05 November 2012

New languages, and new views on old ones....

I had a bit of a realisation this morning about English, and it's all thanks to Corsican.  Corsican tends to weaken certain vowels when they're unstressed.  So marking the stressed vowel with bold type, "accende" (the infinitive to light or enflame) becomes "accindite" (present, 2nd person plural).  And this happens with almost all Es.  Almost.  Note the unstressed E at the end of both accende and accindite.  But these unstressed Es only seem to occur where they have a specific grammatical purpose -- as far as I can tell any other E becomes I.

Now in certain parts these vowel "mutations" don't occur, but the majority dialects tend to do it.  The odd thing, then, is that vowel mutation happens even though speakers of the language are evidently capable of saying the "forbidden" sound.  Why not say it if you can?

Well, somewhere along the line, I started thinking about English, and in particular the prefixes pre- and re-.

There's two pronunciations for each: one with schwa and one with /i/.  The schwa occurs wherever the syllable has no stress, normally adjacent to the primary stressed syllable -- eg "report", "reply" -- and the /ri/ pronunciation when it has secondary stress.  So that's an "ee" sound, like a Corsican "I".  It never seems to have an "eh" sound, like a Corsican "E".

And no matter how much I try to, I can't think of a single word in English with the "eh" of "pedal" and "petal" anywhere but in the position of primary stress.

Unless your American, in which case it occurs everywhere.

And that's what I'd never noticed before -- I always thought of the US "reh"-produce as though it was something specific to the re- prefix, but it's a bit more fundamental than that, isn't it...?


Nìall Beag said...

Hmmm.... and then after writing that I went away and studied a bit more and found several examples of words with an unstressed, unmutated E in Corsican. Complicated.

Still can't think of any good examples in English except "made-up" words. EG metalicious, metaltastic. They retain the eh sound from "metal" in a position of secondary stress. If we tried to make that an /i/ sound, no-one would understand what we were saying. They'd here "meat" or "meet".

Also complicated.

All very complicated.

Nìall Beag said...

Arrggh... they'd "hear"...

Anonymous said...

Ecology? Exist? Extreme? And if you allow secondary stress, what about the prefixes demi- and semi-?

Nìall Beag said...

Ecology -- exist -- extreme....
The first E in all of those is unstressed, so a schwa.

demi- semi-
I'm not sure if they count as secondary stress. In the words demigod and semicircle, they take the primary stress. There's not a lot of demi-/semi- words out there, and most of them are hyphenated and pronounced more like two words.

GerdaLena said...

It's easy though: mutation only occurs if a stressed vowel looses the stress after a change (because of e.g. conjugation or suffixation).
Like in "accende", E is stressed in "a leccia", the green oak. Now a couple of lecce form a "liccetu", a large leccia is a "liccione"... But in a formation like "messageru", deriving from "messagiu", where the E was unstressed in the first place, there is no need for svuculatura. On the other hand, in suttanacciu no unstressed E can occur: northern "accende" becomes "accenda", "mette" "metta", "core" "cori" and so on... if you wish to read more about these phonetic phenomena, I'd advice you to purchase "A pratica è a grammatica", Jean-Marie Comiti, re-edited by Albiana in 2011.