Thursday, October 29, 2009

Long /i/ Land

Yup, terrible pun. Not the first time, and it won't be the last.

Did you know English has two "long i" sounds? If you do, you know more than the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Think about it: do "ride" and "right" have the same vowel? No, they don't. Yet the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has them both with "ī." Not that I have any beef with the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary; this is a subtle distinction, and it's really beyond the scope of their pronunciation guide.

Why do I bring this up? Well, aside from it being an inherently interesting fact (at least to weirdos such as your humble author), there is a dialectal issue here. Perhaps I've discovered it, perhaps not. Probably not. In any case, here's what it boils down to:

If you're phonologically astute, you may have already noticed that the "ride" vowel occurs before voiced consonants, and the "right" vowel before unvoiced ones. But what about /r/? For my wife, a native of the western U.S., /i/ before /r/ is, unsurprisingly, the vowel that occurs before voiced consonants—the "ride" vowel. For me, a Chicagoan, it's not so simple. Some words have the "ride" vowel: wire, mire, acquire/require, choir, and admire are some examples. But most have the "right" vowel. Thus, "FireWire" contains two different vowels for me.

Words that have (historical) diphthongs have the "ride" vowel for me. This produces some minimal pairs: higher/hire, dyer/dire, spyer/spire. You could quibble about issues of syllabification, but that's beside the point, especially since I feel that most speakers of American English don't make real syllabic distinctions here. I may be wrong.

I was inspired (guess which vowel) to write about this by a recent headline concerning Hiram Monserrate, a NY state senator who was recently involved in a very sad scandal. The headline, which was for an article about calls for Sen. Monserrate's resignation, was:
Hiram: Fire 'im. (Fact checking for this post reveals a variety of headlines involving this pun, including one from the paranomasiacally venerable Post.) But for me, this doesn't work; "Hiram" has the "ride" vowel, and "hire" has the "right" vowel.

I have no idea about the geographic distribution of any of these vocalic distinctions, but I have two initial thoughts. 1: Assuming these headlines accurately reflect New York pronunciation (which is hardly a safe assumption), this is an interesting case of a dialect feature that is shared by parts of the Northeast and the West, but not by the Inland North (another example of this is the /o/ vowel before /g/ in certain words, such as "fog," and another is "poor" being homophonous with "pour"). 2: The general rule is that the Northeast is more conservative when it comes to vowels before /r/. I don't know how that relates to this, but it's worth mentioning.

I bring up Hiram Monserrate in partial justification of the admittedly inexcusable pun in the title. It is worth noting, however, that although Queens is geographically located on Long Island, New Yorkers never refer to the parts of New York City that are on Long Island (Queens and Brooklyn) as "Long Island;" this term is reserved for the parts of Long Island that are outside the city limits: Nassau and Suffolk counties. I assume that this is because it is the only part of New York state outside of the city that is not part of "Upstate New York." Thus it needs its own label.

Speaking of New York geographical terms, most New Yorkers refer only to Manhattan when they say "the city." Older New Yorkers can also use"New York" to mean only Manhattan; perhaps this is a relict of the period before the annexations of the outer boroughs.

Feel free to chime in with your own personal data.