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.


Anonymous said...

reb yid, zayt mir moykhl vos ikh abuse your blog post with off-topicness but I didn't see a contact button.

Can you give me a gloss on approximate time/area/demographic distribution for the negating 'nothing'—that is, I just related a story to a friend and he replied 'oops', to which I said 'oops nothing, it was very dramatic!'

I am wondering if I'm the only person I know who might say a thing like that.

Generally I'd also love a source for a good atlas of American dialectical features.

Ben said...

אָף־טאַפּיק איז בײַ מיר אין גאַנצן נישט קײן פּראָבלעם, נאָר אַז מע װיל שרײַבן "אונטער צװאַנציק פֿינגער" קען מען מיר שיקן אַ בליץ אױף
בײַ דזשימײל דאַט קאַם bensadock

I definitely know the "oops nothing" construction, but I don't know enough technical stuff to say anything interesting about it. As for American dialect atlases, the way to go is Labov et al., The Atlas of North American English. Full disclosure: I get no compensation for plugging this book, though if the good folks at Mouton de Gruyter want to repay me by giving me a copy, I wouldn't refuse it. It is six hunnerd dollars, after all. I guess that didn't require full disclosure after all.

Anonymous said...

You guys are losing me on some of that, but I'm originally from the Chicago Area and I can see what you mean on some of it. I'm getting more meticulous about some of my pronunciations as I get older and I have to be kind of careful not to pronounce "-ire" like "-i-yer." (I'm not sure how well I succeed.) Since I lived in the suburbs I don't have much of a Chicago accent, but there were some pronunciation quirks in those around me that I didn't pick up. Maybe I'll get into that sometime.


Anonymous said...

Dude! As a representative from Sweden, I must say that this about the "i"-thing is really confusing, hahaha! ;)

Anonymous said...


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vp said...

do "ride" and "right" have the same vowel? No, they don't

Depends on your accent. In mine, they are phonetically identical, as far as I can tell. It's only in Canada, some of the Northern US and a few other locations (e.g. Charleston) that the allophony you describe exists.

bassavino said...

Hi, cousin,

Thei in "ride" is ah-ee, very quickly, whereas the i in "right" is more of an uh-ee, likewise very quick, not some deawled-out diphthong. I figured this out after trying to apply the "ride" i to "right"; what I got was rah-eet, approaching "rot" here in Cleveland.