September 15, 2007


Yesterday on Ask MetaFilter, Pedro Alcocer (writing as "Inigo Jones") asked about his apparently-idiosyncratic way of pronouncing the word them when it's stressed. He gave an example of contrastive substitution: "Don't give it to me, give it to THEM." For most English speakers, that them would rhyme with hem -- but for Pedro, it rhymes with hum.

Unreduced them is historically in John Wells' lexical set #2, the DRESS set, which includes words like step, ebb, hem. But Pedro made a different choice when he first learned English -- he put it into lexical set #5, the STRUT set, which includes words like cup, rub, hum. (Inigo describes his pronunciation as rhyming with bum.)

Different English dialects pronunce these (sets of) vowels differently, but for most of us, we're talking about [ðɛm] vs. [ðʌm] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, approximated in most of the discussion on Ask Metafilter as "them" vs. "thum".

So far, Pedro hasn't found any fellow thummers.

For "the curious and thum-unbelieving", he provided a recording, which I've made more accessible here:

Here's how he describes his background:

Born in Latin America, moved to US (New Jersey) at age 2. Lived in New Jersey until age 7. Moved to Miami, FL and lived there until college.

There is a Miami accent of English (spoken by native English speakers who grew up in Miami, not necessarily immigrants), that I and other Miamians can identify, but as far as I can tell and others have told me, I don't have it. Generally, I think I have a fairly standard American accent ("how they talk on TV").

Pedro has clearly assigned them to a lexical set in an idiosyncratic way, but his mistake was a reasonable one with plenty of precedents.

It's a sensible mistake because them is nearly always unstressed (pronouns and other anaphors are usually unstressed), and therefore pronounced with a reduced vowel, some form of schwa, for which the closest stressed-vowel equivalent would be the vowel of the STRUT set.

As for the precedents, most Americans have adopted several changes of the same type, as John Wells pointed out to me in email. We have stressed of rhyming with love, although historically of had the vowel of LOT, and still does for most Brits -- that's a member of lexical set #4 moving to lexical set #5. And many of us pronounce because to rhyme with buzz rather than with laws -- that's a member of lexical set #13 moving to lexical set #5.

So despite the lack of thummers among those who answered Pedro on Ask Metafilter, I'll bet that there are some of you out there. All things considered, I'm surprised that this development is apparently so rare.

[Note -- I originally identified the Ask Metafilter author only as "Inigo Jones", but changed the name throughout the post in response to this request:

I'm writing to identify myself as Inigo Jones, the thummer you recently wrote about on Language Log. My name is Pedro Alcocer and I'm a linguistics PhD student at the University of Maryland. I was hoping you could replace instances of Inigo Jones with my name on your entry, as this would gain me much cred among my peers.

Thanks for your analysis. I've been mocked for my thumming, and I hope other thummers come out of the woodwork because of your entry so we can form a support group or something.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 15, 2007 08:13 AM