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.

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