Voiceless vowels in English

Herb Stahlke hfwstahlke at GMAIL.COM
Tue Apr 8 19:13:47 UTC 2008

English voiceless vowels get confused with aspirated fortis stops.  English
fortis stops aspirate if they are initial in stressed syllables, as in
[phat] vs. [spat] or the [p] [rEp at thISn].  In unstressed syllables, schwa
devoices between voiceless obstruents.  So the schwas in "between,"
"Detroit," "surprise," "Chicago," etc. are all devoiced.  Initial lenis
obstruents are voiceless in English and so the schwa also devoices.


On Tue, Apr 8, 2008 at 1:43 PM, Benjamin Barrett <gogaku at ix.netcom.com>

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Barrett <gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM>
> Subject:      Voiceless vowels in English
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> I recall learning that we don't have voiceless vowels in English.
> Two words have recently come to my attention, though, that seem to:
> Chicago and hilarious.
> The first "i" in Chicago seems to vary between voiceless and
> nonexistent (onset = [shk]). In hilarious, the first "i" in hilarious
> seems to range from +/- voiceless [I] to+/- schwa.
> I can understand that the [I] in Chicago goes voiceless because of the
> voiceless environment.
> In hilarious, it seems the environment inducing this is the unstressed
> syllable [hI]. Hibachi and Hidalgo seem to work the same. Perhaps this
> is because the voicing of the vowel is permitted to be delayed to the
> next consonant.
> Is there a general rule for devoiced vowels in English?
> Benjamin Barrett
> a cyberbreath for language life
> livinglanguages.wordpress.com
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