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In some dialects of English (for example: General American), “writer” is said to be pronounced differently from “rider” due to the following two phonological rules (done in this order):

  1. Vowels are longer before voiced consonants (than before voiceless consonants)
  2. Alveolar Tapping: [+alveolar, +plosive] -> [ɾ] / (in certain intervocalic environments)

Thus:

“writer”: /ɹaɪtɚ/ → /ɹaɪtɚ/ → [ɹaɪɾɚ]
“rider” : /ɹaɪdɚ/ → /ɹaɪːdɚ/ → [ɹaɪːɾɚ]

For some people, the difference between “writer” and “rider” is not a distinction of vowel length, but of vowel quality. Either way, my question is more about the presence/absence of a distinction, rather than its specific nature.

I agree with this distinction in “writer / rider”, as well as in derived examples such as “writing / riding”, “write on / ride on”, etc. However, I do not observe any difference in other pairs such as “matter / madder” or “litre / leader”; this even includes other examples with /aɪ/ as the vowel, such as “sighter” and “cider”. However, I do observe the distinction in “slighter / slider” (which differs from the previous pair only by the presence of /l/ before the vowel).

What’s going on here? Even if we restrict the question to /aɪt/ vs. /aɪd/, which environments preserve the distinction?

  • Where are you from? I am from British Columbia and I treat sighter/cider, writer/rider, slighter/slider, whiter/wider all the same. – Moss Aug 16 '13 at 20:42
  • I mean I raise the first diphthong and not the second, in all cases. – Moss Aug 16 '13 at 20:52
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This phenomenon is one of a family of phenomena known as Canadian Raising. "Traditional" Canadian raising involves the systematic vowel quality distinction made for the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ when they are followed by a voiced vs. a voiceless consonant. Generally they are realized as [ʌɪ] and [ʌʊ], respectively (or some similar variants), before a voiceless consonant.

There are several varieties of this phenomenon, however, and the one to which you are referring happens to be the one that I speak. I was born and raised in New Jersey, USA, which is one of the regions where this variety is commonly found. I make the voiced/voiceless distinction for /aɪ/ but not for /aʊ/. I maintain the distinction even when the underlying voicing distinction is neutralized, as in the flapping examples you mentioned, like writer and rider.

Those facts alone may not be that surprising, but there are certain seemingly exceptional examples in my dialect that make it less than straightforward to analyze from a phonological perspective. For example, in most cases the raising is only "triggered" when the voiceless consonant is in the same morpheme as the diphthong--so [ʌɪ] appears in ice cream but not I scream. But there are exceptions to this generalization--[ʌɪ] occurs in high school (when it refers to the institution of secondary education). Also, as you mentioned, the raised version of the diphthong occurs in some cases before voiced consonants! It appears in spider, idle, and cyber, for example. Finally, it can even appear before [nt], as in pint (as opposed to pined).

Because of the exceptional examples in my dialect, a phonologist who believes in phonemes would have to concede that I actually have two separate phonemes, /aɪ/ and /ʌɪ/, in my inventory. There's no other way to explain minimal pairs like cider vs. sider and high school (the lexicalized compound) vs. high school (meaning 'a school that is high'). When I first mentioned all of these examples to a colleague of mine, she wouldn't believe me; she thought I was making them up. She finally came around when I pointed her to this Wikipedia article! In analyzing my dialect I would still posit a regular rule/constraint that keeps /aɪ/ from surfacing as [aɪ] before voiceless coda consonants, but such a rule would not be sufficient to cover all the cases.

Just for fun, I'm listing some additional notable examples below:

No raising: IC, bisexual, flyswatter, high, rider, tidy, pie plate, Pythagoras, pined, highchair, high-speed, IT, wi-fi, bystander, bifocals, Lysander, sider, slider, cyborg, hyperbole

Raising: icy, bicycle, ice water, height, writer, tighty, disciple, python, pint, high school (compound), mighty, wife, feisty, license, Lysol, cider, spider, cyberspace, hyper

UPDATE: I've realized, after looking at the above examples, that syllable structure might play a role. The reason is that I have a very strong intuition that the raising is obligatory in monosyllabic words that end in a voiceless coda. Give me a nonce word with one syllable and a voiceless coda, and the vowel can never be realized as the non-raised /aɪ/. Further, if you look at the apparent exceptions in the "no raising" group above, such as Pythagoras and bifocals, what they appear to have in common is that the syllable following the diphthong-containing syllable always appears to be stressed (either primarily or secondarily). In words like python and bicycle (and of course writer) I have the intuition that the following syllable is unstressed and therefore the voiceless consonant is ambisyllabic (i.e. behaving both as a coda and an onset). This doesn't explain the exceptions that go in the other direction (i.e. raising occurring before voiced consonants), but at least it allows us to formulate the raising rule (or constraint) in a way that makes it exceptionless! This would also explain why I would raise the diphthong in polysyllabic nonce printed words like griter but not in those like gritatious.

  • Intriguing analysis! (+1) Can you elaborate on how cider and sider came to be a minimal pair in your dialect? They don't differ in segmental context and there are no relevant morpheme boundaries here. I see how these 'exceptional examples' make /aɪ/ and /ʌɪ/ separate phonemes but I don't see how the development could be explained. – robert Aug 3 '13 at 11:52
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    @robert I pronounce them that way because that's how my mother and most of the people in the town where I grew up pronounce them. Unfortunately I don't know anything about the diachronic processes that led to the distinction! But I know I am not alone; this online discussion confirms that other people share my intuitions. – musicallinguist Aug 5 '13 at 13:54
  • @robert And just to clarify, it's precisely because their segmental context is identical that we're resigned to there being two separate phonemes. I will say, though, that I can't think of any examples of words that fulfill the following criteria: 1)The diphthong is [ʌɪ] 2)The diphthong is followed by a voiced consonant 3)The right boundary of the syllable containing the diphthong coincides with a morpheme boundary. – musicallinguist Aug 5 '13 at 14:17
  • A phonologist who believes in phonemes? I'm not sure what you mean by that. – Joe Z. Oct 9 '14 at 2:21
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This is analyzed by Jonathan Kaye in a pretty obscure paper:

Kaye, Jonathan. 2012. Canadian Raising, eh? In Sound Structure and Sense: Studies in Memory of Edmund Gussmann. Eugeniusz Cyran, Henryk Kardela, Bogdan Szymanek (eds.) Lublin: Wydawnictwo KUL. Pp. 321-352

Basically, Kaye formalizes Musicallinguists' answer above but for NYC English and proposes separate phoneme status. The reason you get the CR phenomenon in writer/rider and slighter/slider but not sighter/cider is because the backing of /aɪ/ to /ɑɪ/ (which is the difference in vowel quality) operates in closed syllables at the end of words except when before voiceless consonants. So 'ride'and 'slide' get the backed vowel. Then the addition of the suffix -er opens the syllable, but does not alter the vowel quality. Same is true for 'riding' and 'sliding.' 'Cider' on the other hand starts in an open syllable, so the backing never takes place.

Interestingly, I was talking about this just the other day with Erik Thomas.

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    Interesting. But in my dialect (and many others) the open-syllable diphthongs pattern with those before voiced consonants (i.e. high, tie, dry have the same vowel as hide, ties, and drive), so that analysis wouldn't work. – musicallinguist Aug 5 '13 at 14:08
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There's no need to invoke ordered rules in order to explain the vowel distinction between 'writer' and 'rider'. In both cases, the vowel is simply the same as in the non-derived forms 'write' and 'ride', where the distinction between /t/ and /d/ is still present, and it's this distinction between /t/ and /d/ that's responsible for the difference in the articulation of the /ai/ diphthong.

The reason you can't detect any difference between the vowels in 'matter' and 'madder' is that these two words aren't derived from base forms where a /t/ and /d/ is present. You're actually being tricked by knowing their spelling. If you didn't, you wouldn't have any idea that one was spelled with 't' and the other with 'd', since these consonants are in fact always pronounced the same (as a flapped [ɾ]).

This explains the lack of vowel differences in 'liter' vs. 'leader'. The word 'liter' isn't derived from a base with 't'. The word has a flap [ɾ], which is voiced, and vowels are lengthened before voiced consonants. Since both 'liter' and 'leader' (derived from 'lead') have the vowel before a voiced consonant, their vowels are the same.

So what about 'sighter' vs 'cider'? Here you would expect the diphthong in 'cider' to behave like it does before other voiced consonants, since it has a voiced [ɾ]. As musicallinguist says in his answer, the 'Canadian raising' phenomenon typically affects /ai/ before voiceless consonants, but it actually affects some words where /ai/ is before voiced consonants as well. One of the words musicallinguist mentions that he has Canadian raising in is indeed 'cider', and I can verify that (not as a native speaker, but I have definitely heard people pronounce it like that). Other words where you have an 'unexpected' raised /ai/ include words like 'tiger'. I don't know if anyone has a good explanation for these exceptions.

In 'slighter' vs. 'slider', you find a contrast in the vowels because they behave "normally", i.e. just like 'writer' vs. 'rider' (since they're derived from 'slight' and 'slide').

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    If you believe that the voicing distinction is triggering the diphthong difference in writer and rider, then you definitely need ordered rules. The first rule triggers the vowel difference, and the second one causes both /t/ and /d/ to undergo flapping in that environment. If you reversed the order of these rules, the flapping would happen first and then there would be nothing there to trigger the diphthong distinction. – musicallinguist Aug 5 '13 at 14:07
  • roa.rutgers.edu/article/view/114 – Sverre Aug 5 '13 at 16:55
  • Two issues here. One, the theory presented in that paper wouldn't explain the relevant wug test in my dialect. If you gave me the nonce word griter, I would definitely raise it, and I would flap the /t/. Secondly, I think the morphology explanation is a red herring for the other vowel examples. If you replace liter vs. leader with beater vs. beader or seeder vs. seater I'd be willing to bet that you wouldn't see any greater vowel difference for the second or third pairs than for the first pair. – musicallinguist Aug 5 '13 at 19:31
  • Let's not mix apples and oranges here. If there's no difference between /i/ before voiced and voiceless consonants (which I doubt, but that's an empirical question), then it makes no difference whether you use rules or constraints or whatever, so let's just leave that aside. For the hypothetical wug test: How would I "give you the word griter"? You seem to indicate you would see its graphic representation. Well then you know it has a /t/, so you could simply treat that analogously with other words you know are spelled with -iter, like writer. Also says nothing about rules vs. constraints – Sverre Aug 5 '13 at 19:38
  • Which then proves my point that you don't need ordered rules to explain these facts. – Sverre Aug 5 '13 at 19:39

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