Monday, February 15, 2016

The Sound of Silence

One counterintuitive thing about doing linguistic analysis is how much time we spend analyzing structures and elements that are silent. That's probably pretty confusing for people when they first learn about it. For example, compare these three sentences:
  1. I want a cookie.
  2. I ate the cookie.
  3. I ate cookies all day.
In your grammar lessons in school, you probably learned that the words a and the were called "articles," but linguists usually call them "determiners." Most people describing the sentences in 1, 2 and 3 would say something like:
"Sentences 1 and 2 have determiners in them. Sentence 1 had a and sentence 2 has the. Sentence 3 doesn't have a determiner."
A linguist, on the other hand, when describing these three sentences would be likely to say:
"All three sentences have determiners. Sentence 1 has a, sentence 2 has the, and sentence 3 has a silent determiner."
Silent determiners is just scratching the surface of all of the possible silent words linguists have postulated. A really common kind of reaction to all the silent words is "Bullshit!" Actually, that was my reaction when I took my first syntax course, but eventually, I was convinced.1 For a lot of the silent elements linguists have proposed, there's usually some good reason or evidence for doing so, but we do have to be careful not to over-hypothesize silent elements to make the data work. This is the really interesting tension of abstractness.

Here's an example I'm dealing with in my own work, involving how Philadelphians have traditionally pronounced their short-a in words like mat and man. Usually, Philadelphians have a "tense" or "nasal" sounding short-a when the sound following is an /m/ or an /n/. For example, man is tense, but mat is lax. But this only happens if the /m/ or /n/ is in the same syllable. So the word ham comes out tense, but the word hammer comes out lax, because the /m/ is in the next syllable, if you sound it out (ha-mer). Plan is tense, but planet is lax (pla-net).

One weird exception to this pattern is the word exam. Exam usually comes out lax, even though the /m/ is in the same syllable when you sound it out (ihg-zam). One way of analyzing this is just to say "Ok, exam is just an exception to the rule." But, I'm going to make a different argument, which is that every time a Philadelphian says exam, they're actually saying an abbreviated form of examination, and in examination, the /m/ is not in the same syllable (ihg-za-mih-ney-shun). So the word exam is lax, because it's really examination.

One objection to this argument is that examination looks like it's exam+ination, so how do we know that what people are saying is examination and not just exam without -ination added to it. Well, let's look at some other words that end in -ination. We have imagination. If we abbreviate imagination, like "I've totes got a wild imag," we get out ih-majh which means the same thing as imagination, and it has stress on the second syllable. This looks like exam (ihg-zam), which means the same thing as examination, and has stress on the second syllable. What happens if we never add -ination to imagination? We get out image (ih-mijh), which doesn't mean the same thing as imagination, and has stress on the first syllable. That doesn't look like exam at all. This makes it seem more likely that exam is an abbreviation like "I've totes got a wild imag", and is not just a bare word, like image.

But there is no word ehg-zum, so does that mean that the root exam can only ever appear attached to -ination? That's not so weird if you look at other words that end in -ination, like destination. Dest never shows up as its own word. But it seems to show up in related words like destined or destiny.

There's also a little bit of historical evidence that exam was originally an abbreviation. If you look at some of the earlier examples of exam in Google books, authors used to end it in a period, like you would for any abbreviation. For example, J.M. Barrie (more famous for writing Peter Pan) in his 1889 book An Edinburgh Eleven wrote:
I knew a Snell man who was sent back from the Oxford entrance exam., and he always held himself that the Biblical questions had done it.
That period followed immediately by a comma makes it pretty clear that in this sentence, exam is an abbreviation. And if you look at Google ngram patterns, exam seems to be increasing in frequency relative to examination.

So exam looks like it was historically an abbreviation of examination, and the fact that Philadelphians have traditionally pronounced it with a lax short-a suggests that it still is an abbreviation for us, unconsciously.

This is just one example of how language is not a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" game. There is a lot of silent structure to language that we're not consciously aware of. It takes a mixture of clever reasoning and empirical data to work it out.

But I'm guessing there's still a few people saying "Bullshit!" out there.
1. I actually once wrote a post on my undergraduate blog about how I thought PRO was absurd, and Norvin Richards left some really nice and patient comments on it. I'm kind of embarrassed about that now.

Disqus for Val Systems