4.6 Phonological Derivations in Everyday Speech

Phonological derivations might seem quite abstract and mathematical, but they represent processes that happen automatically in everyone’s mental grammar. This unit looks at a couple of the most common phonological processes in English that can be represented with derivations.

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Video Script

The last unit showed us how we can use the formal notation of a derivation (or rule) to represent what’s happening in the mental grammar of a speaker as they use their language. In this unit we’ll look at some of the processes that we use really frequently when we speak English, and how they can be represented with a phonological rule.

Let’s start by talking about plurals in English. When we were learning to transcribe, we noticed that the common English plural suffix, which is usually spelled with the letter “s”, gets transcribed in three different ways. This is sometimes called the “cats, dogs, horses” phenomenon because cats ends with a voiceless fricative [s], dogs ends with the voiced fricative [z], and horses with a whole syllable [ɨz]. Here are some other words with each of these different plural forms.

cups, peacocks, myths, cliffs all take the voiceless [s]
bees, fans, pencils, leaves all take the voiced [z]
and edges, mazes, dishes, beaches take the [ɨz] form

We don’t have to look too hard to figure out that words that end in a voiceless consonant take the voiceless plurals [s] while the voiced [z] is for words that end in a voiced segment. But why is there this third form of the plural. Why does that high central vowel get epenthesized, and where does it happen? Look down this list of words and you’ll see that they all end in fricatives, [s], [z], [ʃ] or [ʒ]. But it’s not all fricatives, as we can see from myths, cliffs, leaves. Looking at the feature chart, we see that it’s a particular class of CORONAL fricatives — the ones that are [+strident]. We can describe this process in words by saying that the English plural suffix [z] gets an extra vowel [ɨ] following a strident consonant. How can we represent that with a rule?

Well, we start by thinking about the change that happens. In this case, a vowel is getting epenthesized. We’ve been describing phonetic changes as something becoming something else, but epenthesis is really a case of nothing become something. So we represent it this way: this zero with the diagonal line through it means “nothing”, and the something that gets inserted is the high central vowel [ɨ]. And what’s the environment where it happens? Following a strident consonant, but not just any time there’s a strident. Our mental grammar doesn’t go around sticking extra vowels into every word with a strident in it. It happens specifically when we’re sticking a [z] at the end of a word. Notice that this correctly predicts that we’ll also get that extra vowel when we add the simple present suffix to a verb, so breathes just gets [z] for simple present in she breathes but reaches, where the verb reach ends with the affricate [tʃ] gets the epenthesized vowel: reaches.

So the idea we’re working with here is that every single fluent speaker of English, every time they speak the plural form of a word that ends with [s] [z] [ʃ] [ʒ] [tʃ] or [dʒ], their mental grammar automatically applies this rule, and it happens so regularly and so rapidly that most of us aren’t even aware of it.

Now let’s look at that common process of flapping. When we were learning to do phonetic transcription, we learned that a word that’s spelled with a “d” or a “t” in a particular environment usually gets pronounced with a flap [ɾ] instead of a stop, for people who speak varieties of Canadian and US English, and also for most speakers of Australian English. Here are some examples:

water, ladder, total, model, bottom, modem

Looking at this set of words, we can see a pretty clear pattern, which we can describe in words this way: [t] and [d] become the flap [ɾ] between vowels in the onset of an unstressed syllable. (It’s actually a little more complex than that, but linguists are still arguing about what the exact environment is, so this is close enough for our purposes.) We can describe this process with a phonological derivation something like this:

The class of sounds that the change happens to is the alveolar stops [d] and [t]. So these are consonants that are [-sonorant], which excludes the nasals and liquids, and [-continuant], which excludes fricatives. And they’re the ones made at the tip of the tongue, that is, the coronals. These sounds become the flap, in the environment between vowels, when the second vowel is unstressed. So that’s a lot of fancy notation to describe a process that your mental grammar does rapidly, unconsciously, hundreds of times a day.

So we’ve looked at a couple of examples of phonological derivations that represent allophonic and allomorphic variation in our everyday speech. (Glance ahead a couple chapters to learn what “allomorphic” means!) Linguists use this formal notation to represent them, but remember that these are unconscious processes in our mental grammar that operate hundreds of times a day without us even noticing.


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