of English has a BSE/PRS main stem /stil/; a PST stem /stol/, used as is for PST; but also used as the base for a PSP in –en /stolǝn/, spelled stolen. This pattern also appears for some other verbs — cf. FORGET (BSE/PRS forget, PST forgot, PSP forgotten) and CHOOSE (BSE/PS choose, PST chose, PSP chosen.

/stold/ for the PST (spelled stold or stoled), with suffix /d/ — the suffix for regular verbs — rather than /ǝn/, is strikingly non-standard. DARE for the verb STEAL notes

past stol(e)— scattered, but mostly Sth (South), S Midl (Southern Midland), SW (Southwest) (DARE’s first cite is from 1845, from southern Georgia)

The casual pronunciations. And now for something completely different. From the t/d-deletion Page on this blog:

t/d-deletion: on deletion / omission of word-final /t d/ in English (t/d ~ ∅), both as a phenomenon of connected speech and in lexicalized variants of particular words

The examples in the OBH cartoon are casual pronounciations in connected speech. /d t/ as exponents of the PST category are very frequently affected — so /tol/ for PST /told/. But BSE/PRS forms can also be affected — so /hol/ for BSE /hold/.

In fact, in many contexts, listeners are often unsure as to which variant was actually produced: /tol mi/ or /told mi/?, and indeed the difference is of little consequence in speech understanding. The grandfather’s insistence that only the full, unreduced variants are acceptable then borders on the bizarre, and Ruthie’s unhappiness at having to guess what’s expected of her seems entirely justified.


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