No word too small

Comment les articles de l’anglais tissent des liens entre êtres humains, pourvu qu’ils bloguent [hé, c’est un subjonctif, ça !].

You know, a little over a year ago, I was wondering whether blogging was an activity I should take up. I was hesitant for a while because it seemed you had to be either your own journalist, which I am not, or to spend a considerable amount of time gazing at your own navel.

I was, of course, wrong. Not because there aren’t a lot of navel-gazing blogs out there — and it’s a perfectly fine activity, if you’re into it. No, what I had underestimated was the community aspect of blogging. In addition to local meet-ups and communal efforts organised around a particular blogging platform, it’s the tool itself that makes sure that bloggers whose interests overlap in some way or other will find each other if they are so inclined.

I’ve been quite touched by how easy it is for us to develop social bonds. Leaving comments may develop into exchanging e-mail or hanging out in the same IRC channel. Those who know me in the corporeal world may be aware that I can be painfully shy about things like that. When I dropped off the web for two months earlier this year, my ircquaintances and those involved in the same online projects kept enquiring after me, which helped bring me back.

Now, when Mark Liberman — to whose Language Log posts I’ve sometimes been playing sortof a Greek chorus via email and blog entries here — became interested in the pronunciation of the and a, his post showed up in my aggregator, and I was, as so often, intrigued. So I looked at recordings by speakers I had listened to before and happened upon one by Ed Felten. Ed Felten, in turn, saw my post — either in his referrer stats or via a backlink-and-blog search engine like Technorati (hi Kevin Marks, by the way) — and left a comment. I was just glad that he took my dissection of his speech in good humour, when I realised he had even taken up the small linguistic interest Mark Liberman and I have been taking in his thes and as on Freedom to Tinker, his own blog. Oh, and Mark Liberman, in turn, replied to Ed Felten’s post, where this post should be showing up as a trackback, if all goes right. La boucle est bouclée (“the loop is looped around”; or, etymologically, if not semantically, closer, “the buckle is buckled” ) as they say here.

I can understand Ed Felten’s consternation at being commented on, for once, not for his forceful insights into DRM, copyright, and the way the law and the actions of big media companies shape the pubic debate — he is used to that –, but for his language. And not even for something solid like verbs and nouns, or grammar, or semantics, but for the way he pronounces his articles.

Well, I find the topic quite fascinating. Mark Liberman quite rightly analysed the instances not, as I did at first, as “correcting one’s pronunciation”, but looked strictly at whether the articles precede an utterance that starts with a vowel or a consonant sound (putting aside [j] — as in united or university — and [h] for the moment). And if Ed Felten now finds himself “listening to every speaker [he] hear[s], to see whether they do it too”, I have fallen victim to a similar fixation, hearing “ph.-pr.” (now how does he pronounce that) unreduced the [ði] and a [ɛj] literally#[1] everywhere.

Listen, for example, to this snippet (.wav) from an interview with the copy editor, author and blogger Bill Walsh:

  • wild art is the uh newsroom term for a stand-alone photograph

We have an unreduced the before the disfluency “uh”; and an unreduced a before a consonant, without any pause, pseudo or not.

This fascination rather reminds me of one of the most engaging teachers I had in high school, back in Germany. He was a trainee teacher during the two semesters he took our class for Ancient Greek, and he made all the little errors and exhibited all the insecurities this state brings with itself#[2]. But he did know his stuff, and the way he approached the horrors of the irregular verbs and the labyrinth of Greek adverbs and particles — with love and tender care — somehow got through to us. When he told us of his Master’s thesis on, if I remember correctly, frequencies of a number of particles and elisions in Homer, the bunch of 16-year-olds that we were could only frown in consternation. But his passion was quite unstoppable, and we even learnt something.

(If only how to deduce the translation passage on the exam on the Iliad he gave us — he had dropped too many hints about a rare sense of a particular verb here and an elided particle there, and we were quite capable of searching through the text ourselves. We did tell him, over a beer, when the entire class went out grilling sausages just before the end of the school year and had invited him along. And he had been so proud that eight out of a class of 27 had managed the grade 1 (roughly, an A) on what had supposedly been a tough exam on the hardest text you do in your third year of high-school Ancient Greek…)

[1]: This is the spurious usage of literally, of course, which serves to reinforce a statement. [2]: I sympathise very much. My own two years were not an easy time, to put it mildly; suffice it to say that I didn’t survive in the French public school system. Neither, to my knowledge, did he in the German one.

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.