LINGUIST List 7.766

Sun May 26 1996

Disc: -y, Language in dreams

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Scott Martens, -y
  2. benji wald, -y
  3. "Catherine Rudin", Re: 7.742, Disc: Language in dreams

Message 1: -y

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 16:04:24 PDT
From: Scott Martens <>
Subject: -y
Charles Rowe's musings on Mick Jagger's -y as [I],
posted Fri., May 24, have prompted me to finally get
in on this discussion. I neither agree nor disagree 
with Rowe, by the way. 

I don't believe anyone has made mention of the following 
cross-linguistic phenomena, relevant to the discussion of
-y as unstressed [I]#. 

(1) There is a well-known, cross-linguistically
motivated tendency for *unstressed* vowels (like "-y" 
in English) to surface as *light* vowels (like short [I])
("light" meaning monomoraic; "heavy", bimoraic.) This 
was first articulated by Hayes as the Weight to Stress 
Principle (WSP), I think. 
(2) In addition, a good number of unrelated languages do 
not permit long vowels (like [iy] in English) to surface 
in word-final position (e.g. Italian & Ponapean [sp?]).
Stress is not an issue here. 

Like Italian and Ponapean, African American Vernacular 
English and, say, Irish English could be independently 
adhering to some *cross-linguistic* tendency, either (1) 
or (2) above. In other words, it's a not-so-unusual 
coincidence in light of the widespread nature of such 
prosodic patterns. 

This -y discussion reeks of an Optimality Theoretic analysis. 
I haven't worked out the details yet, but here's a sketch: 
in dialects where unstressed /i/# is realized as short [I], 
the WSP has a relatively high ranking, thus blocking *[iy] 
in unstressed positions. In dialects where the realization 
is [iy] (even though it's unstressed), the WSP is lowly ranked 
and is violated so as not to incur violations of higher ranked 
constraints, a constraint such as: open syllables must not
be light, which would block [I] word-finally. Now back to our 
scheduled program...

There is an analogous case in Brazilian Portuguese
that may corroborate a creole/African-origin analysis. 
Bahia is the state with the greatest concentration of Afro 
Brazilians, and this is patently borne out in their vocabulary,
food, music/dance, beliefs and religious practices (offerings 
left for Yoruba spirit-saints are seen at busy city intersections).

In Bahia, it is also common for the unstressed heavy syllables
of standard Brazilian to surface as light syllables among the 
locals. In the examples below, the transcriptions on the left 
are standard Brazilian, and those on the right are popular 
pronunciations that I collected in the capital; also, [N] means 
"nasalize preceding rime".

homem		[ho'N.meyN] -> [ho'N.mi]		'man'
acabaram	['.rawN] -> ['.ru]	'they finished'
Nelson 	[ne'w.soN] -> []		a popular name

Saubara	['.ra] -> ['.ra]	a town
d[oy]s negu[i']nhos 	-> d[o]s...		'two black guys' (dim.)

In these cases the unstressed heavy syllables of standard
speech end up as light syllables in popular Baiano.
On the basis of pairs like'wN -'.da, meaning
"lime - sweet lime drink", nasalization of vowels is best
analyzed as the realization of /N/ syllabified in the coda.
Nasal vowels are therefore heavy (= bimoraic). There are several 
other properties of nasal vowels that oblige a closed syllable 
(bimoraic) analysis.

I can't confirm that this is exclusively "a black thing"
in Brazil, although that was my impression when i started 
noticing it and documenting cases. In Bahia, nearly everyone 
identifies with Afro Brazilian culture, so it's no 
mystery that even Caucasian Baianos (ca. 15% of the population)
speak like those of color in informal speech. I don't recall 
hearing Caucasian friends and acquaintances speaking this way 
outside Bahia, as in Rio (where there's a substantial black
population) or Curitiba (where there isn't). I'd be interested
if anyone has some input in this regard.

I think it's safe to say that African speech of the Americas 
evidences WSP effects (English & Portuguese, I don't know about
Spanish), but would anyone venture that WSP serves as one
*diagnostic* for creolization, or for an African substrate?

James Giangola (Sensory Circuits)
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Message 2: -y

Date: Sat, 25 May 1996 23:02:00 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: -y
Just some disjointed comments on -y.

A lot of info has appeared on the list so far. To fill in omissions,
however, let's also note those dialects in which a high front vowel
appears in such words as the days of the week, Mundy, Tuesdy, Wenzdy
etc. That's very common. (I don't do it, though, at least not in
my conscious speech).

Then there are the dialects that more general reduce final unstressed
vowels. EG that rhyme "fellow" and "Cinderella" etc. (except for
loans like Cinderella and patella, etc. the final unstressed vowels
are reflexes of "long" vowels in English, and the reduction process
shows the persistence of the drift toward laxing of final tense vowels.)
I think the general tendency is toward two final unstressed vowels,
-y for high and "-a" (including "o" as in potato, tomato, window etc.)
for low. At the moment I can't think of varieties which reduced this
further to one final lax vowel. That would be a dialect in which
windy and window would sound the same (in the most relaxed style of
speech). I think there are such dialects.

Rowe's claim is suggestive with the opening of -y in Honky in the
Rolling Stones pronunciation of the same, I guess in "Honky Tonk woman"
and, if I remember, also in such other poetic masterpieces as
"I'm a monkey" (with the -ey dragged out and sometimes even faucalised.)
Rowe suggested that this might have something to do with African American
English and the blues idiom. His etymological speculation strikes me
as likely but irrelevant. The grain of truth has to do with the
laxing of -y (as mentioned above), more characteristic of the South,
African American and other dialects (including the British South),
than of more Northern dialects (-ow > shwa is more common to all
dialects, i.e., the lower vowels laxing and centering). Extreme opening
seems to be rare, however, so that the sound of the vowel of "get"
seems to be a singer's license and not reflective of the target
speakers (or singers), but rather an exaggeration. However, I may
be wrong. It's an empirical matter, and I haven't gone so far as
to check.

Finally -- and I apologise to the person whose name I can't find --
I think somebody introduced issues about -y as a morpheme in
English, and it's descent from OE -ig (IE *-ik as in Romance-English
-ic). There are interesting issues there. One is the semantic
line of development in English that prefers adjectives like "hungry"
"angry" to "it hungers/angers me" etc. Similarly, that we say
"watch out, the dog *bites*" but Germans say the dog is "beiss-ig",
i.e. "bite-y". That amused me when I first heard it. Then I wondered
why it amused me. The second is Rowe again with the idea of African
influence (he asked, didn't assert). I don't know. Honky tonk is
originally African American, as is "bookity book" for "fast" (whence
the verb "book" for "leave"/ I gotta book, 70s-80s for I gotta go/run,
older "split/cut out" etc. various newer forms "jet" etc.) That
might be called onomatopoeia but also "ideophones" which are common
to many African languages, as well as various other languages.
What about "licket*y* split" for "fast". Is that American in origin?
The rabbit goes "hippet*y* hop" etc. (vs. rub*a*dub dub/three men
in a tub?) Where this "-y" comes from is interesting in the formation
of English ideophones. -- Benji
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Message 3: Re: 7.742, Disc: Language in dreams

Date: Sat, 25 May 1996 14:07:45 CST
From: "Catherine Rudin" <>
Subject: Re: 7.742, Disc: Language in dreams
 Shortly before my first trip to Bulgaria, when I had
 studied the language for a few months but was far from
 fluent, I had several very vivid dreams in Bulgarian. One
 of the dreams involved bargaining and buying things
 (survival skill rehearsal, no doubt) and I woke up with a
 clear memory of having used several terms for different
 denominations of money. Quickly wrote them down, figuring
 that they were terms that I had heard or read somewhere and
 retrieved from some kind of subconscious memory in my dream;
 memorized them, and was distressed upon arriving in Bulgaria
 a week or two later to discover that they bore no
 resemblance to the actual Bulgarian leva and stotinki or any
 other Bulgarian money words.
 So -- we not only dream in languages, but invent language in
 our dreams?
 Catherine Rudin
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