The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 2/9 — Stuart Davis

Speaker: Stuart Davis (Indiana University)
Title: On Explaining English Schwa Syncope
Time: Thursday, February 9, 12:30pm-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

English schwa syncope (Zwicky 1972, Hooper 1978, Kenstowicz 1994, Polgardi 2015) deletes schwa between word-internal consonants.  The structural observation is that schwa syncope is likely to occur if the resulting consonant cluster has rising sonority (1) but not if the resulting cluster has falling (or level) sonority (2) (where the target schwa is underlined).

(1) chocolate opera family happening javelin Deborah

(2) pelican felony monitor canopy picketing melody

Hooper (1978) emphasizes the structural conditions noting that even high frequency words will disfavor schwa syncope if the structural conditions are not right. Thus, mel­ody strongly disfavors schwa syncope since the resulting cluster after syncope has falling sonority.

Typologically, the schwa syncope pattern is odd since it favors rising sonority clusters over falling ones in syllable contact.  This can be contrasted with English hypocoristic formation which favors intervocalic falling sonority clusters over rising ones as can be seen in the comparison of Barbara-Barby with Gabriella-Gabby (not Gabry).  Further, the exact location of the syllable boundary of the resulting schwa-deleted forms in (1) is not clear; Hooper (1978) maintains that the resulting cluster is always ambisyllabic.   On the other hand, if schwa syncope were to apply in (2) the resulting cluster would have a clear syllable boundary. For example, schwa syncope applied to pelican (i.e. pel.can) results in a clear syllable break between the two consonants of the resulting cluster.  Under a new conception of English schwa syncope developed in this talk, schwa syncope is viewed as a problem of foot structure reduction:  Schwa syncope reduces a dactylic foot into a preferred trochaic one.  We will maintain that a preferred trochee in English has ambiguous syllabification within the foot and that this functionally helps to enhance the foot-initial boundary.