Saturday, February 18, 2012

Grace, Clara and æ/eɪ/ɛ allophone v. phone distinctions

I noted some time ago that Grace complained about my pronunciation of "lego" (which I pronounce as if it were spelled leggo, I suppose). Clara's now about the age Grace was then, and predictably enough, we had the familiar exchange recently:

Me: Clara, do you want to play legos (lɛgos).
Clara: Not lɛgos, daddy! Leɪgos!!!

Obviously, Katharine says Leɪgos, and that sticks with them as the correct pronunciation, even though I'm the one that plays legos more often, I think...

Yesterday, Grace and I had the following exchange (forgive my crappy phonetic transcription):

Grace: Daddy, can I have some? ( dædi, kɛn ai hæv səm)
Me: Yes you can. (yɛs, yu kæn).
Grace: Daddy! You said can (kæn) like a soda can. You meant to say kɛn.

This one's kind of cool because Grace is taking what I see as a set of allophones (kɛn/kæn) and hearing a distinction. Of course, she's right that /ɛ/ and /æ/ are distinct in lots of English words -- witness minimal pairs like fen/fan, send/sand, etc.

I've now been spending a lot more time paying attention to the word "can" as I say it. Of course, the funny thing is that saying kɛn in a stressed position is incorrect. I'm pretty sure, though, that we never say kæn in an unstressed position, saying something like kɛn or perhaps even kən or kɪn instead.

I wonder how much of this, and in how much detail, they cover in teaching foreigners English.


Scott said...

incorrect? stressed or unstressed I always say kɛn.

Tom Hinkle said...

Interesting. The only dictionaries I can seem to find at the moment list British pronunciation, allowing the ae and the shwa pronunciation, but not noting kɛn at all, so it's hard to figure out if my hunch that kɛn shows up in unstressed positions is right, and of course now that I'm thinking about the question there's no chance I can get good data from my own head (an unreliable source anyway!).

I wonder: do you think you say kɛnt for can't?