Category Archives: Pronunciation

Some Near Rhymes from Nashville

A near rhyme is refers to words paired in songs or verse which sound similar, but not quite enough to be called a “perfect rhyme”…at least not in Standard English. They can be interesting for revealing insights into spoken phonology, in this case the phonology of country songs.

Here are some interesting cases I found on a recent mix CD playing in my car.

Hell On Heels (Say What You Will)

In Hell On Heels (by the Pistol Annies featuring Miranda Lambert), there are lots near rhymes. Just for context, the song chronicles the past exploits of a classic “gold digger.”

Most near rhymes have the same vowel, but end with slightly different consonant, although usually with some phonological smilarities. For example

(1) This diamond ring on my hand
Is the only good thing that came from that man

(2) Poor ol’ Billy, bless his heart
I’m still using his credit card

Note: both /d/ and /t/ are coronal stops.

And even one actual rhyme that features two words with different spellings

(3) Then there’s Jim, I almost forgot
I ran him off, but I took the yacht

Both end with [at] in this dialect.

For me though the most interesting near rhyme is one which pairs deal /dil/ and heels /hilz/ with will /wɪl/. It would be interesting to see how the spectrograms compare here.

(4) I’m hell on heels
Say what you will
I’ve done made the devil a deal

In this case, the vowels are different even though the final consonant is the same. However, in terms of the English vowel space, they are very close – that is both /i/ and /ɪ/ are phonemically high front unrounded vowels. Interestingly, it seems like first hell on heels is pronounced closer to [ɪ] to emphasize the rhyme, but closer to [i] or even [iə] thereafter.

Note: Another interesting case of /i/ in a near rhyme is from the Addams Family theme song which pairs scream and see’um.

Psycho Girlfriend

Another song with an interesting set of rhymes is Psycho Girlfriend by Jessie James (Decker) about a woman who has “issues” talking to her boyfriend who can’t seem to quit her.

Again, we have a great near rhyme where the vowel is the same, but the final consonant is different.

(1) Did I forget to mention
I need all your attention
Or else I’ll throw a tantrum [for it?]

This pairs both /ʌn/ in -tion and /ʌm/ in -um.. Even better, all the words actually end with [ntʌN] where N stands for nasal stop (/m/ or /n/).

And here’s another with different underlying pronunciations, but actually more closely rhyming in the colloquial pronunciation

(2) I’ll call you when you’re workin’ /i.e. working/
Over n over again

Underlylingly, the first line ends with working /wərkɪŋ/ and the second with again /əgɛn/. But phonetically, both end with [ɨn] in the actual lyrics. The vowel change is part of a larger pattern where many unstressed vowels reduce to [ɨ] in American English, causing spelling nightmares for American school children everywhere.

The last case is interesting to me because I think it’s meant to be a rhyme, but doesn’t work for me in my idiolect.

(3) Insecure, in denial
Immature, like a child

The way Jessie James sings it, but both denial and child have two syllables [aj.ɨl] or [aj.l̩] (with vocalic /l/). In my grammar though, I feel like child has only one syllable, so the rhyme doesn’t quite work for me. Checking the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciations, they too transcribe child with one syllable and denial with two.

So this appears to be a dialectal difference interfering with the rhyme. On the other hand, I suspect that if I took a spectrogram of my own speech, I might find that child and denial were actually more similar than I think. The status of /ajl/ and /ajr/ syllables is interesting in general.

How to Pronounce “Gal Gadot”

With the Wonder Woman movie about to come out, it’s important to review this timely pronunciation article from Vox and about how to pronounce the name of star Gal Gadot ( גל גדות‎‎). As they point out, Gadot is NOT the same as the French family name of the play Waiting for Gadot but rather an Israeli name.

So bring out that final /t/ and say something like “Gal Ga-duht” /gæl gadɔt/ (stress on the final syllable). The first of Gal is fairly close to English Short A, but the is between English “uh” and “oh”.

BBC: Evolution of the “Queen’s English”

Fresh off the BBC – an interesting article on how the pronunciation of the Queen (Elizabeth II) and RP Standard British English has shifted over time.

You can definitely hear a difference in the Queen’s Christmas speeches over the decades. In the 1957 Christmas speech video, the accent sounds a little archaic, but by 2015 the Queen has the same charming accent as Helen Mirren. It’s still RP, but a more modern form of it.

I should add that the context of the Christmas speeches has changed. The 1957 speech is set up very formally with the Queen in full formal regalia. By 1968, she was dressed in a day dress and by 1986, she was broadcasting from the stables and her accent has shifted as well.

The article also points out that the Windsor social circles have become less isolated than in decades past. Thanks to the late Princess of Wales, her children and grandchildren have much more contact outside royal residences than previous royal generations did.

Even so, it is difficult for the public to truly ascertain how the Queen speaks “colloquially”. By design, she has created a very formal persona and does not normally allow the public to see her speak except in formal speeches. Even when she is interviewed, her speech remains very formal, although this 2013 clip does show her relaxing just a bit. However, she still uses the impersonal one very frequently to describe her own daily duties.

Speeches Over the Decades

Hawkeye Pierce Requests “An Harmonica”

This long explanation is going to lead to a funny M*A*S*H TV moment, but first a word about indefinite article allomoprhy.

Indefinite Article Allomorphy

A tried and true U.S. English rule I follow is that the indefinite article a become an when the next word starts with a phonological vowel (regardless of spelling). See examples below (please pardon the slightly awkward Spanish examples below).

  • an hour /ən aw.ər/
  • an hombre /ən ombre/
  • an H /ən etʃ/ (U.S.)
  • a university /ə yunɨvərsɪti/
  • a ouija board /ə widʒi bɔrd/

The examples above show that you get an before silent “h” because the word is phonologically vowel-initial. You also get an before words that are spelled with an initial vowel, but really begin with /w,y/ or some other consonant. This indicates to me that this version of the rule is very conditioned by phonology.

Indefinite Article and /h/

I was also taught and do generally follow the generalization that indefinite articles preceding words beginning with /h/ surface as a.

  • a hormone /ə hɔrmon/
  • a hat /ə hæt/
  • a jalapeño /ə hæləpenjo/
  • a hibachi /ə hɨbatʃi/

But then there are words like historic where the an historic occasion has been considered acceptable. This has never sounded great to me, but the explanation I got in LING 100 was that /h/ words with stress somewhere besides the initial syllable may be preceded by an.

Modern Day Rise of “an h-“

However in listening to the news and media, I have noticed an increase in phrases like an historic occasion and in other words, particularly Greco-Latin words beginning with “h” such as hysterical, hormonal, horrific and hilarious. In fact a Google search reveals people asking questions about which form to use before these words.

There is some confusion out there. Note that there is potential confusion in Britain as well if a dialect is dropping initial /h/.

Interestingly, most sources agree that it’s an hibachi even though the stress is not on the first syllable. This may be a sign that the “an + h” rule may apply to Greco-Roman words.

There is an interesting exception to a hibachi in the headline “How to cook with an hibachi”)). Later the article notes “You can cook almost all the foods you cook on a regular barbecue on a hibachi.” This sounds like free variation (consistent with another forum poster claiming he or she couldn’t always choose) or that the writer REALLY says a hibachi but is trying to conform to the an historic rule in the headline.

Where does M*A*S*H come in?

What inspired this post was a M*A*S*H rerun where Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda speaking NYC flavored standard English) is on the phone pretending to be Boston Brahmin Charles Winchester III (played by David Ogden Stiers who does affect an uppercrust FDR like accent).

Hawkeye is trying to obtain a harmonica on the black market for a local child, but as Charles he demands an harmonica. It does appear that there was a familiarity with this rule, but that the writers associated it with “snooty” aristocrats. But that was in the early 80s.

The irony here is that since Hawkeye is supposed to be born and bred Maine, his accent could be just as New Englandy as Charles Winchester. This geographic fact was sadly was never played up in M*A*S*H.

Postscript (Aug 7): Doris Kearns Goodwin

On a PBS show (JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness) about how President Johnson was able to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin made reference to it being an historic occasion, but it seemed like she was actually dropping the /h/ of historic (i.e. /əŋ ɪstɔrɨk/ or an ‘istoric). If that is this case, this would be the start of some sort of morpho-syntactic alternation where some /h/’s are dropped after the indefinite article. Very interesting.

Video of the Week: Singaporean “White” Boy

This Singaporean show interviews 16-year Tyler who has lived 9 years in Singapore, 2 years in China and 5 years in the U.S. Not surprisingly he has mastered both Mandarin and the local Singlish English based creole. The hosts Shan and Rozz challenges Tyler to a show off which he easily masters.

Interestingly, while Shan and Rozz tend to speak English closer to an UK RP standard accent, Tyler’s English is closer to U.S. English, but it looks like it’s not necessarily his default code.

Linguists will point out that there are really no physiological constraints on learning any language – it’s all about exposure to a language at the right time. But, there aren’t too many non-Asians that fluent in Chinese so it’s fun to watch. Especially as he describes overhearing Mandarin gossip about him…which the other Mandarin speakers don’t realize he can understand. Ooops.

Illegal “Meads” and Other Linguistic Lessons from “Almighty Johnson’s”

A show I’ve been enjoying in recent month’s is the New Zealand import Almighty Johnson’s, the saga of family whose members acquire the powers and behaviors of a Nordic god when he or she reaches 21. Hey…it could happen.

FYI – My fellow Americans who missed Seasons 1-2 on SyFy may be able to catch up on all 3 seasons on Netflix or the DVD Box set. You should be warned that these modern Nordic gods frolic and act just as they did in the sagas.

Linguistic Lessons

Here in central PA, I’m not overly exposed to New Zealand English as it is spoken in New Zealand, so this show has been an education on some facets of New Zealand English I thought I would share.

“Shoot Through”

If you decide to pick your things, take off for the hills and abandon family responsibilities, you are going to “shoot through”. This happens when the Johnson’s mother shoots through to become a tree after her eldest son turns 21. This almost happens again when surfer grandpa Johnson (with immortality) impregnates his 20-something girlfriend.


I normally associate the longer ta ta “good bye” with upper crust English, but in New Zealand, it’s been shortened to Ta! and is used by everyone.

Everyone says “Fuck!”

In this U.S. expect to hear lots of bleeps and dead silences as EVERYONE uses the F-bomb multiple times per episode. Wow. This is all the more remarkable to me because the show started at 8:30 PM in New Zealand. WT*?

This show actually flips U.S. censorship conventions on its head – there is lots of cursing and tons of description and PG-13 depictions of sex, but very little actual blood. I have to say I enjoy this more than seeing blood at 8:30 PM.

The Most Important Lesson: The Vowel Shifts

U.S. linguists discuss the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, but the front vowels are shifting drastically in New Zealand English (similar to what is happening in Australia).

I first noticed it when I heard family /fæməli/ as fame-ily [feməli], but most front vowels are shifting up one position in many speakers (sometimes more if there’s a nasal following). A great shifter is actress Rachel Nash (Ingrid). When she proclaimed that she once sold illegal illeagal meds /mɛdz/, I first thought she meant illegal meads [midz]. She and most others also pronounces the character name Axl /æksəl/. as Exl [ɛksəl]. There’s also very ubiquitous /ɛ/ to /e/ shift so that dress /drɛs/ can sound like drace [dres].

Other vowels and diphthongs are affected. Axl pronounces grown [groʊn] as the more split [grɐʉn]. This article from the New Zealand Encyclopedia provides some details.

While this information isn’t new to New Zealanders, I would have to say it’s new to Americans, even American linguists. Like the Northern Cities shift, the New Zealand shift presents neophyte American ears some interesting phonological challenges.

Bensonhurst Spelling Bee (Video of the Week)

One of the joys of YouTube is the wealth of linguistic data a linguist has at her fingertips. A smart linguistic instructor can even ask students to bring data to her, and the following video is a perfect example of that.

The Bensonhurst Spelling Bee comes courtesy of a student research project into Italian in America and is a parody spelling bee held in Bensonhurst (a Brooklyn neighborhood and traditional Italian-American stronghold). This spelling bee asks children to spell authentic Italian-American words like mutzadel and brahjzhoot. Check out how judge Lorraine Bracco helps with etymology and usage!

In addition to being funny, this video highlights the difference between “Italian-American” as spoken by Italian immigrants from southern Italy and educated Standard Italian based on the northern Tuscan dialect. When Mark Consuelos starts to argue that mutzadel is in fact mozzarella, you can see how much wife Kelly Ripa, a native New Jerseyan, fears for his life.

By the way, a less hostile version of this can be seen on the Food Network. Watch some episodes of different shows and compaire how Giada DeLaurentis and Mario Batali says provolone (/ with final /e/) pronounced) vs. the more home grown Rachael Ray who always drops the final vowel (i.e. /pro.vo.lon/). My Italian-American student informant told me that Giada’s authentic standard Italian is considered a great source of amusement in his family.

Mistaking an /r/ for a [d]

Speaking of mutzadel, I was interested to see that the /r/ was spelled as a “d”. That may be because Italian [r] is being mistaken for the English flap ([ɾ] also transcribed as [D]), which is the articulation of English /d/ between vowels. It’s hard for English native speakers to accept that the “d” in a word like Yoda is actual a form of “r”, but sometimes these perception mistakes happen in foreign languages.

And before I hit the Publish button, I did a quick check on Southern Italian to see if there was a change of /r/ to [l]. Neither Sicilian or Calabrese seem to preserve Italian [r].

Pronunciation Observations from PBS Latino Americans

I’ve been watching the PBS series Latino Americans and of course paid close attention to the Spanish language. So my main observations were:

Code Switched Pronunciation

The narrator generally spoke Standard U.S. English, but most Spanish words were given authentic Spanish pronunciations, much more than I’ve seen in other documentaries on Latin American subjects. I almost felt that the narrator was the Giada de Laurentiis (famous for her authentic Italian pronunciations of all things pasta) of Latin American documentaries. Many bilinguals alternate pronunciations, but this was especially consistent.

And who was this mystery narrator? None other than Benjamin Bratt who was raised by his Peruvian mother Eldy Bratt. He’s a great example of someone who has really mastered the phonology of two languages.

Dropping Final /s/

There was a clip of a traditional Spanish language song from the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, I believe) and by gosh, the singer was often dropping the final /s/ (or changing it to an /h/). Unfortunately, I am not having luck tracking it down now, but it’s rare to hear a dialectal feature captured with such good audio.

P.S. – This was very interesting and enlightening to me both as an Anglo and an East Coast resident. I had some notion of Latin American immigration in terms of the big East Coast cities like New York and Miami, but the history of Hispanics on the West Coast is very long, much longer than most people realize. Many past events are influencing immigration politics of today.

Is the “D” silent in Django?

A scene from the recent Tarantino movie Django Unchained has Django spelling his name then commenting “The D is silent”. But is it really? While not as explosive a question as the use of the N-word in the movie, this statement is surprisingly complicated in terms of phonological theory…and therefore worth a blog post.

Etymology and French Spelling

The most famous bearer of the name is Django Reinhardt, a jazz guitarist NOT of African-American or African heritage, but of Franco-Romany (“Gypsy”) heritage. Specifically, he was a Romany living in France (and that will influence how the name is spelled).

According to a New Yorker profile, the name “Django” (apparently meaning “I rise”) was the secret Romany name given to him for use among his tribe. His official name of “Jean Reinhardt” was his official name for the French government. The use of the two names made tracking individual Romany men that much trickier….

Note that the etter combination of “Dj” is the French way of spelling the English “J” sound. If Reinhardt had been from a group of Romany living outside of France, his name may have been spelled as “Jango” (no D). But that doesn’t mean that the “D” is silent.

Modern French happens to be missing both the “J” (/ǰ/ in Americanist transcription) and the “CH” (/č/) sounds. Their “J” is actually “ZH” or (/ž/ or /ʒ/), while “CH” is now “SH” or (/š/ or /ʃ/). When then need to spell the English versions, they add a /d/ to the J or /t/ to the CH. Hence French maps include the country of TCHAD (Chad) and the Indonesian capital of DJAKARTA (Jakarta).

Why? Because English CH,J are actually affricates transcribed as /tʃ, dʒ/ in IPA (or sometimes (/tš, dž/) signifying that they are complex sounds. The English “J” is said to be a /d/, but with a “zh” /ʒ/ release.

Try pronouncing both a “D” /d/ and a “J” /dʒ/ and you will find that your tongue is in the same position for both. Only the release of the tongue tip is different. The same is true for “T” /t/ and “CH” /tʃ/.

So, in conclusion: In French, the D is NOT silent.

Is the D silent in English?

Interestingly, though most English speakers do not realize the similarity of D and J until they learn phonetics. For English speakers the sound D /d/ and J /dʒ/ are distinct sounds. Further, the sound “J” is seen as a single sound (hence the Americanist transcription /ǰ/ as one symbol instead of two.

The same is also true in many languages of India, most of which write “D/J” and “T/CH” as four distinct consonants. For instance, Sanskrit “D” is द (more or less) and “J” is ज (while “T” is त and “CH” is च). There are even aspirated versions for all four sounds. From a phonological point of view, the affricates in Sanskrit act as if they were plain single stops, not complex sounds.

This is an example of an interesting phenomenon in which a phonetic signal can be interpreted in multiple ways depending on the language of the listener. For languages in which “CH,J” are phonemes , I suspect that the intuition is that they are single sounds as in the Americanist /ǰ,č/ and NOT as complex sounds. The stop component is there phonetically for sure, but the mental interpretation is different.

So, in conclusion: In English, the D MAY BE silent.

Lawsuits Over Toyota Mis-Flap

A common phonological rule of North American English is to change /t,d/ to a “flap” transcribed as either /D/ or /ɾ/. In other words, a /t/ in words like atom, writer sounds an awful like like a “d”.

In phonology class, I present cases where a flapped /t,d/ could cause potential ambiguities (see below).

  • Swe[D]ish ‘from Sweden’, swee[D]ish ‘slightly sweet’
  • ri[D]er, wri[D]er

Another ambiguity encountered in real life was Toyota vs. toy Yoda. One of the speakers in this case was British who may not have been used to decoding flaps as /t/ as North Americans are.

Still, I’m not alone because at least two organizations promised what sounded like a “Toyota” as a prize but delivered a “toy Yoda” instead. Sadly the winners, were not amused and pursued legal action.

If a phonologist had been on call, they could have provided the plaintiffs an important tip. The vowel before original (unerlying) /d/ is slightly longer phonetically than original /t/. Thus the vowel of “toy Y[o:D]a” is slightly, but perceptibly longer than “Toy[oD]a” in many dialects of American English. That’s why there isn’t more confusion in conversational English than there is.

The good news is that at least one waitress did win the suit enough to “pick out whatever type of Toyota she wants.” I guess the Force was with her after all.