Retroflexion [was: McWhorter on "Negro English"]

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Jan 17 17:05:24 UTC 2010

In terms of who retroflexes/palatalizes these clusters, I noticed the
phenomenon last night in a clip of Michelle Obama urging donations to
help the recovery in Haiti mentioned the "schools deSTRoyed" and the
"parenTS TRying to protect their children", both with the "shch"
sequence.  The latter one crosses word boundaries, if that's of


At 12:08 PM -0500 1/15/10, Paul Johnston wrote:
>I think the process of assimilation to /r/ can work either way.  It's
>really common in NJ to have [tSri dZraiv] type clusters because the /
>r/ there is a "bunched" type and markedly palatal.  It's a stereotype
>for E PA, Philly especially, but I've heard it in North Jersey too.
>Furthermore, the /r/ can go.  For me, the main difference between
>jive and drive--both contain affricates made at the palato-alveolar
>position--is that the affricate in jive is made with the tongue blade
>(lamino articulation) and drive with the tongue tip (apico
>articulation).  The second is retroflex in the same sense Hindi (as
>opposed to Tamil) retroflexes are--the tongue tip points straight up
>and there's no  contact with the underside. There really isn't any /
>r/ either.
>I wonder if these assimilations occur in Mountain States and Great
>Plains dialects--one of the things I noticed while traveling in WY,
>MT, CO is how truly retroflex their /r/'s were compared to mine.
>Paul Johnston
>On Jan 15, 2010, at 10:56 AM, Geoff Nathan wrote:
>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>Poster:       Geoff Nathan <geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU>
>>Subject:      Re: Retroflexion [was: McWhorter on "Negro English"]
>>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
>>>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
>>>>Retroflexion with the accompanying affrication of the intervening /
>>>>t/ is a marked feature of all varieties of Hawaiian English as
>>>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/.
>>>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
>>>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
>>>in point of articulation.  then the aspiration on the t is itself
>>>realized as retroflex -- that is, as a retroflex fricative, and we
>>>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
>>>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.
>>>The American Dialect Society -
>>The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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