Evening

One thing I’ve always found hard about teaching English phonetics is convincing my students that the high front vowel preceding [ŋ] is (lax) [ɪ], not (tense) [i:]. It’s not hard to convince them that there’s no contrast between the two in this context, but no matter how many spectrograms I show them, they’re convinced that the vowel is more like [i:] than it is like [ɪ] — i.e., that bing sounds more like bean than like been. The biggest problem is that I can’t say that I disagree, no matter how many spectrograms have “convinced” me to the contrary.

One trick I’ve sometimes tried to use to convince my students (and myself) is to pronounce an -ing verb form as -in’ — “dropping the g” — and to pay attention to the vowel quality. So, I was out runnin’ ends in [ɪn], not [i:n]. But then I would think: pronounce runnin’ with [i:n] instead of [ɪn]. Sounds a hell of a lot like running, doesn’t it?

I was reminded of this trompe l’oreille the other day when I went to the movies and saw this trailer for Evening. At the end of the trailer, the narrator (in that generic husky male voice that seems to be characteristic of many indie-ish movie trailers) pronounces the title of the movie pretty distinctly as [i:vni:n]. The tense vowel quality is (I’m guessing) enough to fool most English-speaking listeners into hearing an [ŋ], even though tense vs. lax high vowels are basically distinctive before [n].

I’ve extracted the audio of the single word here, and here’s a spectrogram:

(The more I listen, the more it sounds like [i:vneɪn] …)

A major caveat is that the trailer-narrator’s voice is clearly edited and superimposed on some music, and so it’s conceivable that it may have been edited in such a way as to make an actual [ŋ] sound/look like a virtual [n]. (By removing the velar pinch? I’ve tried in vain to replicate this, but only for a few minutes using Praat and my laptop’s internal mic.) Still, it seems pretty clear that an [i:]-ish quality before an alveolar nasal (in final syllables of bisyllabic or longer words?) can fool English-speaking listeners into hearing a velar nasal instead.

10 thoughts on “Evening

  1. ellen broselow

    When I taught at the U. of Washington in Seattle many years ago I noticed that some of the natives pronounced the ‘ing’ suffix as a final alveolar nasal preceded by a high tense vowel. I don’t know how widespread that pronunciation is on the west coast, or whether it is in fact still found. But more generally, I would imagine that speakers for whom a tense/lax contrast is not possible before velar nasal would have a lot of variability in their pronunciations of the vowel in that context.

  2. Kevin

    I am a speaker (from the midwest) who naturally pronounces the suffix -ing as [-i(:)n] with an alveolar and tense-ish vowel. For example, I pronounce “sailing” and “saline” identically. The final syllables of these words are very different than the final syllable of, e.g., “insulin” or “Colin,” which I say [In]. So -ing seems to have a tense [i] rather than a lax [I]. Of course, this only goes for unstressed syllables: everybody will clearly distinguish bing and bean.

  3. Kevin

    I should qualify my last post that it only applies to the suffix -ing, not the sequence /ɪŋ/ in general. E.g. “fledgling” has -ɪŋ, not -in. So apparently the suffix has just changed to -in in some dialects.

    This business is reminiscent of the tensing of ae before engma which I also have in my dialect (“bang” and “bay” have the same vowel), but the rules (even if ɪŋ > in were a regular rule) cannot be merged: ae (unlike ɪ) also tenses before g and the rule is not sensitive to stress.

  4. Marc van Oostendorp

    In the Cologne dialect of German, [n]’s have historically turned into [ŋ] after [i:] and other long high vowels. At the same time, these vowels shortened. For instance, [wi:n] (wine) turned into [wiŋ]. Tobias Scheer has written and talked about this at various places; here is a handout of a 1999 talk of his, with many examples (and an interesting mixture of French, German and English).

  5. Jessica

    I’ve noticed this in teaching phonetics too. It’s definitely a characteristic of California English, and is even noted on Wikipedia.

  6. Ben Yang

    Hi Prof. Bakovic, it’s been a long time!

    I’ve tested myself and a few friends who are all native Californians and we did detect a vowel much more similar to [i] than [ɪ]. One interesting thing I noticed is that the length is very similar between the two vowels. I would say it shouldn’t even be transcribed with a [ː] in this context. However, for all other instances of [i], it was long. I’d love to find out if this is present in other young American English speakers (from outside of California)

    Ben Yang

  7. Ben Yang

    Oh, I could also add that this is for careful speech. For more casual speech, the /ɪŋ/ morpheme is realized as [ɪn] or even [ən] (due to the characteristic centralization of Californian vowels). I want to mess with this a little more and try to figure out some contexts.

    Ben Yang

  8. MM

    I take the main point, but I was shocked to realize that Americans distinguish between been and bean!

    Ignorant reader

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