Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Saying "Oregon", and Spelling "Colonel" and "Often"

In the following, boldfaced characters represent letters used in spelling, or if syllables are boldfaced, it means they are stressed..  Characters between slashes, like /l/ represent the sounds of the language.  Characters in quotes represent pronunciations that aren't pronounced as they are spelled.  Those in Italics are conventional spellings. An apostrophe between two consonants indicate that a vowel has been dropped


One commenter from Oregon noted how passionate people are about indigenous pronunciations of their state's name.  The first time I met someone from Oregon, she corrected my pronunciation and told me it is pronounced what sounded to me like "organ," swallowing the whole middle syllable and shortening the final one to a "g'n"  ("Orrg'n).. The commenter, who  went to high school with me, says that Rhode Islanders pronounce the first syllable as "ahr."  Actually, we don't. We pronounce Oregon, Awrugahn, with the boldfaced segments stressed. Rhode Islanders use an "aw" pronunciation as in upper class British English, although ours is much softer.  We don't round our lips as strongly as the British --or New York City speakers-- and we never say "tahk" for talk or "sahft" for soft or "Ahrugon."

Actually, everyplace has some localized pronunciations for place names in their area.  Rhode Isanders can always tell a non-native speaker by the way they pronounce Pawtucket. Aliens always say "Pawtucket."  It is "P'tucket".  Similarly, in Providence, there is a Rochambeau Avenue.  Snobs from points west of New England  insist on  pronouncing it as in Modern French: "ROSH'mbow."  It is "RoshAMbow" to natives.  In New York City, Houston Street is pronounced "Howst'n"  I'm sure you all know of similar localisms.

Another reader asked why Americans pronounce  Colonel as "kernel."  The British pronounce it "Coronel"   but  it derives ultimately from Italian colonello.. So where do English speakers  get the r from?  One reason is that they borrowed it from the French, but it's more complex than that.

It has to do with a tendency not to pronounce the same consonant in a word twice in one word. When a consonant is repeated, often  one of  the sounds is dropped or one of them is changed to a related one.    The technical name for changing one sound to avoid repetition  is dissimilation, and it occurs in all languages as does dropping of  sounds under certain conditions.

Repeating sounds within a word is like tongue twisters.    Recall that tongue twisters are sequences of words that repeat a consonant "Peter Piper picked a peck of peppers..." or "Sally sells seashells by the seashore.." They're hard,  In ordinary speech, we select the sounds we need at a blazing speed when we form the words we want to utter. Words with repeated consonants  they become mini-tongue twisters

As noted above, Colonel comes from Italian colonello.   The French borrowed it from the Italian, keeping the spelling as "Colonel," but dissimilating the pronunciation to "Coronel. " That is, to get rid of the double l's, they changed the first one to r.  The British borrowed this from the French.  Later,  the French reverted to saying colonel, to more closely match their spelling. 

The British, of course, blithely ignore inconsistencies between spelling and speaking, so they kept both l''s in their spelling, while retaining the pronunciation "Coronel"  All that remained was for Americans to drop the second vowel to give us the "kernel" pronunciation..This is typical of those American accents in which all vowels before an r tend to get swallowed up in the r, so that the first vowel in words like current, thorough, for, and hurry all get pronounced as "er." (This is not true of Eastern New England, however.)

Why didn't the Italians ever dissimilate so that one of the l's became an r as it originally did in French and still does in English?  The Italians did change Latin peregrinus to pelegrino,  switching  the first r to an l.  (English Pilgrim comes from the Italian.)  What was different with colonello so that they never changed an l to an r?  

In Italian, the double l in "ello" is held longer than the l in "colon.  That is, Italian has double and single consonants, and they are heard as different sounds.  In linguistic terminology, an ll and an l are different phonemes in Italian.  They are pronounced differently and heard differently.   In Italian, colonello is pronounced differently than colonelo. .  Therefore, the Italians had no reason to change the first l. because, to them, it was a different sound than the ll

Since the  French did away with the long consonant when they dropped the original Italian final syllable, it was natural to change the first l to r so that there wouldn't be two l's in one word . In this instance, historically, the English just borrowed the original French pronunciation and spelling . However, English does not have long versus short consonants as Italian does.  In English, double consonants in spelling are pronounced the same as single ones.  On a spectograph, an ll lis identical to an  l when pronounced by an American. The point is the English could easily have dissimilatedas the French did  if they had directly borrowed Colonel from the Italian.

When the British borrowed Coronel from the French, the French were the dominant culture in England, and English borrowed a large vocabulary from its Norman conquerors.  However, later when the French changed their pronunciation to "Colonel" to conform to the spelling, the British weren't dominated by the French, so they didn't change their pronunciation, keeping it "Coronel."  although still spelling it "Colonel.:

In America, this changed further to "kernel."  In both British and American English, unstressed syllables often turn into  a schwa (the final sound in sofa) or disappear entirely  in speech.  For example, laboratory has 5 syllables, but Americans pronounce only 4.  The first  "or" is reduced to just r  and the a after it becomes a schwa, so we say "labrutory." The British stress words differently, but they also have only 4 spoken syllables in laboratory, only for them, the second "or" is left out, so they say "lubawrutry." (with both a's pronounced as schwa)  It's amazing that we understand each other. Or that we learn to spell! Any vowel in English spelling can be pronounced as schwa if it's unstressed,

Finally, why was an l changed to an r in the first place? The sounds /r/ and /l/ are acoustically very alike and in many languages are heard as being the same sound.  Although we hear them as different, we do switch them even in English.  The name Sally was originally a diminutive of Sarah and Molly was a variant of  Mary. Similarly,  as noted, Italian did change Latin peregrinus to pelegrino, whence came English pilgrim.

Finally, I was asked why we pronounce often as "ofen."  Originally, this was two words: oft times.  In rapid speech, the two words were compounded into one,  "oftimes."  As is usual in British speech,  the vowel i in times was reduced a schwa when the oft kept the stress, The pronunciation would have become "oftums" with the sound /u/ barely said.

The next step was to drop the final s, giving us "oftum." or "of''tm", going straight from the t to the m. (Say button and you'll notice that you drop the o and say "but'n."  Leaving out a vowel this way occurs all  over English and, if you tried to keep the vowels in, you'd sound like a robot.  I'm not talking about careless speech.  I'm talking about correct English enunciation which actually follows phonological rules.)

So, back to "oft'm.  Next, the final m changed to n.  Why?  Since t, (the last sound of oft) is made with the tongue tip lifted up to the upper ridge behind the teeth, the alveolar, it was natural to change the m (from the original time) to an n, which is made like a t.  It is common in all languages for nasal sounds like m and n to change so that the tongue is in the same place as the preceding consonant is. .  Now the pronunciation became "oft'n" and, at that point the spelling was fixed as often.

What happened to the t?  Usually, in American English,and probably British as well, when three consonants occur in a row, one  gets dropped.  Hence, the modern pronunciation "of'n."with the t dropped.  (For another example, say "roast beef."  Note you drop the t, saying "roas' beef,")

.    Interestingly, some speakers in Rhode Island, and especially  African Americans who descended from the original African Americans in Colonial Rhode Island, do say "oft'n" with the t.  I suspect that the first settlers in 1636 still pronounced the t.  Unfortunately, when I was doing dialect work in rural Rhode Island, I neglected to look for that pronunciation among the descendants of the original settlers.  I knew it from my colored friends as I was fortunate to grow up in an integrated neighborhood.  The elders used to tell me that they spoke like the "old English.  The evidence from the African Americans, while not definitive, is suggestive.  Had I looked for it in rural Rhode Island, and found it there, it would buttress my intuition. As it stands, it is possible that the African Americans were hypercorrecting, not using a relic pronunciation.  Or, they really were using the pronunciation  of the colonists.   It would be interesting to find out where else in America, speakers still use the t in often.  That would shed light on how the colonists pronounced it or if people who put it in are being hypercorrect.

Well, this has taken hours to write.  I'll  have to respond to the other comments I received in a later post.  One thing is clear, I hope.  Language is an intricate weaving of rules. There is no simple answer to why we say certain things or why certain changes have occurred in any language.  However, what we say is not random.  It's not just a collection of errors.  Change in language also follows rules. It doesn't occur by accident but is a result of  how people speak so as to pass on  messages rapidly and also a result of how we perceive language, and that depends on the rules of the particular language being discussed.  The Japanese would never dissimilate by changing an /r/ to and/l/ the way Old Italian did.  Why? Well, that's another story.


4 comments:

Johanna Stirling said...

Interesting ideas, but I regret to report that we British do not say 'coronel', we also say 'kernel'. I have never heard anyone say 'coronel', so I'm not sure where this idea comes from.
Johanna

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