Myanmar and English phonemes

It has struck me over the past couple of weeks that the way news readers pronounce the ‘new’ name of Burma says something about English vowel phonemes. Most of them are incapable of pronouncing Myanmar with an initial nasal+glide (as I believe it’s supposed to be pronounced: Wikipedia entry). Instead what we hear is generally something along the lines of

̀[ˈmiɑnˌmɑɚ]

Presumably, if the /ju/ sequence in English in words like ‘mute’ were biphonemic (as in, say, the Trager-Smith phonemicization), the /j/ would be freely combinable and /mja-/ would be easy. But it’s not. So we could guess that /ju/ is a unit phoneme (similar to /aɪ/, or even /u(w)/ and the palatal glide is an integral part of the phoneme and thus not separable to be combined with any random vowel that another language might need.
Anyway, just a random thought I wanted to post somewhere while the news was still current.

11 thoughts on “Myanmar and English phonemes

  1. onosson

    Does anyone analyze the vowel portion of “mute” as something like: /iw/? That’s more along the lines of how I hear it, and as a side benefit would make it fall in line with the other English diphthongs in having an offglide instead of an onglide.

    I’m not really a phonetician or phonologist, so I’m not sure how most people view it, but I’ve always had a hunch that the typical onglide analysis for these forms was driven at least in part by orthography.

    I do think you are right about the unavailability of /j-/, as also evidenced by most English-speakers’ pronunciations of “Tokyo” and “Kyoto”, with three English syllables vs. the Japanese two.

  2. Geoff Nathan

    Nice additional examples. There’s also whatever happens (or happened–we don’t say this anymore) to Byelorussia. It was usually something like [baɪɛlorʌʃə]

    Your analysis might work for some dialects, although I’d be less comfortable with, for example, /kiwt/ for ‘cute’. However, western American dialects (stereotyped by ‘Valley Girl talk’, but not limited to them) actually have [ɨw] or even [ɪw] for the /u/ phoneme as in ‘moot’, ‘boot’, giving minimal pairs ‘moot:mute’, ‘boot:beaut’. Now that I think about it, however, I don’t know whether the breaking of /u/ in this dialect extends to the [u] in /ju/. It would be interesting to find out–does anyone know? I’d be surprised if folks actually say [bjɪwt] for ‘beaut’ as opposed to [bjut], but I can’t trust my intuition on this.

  3. onosson

    I’m from Winnipeg, Canada (not exactly like “western American”, but not that far from it either…)

    For me “mute”, “cute”, “beaut” are quite similar (i.e. /iw/ or something like that – “cute” might be more like/kjiwt/, but the -j- may have a lot to do with the initial /k/); in my dialect, “moot” and “mute” are very dissimilar. Some other words, which might in other dialects have /ju/, such as “newt”, “tune”, are pretty much just plain /u/ around here, at least in everyday casual speech.

  4. robh

    I herewith distance myself from the comments of ‘onosson’, whom I take to be my MA student, and who (though I’m glad he’s participating) has better things to be doing that commenting here about weird Canadian reflexes of /ju/….

    But more seriously, there’s the question of perception. I’m not sure I could easily distinguish, without some serious looping, a [mjV] from a [mi ‘V] sequence. Does (someone’s) English disallow [mj] clusters from production, or does someone’s English fail to perceive [mj] clusters? What are the implications of these different points of view? Discuss.

    Just asking.

  5. robh

    BTW, my understanding of my (western USA) dialect is that a) back vowels are fronting/centralizing, and depending on other factors unrounding, in common with the ‘third dialect’ description, b) that /u/ and /ju/ have collapsed after coronals (such that ‘due’ and ‘do’, ‘stew’ and ‘stu’ etc don’t contrast, and c) that following coronals, the typical realization of /u~ju/ is [IU], where (for younger Californians) the on-glide (first part) is of significant duration and relatively steady in F2, where the off-glide (second part) is more glidey/transitional. But that’s only after coronals for most speakers. For most speakers ‘pew’ and ‘poo’ still contrast (as does ‘cue’ and ‘coup/coo’). (Unless you’re Johnny Carson, who always said ‘p[u]berty’, at least on TV, but he was from Nebraska or something).

  6. onosson

    I am duly chastened, robh!

    Seriously, though, you are right and I have better things to do. I blame whoever invented RSS.

  7. Darin Flynn

    Smile of the day: http://db.tidbits.com/article/9604?rss

    I say natural [ˈmiǝnˌmɑɹ] or [miˈænˌmɑɹ] (cf. piano, Keanu). (Note that we Canadians often have [æ] where Americans have [ɑ].)

    Btw, my French friend Pierre gets ‘pear’ (from his neighbor’s kid), ‘prayer’ (from my 10 year old), ‘peer’ (like the SD city) but, interestingly, never ‘pure’.

  8. Nancy Hall

    Some of my California students have used transcriptions like [kiwt] for “cute”. Of course they come up with a lot of wacky transcriptions, but I think it’s plausible that some speakers do represent the sequence that way.

  9. James

    I’m almost certain that it’s /kiwt/ in my (Pacific Northwest American) dialect. The simple test is lengthening the vowel dramatically. I get [kʲʰiːːʊwt]. If it was */kjut/ I’d expect to produce something like *[kʰʲjuːːt] instead.

  10. dw

    Presumably, if the /ju/ sequence in English in words like ‘mute’ were biphonemic (as in, say, the Trager-Smith phonemicization), the /j/ would be freely combinable and /mja-/ would be easy. But it’s not. So we could guess that /ju/ is a unit phoneme (similar to /aɪ/, or even /u(w)/ and the palatal glide is an integral part of the phoneme and thus not separable to be combined with any random vowel that another language might need.

    But then how do you phonemicize cases where the /ju/ is word-initial, like “uniform”?

    These words must begin with a consonant segment, since we say “a uniform” not “an uniform”. So they must begin with a concatenation of separate /j/ /u/ segments, rather than the unit phoneme.

    At this point, Occam’s razor suggests that we should discard the unit phoneme and just recognize that there are separate /j/, /u/ phonemes, and that people who find it difficult to pronounce sequences like /mjɑ/ have internalized the historical accident that has left consonant + /j/ sequences only before the GOOSE and CURE vowels.

  11. Geoff Nathan

    I’m not convinced of the utility of Occam’s Razor here. I think there are clear cases of ‘surface’ sounds that are simultaneously realizations of underlying sounds and the output of online phonological processes.
    For example, the surface form [ʒ] in American English is almost certainly the implementation of an underlying /ʒ/ in words like ‘pleasure’, ‘garage’ (for some American speakers). But it’s also the surface realization (however you like to implement such things) of a sequence such as ‘z..j’ in ‘How was your dinner?’
    So I have no problem with having /ju/ being both an underlying vowel phoneme (spelled /iu/ if you like, or even /iw/ as Bill Labov writes it) and a sequence of j+u in onset position.
    Notice that /j/ combines with most vowels in onset (not only ‘use’ but also ‘yet’, ‘yap’, ‘yawl’, ‘yay’, ‘yikes’ etc., but after a consonant you never get any other vowel but [u].

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