LINGUIST List 4.756

Sun 26 Sep 1993

Disc: Can't

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Michael Newman, can't
  2. "Geoffrey S. Nathan<, Can/can't
  3. Paul T Kershaw, can('t)
  4. Larry Horn, Re: 4.752 Y'all, Can/Can't

Message 1: can't

Date: Sat, 25 Sep 93 09:52:24 EDcan't
From: Michael Newman <MNEHCCUNYVM.bitnet>
Subject: can't

Of course normally there is a difference in prosody between can and can't, and
that difference gives rise to a vowel difference. Furthermore, that vowel
difference is the most obvious difference in pronunciation between can and
can't to most speakers of English. However, when can is stressed, for example,
for contrastive purposes, there is no difference between the two:

 (1) You're wrong; most foreigners CAN learn the difference between these two

Yet no native speaker would get confused here, and I suspect that they would
not get confused in a case without context cues either. The use of a glottal
stop as allophone of /t/ is hardly unusual. It is often heard in TORONTO,
INTERESTING, SANTA CRUZ, in association with /n/.
Michael Newman
William Patterson College
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Message 2: Can/can't

Date: Sat, 25 Sep 93 15:52:51 CSCan/can't
From: "Geoffrey S. Nathan< <GA3662SIUCVMB.SIU.EDU>
Subject: Can/can't

Since discussion of the putative neutralization of can/can't has
become a thread, let me add my two-cents' worth.
Contrary to what some have said, for many Americans, (for example
myself and my wife, each from very different dialect areas) the
vowels in these words are identical under stress. This does not
only occur in contrastive cases (where the final /t/ may in fact
surface as a 't', but in every case that I can think of when
the word stands before what we used to call in the old days
a deletion site:
He can.
He can't.
In the many dialects that I referred to above these are homophonous
or virtually so. As I mentioned to the original poster in a
private reply, the only PHONETIC difference appears to be
glottalization spreading somewhat leftwards over the /n/ and
perhaps reaching as far as the vowel. A glottal stop on the
end would probably be inaudible, even if it is there, but
English glottalization is SOMETIMES audible. But often not,
with the result that I find myself asking people whether they
had said CAN or CAN'T, not as a linguist, but just because
I couldn't tell. I have noticed this for several years,
and I am glad that someone has raised it as an issue. It's
a classic example of the kind of case that Gillieron suggested
might be a cause for 'therapeutic' language change. Let's see
what happens.
 Geoffrey S. Nathan
 Department of Linguistics
 Southern Illinois University
 Carbondale, IL, 62901 USA
 Phone: (618) 453-3421
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Message 3: can('t)

Date: Sun, 26 Sep 1993 00:04:52 can('t)
From: Paul T Kershaw <>
Subject: can('t)

I disagree with the claim that "can't" always has greater prosodic stress than
"can", at least in my idiolect. For instance, in the following:
 (1) I don't know why you can't just believe me.
 (2) I don't know how you can just be so mean.
Context and "just" make the meaning in each of these cases so clear that any
stress on the modal (presence of the negative irrelevant) unnecessary (although
certainly possible).

On the other hand, there is a distinction in the vowel quality in the modals in
(1) and (2), regardless of how much stress is given them. I cannot think of
any sentence, context, and focus combination where I don't make SOME
distinction between the two, but the distinction differs -- sometimes vowel
length, sometimes height, sometimes stress, sometimes release/non-release of
the oral stop. I have heard other speakers completely fail to make any
distinction at all in some cases (i.e., it was impossible to tell without
asking what they meant). I'm not sure there is one single distinction that we
can point to as THE tell-tale distinction between positive and negative in
these cases. As disheartening as it may be to foreign speakers, you just have
to develop a healthy understanding of the language -- context, prosody, etc. --
or, barring that (which might come only after years of study and exposure, or
never at all), just ASK! That's what I do, after all.

As far as production goes, the foreign speaker (this is where all of this
started, I believe) is perfectly within their rights, I think, if they fully
release the oral stop -- it sounds only slightly forced to my ears.

 -- Paul Kershaw, MiSU
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Message 4: Re: 4.752 Y'all, Can/Can't

Date: Sun, 26 Sep 93 12:20:14 EDRe: 4.752 Y'all, Can/Can't
Subject: Re: 4.752 Y'all, Can/Can't

On the rather surprising use of prosody, rather than segmentals, to make this
distinction in spoken English: I sent the original poster a brief response,
citing relevant bibliographical material, which might be of general interest
in the light of the last couple of postings on the subject. Here it is,
excerpted from my 1989 book (A Natural History of Negation, Chicago, p. 458):

 [O]ther instances of postauxiliary negation may be signaled more by vowel
quality, stress, and rhythm than by the presence of a segmental element
(Marchand 1938: 200-1; cf. Jespersen 1917: 11). Thus, we distinguish HE CAN
COME from HE CAN'T COME largely by rhythmic structure: [hi k'n k#m] vs. [hi
kaen? k#m] [see note below]. (When the modal is contrastively stressed, the
distinction tends to become neutralized, leading to some rather extreme repair
sequences: he can-yes or he can'T?)

NOTE: sorry about the feeble ascii-enforced rendering of the phonetic
contrast. The # vowel is a wedge or caret, of course, the apolog notebook cyce
the ? a glottal stop, and crucially (as not indicated above) the second and
third syllables BOTH retain primary stress in the latter (negative) form,
while only the third does the former. The references are to Hans Marchand's
"Remarks about English Negative Sentences", Amer. Stud. 20: 198-204 and to
Jespersen's classic monograph "Negation in English and Other Languages".

Just out of curiosity, do other listees have any experience with the
"extreme repair sequences" I refer to, either the one mentioned or others?
On the face of it, it's odd that the crucial final -t of CAN'T should have
this disconcerting habit of disappearing, given the importance of the contrast
it marks, but this can be seen as one more symptom of the more general problem
affecting the status of negation, i.e that the functionally compelling
distinction between affirmative and negative is marked by a phonetically weak
or relatively insignificant element, such as a pro- or enclitic. It is this
paradox that provides a major energy source for the celebrated "Jespersen
 --Larry Horn
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