A linguis’ unwines

Look at enough signs, classified advertisements and student essays in Trinidad and Tobago, and you’re bound to notice funny things happening with the letters <t> and <d>.*

Las lap crop

unwine ad

ChilLine

In fact, there’s no great mystery here: any Trini will tell you that the English words “unwind,” “child” and “last” are frequently pronounced without the [t]/[d] sounds at the end. The spellings here just reflect the way these words are normally pronounced.

In some of these cases the spelling is deliberate, i think. Stag’s advertising team may not have much sense or taste, but even they know that “Last Lap!” wouldn’t look right for this distinctively Trini expression. In other cases spellings are inadvertent mistakes, as in (I assume) “Relax and unwine”. I’m not certain which of these applies to “ChilLine”.

Newspaper columnists and educators sometimes disapprove of and caution against such pronunciations. A piece in the Trinidad Guardian recently warned readers to  “[p]ronounce the ending of words and spell them correctly: …protect, respect, strict…“.

Partly as a result of such warnings, the odd <t> or <d> sometimes ends up in a surprising place: I haven’t called the number below, but I’m guessing this is advertising a cure for baldness rather than a misplaced wig.

hairlost

There tends to be a perception among those who disapprove of such pronunciations (let’s leave aside the question of writing for now), that these examples reflect what another writer, this time in the Express, called “the loose and arbitrary grammar” of Trinbagonian speech, often contrasted to rule-governed and orderly Standard English. It’s even sometimes seen as an indication of laziness or carelessness.

What people generally don’t realise is that what’s going on here is in fact as rule-governed and orderly as The Queue for tickets at Wimbledon.** If you’re Trinbagonian, ask yourself whether you would tend not to pronounce the <t>’s and <d>’s in these words?

(1) left, rest, send, cold

How about these?

(2) cent, salt, print, melt

I’m pretty confident that everyone would agree that “lef'”, “res'”, “sen'” and “col'”, are quite normal Trini pronunciations,*** but that no-one would dream of saying “cen'”, “sal'”, “prin'” or “mel'”.

If you agree with me on that, then can you explain why the <t> is silent in “left”  but not in “salt”? Why is the <d> silent in “send”, when the <t> in “cent” is pronounced? How do you know when it’s normal to leave the <t> off and when it’s just wrong? As an Englishman in Trinidad, I know from bitter experience that you can’t get away with just leaving sounds off willy-nilly: trying to blend in, as only the Englishman abroad can, I’ve given myself away many times with an overzealously dropped <t>. I won’t even mention how long it took me to work out what the “dus” was that was in dey face.

This is also a problem for those who see these missing consonants as evidence of carelessness or laziness: to sound Trini you have to be lazy enough to dispense with the <t> in “rest” but not so lazy that you leave off the <t> in “rent”; or perhaps Trinis are so lazy that they can’t even be bothered to be consistently careless.

In fact, these patterns are not random carelessness at all. Whether or not a <t> is pronounced depends on the sound that comes before it. <t> regularly disappears after [s], [f], [k] and [p], but is pronounced after [l] or [n]. <d> regularly disappears after [l] and [n].

Not only is there a rule here, but it’s actually a very normal sort of rule, of a kind found in just about every other language on Earth. The sound [t] has something in common with the sounds [s], [f], [p] and [k]. To hear what the similarity is, you have to make the sounds as they appear in words rather than the names of the letters (‘tee’, ‘ess’, ‘eff’, ‘pee’, and ‘kay’). You might notice that you don’t need to use your voice to make any of these sounds. Compare that with the sounds [d], [l] and [n]. To make these sounds, you do use your voice.

(Update: To get a feel for the difference between sounds where you use your voice and sounds where you don’t, make a hissing [s] sound. Now make a [z] sound. Now switch between these two sounds. What you should notice is that the only difference between the two of them is that when you make the [z] sound, there’s a buzzing coming from your larynx, but when you make the [s], there isn’t. That buzzing sound is what I mean by “using your voice”. This might also give you some insight into why linguists tend to attract funny looks.)

So, the Trini rule is (roughly):

“avoid two consonant sounds next to each other which both require you to use your voice”

In “send”, there are two voiced sounds next to each other, so to avoid that, the <d> is not pronounced. In “cent”, there’s no problem – [n] is voiced, but [t] is voiceless: no need to drop anything.

To see how normal this rule is, take English words with a <w> near the beginning. For many English speakers, a [w] sound can come after a [t], [s] or [d] (‘twin’, ‘swim’, ‘dwindle’), but not after a [p] or a [b]. How many English words can you think of starting with [pw-] or [bw-]? Trinis may be thinking here of that fine Trini word ‘pweffen’, but you’ll struggle to find too many more examples. When confronted with a foreign word which starts with the sounds [p] and [w], many of my own countrymen do exactly what Trinis do with the <t>’s and <d>’s above – they leave it out. So we might say something like “perto rico” rather than the more Spanish sounding “pwerto rico“.

The reason we have a problem with [pw] and [bw], but not with [tw] or [dw] seems to be that [p], [b] and [w] all have something in common: to make all of these sounds you have to move your lips (if any readers are ventriloquists, they’ll be familiar with this). [t] and [d], on the other hand, don’t require you to move your lips. So, the English rule is something like

“avoid two consonant sounds next to each other which both require you to use your lips”.

The difference between the English rule and the Trini rule is just one word: “voice” versus “lips”.

What’s the point of all this? Whatever you might think about the rights and wrongs of different ways of speaking, it’s important to understand that all languages and language varieties are rule-governed. It’s just that most of these rules operate without anyone (except perhaps a few linguists) noticing. What might seem to be carelessness in one language, might be accepted as perfectly reasonable in another. If you’re an educator, understanding these rules is important because it can help you to know what sorts of problems people might have when switching between speech and writing, and between different languages and language varieties.

* Pictures are courtesy of wuzdescene.

** Perhaps the ultimate example of the English love of queues, The Queue has even graduated to the status of proper noun.

*** Of course there is variation in Trinidad and Tobago as everywhere else, and the pronunciation of words also depends on the background of the speaker, the context of the utterence and many other factors.

19 thoughts on “A linguis’ unwines

  1. Very interesting read Ben.

    I have a friend who just loves to break all the rules …. and insists that once I have understood what he has said …. it really doesn’t matter how he said it … his thing is … I was able to grasp what he is trying to tell me …. and therefore …. his communication with me was successful …. he has no respect for s, s, s …. nuttin …. fortunately he knows the correct thing though …. so its not like he’s gonna go to a job interview and speak like that …. a lot of Trinis are like him …. and then there are those who just don’t know better …. cuz LOL …. the hair lost …. is not about a lost wig ….

    1. Wuz’, I can see your friend’s point! I have Japanese and Chinese friends who often say that their English is lousy. I always tell them that language is about communication (of course it serves many more purposes but primarily we use it to communicate) and we can at least converse in English. We could not have anything more than the most rudimentary exchanges in either Japanese or Chinese that could not be called “conversations” except by the most generous interpretation!

  2. Really lovely piece! I recall pointing out to several American (and one German) friend about 15 years ago, that Trinis drop t’s and d’s at the end of some words but your explanation was jes’ right!

    Not sure I grasped your meaning of using your “voice” although I understood what you meant by using your lips. Maybe I just need to reread?

      1. At first I thought I understood when you described the situation with respect to ‘send’

        In “send”, there are two voiced sounds next to each other, so to avoid that, the is not pronounced. In “cent”, there’s no problem – [n] is voiced, but [t] is voiceless: no need to drop anything.

        Clearly I didn’t get your point because both “send” and “cent” (pronounced the English way) require the pronunciation (voicing?) of the last letter. And in fact, if a Trini were saying that they “had sent” something, they would in fact say something like, “Ah sen’ dat aready”. And “sent” and “cent” seem exactly the same. Over to you.

      2. No, I think you did get it. In “Ah sen’ dat aready”, I think you have “send”, not “sent”. How do I know? Because in Trini (or what linguists less romantically call Trinidadian English Creole) there is generally no special form of verbs for past tense / perfect participle. It’s “Ah eat dat aready” not “Ah ate dat aready”, “Ah reach aready” not “Ah reached aready”. So, by analogy, you’d expect it to be the plain form, “send”, not the English past / perfect form “sent”. Since it’s “send”, you’d expect it to be pronounced “sen'”, for just the reason you give.

  3. Now that’s a beautiful explanation! And I understand it perfectly! But why in “cent” you say that the “t” is not voiced – that I don’t get. I’d say that the “d” at the end of “send” is “harder” (I’m only a biochemist so please excuse me – and only trying to understand your use of “voiced”. Your example with “s” and “v” seemed inappropriate – or simply unhelpful!). Hate to be a bother!

  4. This was very interesting to read, you would have had to take a lot of time and research before writing this article though! Teachers always told us you write the way you speak which is not always true, for me at least. Its cool to see that what people consider to be ‘talking bad’ actually has rules and isnt just talking anyway we feel. Thanks for the article and adding to my argument of why im proud to talk in trini creole most of the time ^_^

  5. VRY SUCCINT.HUMOUROUS TOO,, AS MOST THINGS TRINBAGONIAN… ..Im INVARIABLY BAFFLED AT THE THE ALMOST DICKENSIAN ”LANGUAGE” OF TOBAGONIANS .A TGO SCHOOLCHILD WRITES SUCH ACCURATE GRAMMAR / PARSING SPELLING EFFORTLESSLY…YOUNG KIDS…I CHOOSE TO SPEAK THE VERNACULAR WITH CLOSE FRIENDS.I JUST LOVE ITS RICHNESS…U MUST DO A ”PIECE” ON ADDING THE LETTER ”S”…TRINIS THINK TH SINGULAR TOO LONELY A POSIT….SO 1BEVERAGE OF COCACOLA IS ”AH COKES”!..RIBTICKLING IF U DRAW UP SUCH A LIST OF HISSERS.

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