Intervocalic Fortition.

The secret of language change, courtesy of xkcd (be sure to read the mouseover text). Thanks, Paul!


  1. Funnily enough, intervocalic fortition is attested. Blust’s infamous (?) 2005 paper “Must sound change be linguistically motivated?” presents an example of this exact sound change *v > f / V_V, from Kiput (spoken in northern Sarawak).

    By now though we also have a model of sound change that is capable of naturally accounting for this development: a talk from Gašper Beguš presents a model where the devoicing is not conditioned by intervocalic position, but is rather unconditional — it merely appears to be conditioned by the environment because this is where *v arises in the first place.

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I guess that what this mouseover text shows is that I don’t know how “meh” is pronounced. (It’s not something I worry about; I’ve never seen any appeal in the Simpsons.) The little I’d thought about it suggested that “meh” would sound the same as (non-rhotic) “there” with [m] instead of [ð] at the beginning. Presumably that is wrong.

  3. Eli Nelson says

    It seems odd to me that devoicing of [v] to [f], where [v] only occurs intervocalically, would be considered particularly unusual. Didn’t linguists already know for a long time about the merger in Spanish of older [z], spelled “s” (which I believe only occurred intervocalically), with [s] (spelled “ss” intervocalically and “s” in other contexts)? Am I misremembering the development of the Spanish sounds? I think similar devoicing processes also affect voiced fricatives in many varieties of Dutch (although that language also historically had the unusual process of word-initial voicing of unvoiced fricatives).

    “meh” would sound the same as (non-rhotic) “there” with [m] instead of [ð] at the beginning.

    I would just use /ɛ/, like “Meg” without the /g/.

  4. For further discussion, see Language Log and Explain xkcd.

    the same as (non-rhotic) “there” with [m] instead of [ð] at the beginning

    Wouldn’t that be the same as (non-rhotic) “mare”? (It would for me, anyway…)

  5. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never seen any appeal in the Simpsons

    Do you prefer knights in shining armor? 🙂

    “He diiiiid invent Obamacare…”

  6. January First-of-May says

    Apparently, in many (most?) non-rhotic dialects, “mare” is pronounced the same as “mayor”.
    (I personally pronounce “mayor” to rhyme with “player”.)

  7. Greg Pandatshang says

    I have /mɛ/ for “meh”. I speak a rhotic dialect, but if I try to put on Received Pronunciation for laughs, then “mare” comes out as something like /mæə̯/~/mæː/~/mæ/. Theoretically close to /mɛ/, but, of course, native English speakers are finely attuned to the difference between /ɛ/ and /æ/.

    There’s something I find vaguely amusing about the resemblance between “meh” and the French conjunction “mais”.

    I (Chicago, what I think of as fairly close to neutral GA) have “mayor” and “mare” as homophones typically, basically /mæɹ/. “Mayor” can optionally be pronounced as two syllables, but that is less common in my dialect and may or may not sound not-wrong-but-odd to other people if they notice it. “Player” is mandatorily 2 syllables, which means that it typically does not quite rhyme with “mayor”.

  8. I believe “mayor” is two syllables in my (rhotic American) speech, unlike “prayer”, which is one, except in the rare meaning “a person who prays”, I guess, in which case it would be two.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    The first Mayor Daley of Chicago was sometimes referred as “Da Mare,” which *might* imply that the monosyllabic pronunciation of “mayor” was viewed as a regional dialect marker. OTOH, if I want to attempt (perhaps unconvincingly) a Stereotypical Chicago Accent, one of the features is the FACE vowel being audibly different from a default GenAm FACE vowel (calling it “flatter” is unscientific, I know …), and maybe the eye dialect is intended to cue that at least as much as any monosyllable/disyllable difference.

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