Sunday, March 15, 2009

In Which I Answer My Own Question

“Butter” is attested in the Book of Mormon, at 2 Nephi 17:15 and 2 Nephi 17:22.  Unfortunately, the Deseret Third Reader, which I own (the full Book of Mormon being rather to rich for my taste these days), uses the old versification, so it takes a bit of digging.  There it is, though, in ix.6, “𐐺𐐲𐐻𐐯𐑉.” 

A similar word, “utter,” is attested much earlier in the Deseret Third Reader, at I Nephi i.16 (in the old versification), just before Nephi’s statement, much beloved by Seminary students the world over, that his father dwelt in a tent.  “Utter” comes out as “𐐲𐐻𐐯𐑉.”

Now the second vowel here is rather interesting, because that’s not at all how I pronounce either word.  “Little” at I Nephi ii.4 (old versification) comes out “𐑊𐐮𐐻𐑊,” with no vowel marked at all for the second syllable.  To my ear, both words have the same vowel.  

This, however, is one aspect of the English language.  The /r/ phoneme can do funny things to vowels, and without training, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out exactly what it is.  Shavian actually has mandatory ligatures for various vowels followed by /r/, although there is some confusion as to what the intended vowels are.  (Check Wikipedia for details.)  If you were to ask me what vowel is used in the second syllable of “butter,” “utter,” or “little,” I would say it was a schwa—which is another problem.  

English uses the schwa a lot; it’s the most common vowel in the language, largely because English tends to reduce vowels in unstressed syllables to schwa.  We tend to hear it, too, for syllabic consonants, consonants which are syllables all to themselves, as in “little.”  Strictly speaking, although “little” has two syllables, the second syllable has no vowel, even though it sounds like it has a schwa in there.  If, however, you actually pronounce it in full with the schwa you can hear the difference.  

Deseret does have a letter for schwa, 𐐲, and one would naturally expect written materials to be littered with it.  One would also expect that people who sound out words in their own mind to spell words in Deseret (like me) would put in a lot of schwas.  Professional phoneticians wouldn’t have quite so many, and neither would people who get their spellings from the works of professional phoneticians, like Orson Pratt.  Hence “𐑊𐐮𐐻𐑊” with a syllabic consonant, and not “𐑊𐐮𐐻𐐲𐑊.”  

Even worse—and this is my real point today—is that some words will change their pronunciation depending on the level of emphasis.  This is one of the big problems with the Deseret Alphabet.  “The” is actually not a good example, because of the convention in the Deseret Alphabet to spell it using a single letter, 𐑄.  The naïve tendency would otherwise be to spell it with a schwa, 𐑄𐐲, under most circumstances because that’s the sound we make when we aren’t stressing the word.  That, however, is only because we’re reducing the vowel because it isn't stressed.  When the word is emphasized, as above, we use the full vowel and “the” rhymes with “thee.”  (Hence the convention in the Deseret Alphabet, which foolishly allows letter names to be spelled with the letter by itself, as in “𐑄” for “the” and “thee,” “𐐺” for “be” or “bee,” and presumably “𐑀” for “gay,” although I haven’t actually seen that attested in the 19th century materials.)

What this means for overall spelling is that we’re left with a dilemma.  If we really want the Deseret Alphabet to be phonemic, we need to spell words with the full vowel even if what isn’t what we usually say.  Orson Pratt derived his spellings largely from Webster’s dictionary; but dictionaries have the luxury of allowing for multiple pronunciations, and text in the Deseret Alphabet does not.  So in this kind of case, what did Orson do?  I’ll have to look up some examples and check.

Monday, March 9, 2009

So How Do You Pronounce “Deseret,” Anywhere?

Simple question, should have an easy answer. I’ve lived most of my life in Salt Lake City, fourth- or fifth-generation LDS, and between the book store, and the old gym, and the industries amongst others, I’ve heard the word pronounced [dɛzə'rɛt] with absolute consistency. Indeed, the only time I’ve ever heard it pronounced any way was at a Unicode meeting where one of the participants, under the mistaken impression that it was a French word, I suppose, pronounced it [dɛzə'eː].

So one of the great mysteries of the Deseret Alphabet is the fact that it is consistently transcribed as 𐐔𐐯𐑅𐐨𐑉𐐯𐐻 by Orson Pratt. But that brings up the fundamental problem of the Deseret Alphabet, which has different ramifications. The problem is determining how to spell words in the Deseret Alphabet, and the first ramification is the problem of phonetic vs. phonemic.

Linguistics has advanced somewhat in the century-and-a-half since the DA was first bruited, and one distinction that we would now make is between phonetic and phonemic. “Phonetic” is the simpler concept, since it has to do with the sounds we actually make. “Phonemic” is a bit more complicated, in that it has to do with the sounds we are theoretically making.

The word “dogs” is a good illustration of the distinction. We spell the plural here with an -s, even though we make a [z] sound when we say the word. The -s reflects the fact that sound we’re making is theoretically an [s] sound, but the phonetic rules of English don’t allow a pronunciation like [dɔgs] (go ahead, try to say it with an [s]).

On the other hand, there are words like “butter.” Wictionary gives its pronunciation as /'bʌɾ.ɚ/ Now, maybe you can read IPA and maybe you can’t, but one thing seems pretty clear: there isn’t a “t” in there anywhere. Again, this is a side-effect of English phonetic rules, which turn the /t/ phoneme into an alveolar tap (that’s the ɾ-thingie in the middle) in this particular context.

I’ll freely confess that I’m not a linguist of any stripe, let alone a phoneticist, and so my analysis up there may be wrong. In particular, I’m not personally convinced that we really us an /s/ phoneme when we make the plural of “dog,” largely because everybody knows that it’s a [z] sound that’s showing up in actual speech. The alveolar tap in the middle of “butter” is something else, since most people think they’re saying [t]. If they think about it, they may realize it sounds more like a [d]. Only someone with linguistic training would call it an alveolar tap.

On the whole, while the Deseret Alphabet is generally touted as a phonetic alphabet, it actually tends towards the phonemic. English actually uses a lot more sounds than the thirty-eight the Deseret Alphabet can distinguish (as the alveolar tap attests). On the other hand, it consistently uses 𐑆 as the plural for words like 𐐼𐐱𐑀, but as I say, that one has percolated down to the common consciousness. I’m sure that a Deseret Alphabet spelling for “butter” is somewhere attested; it would be interesting to see it.