Philip Newton (pne) wrote,
Philip Newton
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The things you learn: obesity // also: morphophonemics

While I was reading through a paper on developing orthographies for previously unwritten languages (from the 2011 LSA Symposium on Developing Orthographies for Unwritten Languages), I came across the word obesity, presented as an exception to the English process known as Trisyllabic Laxing (TSL): instead of the expected short vowel in the second syllable, it’s long.

So, compared with serene:serenity ("long" "ee" -> "short" "eh" in the -ren- bit), obese:obesity keeps the same "long" vowel.

Never knew that.

I guess this is a word I’ve only come across in writing, and I’d always applied TSL to it automatically and unconsciously: I’d always pronounced it as if written “obessity” (though I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had learned that it was actually pronounced as if written “obezzity”).

Whodathunkit.

(On a side note, while looking the word up in dictionary.com to check the pronunciation, I found it a bit annoying that the top couple of dictionaries cited don’t give a pronunciation for obesity because they don’t have a separate lemma: they treat it as a derivative of obese and only give a pronunciation for that headword. Fortunately, a couple of specialised dictionaries further down the page gave pronunciations.)


I would like to take exception with the author’s statement on page 10 that “Despite neutralization of obstruent voicing in syllable-final positions, native speakers of many German dialects have an intuitive feeling that syllable-final voiceless obstruents that are derived from voiced obstruents are different from those derived from voiceless ones”—I think there are too many spelling mistakes and too much emphasis on “inflect the word, then you will know how to spell it” during acquisition of writing for it to be as automatic and intuitive as the author makes it sound. Or maybe I’m simply not a speaker of one of the many German dialects for which this is supposedly true.

For those for whom the above is mumbo-jumbo, I’m referring to the fact that das Rad and der Rat are spelled with a different letter at the end even though the pronunciation is the same, or similarly with the adjective tot and the noun Tod.

I think that if such devoicing were reflected in the orthography (e.g. der Tot, die Tode) and people grew up used to this (so, current literate speakers of German excepted), this would work just as well, if not better, than the current orthography, and, in fact, could reflect better what people think is the word.

Sure, the last letter would change, but you have changes in spelling (especially in vowels) in inflected forms, anyway (Baum : Bäume, du isst : ihr esst), so having such changes in consonants as well would probably not be such a big deal.

In short, I think the author is misled by thinking that if educated people can handle the orthography of German without problems, that it reflects the way they think.


For that matter, I also doubt his claim that writers of English could not learn to write he chafes, he chafet; he lovez, he loved because “they are not aware of the differences” (i.e. they don’t notice that they have voiceless endings /s, t/ for some verbs and voiced ones /z, d/ for others). The justification for that claim, by the way, is: “The fact that native speakers of English simply aren’t aware that one or other of these representations [i.e. -(e)s for present tense, -(e)d for past tense, regardless of pronunciation] is “wrong” argues strongly for this being a sub-conscious constraint.”

Tags: the things you learn
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