LINGUIST List 13.971

Mon Apr 8 2002

Sum: English Pretonic Syncope

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Katalin Balogne Berces, English pretonic syncope

Message 1: English pretonic syncope

Date: Mon, 8 Apr 2002 16:25:38 +0100 (BST)
From: Katalin Balogne Berces <>
Subject: English pretonic syncope

Dear Linguists,

A few weeks ago I posted a query about schwa-zero
alternation before stressed vowels in English. Counter
to my expectations, I got quite a number of answers,
for which I would like to thank all those who decided
to help me.

Lev Blumenfeld wrote about an (inconclusive) phonetics
experiment on intonation cues to the contrast between
words like prayed and parade. He also sent the writeup
of the experiment and a list of minimal or
near-minimal pairs. Such minimal pairs are segmentally
nearly identical, esp. in fast speech: they rarely
contain a fully voiced schwa, and they differ in e.g.
the duration and voicing of the sonorant.

Ian Crookston described his and a colleague's
intuitions about the phenomenon, namely that it is
very old-fashioned and posh, and that it may be more
restricted than post-tonic syncope as far as the
flanking consonants are concerned. E.g. for him p'tato
is impossible in isolation.

Viktor Tron pointed out to me that the process cannot
be described solely in terms of phonological
environment but reference must be made to use too
since the tendency to drop the schwa depends on e.g.
frequency. Also, he raised the question of whether
there is really a categorical neutralisation, whether
the initial consonant cluster resulting from syncope
in p'lice is the same as in please. He expressed his
doubts and referred to French, where effects of
phonetic conservation of properties have been
documented. This reminded me of a discussion on
LinguistList (March 2000) about underlying schwa where
the issue of rules that aren't 'true on the surface'
came up, and Geoffrey S. Nathan wrote: 'Consider, for
example, the contrast between 'police' and 'please',
which, on the surface contrast in voicing of the /l/
(ignoring the irrelevant final consonant difference).'
In his answer A.F. Gupta highlighted the importance of
dialectal variation, since the two clusters ARE
homophonous in his speech (both l's are devoiced and
both words are monosyllabic). 

Herb Stahlke is completing a paper that deals in part
with my question: the devoicing of schwa in potato,
Detroit, surprise, permit, etc. and the vocalisation
of the lateral in police, which is much more
widespread in English. He also attached a page from
the paper.

With the help of Mike Maxwell, Viktor Tron, and Adam
Werle, I could compile the following list of

Bolozky, Shmuel. 1977. Fast speech as a function of
tempo in natural 
generative phonology. Journal of Linguistics 13.

Dalby, Jonathan. 1986. Phonetic structure of fast
speech in American 
English. Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Fidelholtz, James L. 1975. Word Frequency and Vowel
Reduction in 
English. Robin E. Grossman, L. James San & Timothy J.
Vance, eds. Papers from the 11th 
Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.

Hooper, Joan B. 1978. Constraints on schwa-deletion in
English. Jacek Fisiak, ed. Recent Developments in
Historical Phonology. Mouton. 

Donca Steriade, C�cile Fougeron. 1997. "Does deletion
of French
 schwa lead to neutralization of lexical
distinctions? " in Euro-Speech 1997, Proceedings of
the 5th European Conference on Speech Communication
and Technology, University of Patras, vol. 7, p.
943-937. also in: Donca Steriade. 2000. "Paradigm
Uniformity and the
 Phonetics/Phonology Boundary" in J.Pierrehumbert and
M.Broe (eds.) Papers in Laboratory Phonology vol. 6,
Cambridge Univ.Press

Zwicky, Arnold. 1970. Auxiliary Reduction in English.
Inquiry 1. 323-336.

Zwicky, Arnold. 1972a. On Casual Speech. Peranteau,
Levi, & Phares, 
eds. Papers from the 8th Regional Meeting of the
Chicago Linguistics Society. 

Zwicky, Arnold. 1972b. Note on a Phonological
Hierarchy in English. 
Robert Stockwell & Ronald Macauley, eds. Linguistic
Change and Generative 
Theory. Indiana University Press. 275-301.

Thank all of you for your help,

Katalin Balogne Berces

Katalin B. Berces
English Linguistics PhD Programme
ELTE University
Ajtosi Durer sor 19-21, Budapest, H-1146

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue