Thy “thee”s, Ed Felten…

Quelques observations concernant la prononciation, réduite ou pleine, des articles a et the devant consonne dans un échantillon d’anglais américain parlé.

Some of Mark Liberman’s recent Language Log posts were dealing with dealing with reduced vs. unreduced vowels in the pronunciation of the articles a and the. (Reduced: [ə] and [ðə]; unreduced: [ɛɪ] (or [ɛj]) and [ði:]).

In his latest post, he examined a G. W. Bush speech and found that, as other readers had claimed, Bush indeed pronounces a before consonants sometimes with an unreduced vowel (without any indication that this is done for emphasis).

This didn’t surprise me. Indeed, in my — vague — memory I thought I had noticed the same. Without being able to back this up, it has been my impression that this is a particularity of American public speech, for some speakers only. I once listened to a British politician (I forgot who), who did the same, and to me it made him sound more “American”.#[1]

I also seemed to remember that Ed Felten did something similar. I couldn’t find the talk of his I had watched on a video — and it was over an hour long, which is a bit excessive anyway. But there are other audio and video files of his presentations online. I used an 8½ min audio file, which can be downloaded (with a transcript) from Lisa Rein’s site.

The transcript (somewhat corrected, one eggcorn eradicated) with all the occurrences of the and a marked and colour-coded is on a page of its own.

The result is a bit different from Bush’s pronunciation. (The marked articles are the only ones that are pronounced in a surprising manner. All the others follow the standard pattern, unreduced before vowel, reduced before consonant.)

  • There is only one unreduced a before consonant (this was characteristic for Bush):
    • My third example comes from a question that Barbara Sarmonds asked yesterday about electronic voting.
  • Three times, Felten doesn’t reduce the vowel in the before consonant (not counting one occurrence of the United States, where unreduced the is common in American English):
    • I want to talk instead about what the impact of DRM is on the public policy process related to other issues, that is, my argument will be that DRM not only is a public policy issue [in] itself, but has a [significant] negative impact on the public policy debate.
    • […] sometimes people say that the device is an appliance, although that’s also a misnomer, it’s not like any normal appliance you might have in your house; […]
    • So as a result of all of this, DRM and the [uh] things that come with DRM turn technological devices into black boxes.
  • More surprisingly, Felten sometimes starts the with an unreduced vowel before consonant, than catches himself and after a pause and/or some ho-humming, says it again, with a reduced vowel. The first three are in two consecutive sentences, and then there are two in isolated sentences later on:
    • But all of these things really mean that the technology is supposed to be a black box, you’re not supposed to be able to look inside of it. And this black box effect tends to grow over the scope of the system for example if you’re talking about a computer system you might say well only the part that deals with the media has to be a black box the boundaries of that black box tend to grow because there’s concern that the content will be grabbed off of the video card or the audio card that it would be grabbed off of the disk, that it will be grabbed as it goes across the system’s IO bus and so on.
    • And possibly, the black box nature of the systems is backed by laws like the DMCA that tend to ban analysis or tinkering or discussion related to the device.
    • The big problem, though, is the risk of fraud.
  • Once, he does exactly the same (unreduced, pause, reduced) with a:
    • At the end of the election, it spits up a count of how many votes were cast for each candidate, or at least we hope it does that.
  • Finally, in the case of one the before a noun beginning with a consonant, he does the reverse: starting out with reduced [ðə], and correcting himself to [ði:]. This happens when he mentions a crucial example:
    • The first one was mentioned by Dave Farber this morning, the Total Information Awareness Program.

What does this mean? No idea, I’m just playing around. Clearly, unreduced vowels take a little more time, and command more attention, than reduced ones. Maybe Felten’s little back-and-forth game gave him the, as we say in German, Denkpause (a think-pause, a pause for thinking) he needed at the beginning of his talk, where, as the full transcript shows, most of these self-corrections happened.

Note that unlike Bush’s example, this is not a fully scripted political speech, but an academic talk.

[1]: Of course, these extraneous unreduced vowels in articles before consonants could simply be a sporadic occurrence among speakers of all varieties of English, and my link to American English specifically completely spurious.

1 comment(s) for 'Thy “thee”s, Ed Felten…'

  1. (Comment, 2005-07-25 14:19 )

    I had no idea that I did that. Listening to myself over the last few days since reading this, I have noticed the occasional unreduced ‘a’ or ‘the’ before a consonant. (But no self-correction, but then again I probably wouldn’t notice that.)

    I wish I could shed light on where I picked this up, but I don’t have much to offer. I don’t have much in common with George Bush in terms of where I have lived or what I have done. My wife reports that my diction changed a bit when I learned to talk to the press and lawyers. Maybe I picked it up then.