Retroflexion [was: McWhorter on "Negro English"]

Geoff Nathan geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU
Fri Jan 15 15:56:58 UTC 2010

Sorry, we're going to get real technical for a moment. Skip if you're not a phonology geek.
I'm going to try to fine-tune what Arnold is arguing here (he and I are, incidentally, on pretty much the same, Natural, page here).

There are two separate but related phonological processes involved here.  Palatalization of /s/, triggered by an /r/ in the onset, can go 'through' an intervening stop, leading to cases like those that we have been discussing such as [SprIN] (roughly 'shpring' for 'spring') and [Skrim] (i.e. 'shcream' for 'scream'), and even [Strit] 'shtreet' for 'street').

Separately there are dialects, such as Hawaiian English, and mine (a muddle of Canadian and RP due to my weird background) which affricate /t/ and /d/ before /r/ in an onset, so we say [tSri], [dZraiv] for 'tree, drive' (i.e. 'chree', jrive'). In Hawaii the /r/ can subsequently be deleted, which explains the Hawaiian 'Pidgin' spelling 'cha' for 'try' (an imperative marker in HE, as in Joe Hadley's poem _Chalukyu Eensai_, 'try look you inside', i.e. 'look inside yourself'.)

The two processes seem to be independent for some speakers because there are those with palatalized /s/'s and intervening /t/'s that don't affricate and others where the /t/ is affricated, like HE.

Incidentally, I think it actually is palatalization and not retroflexion--recall that /r/ can be pronounced with a 'bunched' tongue as well as a retroflex articulation and that puts it in the same articulatory region as other palatals.

Geoffrey S. Nathan
Faculty Liaison, C&IT
and Associate Professor, Linguistics Program
+1 (313) 577-1259 (C&IT)
+1 (313) 577-8621 (English/Linguistics)

----- "Arnold Zwicky" <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU> wrote:

> From: "Arnold Zwicky" <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU>
> Sent: Friday, January 15, 2010 9:45:01 AM GMT -05:00 US/Canada Eastern
> Subject: Re: Retroflexion [was: McWhorter on "Negro English"]
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Retroflexion [was: McWhorter on "Negro English"]
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Jan 15, 2010, at 3:22 AM, Geoff Nathan wrote, on realizations of /
> str/ with retroflex s (which is often perceived as palato-alveolar
> S):
> >
> >
> > Retroflexion with the accompanying affrication of the intervening /
> > t/ is a marked feature of all varieties of Hawaiian English as
> well...
> i'm sure we've been over this in the past, but here goes...
> start with the realization of /t/ in initial /tr/ (in _tree_ etc.) as
> a retroflex affricate.  this is anticipatory retroflexion of the /t/,
> plus a retroflex fricative version of the aspiration on the /t/.
> this
> realization of /t/ is very common in english, certainly in american
> english; i have it myself, and it shows up in the spellings of
> children who have devised their spellings on the basis of the names
> of
> the letters in english (so that _tree_ is spelled CRE).
> i believe that anticipatory retroflexion can also affect /pr/ and /
> kr/, but there the retroflexion would be just a gesture accompanying
> labial p and velar k; the gesture could be detected by phonetic
> studies, but it would be hard to detect just by listening.  for /tr/,
> however, retroflexion is not just an accompanying gesture, but a
> shift
> in point of articulation.  then the aspiration on the t is itself
> realized as retroflex -- that is, as a retroflex fricative, and we
> get
> a retroflex affricate for the whole business (something very close to
> the palato-alveolar affricate C).
> for me, the retroflex affricate appears for /t/ in /tr/ only in
> contexts where the /t/ would be aspirated.  so, it's there in _tree_,
> but not in _street_ .
> but it's open for others to take the _tree_ realization of /t/ as
> evidence for a retroflex affricate as the allophone of /t/ before /r/
> in general, including in _street_.  then, i think, the /s/ would be
> necessarily retroflex as well.  so the retroflexion spreads to /s/
> through the /t/, rather than the reverse (which is what geoff seems
> to
> be suggesting).
> retroflexion could also spread to /s/ through /k/ and/or /p/.  (it
> might well be that spread through /k/ is more likely than spread
> through /p/.  in any case, there's room for lots of variation here.)
> one more step: some speakers might have interpreted (some or all of)
> these retroflex obstruents as palato-alveolars, on the basis of their
> acoustic similarity. but  i simply don't know what the facts are.
> a side point: wilson writes: "the act of retroflexion appears to
> require special
> effort".  well, you make the effort for the /r/; the only question is
> whether you make the effort *only* for the /r/ or make it for some
> larger stretch.
> arnold
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