Subject: Re: dot-calm

Mark A. Mandel mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU
Wed Jan 3 16:22:03 UTC 2007

Ben lists minimal pairs:

There's "mesher" vs. "measure", "Asher" vs. "azure", "Aleutian" vs.
"allusion", "cash" vs. "cazh" (short for "casual"), "shush" vs.
"zhuzh" (a Queer Eye-ism), etc.


Uh-huh. Search far enough down into the tail and you can find them. Adding
in as many more as you can find, and taking out the ones you feel you have
to gloss or source, for how many of the remaining pairs do you really think
both members are represented in the usage vocabulary, or even the
recognition vocabulary, of 95% of the English-speaking population?

I don't think I ever heard of or read "mesher" except in this context --
cited as a minimal counterpart to "measure" -- although Google gives some
real hits even when we take out the surname, the Turkish text, and the
bioinformatics pages about tools that use the Medical Subject Headings
("MeSH terms") in the PubMed database. (The remaining hits all seem to refer
to tools working with either skin grafts or graphic images.) Yes, the suffix
is productive, but how much does that count for? -- Apply that same suffix
to "singe" and write the resulting word (I'll put it near the end of this
message to give you time to puzzle it out if you want to try). I've actually
seen it in an ad, the name of a tool for working with fabric, but it took me
some brain work to decipher it; that spelling should not be considered in
formulating the regular rules for spelling English.

But I'm citing this example not for the particular suffix or the derivative
of "singe", but to challenge the necessity of minimal pairs for determining
phonemicity (which I don't think you are claiming, but I want to get my
point clear). Basing phonemic status on words that are very infrequent
and/or found only in specialized vocabularies implies that those words are
somehow nevertheless accessible to most of the population, and that if they
disappeared from the vocabulary (of those who have them at all), /sh/ and
/zh/ would merge. Which would be absurd, because their distinctness doesn't
depend on minimal pairs but on the structure that they fit into:

        p       b
        f       v
        t       d
        th      dh
        s       z
        ch      j
        SH      ZH
        k       g

I remember, I think it was as a graduate student in a class taught by Mary
Haas, hearing of an American Indian language in which one phoneme, fitting
into a similar structure, was said to occur only in one word. I don't
remember if it had a minimal counterpart, but it meant 'grandmother': unlike
"mesher" or "singe-r", far too common and basic to be missing from any
speaker's vocabulary, and quite capable of standing as the sole example to
support phonemicity, if necessary.

-- Mark
[This text prepared with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.]

The American Dialect Society -

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