Monday, June 7, 2010

Sandwiches, Sangwiches, Sanwiches, and Samwiches

Beware: phonetic details discussed below!!  This is about how we really pronounce sounds and why some people pronounce words differently from us.

Listen carefully to how people pronounce the word sandwich. Try listening for the "d".  It doesn't appear.  Most speakers of an educated dialect, if not all, pronounce it as "sanwich." "Oh," you say, "not I. I pronounce all the letters."  Actually, we don't pronounce letters.  We read them.  We pronounce sounds.  For instance, you probably pronounce seam and seen alike, despite the fact they have different letters.  Similarly, you pronounce seen and scene alike.  Sorry, I am digressing.  Back to the "d" in sandwich. Say it again.  Did you pronounce the "d"?  If you did, you'd have held the tip of your tongue to the ridge behind your top teeth for a split second before going on to the "w." (This ridge is called the alveolar ridge, and sounds made touching it are called alveolars.)  Try it.  If you're speaking as you ordinarily do, you don't stop the tongue to make the "d."  If you do try to stop the tongue to make a "d", it is not only awkward, it sounds strange.  Try it in conversation if you don't believe me.  People will think you have a foreign accent if you do pronounce the "d."

"Oh," you say, "my tongue moved  to the alveolar when I said "sandwich" just now.  Yes, your tongue tip moves up to the alveolar for you to make the "n", which is a nasal.  By that I mean you make the sound by expelling air out of the nose, rather than the throat.  For a split second, you raise the flap behind the nose so that air can pass through it.  The sounds "m," and "ng" are also nasals.  The rest of the consonants in English are oral, made while expelling air through the larynx and the mouth.

The "ng" sound is actually one sound and doesn't have a "g" most of the time.  Try pronouncing singer and finger.  Chances are you do pronounce the "g" in finger, but you don't in singer.  In both instances, however, you're making the nasal part of the sound with the back of your tongue raised to meet your soft palate (the velum).  If you did pronounce the "g" in singer, and when you do pronounce it in finger, before the "g", you make a nasal that is not an "n."  Say seen, sing. Notice that your tongue tip is raised when you make the final "n" in seen, but not when you end sing.  (One of the many things wrong with the English spelling system is that there is no single letter to indicate the sound we think of as "ng.")

What does all of this have to do with anything?  Well, my old classmate Gil McGair reminded me that when we were in high school, some of our classmates said "sangwich" for sandwich.  It was an ethnic pronunciation.  Where did it come from?  Well, in speech there is a tendency to make a sound more like the sound following it.  This is especially true of nasals. The sound following the nasal in sandwich is actually the "w,"  not a "d."   That is, as noted, true of careful, educated speech. 

As it happens, the "w" is made with two points of articulation: the lips and the soft palate.  If you make a "w" sound, you will notice your lips round, but also the soft palate gets tensed.  So, it's a tossup as to what nasal sounds would be more like the "w."  That is, either "m" or "ng" is a candidate to be more like "w" than "n" is.  The ethnic group who said "sangwich," chose, unconsciously ot course, to use the "ng" nasal.  Other speakers choose the "m," pronouncing it "samwich."  The rest of us just drop the "d" and keep the nasal as it is spelled. 

I suspect the only reason that the "n" has survived is because literate people are so concerned with pronouncing things as they are spelled, as impossible as that actually is.  Looking at language changes in pronunciation  in many languages over the centuries, I have seen many words change their nasal consonants so that an "m" became an "n," or an "n" became an "ng" or an "m."  (Even I know that sentence is a bit much!)  In other words, if schoolmarms hadn't intervened, I suspect we'd all be eating samwiches or sangwiches.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am one of the few who taught myself to pronounce the "d" in "sandwich" while still a child, because it was there, and so was the word "sand." I googled "samwich pronunciation" just now because the local news anchor said "samwich" on camera about 20 times and drove me crazy. I had to know if I was in the sad, but technically correct, minority. Alas, my search showed me that I am. You've made me feel a little better, however, in that I agree that languages shift, and that I should not hold back the shifting "sands" in this regard. I doubt that I will be able to unlearn to say the "d" but I will do my best to bite my tongue when confronted with the urge to correct my young son as he learns the word for a favorite meal.

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Brenda Bell said...

I've never heard "samwich"; I've heard something between "sammich" and "sammidge". I'd be curious to know if people who pronounce a medial angma-g combination (Long Islanders, for example) might be more likely to pronounce that medial angma-d combination...

Brenda Bell said...

I've never heard "samwich"; I've heard something between "sammich" and "sammidge". I'd be curious to know if people who pronounce a medial angma-g combination (Long Islanders, for example) might be more likely to pronounce that medial angma-d combination...