Sunday 8 June 2008

On /r/s and ofs

A correspondent - presumably from the UK - writes to say she is 'fascinated by the American habit (inability?) to say mirror, terror, etc as we do in two discrete syllables. mir-r, ter-r, is what we hear.' Why do they do it?, she asks. She offers four explanations:
'1. A desire to be stylish or a reluctance to be too correct/too English?
2. Their frequent desire to speed speech up, as in giving a year as Two thousand eight instead of Two thousand and eight?
3. A form of shyness, like saying duiper instead of nappy?
4. Or maybe a Deep South accent becoming unable to embrace it?'

She also asks if we know when such usage began, adding (in a totally different connection): 'the first occurrence I have come across of, for example, would of instead of would have is in Gone with the Wind.'

The answer to the first point is much, much simpler. Most accents of US English are rhotic - that is, they pronounce the /r/ after a vowel. The phonetic character of the /r/ is retroflex, i.e. the tip of the tongue is curled back towards the palate. In words like mirror we find two retroflexed /r/s occurring in quick succession. It is therefore the most natural thing in the world to run the two /r/s together. The alternative, to drop the tip of the tongue for the vowel and then to raise it again, would slow the pronunciation down so artificially that it would sound weird. In fact, nobody ever does this. A 'long /r/' is the result. No need to delve into the imagined American psyche here.

The fallacy in the explanations given by my correspondent is clear when one realizes that this isn't exclusively an American thing. Any rhotic accent will display the same effect. You can hear the same sort of 'long /r/' in West Country UK accents, for instance, or in Northern Ireland, and many other regions. Where did the American /r/ come from in the first place? Think of the people on the Mayflower, and where many of them came from.

As for the spelling would of and other such usages... this isn't a recent American thing either. The earliest instance I have come across of have appearing as of is in one of Keats's letters (5 Sept 1819). And the elliptical pronunciation has probably been around as long as the auxiliary verbs have existed in English. there are several 'ves in Shakespeare, for instance.


Anonymous said...

Ah, I've often wondered about the American mirror pronunciation. I guess the New York 'y' sound has a similar origin too. As in Officer O'Reilly's sighting of Superman. 'I swear sarge, he flew straight up in the air like a big blue boiyd'.

DC said...

Note, though, that the traditional NY accent isn't rhotic - hence the r-less 'boyd' pronunciation. That seems quite dated now. Studies suggest that young New Yorkers are saying words like bird with the /r/ pronounced.

Anonymous said...

Most New Yorkers born after WWII have at least a variably rhotic accent if not a fully rhotic one.

Many, maybe even most, New Yorkers, even if otherwise fully rhotic in their speech, retain the historical syllabic division in words such as "mirror" and "horror," whereby the consonant R begins the second syllable, rather than the vowel R ending the first.

The accent of the American Deep South used to be non-rhotic, although rhoticity has also made great inroads there, as it has in New England, also a non-rhotic area in the past.

"Boid" or "boyd" are only approximations of the actual old New York sound, which is a diphthong created by the vowel (sans R-coloration) of NURSE and the vowel of KIT.

The original inquirer's "A form of shyness, like saying duiper instead of nappy?" is sheer nonsense.

American English and British English are two closely related but different languages, with differences in standard vocabulary, slang, grammar, syntax, usage, and spelling. Each language also has numerous regional dialects and accents.

Getting back to "mirror," "terror," and "diaper" for a moment:

First, the American word is "diaper" (note correct spelling). The English word is "napkin," usually shortened to "nappy." The American word has nothing whatever to do with "shyness" (by which I assume the writer means she thinks that Americans use the word "diaper" is being used as a genteel euphemism).

Second, were Americans to be using rhotic pronunciations as euphemisms, I hardly think that pronouncing "horror" as they pronounce "whore" would be a successful stratagem. Nor is there any case for assuming "mere" is a more polite pronunciation of "mirror," or "tear" a more genteel pronunciation of "terror."

Given context, the identical or near-identical pronunciations of these words presents no barrier to understanding, any more than "there," "their," and "they're." But they used to be (in some cases still are) stigmatized by the sort of elocution teachers who wished to impose pronunciation standards on actors and the American population at large. In fact, such pronunciations are neither better nor worse than the non-rhotic versions; they are simply different.

I recommend the inquirer reconsider her idea that British English is correct and American English is incorrect. If anything, it is her theories, and the linguistic prejudices underlying them, that are incorrect.

DC said...

Thanks for adding that perspective. I'm allowing the post to appear without editing, but I would like to flag up that I don't welcome intemperate expression on my blog. Some of the views that come in to me are often, from a linguistic point of view, wildly misconceived, but there is nothing to be gained by reacting to them with hostility. That simply reinforces attitudes. Rather, I want to foster an explanatory perspective. For example, to say that one of the points in my correspondent's post is 'sheer nonsense' may be true, but that doesn't help. You'll never get people to reconsider their views that way. The really interesting question is, Where does that view come from? Many people share it, after all. It is more fruitful (and much more interesting) to try to explore the origins of language attitudes and preconceptions - something that is not often done - and that is one of the principles underlying my blog.

martin said...

What has happened to the middle f in fifth and the x in sixth? Even BBC news readers now say fith and sith. is this just sloppy English (we still pronounce these consonants here in Ireland)or has usage now made them redundant?

DC said...

But you don't pronounce those consonants in Ireland. Irish English typically replaces the final 'th' by 't', so the articulation is simplified to 'fift'. Other accents simplify by omitting the 'f'. Sloppiness has nothing to do with it. This is natural pronunciation in operation. The only reason people think it sloppy is because of the view that pronunciation should follow spelling. In some contexts (such as radio news-reading) there is a widespread expectation that speech should be closely related to writing, so failing to articulate carefully does attract criticism, and news-readers are well aware of the issue. But one shouldn't transfer the style of formal broadcasting to everyday informal speech.

Anonymous said...

I am justly rebuked about the judgment revealed in some of my remarks, and apologize to all. Thank you for letting my comments stand; I hope the content will be understood.

DC said...

I'm sure it will. Thanks.

KateGladstone said...


"The alternative, to drop the tip of the tongue for the vowel and then to raise it again, would slow the pronunciation down so artificially that it would sound weird. In fact, nobody ever does this."

Well, I guess that makes me "nobody" — because (by others' testimony and that of recording devices, not just my own ears) I do it. So, for that matter, does my mother.

DC said...

Never say never, I guess, on reflection. But the point about relative difficulty of articulation is a general one, and people who defy the trend are really doing something special. A lot depends on speech rate, of course. Purely in terms of articulatory timing, the syllabic rate has to be relatively slow to allow the tongue time to perform these movements. I suppose I was thinking about relatively rapid conversational speech (upwards of 250 syllables a minute) when I made my observation. Still, point taken.

Anonymous said...

DC: I think that what you refer to as a "long /r/" in AmE is a little more complex than that. Yes, it's longer than a single [ɚ], but it's more accurately twice as long; it has the value of two syllables. When found in one word, like "mirror" or "terror", usually a pitch drop is featured, which distinguishes the syllables. If the speaker were required to say "mirror" on one pitch, they would make two pulmonic pulses, which would differentiate the word from a long "mere".

The same thing happens when two [i]s are together. This doesn't happen often within word boundaries, but a crappy, but sufficiently illustrative example might be adding the productive adjectival suffix "-y" to a noun like "tree", making "treey". In order to make it clear to the listener what was being produced, one of those two methods would have to be employed (pitch drop on the second [i], or pulmonic pulse).

Also, I think that the retroflex quality is not the primary feature in rhoticity. I have no problem producing rhoticity while anchoring the tip of my tongue beneath my bottom front teeth.

A final note: I just discovered your blog (through it being listed on Language Log). I have looked to see if you had a blog many times before, but I guess the last time was before you started this. Your Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language was an early influence on my interest in linguistics. The copy that I bought in 1988 is now well worn; I spent countless hours glued to its pages. It hooked me for life, and introduced me to a lot of things that I've been looking at more and more deeply for the last 20 years. Thank you. :)

DC said...

Many thanks for that. Very important point about the pitch drop/pulmonic pulse. Glad you raised it.

Molly said...

I just stumbled on this discussion, so forgive the late comment. In Atlanta, where I live, "nappy" is an adjective that describes a poorly-groomed afro. When paired with "headed" it forms a mild insult ("Get your nappy-headed self in here and clean up this mess!")

My cousins in South Carolina pronounce "mirror" as "mira" (just like actress Sorvino).