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Table talk: How do you pay your dues?

To find out how you pay your dues, you have to read the whole post. It would be silly to begin with the culmination. The story will be about phonetics and table talk (first about phonetics).

Sounds in the current of speech are not separate entities the way letters are in writing, though even letters tend to stick together and form new entities: consider the ligatures Æ, æ  = a + e and Œ, œ  = o + e. But to return to sounds. The same ending appears as voiced or voiceless, depending on the consonant before it: bets versus beds (with beds pronounced as bedz) and backed versus bagged. The consonants t and k are voiceless, so that the ending after them has also become voiceless, while g and d are voiced, and the ending following them is voiced. For the same reason, wisdom and Osborne have become wizdom and ozborn. This process of sound adaptation in speech is called assimilation. Its rules are capricious. For instance, Gatsby has not turned into Gadzby or Gatspy.  Nor has pigsty become picksty.

Pay your dues and be happy. Image credit: “euro by janeb13. CC0 via Pixabay.

In addition to being partly unpredictable, such rules vary from language to language. Best buy, when pronounced with a heavy Russian accent, deteriorates into bezd buy. This voicing is intolerable in English (probably no one knows why) but necessary in Russian: otets [stress on the second syllable] da doch’ “father and daughter” and doch’ da otets “daughter and father” sound as otedz da doch’ and dodge da otets. The Russian connection will resurface at the very end of the present post.

If you have survived this introduction, read on. Our today’s subject is the pronunciation of s, z, t, d, and ch before y, that is, before the initial sound of a word like yes. Here the assimilatory process is rampant. The title of Shakespeare’s play As You Like It is pronounced not with z in as but with the first sound of a word like genre. The same is certainly true with regard to the adjective visual, though here we observe variation even between individuals and the varieties of one language. British speakers pronounce the middle of words like Asia and equation with sh (as in patience), while in American English, the voiced sound, as in genre, is heard in this position.

An old lady from London (no, this is not the beginning of a limerick) pronounced vi-z-yual aids, and I asked her why she did so. She retorted that the pronunciation of the word with the consonant of genre is slipshod. Perhaps it was slipshod several hundred years ago, but times change, and we are expected to change with them, whether we like it or not. However, the most authoritative British pronouncing dictionary of the middle of the past century, did give my interlocutor’s variant as common and listed visualize and visualization predominantly with z. A recent colleague of mine used to pronounce literature not as lit(e)ra-chure, but with the clearly articulated group –t-y-re (as in stew) in the middle. Though he taught comparative literature and probably knew better, his habit struck me as intolerable snobbery. But don’t judge lest ye be judged. Just read on.

The Scandinavian Vikings conquered two thirds of England but were soon assimilated. Image credit: The Ravager by John Charles Dollman. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A French word like nature did sound in Middle English as natyur, with stress on the second syllable. Today it is nachurePicture, stature, and virtue (all from French) have gone the same way: stress in them moved to the first syllable, and tyu turned into an affricate.  Its voiced partner is the sound we hear in verdure. An affricate is a complex sound that begins with a stop (that is, p, t, k, b, d, and g) and ends in a fricative (hence the term affricate), or spirant (that is, s, f, and the like). English has two affricates: ch (as in chair and such) and its voiced version (as in jam, job, and dodge).  German Pfalz has one affricate at the beginning (pf) and one at the end (ts). In southern German, one can hear kh in word-initial position.

The process of assimilation in picture is a fact of the past: someone ignorant of the history of English has no idea why the word is pronounced the way it is. But the same process as in picture and verdure happens in Present-day English: note how you pronounce this year and as young as (and as you like it!). Most probably, you will hear thish year and azh young. The same holds for did you. Unless you want to enunciate every word with absolute clarity, the result will be didgyou. Such processes vary from epoch to epoch. If a speaker of Old English (let us say, the Beowulf poet or King Alfred) came alive today and began to speak Modern English, he would have pronounced thank you as thanch you.

I could spin a gripping yarn about why we don’t say so but will restrain myself. However, I’ll mention the fact that Modern English owes a few variants to that old pronunciation of k as ch. Consider the following etymologically related pairs: seek ~ beseech, speak ~ speech, (Lan)caster ~ (Man)chester, dyke ~ ditch, and mickle (a northern variant) ~ much. The noun like once meant “person, body” (compare German Leiche “corpse”), as it still does in I shall not see his like again (Hamlet), and the phrase so-and-so and his likes. Lichgate ~ lychgate “a gateway to a churchyard under which the bier is set down at a funeral” has ch, while lykewake “watch kept at night over a dead body” retains the northern variant k.

It is a well-known fact that the British pronunciation of stupid is styupid, while in the US a dummy is stoopid. After st (as in stupid) this difference does not prevent us from understanding one another. But it takes some time to realize that after Monday comes “Chewsday” and that Chunisian means Tunisian. The same happens to the voiced partner of ch: the difference between styupid and stoopid recurs in due/dew versus do. Students constantly write me emails asking when the paper is “do” (of course, everything is said in the syllabus; I call this enquiry the do point). Didgyou (did you) does not bother anyone, partly because the context is always clear. But beware of generalizations. At the beginning of this post, I promised table talk. Unlike kings in cabbages and kings, the promised part will materialize.

Vis-ual aids. Image credit: “Teacher” by jerrykimbrell. CC0 via Pixabay.

Last month, at a conference, five colleagues met for dinner. We had been acquainted for decades, so that topics for conversation suggested themselves easily. One of us said that he could not understand what kind of jewel the speaker in a recent talk meant, until it dawned upon him that the paper was about a duel. I replied that I had known the problem for years, for rather early in my career I had been informed that Old Germanic had three numbers: the singular, the plural, and the “jewel,” the last of them being dual (in those far-off days different forms of pronouns existed for we/you and we two/you two; the verbs following such pronouns also had different endings). But for dessert I told my colleagues the following story.

In 1958, in the city at that time called Leningrad, I, then a senior majoring in English, was allowed, among several other seniors and two overseers, to accompany a group of college students from England—a remarkable, even unique privilege that side of the Iron Curtain. One of the female students (let us call her Mary, because her name was Mary) became everybody’s favorite, though all of them, apparently instructed beforehand, behaved extremely well, asked no provocative questions, and let themselves be dragged through multiple museums without a murmur of protest. They were not left to themselves for a single moment. Of course, none of them spoke Russian, and no one in the streets of Leningrad spoke English.

Once, Mary said something to me about some society. “How do you join such a society?” I asked. “That’s easy,” she replied, “anyone may join it: you apply and pay your…” The next word I heard was Jews.  I was struck speechless and motionless, as the idiom goes. “Pay your Jews? How?” “You just send them a check” (cheque, if you prefer, for the sake of local coloring ~ colouring). Of course, I did not dare ask her who those Jews were, for the word Jew was unpronounceable in good (Soviet) society, let alone in the presence of Western tourists. Fortunately, I remembered what books on phonetics had taught me: during, I had read, is pronounced as jewring. At that moment, the international Jewish conspiracy was put to rest.  “You mean annual dues?” I stammered out. “Yes, yes, annual ‘jews’” she answered. She was puzzled why such a fluent speaker of English (as I was at the age of 21) had trouble understanding a simple monosyllabic word. Moral: learn the rules of assimilation, whether you study history or language, and pay your “dos.”

I promised my colleagues to immortalize this story (it tickled them to death), and you can see that I am as good as my incorruptible word.

Featured Image: Table talk. Featured Image Credit: “Restaurant” by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Jere Coste

    Registers and geographical variations of speech are all alive and well in the U.S.
    E.g., “due” pronounced as “do” is not attributable to the majority of Americans.

  2. Mary

    Thank you; this was both fun and educational to read.

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