English is known to have a phenomenon of "pre-fortis clipping": in certain contexts, vowel and sonorant phonemes before a fortis/voiceless consonant are realized with shorter duration than the same phonemes before a lenis/voiced consonant (or before no consonant).

John Wells's blog entry about the topic quotes his article "Syllabification and allophony", where he describes the rule as follows:

English vowels are subject to pre-fortis clipping, then, when they are followed by a fortis consonant within the same syllable. The /f/’s in self, selfish /ˈself.ɪʃ/, and dolphin /ˈdɒlf.ɪn/ trigger clipping, but not those in shellfish /ˈʃel.fɪʃ/ or funfair /ˈfʌn.feə/. So do the /t/ in feet and the /ʧ/ in feature, but not the /p/ in fee-paying or the /k/ in tea-kettle. The vowel /æ/ undergoes pre-fortis clipping in lap, lamp, happy /ˈhæp.ɪ/, and hamper /ˈhæmp.ə/, but not in slab or clamber.

(Susan Ramsaran (ed.), Studies in the pronunciation of English, A commemorative volume in honour of A.C. Gimson (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pages 76-86.)

This data is consistent with Wells's method of syllabification, where intervocalic consonants are assigned to the coda of a preceding syllable when it has greater stress than the following syllable. However, I don't believe that a consensus has yet formed in favor of Wells's system of syllabification. I've seen various post-1990 literature, such as "An amphichronic approach to English syllabification", by Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero (2013), that instead syllabifies such consonants into the onset.

Onset-favoring theories of English syllabification need to have a way to deal with the facts of pre-fortis clipping, and as far as I can see, a syllable-based account won't do the trick for those analyses.

Non-syllable-based formulations that I've found so far

"The foot as a segmental domain", by John Harris, 2000, suggests that the clipping rule is foot-based: "English pre-fortis clipping/pre-lenis drawling: duration of V is conditioned by co-pedal C" (p. 14).

This foot-based formulation accounts for all of the examples mentioned so far, but not for a "latex" example mentioned in Bermúdez-Otero 2013. Bermúdez-Otero says that in certain American English accents that have [ɾ] in words like "better", the word "latex" can be produced with a clipped vowel before a voiceless plosive [t] (not lenited [ɾ]). This poses a problem for certain analyses. Specifically, it excludes

  • a) any analysis that both restricts clipping to tautosyllabic sequences and predicts lenition for all coda /t/

  • b) any analysis that that both restricts clipping to foot-internal sequences and predicts lenition for all non-foot-initial /t/.

Bermúdez-Otero 2013 cites Bermúdez-Otero 2007, "Word-final prevocalic consonants in English: representation vs derivation". Here, the possible presence of clipping of the first vowel in latex without lenition of the /t/ is explained by the following formulation:

§24 A prosodic solution:

  • The environment of stop lenition is defined by the foot.
  • The environment of prefortis clip is defined by the prosodic word: a vowel undergoes clipping if followed within the same prosodic word by a fortis consonant that does not belong to a stronger syllable.

(p. 8)

I find this description a little complex, but satisfactory for the most part (I'm not sure whether the "that does not belong to a stronger syllable" exception is necessary: do words like "tattoo" not show clipping?). Does anyone know of problems with this rule, or further refinements that have been made to it?

  • This is basically Wells's rule recast. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 24 '19 at 15:36
  • @Araucaria: How so? All of the rules refer to the same phenomenon, but aren't the syllable, the morpheme, and the prosodic word different concepts? I'm not super familiar with the definition of a prosodic word, so further information on how it can be identified would be helpful. I see that Bermúdez-Otero 2013 uses the existence of a word level in phonology as part of a cyclic explanation for the presence of lenition in "hit Ann" but not in e.g. guitar. – brass tacks Sep 24 '19 at 15:40
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    Your question assumes that it is possible to empirically distinguish foot and syllable based accounts of English allophony, and decades of research casts doubt on that. – user6726 Sep 24 '19 at 16:11
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    @Araucaria: the relevance of stop lenition is as follows. According to Bermúdez-Otero, /t/ lenites when not at the start of a foot. Since the /t/ in latex is unlenited, that implies that latex has two feet: ˈ[leı][tɛks]. If this foot-based formulation of the /t/ lenition rule is correct, then the presence of clipping in latex excludes the foot-based rule for clipping that Harris 2000 proposes. – brass tacks Sep 24 '19 at 16:23
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    @Araucaria: I might have presented the information here in a bad order. I find the rule of stop lenition relevant because I don't know how else to exclude a foot-based account of pre-fortis clipping. Before I read Bermúdez-Otero 2007, I wasn't sure whether it might work to describe clipping as a foot-based rule. Does what I'm saying here make sense? It's not directly related to clipping, but it's logically connected because stop lenition (might) give us information about the foot structure of words. – brass tacks Sep 24 '19 at 16:33

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