Retroflexion [was: McWhorter on "Negro English"]

Herb Stahlke hfwstahlke at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 15 20:14:33 UTC 2010

I read a paper several years ago by someone from Ohio State presenting
an acoustic study of /s/ before /(C)r/.  He found a lot of variation
between retroflex /s/ and palato-alveolar /S/.  Unfortunately, I don't
have the publication information on the paper.


On Fri, Jan 15, 2010 at 9:45 AM, Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at> wrote:
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> Poster:       Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Retroflexion [was: McWhorter on "Negro English"]
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> 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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