Spanish taps at the DNC

Earlier today I was listening to live coverage of the Democratic National Convention on my local public radio station. At the beginning of his speech, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico addressed his fellow Hispanic Americans with a few words in Spanish. I did a double-take when I thought I heard him pronounce the word patriota (‘patriot’, though Richardson was using it attributively to describe the Hispanic American community) as [paˈtɾota] rather than [paˈtɾjota] (from underlying /patri+ot+a/). My immediate thought was that this was a typical example of Chicano Spanish hiatus resolution (Hutchinson 1974, Reyes 1976), but no — the underlying high vowel is expected to be glided before /o/ in most varieties of Spanish, including Chicano varieties. But then I remembered something about the articulation of Spanish taps.

(Note: what I know about this is pretty much limited to what I’ve read in Travis Bradley‘s work on rhotics in Spanish and other languages, some of it available on ROA. See also Nancy Hall‘s dissertation on ROA, and Lisa Davidson‘s recent work. All three of these authors cite plenty of other/previous work; I won’t bother to do so here.)

In a nutshell, the ballistic gesture involved in a tap is best achieved in an intervocalic context. In the case of a complex onset like /tɾ/, an intervocalic context can be approximated by shifting the ballistic gesture of the tap to the right (so to speak), so that it basically ends up in the middle of the following vowel. The result is that the vowel “peeks through” between the tap and the preceding consonant. This peeking portion of the vowel goes by various names: intrusive vowel, excrescent vowel, echo vowel, copy vowel, transitional vowel, svarabhakti, etc.

From what I understand, the vowel does not usually accomodate by becoming longer; the peeking portion is generally shorter than the “main” portion, but the two portions together do not add up to a longer vowel than otherwise expected. (Nancy Hall explicitly notes that the peeking portions of these vowels are often “non-syllabic, and native speakers are often unaware of their existence”, but she also looks at cases “in which the vowel is heard in two long parts on either side of the sonorant.”)

The following clip offers a couple of very vivid examples of this phenomenon, from the song “¿Y tú qué has hecho?” (‘And what have you done?’) from the Buena Vista Social Club CD. Here’s the lyric, with the two relevant words highlighted. (I think that the peeking portions are particularly vivid here because this is being sung, but that’s just a guess.)

En el tronco de un árbol una niña / Grabó su nombre henchida de placer
(‘On the trunk of a tree a girl / Carved her name filled with joy’)

The first word, tronco, can be heard by itself here; a relatively narrow transcription would be [ˈtoɾoŋko]. The second word, grabó, can be heard by itself here; a relatively narrow transcription would be [ɡaɾaˈbo].

(I would also include waveforms and/or spectrograms, but the surrounding music makes it very difficult to make anything out. You can see a nice example on p. 110 in Chapter 3 of Travis Bradley’s dissertation, except that example is the word muerte ‘death’, in which the tap has to shift to the left to approximate the necessary intervocalic context: [ˈmweɾete].)

Now, back to what I thought I heard Bill Richardson say. Given that the /i/ is expected to glide, the reduced duration of this vocoid could mean that it would be all but lost in the resulting overlap with the tap. This may have caused me to mishear what Bill Richardson said — maybe he said something that could be transcribed as [paˈtjɾjota] and I just missed the little bits of glide on either side of the tap. Or, Bill Richardson may speak a variety of Spanish which has grammaticized the virtual loss of the glide as an actual loss. I hope to find a relatively clean sound clip of this eventually so that I can scrutinize it more closely; for now, I’m just making an educated guess based on hearing it only once and in passing.

References cited (apart from Bradley, Hall, and Davidson)

Hutchinson, Sandra Pinkerton. 1974. Spanish vowel sandhi. In Papers from the parasession on Natural Phonology, eds. Anthony Bruck, Robert A. Fox and Michael W. La Galy, 184-327. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Reyes, Rogelio. 1976. Studies in Chicano Spanish. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.

Speaking of Chicano Spanish hiatus resolution (I was, remember?) — David Perlmutter tells a funny story about a time he bought a bus ticket in Mexico and asked the ticket vendor what time the bus was scheduled to leave. The vendor replied [alasˌdosiˈmeðja], which is ambiguous between a las dos y media ‘at two-thirty’ and a las doce y media ‘at twelve-thirty’, the latter with hiatus resolution of the type found in many varieties of Spanish (including the Chicano varieties discussed by Hutchinson 1974 and Reyes 1976, and apparently also some Mexican varieties). Not being aware of this phonological phenomenon, David unfortunately missed his bus.

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