Monday, 1 November 2010

to /z/ or not to /z/

This blog entry is partially off-topic.
A reader of my blog asked if the plural form of 'candles/handles' in the sketch by the Two Ronnies is really unvoiced, why it is and if it is a feature of "popular speech". John Maidment in his blog of the 30th of October also dealt with these plural forms used by the two characters in the sketch. Allow me to make some general remarks on English plural formation.

Plural formation is done in English in various ways. Probably the most frequent type is the one which adds /s/, /z/ or /ɪz/ to the base word. The selection of the appropriate allomorph is phonologically conditioned, which means that the final phoneme of the base decides upon the selection of the plural allomorph. The word cat ends in a voiceless non-sibilant and hence takes /s/; the word dog ends in a voiced non-sibilant and so takes /z/; the word bus ends in a sibilant and becomes /bʌsɪz/. Sibilants are /s, z, ʃ, ʒ, ʧ, ʤ/. The late Peter Ladefoged in his A Course in Phonetics characterises sibilants thus: 

They have more acoustic energy—that is, greater loudness—at a higher pitch than the other fricatives. (20014:150)
When we look at wife-wives, thief-thieves we encounter a different type of conditioning. Here it's the appropriate allomorph of the base word which is selected by the plural allomorph /z/. This is an instance of phonological conditioning of the base (or 'stem' as some linguists like to call it).
Next we have ox-oxen, child-children. It's the individual lexeme which triggers a particular plural allomorph: It is ox which calls for {-en}. This is called lexical conditioning. Child /ʧaɪld/ becomes child- /ʧɪld/ + -ren /rən/. On the one hand, again a particular lexeme (= child) selects a particular plural allomorph (= {/rən/}), on the other hand, the base changes its form as well due to the grammatical morpheme; so additionally we have grammatical conditioning of the base
(1) When you want to shear a sheep, hold it properly
(2) Tourists were led around like sheep.
Sheep can be singular or plural without any visible changes to the word itself. Linguists call it zero affixation. Nouns that behave similarly are clergy, poultry, vermin, etc.
I needn't write about singularia tantum or pluralia tantum, need I?


  1. Jack-of-all-trades1 November 2010 at 20:55

    Speaking of "children", what about the pronunciation ['tʃʊldrən] (with the vowel of FOOT) that is listed as a variant by the pronunciation dictionaries?

    Ripman explains the FOOT pronunciation as an assimilation of the stressed vowel to the following dark "l"; which sounds like a reasonable explanation.

    But, how often is ['tʃʊldrən] heard nowadays?

    It seems not to be an American pronunciation (see "LPD").

    So, how common or uncommon is it in Britain? Is it rare, old-fashioned...?

  2. @Jack-of-all-trades

    [ˈtʃʊldrən] is certainly a common pron. in New Zealand. I'm not so sure about Australia though.