Syllabic Consonants: How do you pronounce “FTCAP” and “wff”?

Abbreviations are always interesting. Some like HTML prounounced letter by letter as in /eč ti ɛm ɛl/, but others are prounced as a “new word” as in NASA or /næsə/. This pattern is fairly random – for instance I have heard the database query language SQL as both “S-Q-L” and “sequel”.

An interesting class are abbreviations with no vowels that are still pronounced like words. Whenever you have a word, the phonological component has to “organize” it into syllables. For most, languages the rule is generally to cluster consonants around a vowel where each vowel (or diphthong) is the nucleus (or backbone if you will) of a syllable. To take the NASA case again, you can generalize that it has two syllables because it has two vowels.

HOWEVER…in some languages (like American English), you can form syllables around other sounds such as /l,r,n/. If you’re not sure what vowel is in the final syllable of words like table, prism, butter, button and others, it’s because they’re not phonetically not a vowel but syllabic consonants. You may see these transcribed as /n̩,r̩,m̩/ (n,r,l,m, etc with dashes beneath)

The consonant-free abbreviations shows that English can go pretty far. For instance I have heard the term VRML become /vr̩ml ̩/ or “vrmle”. But even more interesting case is the Penn State first year counseling process called FTCAP or more fondly [fɪtkæp] or “fit-cap.” Although a vowel has been inserted, it’s not the usual epenthetic schwa /ə/ (vowels inserted to break up unwieldy consonant clusters (as in the Maryland river Potapsco /pətæpsko/ becoming [ptæpəsko] or “Potapsaco” in some parts of Maryland).

One analysis would be to posit the vowel /ɪ/ as the epenthetic vowel in particular situations (when syllable is stressed?). However, I’m going out on a limb here, and say it’s almost as if the /t/ in FTCAP has become a syllabic /t/. It is definitely the case that a high front like /ɪ/ allows the tongue to remain in /t/ position until the /k/ is pronounced. It would be interesting to compare spectrograms on some of these words.

I should note that are some derviations from the pattern. SQL becomes “sequel” [sikwl ̩] and not “sickle” [sɪkwl ̩]]. And the one that inspired this blog post is wff (well-formed formulation) which becomes not “wiff” [wɪf] but “woof” [wʊf]. Is this a case where speakers are using /ʊ/ as the closes vowel to /w/ or a chance to make an interesting pun from an acronym?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *