Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Guess List: a study in /t/ elision

The BBC is airing a new game show on Saturday nights hosted by the wonderful Rob Brydon and amusingly entitled The Guess List. You can read the Independent newspaper's less than glowing review of it here.

Why amusing?

This plays on a phrase, the guest list, which is a list of people invited to an event, i.e., a list of guests. No surprise there.

What amuses me is that it is an example of how the process of alveolar plosive elision can result in homophones in English - in this instance, a homophonic phrase.

When one produces the phrase the guest list in rapid speech, it is normal to leave out the /t/ sound at the end of /ɡest/.  This process is called /t/ (or /d/) elision.  The rules for when this can take place are as follows:
  1. The /t/ or /d/ must be in the syllable coda;
  2. It must be surrounded by other consonants;
  3. The consonant preceding the alveolar plosive must agree in voicing with it - so if the plosive is a /t/ it must be preceded by a voiceless consonant and, if it's /d/, it must be preceded by a voiced one.
  4. The consonant following cannot be /h/.
So, in guest list, which can be transcribed phonemically as /ɡest lɪst/, we can elide the /t/ at the end of /ɡest/ because it meets the requirements listed above.  This results in /ɡes lɪst/, which means guest list and guess list are homophonous.

There is, as far as I know, no such thing as guess list as a phrase in English. If one types it into Google, for example, it redirects you to guest list.

Other notable examples of homophones resulting from connected speech processes include handbag /hændbæɡ/ becoming homophonous with ham bag /hæmbæɡ/. There are two processes going on here: /d/ elision and assimilation.

Assimilation is a process by which sounds at word boundaries - often alveolar consonants - become more similar to each other in rapid speech. Here's a diagram showing consonants at word boundaries:

_ _ Cf | Ci _ _

Cf = final consonant; Ci = initial consonant

In English, we tend to get regressive assimilation, which means the initial consonant (Ci) at the beginning of the next word has a backwards effect on the final consonant (Cf) of the preceding word. As I mentioned above, this tends to affect alveolar consonants, and more often than not it will affect the place of articulation of Cf, i.e., it will not be produced as an alveolar consonant but will have the same place of articulation as the Ci of the next word.

In handbag /hændbaɡ/, the alveolar plosive /d/ is elided and the alveolar nasal /n/ is produced as a bilabial consonant because the following word - bag - begins with a bilabial consonant, /b/.  This results in the production /hæmbæɡ/, which is homophonous with ham bag. But of course, a lady wouldn't normally take a bag of ham out with her when she went shopping, and we can usually retrieve the real meaning from the context.

I should add a caveat in that this is a very brief overview of the theory of these two processes. In very rapid speech, all sorts of sounds get elided and / or assimilated, so analysing spontaneous speech can be a real challenge.

Another issue which arises from connected speech processes such as elision and assimilation is that they can make speech less intelligible or the message more difficult to understand.  Emilio's comment below led me to this example, spoken by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In it, there is /t/ elision in the word guests, which is perfectly legal. You can see how Burton's character doesn't understand Taylor's character until she repeats the word guests with the /t/ in it - although what "We've got guess" (as opposed to "We've got guests") might mean is difficult to ascertain.  There are obvious issues for speech intelligibility here in English as an international lingua franca.

Watch from 04:04 right near the end.  And thank you, Emilio!

I'd recommend the following books by way of introduction if you are interested in connected speech processes in English:

Lecumberri, M L G & Maidment, J. 2000. English Transcription Course. London: Arnold.

Roach, P. 2009. English Phonetics and Phonology: A practical course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.