Monday, 16 April 2012

postsibilant contraction

Why did I find this newspaper headline (right), from last Wednesday’s Metro, awkward?

As we all know, the English spelling apostrophe-s can represent not only the possessive ending but also the contracted form of is or has.

It is pronounced just like the regular plural ending.

• After a voiceless non-sibilant consonant it is pronounced voiceless, s:
    the cat’s whiskers
    the cat’s waiting to go out
    the cat’s just been sick again

• After a voiced non-sibilant consonant or a vowel, it is pronounced voiced, z
    dressed up like a dog’s dinner
    the dog’s jumping up and down
    the dog’s run off somewhere

• And after a sibilant (= one of s z ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ) it is pronounced as a separate syllable, ɪz (or for some people əz):
    straight from the horse’s mouth

…er, but what about the contracted forms after a sibilant?
    ?%the horse’s grazing happily in the paddock
    ?%the horse’s bolted

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds the last two a little awkward. Why? Because they don’t imply any difference in pronunciation from horse is, horse has. There’s no separate contracted form in pronunciation, so we don’t want one in spelling.

Those of us with a robust weak ɪ — ə distinction will continue to use ɪz as the uncontracted weak form of is but əz as the uncontracted weak form of has. This distinction remains even if, questionably, we spell both as postsibilant ’s. That’s another reason the spelling ’s is not very satisfactory here.

My cash is mine, fine. My cash’s mine, not so sure.


  1. I would be included to pronounce that headline as /mɑɪ ˈkæʃ sɔl ˈmɑɪn/, assimilating the /s/ without a preceding vowel to the following vowel. If all weren't there, though, I'd resist the sentence.

    1. But wouldn't /mɑɪ ˈkæʃ sɔl ˈmɑɪn/ be realized as [mɑɪ ˈkæʃ ʃɔl ˈmɑɪn], making it indistinguishable from "my cash all mine"? Is it even possible to have a [ʃ] followed by a [s] without a pause in between, even in separate syllables? Doesn't seem so to me.

    2. No, absolutely not (realized in that way being indistinguishable...)!!!
      And, yes, of course (it IS possible for /s/ to follow /ʃ/ without a pause or vowel)!!!
      Certainly my rebuttals are supported by any dialect of English that immediately comes to mind.
      Consider as an example: "Kash says he's going out later."
      I can't imagine anyone I know, speaking any dialect familiar to me, pronouncing that phrase as:
      /ˈkæʃ ʃɛz ˈhiːz/... or /ˈkæʃ ʃɛziːz/...
      With so many words in English with a final /ʃ/, as well as words with initial /s/, I can only consider your assertion to be an exception—not the rule.
      Consider: "English student"
      How ever brief and elided it may be, I can easily distinguish the /s/ as the tongue transitions forward between /ʃ/ and /t/; contrasted with a German 'accent' pronunciation which is clearly devoid of that /s/. Or even the pronunciation difference between: "English student" and "English too"

  2. Interesting, never thought of that.

    My feeling is that the distinction between ɪz and əz will indeed be made.

    But what's with maɪ kæʃs maɪn? Sounds more normal than [I cashed his, and now he] kæʃs main.

  3. No, you can't say kæʃs - not without sounding like a foreigner.

    Better to think of this as a spelling mistake, intended to be pronounced the same as cash is. So the author was probably someone without a clear ɪz/əz distinction: either someone with a centralised KIT vowel - from Northern Ireland, New Zealand or South Africa maybe - or an Australian with a schwa in the full (i.e. syllabic) -es ending. (I've left Scotland out of the "centralised KIT" list, because most Scots use happY in the full -es ending).

    1. No, but you can say ˈkæʃ ̩sɔ:l — well I can, if I choose.

    2. Perhaps what makes it sayable for me is the subjectless expression pronounced ̩sɔ:lˈgɒn — reduced from It has all gone.

  4. —?%the horse’s grazing happily in the paddock
    —?%the horse’s bolted
    This American is much more okay* with the latter than the former. Perhaps the second feels contracted because the /h/ has been elided?

    *okay really needs to grow an inflectional comparative.

  5. On a similar note, I've had disagreements with proponents of forms like would've, could've, should've, we'd've, etc. - they claim that it's a faithful representation of the reduced form [əv], but I maintain that it's absolutely unnecessary. 've is used to represent non-syllabic [v], and in nearly any orthographic instance of have following a noun or pronoun, people will intuitively pronounce it as a reduced, but still syllabic, [əv].

    1. If you bar the contraction, you're gonna get a lot of would of, we'd of, etc.

    2. It's already endemic in the UK, and even pronounced wʊd ɒv etc.

    3. Just because would of is very wrong doesn't seem an argument not to avoid would've.

    4. If we avoid "would've", then what spelling do we use to indicate a reduced pronunciation of "have" after would (or could, should, we'd)? If we write out "would have", that will for many (most?) readers, indicate a /hæv/. Just because such a pronunciation is never or nearly never used in regular speech (for "would have) does not mean people don't read "would have" that way.

    5. Well, if that pronunciation is never or nearly never used in regular speech, what actual ambiguity needs resolving by having two different spellings? By the same token, you may as well have a reduced spelling for ðə, just in case for some reader the spelling always indicates ði.

      (I was half-tempted to type a reply with apostrophe for schwa in all weak forms to prove a point, but I'll try to behave...)

    6. Writing often is not a representation of regular speech, and reading out loud a written text is not regular speech. Just because the full "have" pronunciation doesn't happen in regular speech does not mean it doesn't exist at all. As I said, I doubt many readers are going to see "would have" and think wʊd əv (or wʊd ɒv).

  6. I'm inclined to think of it differently. I think it's that we use the full spelling by default, and the contracted spelling only if there's a reason to. One reason is to indicate the loss of a consonant (e.g. it'd, it'll, would've). Another is to indicate the loss of a syllable (e.g. I'm). Another is to indicate the metathesis of [n] and vowel in e.g. [wʊd̚ənt] (or [wʊd̚n̩t]) < [wʊd nɒt]. But the use of a weakform is not a reason. If none of the above reasons applies, we use the full spelling, even if a weakform is used.

    This'd explain why, after words ending in sibilants, we don't get the contraction 's (or, if we do, it seems wrong), even for "has".

    This'd also explain why we don't get "there're", but use the full spelling "there are" even if "are" is pronounced [ə].

    1. Your logic is lost on me: why would've but not horse's (for horse has)? Both involve weak forms where a consonant is lost.

      Your argument about the use of a weak form not being a reason seems essentially the same point that the original post already made about not using a contracted spelling if it doesn't imply any contracted pronunciation. And on that basis, I'd avoid it'd and would've.

      Regarding I'd, I think also the point in the last full paragraph of the original post (starting "Those of us...") applies here. Personally I'd only say ɪt əd for it had, not for it would, so using it'd to represent both of these seems unsatisfactory to me.

    2. Though some of us reduce it'd all the way to [ɪd].

    3. Okay, in which case the case for it'd is further weakened by the fact that adding it to the arsenal of spellings still isn't going to succeed in distinguishing between all the pronunciations ([ɪt wʊd], [ɪt əd], and [ɪd]), as clearly i'd is out of the question.