Monday, 19 September 2011

Lightning versus lightening

How do you pronounce these two words: lightning and lightening1? In isolation, in their canonical forms, in careful speech probably /ˈlaɪtnɪŋ/ and /ˈlaɪtənɪŋ/. What about lightening in casual speech in a sentence like the sky was lightening on the horizon? [ˈlaɪtn̩ɪŋ] is an option - in more casual or allegro speech even [ˈlaɪtnɪŋ].
Do these two pronunciations constitute renderings of a minimal pair in the phonological sense of the term? If they do, then the syllabic and non-syllabic n-sounds seem to be allophones of different phonemes.

Let's clear this up! 
For two sounds (= phones) to be called allophones of the same phoneme two conditions must be fulfilled:
  1. the distributions of the phones must be predictable and
  2. no meaning difference is established if one phone is substituted for the other in the same context.
According to these conditions and assuming that we're talking here about two different sounds the two phones cannot be allophones of the same phoneme. Are they allophones of different phonemes?

Recall that the syllabic [n̩] in the casual pronunciation of lightening is the result of a structure simplification process like the change of, say, bread 'n' butter or fish 'n' chips. What's left of the weak syllable is a nasal consonant. The vowel - here schwa - is deleted and the following consonant2 occupies the peak position; the consonant becomes syllabic. By this syllabic variant the syllable structure of the word is preserved. In the citation form the nucleus position is held by the schwa, the coda is occupied by the nasal. In the casual form we only have a nucleus, no coda, and this nucleus position is necessarily occupied by the /n/. As all phonemes in nucleus position are by definition syllabic, it's redundant to assign a syllabic status to the /n/. Moreover, a syllable is a syllable and a phoneme is a phoneme, i.e. they belong to different levels of analysis. 

So the two n-sounds are incommensurable from a structural point of view. I wonder if there're any auditory or acoustic differences between [ˈlaɪtn̩ɪŋ] and [ˈlaɪtnɪŋ].

1 My thanks go to Martin J Ball for providing this beautiful example.
2 The interesting question is: Which consonants can be syllabic and which cannot?


  1. >The interesting question is: Which consonants can be syllabic and which cannot?

    The conventional answer would be: [+consonantal] sonorants. That is all the sonorants, except /w/ and /j/.

    However, what about prons like [spʰɔːt] for "support", [ptʰeɪtəʊ] for "potato", and [ktʰæstrəfi] for "catastrophe". Given that the second consonant in all of these is an aspirated plosive (which must be syllable initial, mustn't it?), then the initial obstruent sounds must be syllabic, mustn't they?

  2. I had examples in mind such as [ʃd̩] for 'should', [ðt̩] for 'that' or German 'psst!' (~ hush!)

  3. Another possibility:

    [huːdv θɔːt ɪt]

  4. What do you think about [wɒtd̩j̩θɪŋk]?

  5. Even /w/ seems to be susceptible to syllabification as in the phrase "thirteen murders, which were carried out principally in West Yorkshire" said by Peter French (see my blog entry of the 8th of March: [ʍʧ wə]

  6. Hmmmmm. Syllabic /w/ and /j/ seem to me to be in very great danger of being vowels. That, of course, does not apply to those faithful souls who persist in using /ʍ/.

    Another thing about syllabic consonants in GBE (at least) is where they can and cannot occur. While /əl/ → syllabic /l/ (can't ɡet the diacritic to line up properly) is pretty unconstrained, the same cannot be said of /ən/ → syllabic /n/. Syllabic /n/ in "London", "Camden", "lantern"? Naaaaah. Not in GBE anyway.

  7. How about 'the second one' -> [sekn̩d wn̩]
    or 'is an egg' -> [ɪz n̩ eg] or am I on the wrong track?

  8. Both of those seem possible to me.

    The crucial factor seems to be that in the no-no examples I gave, there is a nasal before the consonant before the ə, if you see what I mean.

  9. Now I see - said the blind man!
    What about abandon /əˈbændn/ or Brendon /ˈbrendn/, badminton, fountain; and if you allow C's other than /t,d/ Parkinson, comprehension etc.

  10. Oh - Hampden pronounced as /ˈhæmdn/ is a no-no for you?

  11. Petr,

    For me, none of the words you list can have a syllabic n. I hesitate to speak for ALL GBE speakers, but it is my impression that it is a pretty common constraint on the occurrence of syllabic n.

    In Northern Ireland, however, it is a different matter...

  12. John,

    how could I dare disprove your personal pref'r'n'c's!