Sunday, 26 October 2014

order, please!

Paul Carley spotted yet another interesting phonetic feature. It illustrates nicely that phonetic processes have to operate in a certain order to lead to a particular result.

Kamal Ahmed (credit: BBC)
First, listen to how the BBC business editor Kamal Ahmed pronounces the word 'strength' in this sentence (repetitions of words and hesitation sounds are omitted):
[...] we are less worried about the strength of European banks than we were earlier.
Does he say /streŋkθ/? - No, he doesn't
It's rather /strentθ/. The /t/ is particularly difficult to hear, so I slowed it down by 30 per cent for the last two snippets.

Now which processes are needed in which order to make the change from /streŋkθ/ to /strentθ/ plausible?
1. Delete the /k/.
2. By regressive assimilation the /ŋ/ becomes /n/ due to /θ/.
3. An epenthetic /t/, which is dental, is inserted surrounded by dental /n/ and /θ/.


  1. Fascinating topic and riddle.

    He's speaking quite leisurely, so it's not a speech rate effect.

    I doubt if it starts by deleting k, which is a casual epenthetic effect rather than a phoneme. He creates a situation where it doesn't arise. Not only that, he gets a [t] instead. The point is, does he go for /ŋ/, and get [n] instead for some reason (e.g. your sequence of processes). Or maybe /strenθ/ is his target directly.

    Regressive assimilation isn't a law here, /streŋθ/ is perfectly possible. And the articulatory reorganisation for [n] instead of [ŋ] is considerable: no velar tongue body gesture, coronal elevation instead with tongue body in a suitable supportive position, so there's more work involved, no "economy of articulation" or the like. The "cheaper" solution is /strenθ/ at once. Of course, you might hold some theory that posits a common root form in his lexikon for "strong" and "strength", keeping the /ŋ/. If so, of course, he'd need to run through that sequence of rules to switch to [n] every time it's pronounced.

    If you ask me what I'd say, I'd think about it and suggest /streŋθ/. But if you catch me unawares with a hidden microphone, I've no idea what you'd hear.

    The epenthetic stop occurs because the nasal port has to be shut tight after the nasal stop, in order to allow air pressure to build up for the fricative. So the velar (or dental) occlusion continues briefly and can be heard as a [k] or [t] respectively, if obvious enough.

    1. PS. In this strange world we have today it's cheaper to buy books second hand from anywhere in Europe than to take the train into Lund and borrow from the university library. I've just unpacked Wyld's History of Modern Colloquial English 3rd edn 1936. It seems "strenth" is attested since the 16th century, including poet John Milton. Nevertheless referred to as the "Scottish shibboleth" and "the sure mark of provincial pronunciation". So Kamal is in good company.

    2. Certainly pleasing to have the original book, but as a backup, it's available online:
      Here's the link to the whole book as a PDF (33MB!):

    3. Thank you Lipman, I had that to start with, it's the 1st edn (1920). I wanted the last updated one (1936). It was only £4.85!

    4. Ah, yes. (The second ed, 1921, is available there, too, but not the third.)
      Phillip Minden

  2. A riddle indeed because for the foreseeable future we'll not be able to look into a person's brain to find out what their target was: /streŋkθ/ plus some rule(s) or /strenθ/ right away or any intermediary stage.

  3. In my original facebook posting, I said:
    "This represents the alternative version with an alveolar nasal in place of the velar nasal suggested by the spelling and in the related word 'strong'. This pronunciation is very frequent, but frowned upon by prescriptivists."
    I was avoiding saying anything definite without the facts to back me up, but I'd always assumed that the /n/ variant is a widespread non-standard accent/dialect feature which isn't easily generated from the velar nasal form - it's origin is lost in the mists of time, as good old Wyld indicates.

  4. By the way, one interesting way of looking into people's brains that Wyld was a big fan of is to look at their familiar writing and their spelling habits. These days, fortunately, you don't have to find a hoard of letters hidden in a drawer because folks put it all on the internet! Filter your Google search results for country (UK) and all the many tokens of 'lenth' which aren't the surname are intended as 'length'. Wyld would be proud!

    1. Sorry, I wrote 'drawer' when I should really have written 'draw' in order to demonstrate my point better!