July 25, 2005

Could there possibly be a less enticing premise for a blog entry?

That's what Ed Felten asks at Freedom to Tinker, responding to a post by Chris Waigl at Serendipity. As Ed puts it,

"Could there possibly be a less enticing premise for a blog entry than how the blog’s author pronounces the word 'the'? Well, I think the details turn out to be interesting. And it’s my blog."

Well, the details are indeed interesting, but I'm guessing that Prof. Felten wouldn't have gotten to the point of realizing this if someone else's pronunciation had been under the microscope. His reaction suggests a new way to help inform the denizens of the blogosphere about the intrinsic fascination of phonetics -- analyze the pronounciation of Big Bloggers publicly.

This all started with a prescriptivist question on MetaFilter. Bob S. asserted that he always pronounces the and a fully ("thee" and "ay", in an orthographic approximation) rather than in a reduced form ("thuh" and "uh"). I answered with a tongue-in-cheek offer of a wager, because I don't believe that any normal adult native speaker of English talks that way.

Several people then emailed to claim that George W. Bush often fails to reduce these words, in a way that bothered them; I asked for examples, and finally looked for my own. Examining W's nomination speech for John Roberts, I found that he failed to reduce 1 out of 37 phonetically pre-consonantal the's, and 6 out of 26 phonetically pre-consonantal a's. In Roberts' brief response, he failed to reduce 1 of 11 phonetically pre-consonantal the's and 1 of 4 phonetically pre-consonantal a's. I also looked at FDR's "Infamy" speech, and found that he failed to reduce 1 of 24 phonetically pre-consonantal the's, and 5 of 5 phonetically pre-consonantal a's. (Henceforth "phonetically pre-consonantal" → "ph.-pr.").

Then Chris Waigl remembered having noticed something like this in Ed Felten's speech; examining an mp3 discovered on the web, she found the unreduction effect (by my count) in 4 of 54 ph.-pr. the's and 1 of 31 ph.-pr. a's. Ed Felten noticed her post, and commented on it:

It’s not often that you learn something about yourself from a stranger’s blog. But that’s what happened to me on Friday. I was sifting through a list of new links to this blog (thanks to Technorati), and I found an entry on a blog called Serendipity, about the way I pronounce the word “the”. It turns out that my pronunciation of “the” is inconsistent, in an interesting way. In fact, in a single eight-minute public talk, I pronounce “the” in four different ways.

Meanwhile, I noticed one interesting example of unreduced a in a voice-over by George Vecsey. In a four-minute audio clip, he reduces every one of his 24 ph.-pr. the's, and 24 of 25 ph.-pr. a's -- but the single unreduced a was rhetorically interesting.

Summing up the results so far, it looks like non-reduction of the and a is something that everyone does sometimes. But there's a lot to learn about individual and dialect differences, the effects of formality, the rhetorical uses, the effects of phonological and syntactic context, and so on. Chris Waigl points out that "unreduced vowels take a little more time, and command more attention, than reduced ones". She focused on the idea that the extra time might be useful as a "denkpause" (German for "thinking-pause"). I focused on the idea that the extra attention might have rhetorical value, and also on the idea that a stronger juncture may inhibit reduction. Another possibility is that some people think of unreduced articles as more formal, correct and serious, along the lines indicated by the original question on MetaFilter, and therefore use them sporadically as a form of fancy talking.

Chris and I have agreed to work on this together for a while, so be warned -- you haven't heard the last of this fascinating topic. And if you're a blogger with audio on the web, we might be listening to you.

[Update: more from Chris Waigl here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 25, 2005 07:15 PM