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3.2: Assimilation and Dissimilation

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    3.2.1 From 3.7 Articulatory Processes: Assimilation, in Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics

    Video Script

    So far, we’ve been talking about individual speech sounds as if they’re all separate from each other. But we know of course that we don’t articulate individual segments when we speak – we don’t produce the word book as [b] – [ʊ] – [k]. When we’re speaking, our articulators are always moving – they’re moving away from from the position for the sound they just made, and preparing to make the sound that’s coming up. You can feel this really easily by saying a couple of words. I want you to prepare to say this word, but don’t actually say it: just put your mouth in the position to say the word key. Pay attention to how you’re holding your mouth. What do you notice? Now get ready to say this word, but don’t actually say it, just freeze in the position: cool. What position are your articulators in? Both key and cool start with the voiceless velar stop [kh], so if we articulated speech segments individually, we’d expect our mouths to be in the same position for both words. But the vowels in each word are quite different: [i] in key is high and front, and [u] in cool is high, back and rounded. So when we produce that [k] sound, our mouths are already preparing for the next vowel. This is called coarticulation: the articulation of every speech sound is shaped by the sounds that come before and after it. When we’re doing detailed, narrow phonetic transcription, we can include details about coarticulation and other articulatory processes.

    Probably the most common articulatory process is assimilation. You can guess from its name that it involves sounds becoming more similar to each other. Sounds often become more similar to what’s coming up in the word. Here’s an example; say the words cat and can. They both have the vowel as the nucleus, but for can, when we produce that [æ] we’re already anticipating the upcoming nasal so we’ve already got the velum lowered to allow air into the nasal cavity. So the vowel gets nasalized too — it gets assimilated to the following nasal. We transcribe a nasal vowel with the diacritic for nasalization, like this:[æ̃]. Because this nasalization is in anticipation of an upcoming nasal consonant, we call this process anticipatory assimilation: the vowel is becoming more similar to the sound that follows it. In some books, you might see this called regressive assimilation, since the nasal property of the [n] is moving backwards or regressing onto the vowel.

    Assimilation can go in the other direction too: sometimes the properties of one speech segment persevere into the next segment. Say these two words out loud: bleed, please. The two [l] sounds in these two words are a little different from each other. For bleed, the vocal folds are vibrating for the voiced [b] and they keep vibrating to produce the voiced [l]. We know that [l] is usually voiced so there’s nothing remarkable about that. But for please, the vocal folds are held apart for the voiceless [ph]. We start making the [l] before the vocal folds start to vibrate, so the [l] becomes voiceless in this context. We say that the [l] following a voiceless stop is devoiced, and it gets transcribed with the diacritic for voicelessness, like this: [l̥]. In this case, the voiceless property of the [p] is persevering; it’s sticking around to have an influence on the [l], so we call it perseveratory assimilation. You might also see this called progressive assimilation because the voicelessness of the first sound progresses, or moves forward, onto the following sound. One thing to note about the diacritic for voicelessness: it only gets used when a sound that is ordinarily voiced becomes voiceless in one of these articulatory processes. An [l] is usually voiced, so if it gets devoiced it gets the diacritic. But a sound like [h] or [s] is already voiceless, so it wouldn’t make any sense to transcribe it with the diacritic.

    So assimilation can be anticipatory, where a speech sound is influenced in anticipation of the sound that’s about to be spoken after it, or perseveratory, where a sound is influenced by properties persevering, or lingering, from the sound that was just spoken.

    Check Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    What articulatory process is at work when the word bank is pronounced as [bæŋk]?

    • Assimilation (Anticipatory / Regressive).
    • Assimilation (Perseveratory / Progressive).

    "Assimilation (Anticipatory / Regressive)"

    Hint: The sound that changes is before the 'influencer'.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    What articulatory process is at work when a child pronounces the word yellow as [lɛloʊ]?

    • Assimilation (Anticipatory / Regressive).
    • Assimilation (Perseveratory / Progressive).

    "Assimilation (Anticipatory / Regressive)."

    Hint: The sound that changes is before the 'influencer'.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    What articulatory process is at work when the word cream is pronounced as [khɹ̥ijm]?

    • Assimilation (Anticipatory / Regressive).
    • Assimilation (Perseveratory / Progressive).

    "Assimilation (Perseveratory / Progressive)."

    Hint: The sound that changes is after the 'influencer'.

    3.2.2: From 4.6 Phonological Derivations in Everyday Speech, in Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics

    Video Script

    The last unit showed us how we can use the formal notation of a derivation (or rule) to represent what’s happening in the mental grammar of a speaker as they use their language. In this unit we’ll look at some of the processes that we use really frequently when we speak English, and how they can be represented with a phonological rule.

    Let’s start by talking about plurals in English. When we were learning to transcribe, we noticed that the common English plural suffix, which is usually spelled with the letter “s”, gets transcribed in three different ways. This is sometimes called the “cats, dogs, horses” phenomenon because cats ends with a voiceless fricative [s], dogs ends with the voiced fricative [z], and horses with a whole syllable [ɨz]. Here are some other words with each of these different plural forms.

    cups, peacocks, myths, cliffs all take the voiceless [s]
    bees, fans, pencils, leaves all take the voiced [z]
    and edges, mazes, dishes, beaches take the [ɨz] form

    We don’t have to look too hard to figure out that words that end in a voiceless consonant take the voiceless plurals [s] while the voiced [z] is for words that end in a voiced segment. But why is there this third form of the plural. Why does that high central vowel get epenthesized, and where does it happen? Look down this list of words and you’ll see that they all end in fricatives, [s], [z], [ʃ] or [ʒ]. But it’s not all fricatives, as we can see from myths, cliffs, leaves. Looking at the feature chart, we see that it’s a particular class of CORONAL fricatives — the ones that are [+strident]. We can describe this process in words by saying that the English plural suffix [z] gets an extra vowel [ɨ] following a strident consonant. How can we represent that with a rule?

    Well, we start by thinking about the change that happens. In this case, a vowel is getting epenthesized. We’ve been describing phonetic changes as something becoming something else, but epenthesis is really a case of nothing become something. So we represent it this way: this zero with the diagonal line through it means “nothing”, and the something that gets inserted is the high central vowel [ɨ]. And what’s the environment where it happens? Following a strident consonant, but not just any time there’s a strident. Our mental grammar doesn’t go around sticking extra vowels into every word with a strident in it. It happens specifically when we’re sticking a [z] at the end of a word. Notice that this correctly predicts that we’ll also get that extra vowel when we add the simple present suffix to a verb, so breathes just gets [z] for simple present in she breathes but reaches, where the verb reach ends with the affricate [tʃ] gets the epenthesized vowel: reaches.

    So the idea we’re working with here is that every single fluent speaker of English, every time they speak the plural form of a word that ends with [s] [z] [ʃ] [ʒ] [tʃ] or [dʒ], their mental grammar automatically applies this rule, and it happens so regularly and so rapidly that most of us aren’t even aware of it.

    Now let’s look at that common process of flapping. When we were learning to do phonetic transcription, we learned that a word that’s spelled with a “d” or a “t” in a particular environment usually gets pronounced with a flap [ɾ] instead of a stop, for people who speak varieties of Canadian and US English, and also for most speakers of Australian English. Here are some examples:

    water, ladder, total, model, bottom, modem

    Looking at this set of words, we can see a pretty clear pattern, which we can describe in words this way: [t] and [d] become the flap [ɾ] between vowels in the onset of an unstressed syllable. (It’s actually a little more complex than that, but linguists are still arguing about what the exact environment is, so this is close enough for our purposes.) We can describe this process with a phonological derivation something like this:

    The class of sounds that the change happens to is the alveolar stops [d] and [t]. So these are consonants that are [-sonorant], which excludes the nasals and liquids, and [-continuant], which excludes fricatives. And they’re the ones made at the tip of the tongue, that is, the coronals. These sounds become the flap, in the environment between vowels, when the second vowel is unstressed. So that’s a lot of fancy notation to describe a process that your mental grammar does rapidly, unconsciously, hundreds of times a day.

    So we’ve looked at a couple of examples of phonological derivations that represent allophonic and allomorphic variation in our everyday speech. (Glance ahead a couple chapters to learn what “allomorphic” means!) Linguists use this formal notation to represent them, but remember that these are unconscious processes in our mental grammar that operate hundreds of times a day without us even noticing.

    Check Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Which of the following correctly illustrates the environment "in the onset of a syllable"?

    • #__
    • σ__
    • __#
    • __σ


    Hint: The symbol σ refers to a syllable boundary.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Which of the following correctly illustrates the environment "between vowels"?

    • #V__
    • __V#
    • V__V
    • [DORSAL]__[DORSAL]


    Hint: The symbol V refers to any vowel.

    3.2.3 Assimilation and Dissimilation, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    As Catherine Anderson stated, assimilation is a really common device that pretty much every language seems to have. It is true to say that pretty much every language has at least one assimilation rule. Dissimilation is also pretty common, although not as common as assimilation. I like to use some concrete examples, just to showcase a little bit as to what happens.

    For assimilation, I like to use this example from Spanish. The reason is simple: most of you either are native speakers of Spanish or you've come across Spanish in some way, shape or form. Many of you have studied it. But I bet you didn't realize any of you that there really aren't two or three nasal phonemes in Spanish. There's only one, and it changes place depending on the consonant that comes afterwards. No matter how it is written, that nasal is pronounced in the same place of articulation as the consonant that comes afterwards. In Spanish, this is not said, [enfasis], because that wouldn't make any sense. That nasal has to be in a labiodental position your teeth and your lips have to touch, because that's where the following consonant is also articulated. So it's [eɱfasis]. Notice that my top teeth are touching my bottom lips. [eɱfasis]

    In the case of [imposible], that is straightforward because of how it is written and most speakers who are literate in a Latinate alphabet are going to recognize the sound. But it is truly just the case that that nasal sound is before a bilingual consonant. [imposible]

    The following is [iṇṭroduksjon]. That first nasal is said as a dental because the following consonant is a dental consonant; the [ṭ] and [ḍ] sounds in Spanish or not like an English, as tongue is hitting the back of the teeth. [iṇṭroduksjon]. That final [n] is left as an alveolar nasal.

    In the case of that vest kind of like thing that comes out of the Andes region of South America, in English we call it a poncho and that nasal is pretty much an alveolar nasal. But in Spanish that's not the case. In Spanish, it's going to conform; that [tʃ] is post-alveolar or palatal, depending on your perception of it, and the nasal is also going to be post-alveolar nasal [poɲtʃo].

    Finally, the term Inca in English, that [n] also kind of skewed to the back to the velar region, and in Spanish, much more [iŋka]. This is a really great example of articulation that gets assimilated, the place of articulation in this case. Assimilation rules are super common.

    But dissimilation rules do also exist, and in this case, I’m going to turn to a specific dialect of Spanish—Caribbean Spanish—in a phenomenon that only happens there, meaning it doesn't happen in any other dialects of Spanish.

    If you know Spanish, you know that the diminutive the suffix that we put on a word to make it small or cute. You know that that in Spanish is frequently either -ito or -ico, depending on your dialect; most use -ito, some use -ico. Some use both. In the Caribbean it's not just using both but using them interchangeably. It all depends on what the final consonant is in the root word. For example, in the word bota, which means ‘boot’, the final content is a [ṭ̣] sound so that's alveolar/dental. If you are going to make it small and cute like a baby booty, then you cannot use [botita] as you would in most other dialects of Spanish; you have to have a different sound, so you have to use [botika]. [botika] A [boka] in Spanish, is a ‘mouth’ and notice that the final consonant is the [k] sound. Well, if I want to say a ‘small mouth’, a ‘cute mouth’, I can't say [bokika], because you can't have the same sound twice. you have to say [bokita]. The default is the -ito, -ita version. Notice that if you want to make something really, really, really short in Spanish—and Spanish speakers, you know this—we just stack the diminutive; we keep adding them on. If you're telling somebody, “Just a minute,” “Momento.” Or you can make it short, “momentito.” That's saying, “Okay, just a minute.” You can make it, “Wait, wait, wait a second.” That phrasing in Spanish, usually you would just say, “Momentitito,” and you can put 2, 3, 4 of the diminutives on. But in the Caribbean, while you are doing that you have to switch out—meaning that you have to make sure that you dissimulate between the different versions. So, 'momento', that last consonant is the [t] sound, and that means the next that first diminutive has to be the -ico. But because that ends in a [k], if you're going to stick on another one, it has to be the -ito, and if you put on a third one after that it would have to be -ico: momento, momentico, momentiquito, momentiquitiquito. it's like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

    3.2: Assimilation and Dissimilation is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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