Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Style over substance

I prefer my phonological grammars not to be poluted with phonetic substance. That being the case, I'm always interested (read disturbed) when I run into phonological patterns that are do not look abstract and cannot be easily explained as a result of systematic misperception or systematic failures in production. One of these is the peculiar cross-linguistic tendency towards a particular vowel pattern in coordinate compounds and echo reduplication. Take the English cases tick-tock or flip-flop (English doesn't have these things very productively, but I'm fishing for a familiar example). In both of these cases, and hundreds of others, the first value is high (and front) and the second vowel is low (and back). These could be treated either as coordinate compounds (both flip and flop exist as verbs in the English lexicon) or as echo-reduplication. Similar patterning can be found in A-Hmao (a Hmongic language of China), Jingpho (a Tibeto Burman language of China, Burma, and India), and many other languages. In A-Hmao nominal reduplication (the first instance of the reduplicated element, the ”reduplicant“, must have either /i/ or /u/ as the vowel in the root). In Jingpho coordinate compounds, if one root contains a high vowel, then that root always occurs first in the sequence.

I find it comforting, on the one hand, that sonority driven stress cannot explain this kind of pattern. The stress pattern of English echo-reduplication constructions is trochaic (stress goes on the high [low sonority] vowel) while in Jingpho coordinate compounds, stress is iambic and falls on the lower (higher sonority) vowels. I find it distressing, on the other hand, that this kind of thing appears to be part of the grammars of some languages (as is clearly the case in both Jingpho and A-Hmao). Don't get me wrong: as a Berkeleyan, I'm just fine with sound symbolism and all the allied stuff--I just don't want it in my grammar.

My modest (read unoriginal) proposal is this: some devices characteristic of a given speech style may be misinterpreted by language users as aspects of grammar. Thus, there need be no direct interface between phonetics and phonology even in these cases. The fact that there is a robust cross-linguistic pattern describable only in phonetic terms is a fact about stylistics, rather than grammar; the incorporation of stylistic patterns into grammars is a fact of history. The grammar itself is left as a device that performs uniform computations over abstract symbols. In other words, I choose style over substance.


At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Other English examples, in case you want them: ping-pong, ding-dong, splish-splash, tip-top. Then we get into more obscure items. Horse's hooves traditionally go clip-clop. There is an implement used for skeining yarn that is called a niddy-noddy. The compound singsong is dubious because it can be analyzed compositionally. Mary Poppins said spit-spot to mean "hurry up", but that may be idiolectic -- I've never heard it anywhere else.

--ACW [acw atsign alum period mit period edu]

At 12:17 PM, Blogger David Mortensen said...

Yes, ACW, there are a lot of these in English, and there are even a couple of big lists of them floating around the internet. Yesterday, I friend and I were brainstorming (when I should have been writing my LSA abstract) as we came up with the following list:
In some of these, the first "word" appears as an independent lexical item; in others the second "word" is an independent lexical item; in a few, both halves are words in their own right; but in a considerable number, neither part occurs on its own.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger un oeuf de moins said...

(Hi, Dave-- T's mom here.)

You can add knick-knack, bric-a-brac, and rickrack to the list-- and how 'bout tic-tac-toe? I'm curious about one entry; I've heard pish-tosh but not pish-posh before and wonder what accounts for the variant(s).

For the combinations where at least one of the elements is a stand-alone word, it seems to me that this construction may serve as an intensifier.

Where do you think "teeny-tiny" fits in? It goes to (how does one post in italics here, or boldface?) a high front vowel from a higher even more forward vowel. I'm trying to think of similar examples. Itty-bitty (also itsy-bitsy) and eensy-weensy (and teensy-weensy) don't change vowel placement, but it's noteworthy that they mean essentially the same thing as teeny-tiny. The repetition does seem intensifying, and I'm thinking there's got to be some meaning in the fact that in each case the stand-alone word was already diminutive to begin with (assuming wee as the root of weensy).

At 1:27 PM, Blogger un oeuf de moins said...

By "where [does] "teeny-tiny" fit in?" I meant, do you think it's a related phenomenon, a different aspect of the same phenomenon, or something else entirely? I don't know enough to be sure, but my hunch favors aspect of same.

At 6:56 PM, Blogger David Mortensen said...

Teeny-tiny looks to me like a pretty prototypical case of echo/ablaut reduplication. The interesting thing, in this case, is that you can say teeny and mean "really tiny," yet I believe that teeny must have its origins in the reduplicative construction teeny-tiny.


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