11

I am aware that this question is rather more complex than I am treating it, but I am looking for a few general rules (e.g. basic phonotactic constraints) that would lead to the conclusion that the nonsense word "frabjous" conforms to English phonotactics. Any help (even if it is only a cursory explanation) would be much appreciated.

6
  • 8
    /ˈfɹæbdʒəs/ i.e. frab-juhs – Rad Anyaz Apr 14 at 16:50
  • 5
    I think nonce word is perhaps a better descriptor than "nonsense" word. It's been in the lexicon for a century and a half now, after all. Don't forget that Carroll also gave us "chortle", which I daresay is pretty commonly used nowadays. – J... Apr 15 at 16:31
  • 3
    I was wondering what the most precise term would be to describe the words coined by Carroll in "Jabberwocky". In academic literature I've seen everything from "neologism" and "nonsense word" to "coinage" and, as you say, "nonce word". These terms were all used interchangeably, but for my purposes (I have been researching nonsense literature), "nonsense word" seemed the most appropriate term. – Rad Anyaz Apr 15 at 21:39
  • Fair enough. Arguably the words do have identifiable etymological roots, though, that are not properly nonsensical (ie: "fabulous"/"joyous", and "chuckle"/"snort", etc). They were created for a specific purpose (nonce) and are defensibly neologisms (having been adopted into the language) also, I would agree, but I feel I would hold short of calling them nonsense. – J... Apr 15 at 22:08
  • I agree that "nonsense" is not an entirely accurate descriptor, "nonsense word" is a vexed term anyway (even though it is used by linguists and literary critics), as is "nonsense literature" when applied to "Jabberwocky", which is certainly not nonsensical in the usual sense of the word, at least at the syntactic and phonological level. – Rad Anyaz Apr 16 at 9:16
29

You mention the pronunciation /ˈfɹæb.dʒəs/ in the comments; this is how I would pronounce it too.

Phonotactics are usually explained in terms of constraints ("you can't do this"), so the short answer is that it doesn't violate any of those constraints.

If we look at all the parts individually:

  • /fɹ/ is a valid onset, as in "frog"
  • /æb/ is a valid rime, as in "lab"
  • /dʒ/ is a valid onset, as in "job"
  • /əs/ is a valid rime (in an unstressed syllable), as in "ruinous"
  • a stressed closed syllable followed by an unstressed closed syllable is a valid stress pattern, as in "madness"

And for the most part, any onset can be combined with any rime in English. So if all the onsets and rimes are valid, and the stress pattern is valid, the word is generally valid.

17
  • 1
    Lucid indeed. The stress pattern is given in the rhyme (not rime) in the poem: O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! and it shows the stress has to be on the first syllable, which is also a straightforward English stress pattern. – jlawler Apr 14 at 20:18
  • 1
    Do any English words contain the cluster [bdʒ]? If not, arguably that is a violation of a phonotactic constraint. (Frabjous has always felt to me like the only coinage in the Jabberwocky that doesn't sound like a plausible English word, because of that unusual cluster.) – TKR Apr 14 at 20:50
  • 22
    @TKR object, abject? – LjL Apr 14 at 21:02
  • 10
    There is also abjure. – Colin Fine Apr 14 at 22:41
  • 2
    @AlexB. To my ear, that sounds less valid, both because (my) English prefers onsets over codas and because /bdʒ/ sounds odd as a coda (*frabj on its own wouldn't be valid to me). – Draconis Apr 15 at 16:03
5

As a new contributor myself, I have to post this as an answer, though it's slight enough that it should really be a comment on Draconis' excellent answer (specifically a response to TKR's comment on it).

I think the spelling makes <frabjous> look a bit less English than it sounds. Draconis enumerates lots of good reasons for why it's phonotactically English, but to my mind, the spelling <-jous> seems a bit odd. However, the Latinate suffix <-dious> (<tedious>, <studious>), while normally pronounced /diəs/, is generally unstressed, so, in many dialects it can be reduced to something approximating [dʒəs]. And to my eyes, <frabdious> looks a bit less alien (it would look even less weird as <frabjious> except that <-jious> seems not to occur anywhere).

9
  • Is the problem with the 'look' of the word a function of the use of the root's last letter 'J' - a letter not used in Latin (except as an 'I'), even though that last letter is the general connecting point to '-tious' or '-dious' suffix? – Pete855217 Apr 15 at 12:51
  • 3
    Interesting question! So... let's see, for example, the made-up word <frabject> (also with a Latinate suffix) looks pretty unremarkable. So my answer would be both yes and no. I don't think <j> is necessarily out-of-place in a Latinate suffix, but specifically, <jous> is, well, weird. – tea-and-cake Apr 15 at 12:58
  • 4
    Speech would, I feel, have to be exceptionally sloppy for "-dious" to get pronounced /dʒəs/. Fortunately, though, there are two word-endings that are typically pronounced /dʒəs/: "-geous" as in "gorgeous" and "gious" as in "contagious". So let's consider "frabgeous" and "frabgious". There is still a problem: in such an ending, "g" can only occur after a vowel sound (and either a vowel letter or "r"). "l" or "n" (as in "indulgent" or "dungeon") would at least be plausible. But that consonant cluster /bdʒ/ still isn't plausible. – Rosie F Apr 15 at 19:20
  • 1
    @RosieF: The notion that "g" pronounced "j" can't occur after a plosive consonant seems rather dodgy to me. – supercat Apr 15 at 23:01
  • 1
    Soldier's a good one! Although that little word is packed with potential for variant pronunciations... I started off speaking RP and had [sɒuɫdjə] but after a few decades in Scotland I now have [sowdʒʌɾ]... but anyway. Although I mostly agree with you, I have to try being a wee bit obdurate, and offer... <obdurate>. I definitely yod-coalesce that so it contains [bdʒə], how about you? Makes me think that <frabduous> would be a workable spelling. Normally the last syllable of that would be /uʊs/ but I could see that reducing to /əs/. – tea-and-cake Apr 16 at 9:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.