Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue May 22 15:28:30 UTC 2007

On May 22, 2007, at 4:45 AM, Charlie Doyle wrote:

> Of course, we find syllabic schwa insertion (or retention) in
> participles like "grappling," "babbling," and "grumbling," but
> those are explainable (partly, at least) by the pronunciation of
> the base forms. There seems to be no tendency to pronounce
> "complexity" as "comp(@)lexity" or "complete" as "comp(@)lete."

a third (and perhaps fourth) distinct phenomenon where we see an
alternation between $KL and $K@$L, where $ is syllable boundary, K is
a stop, L a liquid, and @ a schwa.  the basic phenomenon is more
general, involving consonants in general (not just stops) and
sonorants in general (not just liquids).  and the basic phenomenon is
*reduction* rather than expansion.  note "opera" and "camera", which
are now given in many dictionaries as having an optional schwa
(indicating a two-syllable as well as three-syllable pronunciation);
the three-syllable versions are the historical originals, but for a
great many speakers the two-syllable versions are the norms (some
speakers judge the three-syllable versions to be incorrect, foreign,
or hypercorrected from spelling).

now consider verbs ending in @ + sonorant or syllabic sonorant (r l n
in particular).  the @ (or syllabicity) is variably preserved in the -
ing forms of such words.  the facts are very complicated; the
relevant factors are variously linguistic (the nature of the
preceding consonant, which sonorant is involved, the frequency and
the stylistic level of the verb), individual (speed and casualness of
speech), and social (region, class, etc.-- there are some fairly
striking british/american differences, for instance).

many speakers have only non-syllabic sonorants in the -ing forms of
particular verbs, especially some verbs in -l (usually spelled
"le").  "tremble" is such a verb for me (so, as a matter of fact, are
"grapple", "babble", and "grumble"); "trembling" is always disyllabic
for me.  in such a case, analysts regularly suggest that the final
sonorant of the verb stem is phonologically non-syllabic, but
phonetically syllabic in the context C___# (where # is word
boundary): the stem for "tremble" is phonologically /trEmbl/, which
is preserved as is when -ing is added, but in isolation has the /l/
realized as a syllabic by an automatic process of english.

this allows you to distinguish pairs like "gambol" ("gamboling"
always trisyllabic) and "gamble" ("gambling" always disyllabic).  if,
of course, those are your pronunciations.

but on some verbs there is variation, and the whole picture is
complicated by re-shapings that preserve the syllabic sonorant of the
verb in isolation: trisyllabic "trembling", "gambling", "grappling",
"babbling", "grumbling", and many others.  wilson gray has complained
here on occasion about such pronunciations, which strike him -- and
me -- as odd, to the point of sounding like hypercorrections.
nevertheless, they're out there, in considerable numbers.

so it's not clear when people are syllabifying and when they're
desyllabifying, and for a single speaker the treatment of different
verbs might be different, and of course different speakers have
somewhat different systems.  finally, the treatment of -ing forms
might constitute (for some speakers) a separate system of its own,
not integrated with other syllabic/non-syllabic alternations (which
is why i entertained the possibility that we're looking at two
further types of alternation, not just one).

judgments about what (you think) you say, or about what (you think)
other people say, in what contexts, are a start, but they don't take
us very far.  nor do isolated instances of particular
pronunciations.  to understand the variation here within individuals
and between individuals and across contexts, etc. we need a lot of
data and some pretty sophisticated analytic techniques.


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