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, “๐บ๐ฒ๐ป๐ฏ๐‘‰.” 

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 “๐ฒ๐ป๐ฏ๐‘‰.”

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 “๐‘Š๐ฎ๐ป๐‘Š,” 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, ๐ฒ, 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 “๐‘Š๐ฎ๐ป๐‘Š” with a syllabic consonant, and not “๐‘Š๐ฎ๐ป๐ฒ๐‘Š.”  

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, ๐‘„.  The naรฏve tendency would otherwise be to spell it with a schwa, ๐‘„๐ฒ, 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 “๐‘„” for “the” and “thee,” “๐บ” for “be” or “bee,” and presumably “๐‘€” 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.

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