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It’s nearly Xmas, so I’m feeling like posting something imperceptibly more trivial than usual. In a sometimes effective attempt to block out the Christmas songs being hummed everywhere I go (most of all by my parents, who want to stop but can’t), I’ve been going through some of my old favorite songs.

One of these is “Me and Mia” by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and every time I listen to it, I’m struck by the way Leo pronounces the word forgotten in the line “call your friends ’cause we’ve forgotten / what it’s like to eat what’s rotten”. Here’s the album version of the line [at the 0:42 & 1:30 marks]

I love the way he says it, like he’s swallowing the end of the word and just barely spitting back out. And he seems to be fairly consistent in how he pronounces forgotten in this song: here’s a live version with the same pronunciation (around the 1:25 mark). Since I’ve found it such a striking pronunciation and since I’m a linguist, I figured that I could figure out what makes it distinctive.

Let’s start off by talking about the canonical American English pronunciation of forgotten, which is probably going to be something like [fɚgɑtən]. If you, like me, aren’t at home with the International Phonetic Alphabet, the basic gist is as follows. The first syllable is an f sound followed by an er sound (ɚ). That weird symbol is a rhotic schwa; the er sound is not actually two distinct sounds, but rather a single vowel whose third formant is lowered, which we perceive as a combination of a vowel and an r. This syllable doesn’t really impact the end of the word, so let’s move on.

The second syllable sets up Leo’s distinctive pronunciation of the third. The two phonemes in this syllable, [g] and [ɑ], are both located in the back of one’s mouth. For [g], you push the back of your tongue up against your soft palate, back behind your teeth. Then, to make [ɑ], you pretty much push your tongue as far down and back in your mouth as you do for any English sound. If you try overexaggeratedly saying “got”, you’ll hopefully feel what I’m talking about here. If you don’t, just trust me that your tongue is further back in your mouth than normal as you finish up this syllable.

If it helps, here's a vowel chart for California English. The vowels' positions are loosely correlated with the where your tongue in your mouth. The left is the front of your mouth, the top the roof of your mouth. Notice ɑ is in the bottom right.

And now the third syllable. Let’s start with the canonical form of it, [tən]. After jamming your tongue way back in your mouth last syllable, now you push your tongue up against the back of your teeth to make a [t], relax it a bit to make a lax vowel of some sort (possibly a schwa, but this will vary), and then push your tongue up against your teeth again to make an [n]. Or, at least, that’s what you would do if you were overenunciating.

In real-life American English, you’re going to replace that [t] with what phoneticians call a “flap” (ɾ), a quick tap of your tongue against your gumline that’s sort of a midpoint between t, d, and r.* In addition, you might not make a separate vowel+n pair, but instead, you’ll do a syllabic n, taking advantage of the ability to sustain a nasal stop like n. And that gets you what I’m going to call the “relaxed” pronunciation of forgotten.

With that as a base form, what’s Leo doing? Well, at the end of the second syllable, his tongue is way in the back of his mouth. Instead of moving his tongue all the way forward to make the t or flap sound, he uses another allophonic variant, the glottal stop. If you’re not familiar with the term, think of either a Cockney pronunciation of bottle, or the word uh-oh. There’s a weird gap in the middle of these words; the two syllables are clearly connected by something, but it’s more of a silence than a sound. If anything, it might sound like a weird gasp. That is the glottal stop, where one’s vocal folds close up and then release a brief burst of air as a little creaky pop.

The glottal stop doesn’t require the tongue to move from its back-of-the-mouth position, so when it comes time to make the [n], Leo’s tongue is further back than if he’d made a proper t or flap. When he goes to make the n sound, he doesn’t move his tongue all the way forward, creating a “retracted” n that’s located further back in his mouth than a normal n.

That’s a lot of words about something that might seem rather uninteresting — I started by saying “oh, it’s neat how Ted Leo sort of swallows the end of his word” and concluded by saying “oh, the reason why it sounds like he’s swallowing the syllable is because the syllable is further back in his mouth”. But there’re two things I found interesting in that analysis. One is that it’s kind of neat that we do have this phonetic intuition telling us that sounds produced further back than usual sound like they’re being swallowed, even if we don’t consciously notice where our tongues are when we’re making such noises. The second is that it’s a good illustration of how sounds are affected by the phonetic environment; if it weren’t forgotten, but rather the made-up word fortetten, swallowing that last syllable wouldn’t have been natural.

*: Wikipedia has a concise but somewhat confusing overview of the way flaps work in different forms of English, if you’re interested.

One of the fun things about dialectal differences in English is how the poetry turns out. There are some rhymes that just wouldn’t work in your own dialect of English, but work fine in another. For instance, the way I learned that Canadian English has a different pronunciation of sorry from mine was by hearing a Nickelback song on the radio five hundred million times in 2002:

“It’s not like you to say sorry
I was waiting on a different story.”

My hometown of Pittsburgh has this too, as I found out reading a poem about the game in which the Terrible Towel (the original rally towel, which Pittsburghers wave at Steeler gamesOlympic award ceremonies, weddings, births, presidential inaugurations, etc.) debuted:

“‘It was easy,’ said Andy
And he flashed a crooked smile,
‘I was snapped on the fanny
By the Terrible Towel!'”

That probably seems like terrible poetry to you, not only because it is, but also because the bolded end-rhymes of the second and fourth lines aren’t remotely similar. But to native Pittsburghers, they are. That’s because we have two vowel shifts that move us away from the “standard” American English pronunciations. Both of them are “monophthongizations”, which is a really fun word to say once you figure how to. Monophthongization is the process of converting a diphthong to a monophthong (I’ll explain those terms in a minute.)

The first vowel shift is the conversion of /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r. /aɪ/ is the phonetician’s way of writing what you learn in school as “long i”; it’s the vowel in sight, rhyme, or the pronoun I. It is a diphthong, which means that it’s really two vowels jammed together. If you say sight really slowly, you’ll notice that your lower jaw comes down as you start the vowel (the /a/ part), and then it starts back up, moving into sort of an “ee” sound (the /ɪ/ part) before you stop. If you don’t have anyone looking at you right now, try it yourself, and you’ll actually feel your mouth move from /a/ to /ɪ/. That’s a diphthong; it’s a sound where you start at one vowel and keep going until you finish at a new vowel. A monophthong, on the other hand, is a vowel sound that has the same sound throughout, like the /æ/ sound in American English hat. (Or the /a/ in British hat.) If you say hat slowly, you’ll notice that you start the vowel with your lower jaw down, and you only raise it back up when you start to make the t sound at the end, maintaining more or less the same vowel sound throughout.  If you’re having trouble seeing the difference between mono- & diphthongs, don’t worry.  The only crucial point is that the vowels in question are different in some way.

Returning to the Pittsburgh monophthongizations, we convert /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r, so smile has a vowel that’s more like an “ah” sound than the standard “long i”.*  The other monophthongization is the conversion of /aʊ/, the sound in Standard American English town, to /a/, another “ah”-type sound. This is why Pittsburghers sometimes write “dahntahn” for downtown.   The first of these monophthongizations isn’t particularly rare in American English, occurring (if I remember correctly) in Appalachia, and parts of the Eastern Midwest as well.  The second monophthongization is pretty much unique to Pittsburgh, at least among American English speakers.

And that’s how the rhyme works.  /aɪ/ in smile turns into one “ah”-like vowel, and /aʊ/ in towel turns into another “ah”, and tah-dah! We get poetry that seems like free verse to anyone from another city!  And at the low cost making the word pairs dowel-dial, foul-file, towel-tile, and vowel-vile more or less indistinguishable.

*: Since this shift only applies to vowels before an l or r, Pittsburghers pronounce the vowels in smile and smite differently.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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