Aaron E. Drews aaron at LING.ED.AC.UK
Tue Feb 1 11:44:47 UTC 2000

On Tue, 1 Feb 2000, Lynne Murphy wrote:

}Ron Butters said:>
}> I'm dubious that anything but phonology is very much as work here. It seems
}> to me to go both ways (just like BIRD/BRID). I hear "pervention" as much as
}> "prevention"; cf. also "pervaricate," "perliminary"--even "February" becomes
}> "Feburary" as well as "Febuary."
}The thing that always troubles me about metathesis is the seeming lack of
}motivation or rules for it.  Since it goes on both directions, creating and
}destroying onset consonant clusters, why do people do it?  I mean, I can see
}why you might do it as an occasional speech error, but how does it become
}a bona fide language change?

I'm hazarding a guess that the motivation is the maintenance of /r/ as a
consonant in the inventory, for this particular case of metathesis.  /r/
has always been funky in the history of English: from causing some Old
English sound changes (I think along with /h/~/x/) while other consonants
did nothing; to the 18th-19th century lenition of post-vocalic /r/, even
in American English.  Yet, /r/ has never left.

For the non-rhotic accents (I'm not sure about the American south), the
post-vocalic /r/ has jumped syllables and become onset-only, hence
intrusive-r/linking-r.  The same thing is happening with our modren
southren Aussie metathesis, a consonantal /r/ is remaining a consonant by
moving to a syllable onset, just moving left instead of right.  In
syllable rhyme, I find it extremely difficult to classify /r/ as a
consonant.  I have yet to see a spectrogram of rhotic American English
where a vowel clearly ends (especially schwa) and /r/ begins. Onsets are a
different story, and so /r/ can be maintaned as a consonant, even if that
means it has the same distribution as /h/.

Some accents of Cockney/Estuary lack this motivation, and syllable onset
/r/ is [V], a labiodental approximant.  Sometimes this approximant extends
to syllable-rhyme /r/, or rather the off-glide equivlant to AmE tense
vowels plus /r/.   This allows  /r/ (or whatever the underlying form is)
to be maintained and with 'full' distribution.

In short, the motivation is "I've got this /r/, and I want to keep it,
even if it means changing a few other things around"..... IMHO :-)


Aaron E. Drews                               The University of Edinburgh
aaron at                  Departments of English Language and       Theoretical & Applied  Linguistics


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