This blog is a vehicle for procrastination

I’m doing it again: the item at the top of my to-do list is “WRITE QUALIFYING PAPER”. (If I don’t finish this paper by the deadline in three weeks, I will not get my Master’s degree on time.) The second item is “PLAN LECTURE FOR FRIDAY”. I will be teaching students about sociolinguistic variables and the features of Californian English. Right now, my PowerPoint file contains an outline, as well as one slide that says “Good morning!” and the date. The third item is homework, the fourth item is lesson planning, the fifth item is submitting a paper for conference proceedings, the sixth item is applying for funding for the next academic year…

The very last thing on my to-do list is “Write another blog post!” But, well, here we are. I can’t help it. Please refer to the title of this post.

My colleague Jonathan mentioned the other day that the way he pronounces the word ‘vehicle’ is pretty different from everyone else here. Here is California. Jonathan is from a town on the northern edge of the American South. His remark didn’t particularly surprise me, since he often likes to point out things that Californians say that, to him, are bizarre. It is a good daily reminder for me that the way I speak English can only be considered ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ in my own locale. Were I to move to Kentucky, Kingston, or Kuala Lumpur, there’s no way anybody would think I speak ‘normal English’.

Anyway, we’re long past merely being amused at our interspeaker variability. Instead, when a difference is to be found, Jonathan and I set out to examine what exactly causes it. Consider the following IPA transcriptions: [ˈvi.ˌhɪ.kl̩] versus [ˈvi.ə.kl̩]. Clearly, the second syllable differs: Jonathan fully articulates the ‘h’, along with a clear near-high front unrounded vowel /ɪ/, whereas I’ve lost the ‘h’ and glide straight into a schwa-like vowel.

Is my Californian pronunciation due to laziness in articulation? I don’t think so. Actually, there’s another key difference that can be found in the transcriptions: stress and meter. Jonathan’s three-syllable ‘vehicle’ has a different stress pattern from mine. He breaks down the word into two metrical feet, which allows for primary stress on the first syllable and secondary stress on the second syllable. The existence of the second foot is probably why Jonathan articulates the second syllable more strongly (and I suspect that the vowel of his first syllable is slightly longer). I, on the other hand, analyze the word with only one metrical foot. This is what causes the second syllable to reduce in such a way that the /h/ disappears and the vowel centralizes.

Another way of describing it is using those fancy words for poetic meter. Here’s a refresher in case you threw away your notes from high school English: an iamb has an unstressed-stressed pattern, as in ‘about’; a trochee has a stressed-unstressed pattern, as in ‘spoken’; a dactyl has a stressed-unstressed-unstressed pattern, as in ‘idiot’. Jonathan’s ‘vehicle’ is a stressed syllable followed by a trochee, and mine is simply a dactyl.

Thus, when I say words like ‘vehicle’, ‘popsicle’, and ‘bicycle’, they have the same stress pattern as a word like ‘musical’. Is this true for you? Or are you more like Jonathan, who laughed when I insisted that they were the same? (In his defense, the word ‘musical’ clearly has a different morphological structure — music + -al — compared to the monomorphemic ‘vehicle’ or the prefixed bi- + cycle… but I guess that doesn’t matter to me!)

Here’s another diagnostic: in terms of stress and meter, does your casual pronunciation of ‘icicle’ sound closer to ‘ice sickle’ or ‘high school’? Your answer may depend on many things, including where you are from and how and when you learned all of these words. But what I find most fascinating is that there are clear patterns to what kinds of words have the potential to be analyzed and phonologized differently, as well as an easy explanation for the different ways they surface for different speakers.


Word of the Day: expostulate, from the Latin ex- ‘from’ + postulare ‘demand’, means to reason with someone in order to convince them not to take a particular course of action. (The word ‘postulate’, which appeared in English at around the same time, the early 1500s, originally meant ‘to demand or ask for’, but is used more today in logic and argument to refer to when someone takes a statement for granted or without proof.) I wish that someone had expostulated with me about the dangers of penning blog posts when I have more pressing work to do!


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in what even is linguistics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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