Saturday, September 22, 2007

[ʍ]at's that?

As things go on the set of tubes known as the internet, I try to be pretty careful about copyright and intellectual property rights. In talking to lawyers and law professors (informally), the broad practice seems to be this: Post what you want as long as it's not obviously restricted, credit sources and if somebody objects, you'll hear about it and have to take it down.

But I never expected to have to deal with the issue more directly. Ha. This week, I got the URL of a YouTube piece from Family Guy about cool whip, where Stewie repeated and pointedly pronounces whip with a voiceless [ʍ]. That video is available here and a pretty funny parody of it here, with the original soundtrack. (Watch at least one of these!)

Then, I found a YouTube video called "Family Guy cool whip while wherid!", with lots of [ʍ] stuff in it — including a pretty odd S&M kind of scene (must have missed that episode). I tried repeatedly to post it to this blog, but it didn't link and I now discover (see here) that "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation". What a drag. As the title suggests, it runs through a set of voiceless pronunciations with wh spellings, and ends on weird with that initial. That's as close as I want to come to copyright conflict, and it deprives us of a cool video.

Increasingly, English speakers have lost this sound, merging it with plain old [w], so that witch and which, weather and whether, why and Y sound alike. The beginning of merger is usually dated back to Middle English, as part of the broader simplification of initial h+consonant clusters, like hl-, hr-, hn-, all of which were present in Old English. But it's conditioned in kind of cool ways too. This is just the last cluster standing. (Or maybe it's a Cluster's Last Stand?). So, it adds to the humor that it's a kid producing it, and doing it so emphatically.

Its retention is usually regarded as, at least in part, a kind of spelling pronunciation kept alive by schools. (For broad discussion of such things, see this paper: Blevins, Juliette. 2006. “New perspectives on English sound patterns: ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in evolutionary phonology,” Journal of English Linguistics 34.6-25.) And that opens the door to hypercorrection: If speakers lack the [ʍ], they might produce it for [w]. (That may have happened in the history of whit, from Germanic *wihti- and connected to wight.)

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