Wednesday, September 30, 2009

badminton

Tim showed up in my inbox recently to ask:
As a Briton in the US I am frequently flabbergasted to discover the deep linguistic differences between us.

The most recent case of this arose with the pronunciation of the word "badminton." In the UK, we say the word as it is spelled. However, to my surprise my seemingly uncontroversial pronunciation elicited scoffs and giggles from my American friends. They apparently pronounce the word "bad-mitten," leaving the poor old N out entirely... Have you noticed this?
Indeed. Americans often ignore or minimi{s/z}e the first n in the spelling. There does seem to be some variation within the US, though. Most sources I've found list both the n-ful and the n-less pronunciations for AmE. (Except for the OED, which seems to think that we favo(u)r the [n] and leave out the [t]. I've never heard that pronunciation.)

I grew up without the [n], but now say it. However, when I use the [n] I don't really enunciate the /t/--so it's more like badmin?n--where the ? is a pause in sound-flow. (I'd say it's a glottal stop, but it seems to me that I'm creating the stop at the soft palate--closing off the sound at the entrance to the nasal passage. Is there a name for this, phoneticians?) I'd not be at all surprised to learn that Americans misspell this word (e.g. as badmitten) far more often than the British do, but it's hard to search for misspellings on the web, as one gets a lot of hits for a band named Bad Mitten (an allusion to the AmE pronunciation of the game name, no doubt) and many sites about badminton seem to have included badmitten in their code in order to funnel bad spellers their way. That itself is evidence that people are aware of misspellings of the word, but not enough to say that it's mostly Americans misspelling it.

You can get upset on behalf of the first /n/, if you like, but you might also want to spare thoughts for the sounds from spelling that go missing in BrE too, like the /o/ in some BrE pronunciations of inventory, the /r/ in the Received Pronunciation form of farm or half the letters in Cholmondeley.

Why do many Americans not pronounce the /n/? I have no idea. Sometimes letters that are spelled but not pronounced in words are re-introduced because increased literacy has left us expecting to pronounce them. (See this Wikipedia bit on spelling pronunciation, if you like.) But this doesn't seem to be the case for badminton, which was named after a castle stately home in England and has always had the 'n' in the place name too.

An old discussion on the Linguist List notes that badminton is among a small number of English words that are exceptions to the generali{s/z}ation that 'closed penults in English attract stress'. Translation: that second-to-last syllables that end in a consonant are stressed. That generali{s/z}ation would predict that BADminton would be pronounced badMINton instead. Could it be that AmE has reacted to badminton's exceptionality by dropping the sound that closes the penultimate syllable, i.e. the first /n/? Once that happens (if my reasoning is correct) badminton acts more like a typical English word in its stress pattern. I'm sure my phonologist friends/readers will tell us if I'm completely (orig. AmE) off the wall on that one.

41 comments:

Adjusting said...

Interesting. I'm Canadian and I've always pronounced it Badmington. Has anyone else heard that pronunciation, or am I just strange?

E. Louise said...

Not the same word, but still a racket sport-related word, it always amuses me here when I hear people pronounce Wimbledon 'wimpleton'.

Zhoen said...

Am/E, with Can/E background, I never even saw that N there, funny. On the other hand, I've probably not thought of, nonetheless played badmiton (sic) for nearly forty years. One of those words that looks very peculiar now that I look at it. I'm sure I've never written it down before, properly spelled or not.

That kind of badmi?en swallowed syllable is very common in Utah, a sort of quiet hiccup in the pronunciation.

Dilsnik said...

Am/E, NYC - Always had heard and used the n-full version. Is the n-less version perhaps a west coast thing?

John Cowan said...

In my AmE, the -nton comes out [n?n], where the glottal stop is released through the nose ("nasal plosion").

Jamie said...

For any word with that structure, be it Clinton or mountain or badminton, I nasalize the preceding vowel, omit the /n/ and substitute a glottal stop for the /t/. The final syllable is a syllabified /n/.

I grew up in the Southern US and now live in the Midwest. But I think that substitution pattern is fairly common.

Anonymous said...

Dilsnik said, "Am/E, NYC - Always had heard and used the n-full version. Is the n-less version perhaps a west coast thing?"

I'm only one example, but as a native Angelena (aka person from Los Angeles), I pronounce both N's - much like Lynn describes. In fact, nerd that I am, it irritates me when people say "bad-mitten."

Maybe "n-lessness" is more prevalent among those who do not know how to spell it?

RWMG said...

Thank you for this one. I recently watched this very funny youtube video. I could have sworn the husband was on his way to a town called Bad Mitten and was nonplussed at being unable to find it on any map (I was wondering about the speaker's accent and where she came from). It was only when I noticed that so many google hits were referring to the sport that I cottoned on.

vp said...

An old discussion on the Linguist List notes that badminton is among a small number of English words that are exceptions to the generali{s/z}ation that 'closed penults in English attract stress'. Translation: that second-to-last syllables that end in a consonant are stressed.

It seems that there are a large number of exceptions to this rule where a word ending in "ent" has a suffix appended:
"apparently", "recently", "patented", "parenting", etc..

Funnily enough, I pronounce all the Ns (and the Ts) of "badminton", and its final syllable _does_ feel somewhat like a suffix in a weird way.

Picky said...

If, as I imagine, it is named after Badminton House, I (BrE) wouldn't call that a castle but a country house. Is that another Atlantic divide?

Picky said...

I'm deeply ignorant of this subject (so, corrections, please) but I don't think badminton is actually an exception to normal stress patterns.

Am I not right that there is an unconscious sense (at least in BrE) that placenames may originally have been compounds, and therefore follow stress rules for compound nouns? A noun ending "ton" signals itself as a placename and attracts the stress appropriate to a placename. The same pattern as Manchester, Chesterfield, Wallingford etc.

Sir Watkin said...

Picky may well be right.

The local pronunciation of Longford near Coventry seems to exhibit this phenomenon to an extreme degree. It's spondaic where one would expect a trochee. It's as if people think of it as "Long Ford"

Picky said...

Oh, and I seem to remember some people called Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton whose names followed the same stress pattern. And wasn't there a place called Lexington?

lynneguist said...

@Dilsnik - no, it's not west coast. I'm an east coaster.

@vp : I don't think the rule applies when suffixes are involved--that's a different word structure, phonologically speaking.



@RMWG: Thanks for sharing! I can see why you thought it was Bad Mitten, since the pronunciation in her dialect has a stress pattern that makes it seem much more like two words. The (northern US) stress pattern I would use is pretty much like the BrE stress, it's just the consonants that have changed.

@picky - I just picked up 'Badminton Castle' from a site that happened to come up when I was searching for these things. Will correct it in the post.

I don't know about the name rule to which you refer (I'm just pretending to know something about phonology here!), so maybe someone else can comment.

As far as proper names go, I think they are never reliable as examples of phonological generali{s/z}ations in the language in general--they can be laws unto themselves.

@Sir Watkin: the same is true of the local pronunciation of Seaford in Sussex.


And finally, I woke this morning thinking 'why did I use the example of inventory? I'm going to be eaten alive by BrE speakers who say the /o/ (like Better Half). It hasn't happened! But I'm still going to go back and soften my claim about that...

lynneguist said...

Whoops--now I see why no one had complained about invent'ry--it's because some of my post was missing. I'm surprised anyone made any sense of the post at all!

I'd used the standard means in linguistics for referring to orthographic bits of language (letters and the like), which is to put them in angled brackets--as opposed to the square brackets [ ] of phones and the slashes / / of phonemes. Blogger, of course, read those as html tags and they disappeared from the view that you saw. So, I've re-done those bits using other means (I'm sure there's a way to mark angle brackets as non-code, but I'm too lazy to look for it now, and anyway I'm at work and need to work!) and have made a couple of other slight adjustments for your reading (commenting, flaming!) pleasure...

lina said...

It's pretty easy to guess -- n and t are both pronounced in the same area of the area of the mouth (both are alveolar). Their compressing to one sound should be a quite normal change.

Where I'm from (southeastern LA, USA), we say it with an alveolar tap/trill -- /bad mɪ ɾə~n/.

Amanda & Gary said...
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Amanda & Gary said...
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Amanda & Gary said...

Hi Lynne,

This is another great post. I've only found your blog recently, and I'm having great fun trawling through it.

Could you possibly do a post explaining how Americans came to call the earth's most common metal, aluminium (as spelled and said by all other English speaking nations), as 'aluminum' without the second 'i' and pronounced: aloo-min-um?

Thanks, Amanda

lynneguist said...

@Amanda: I prefer not to respond to requests for new discussions in the comments section (see the Comments Policy), as that makes the blog less searchable. But also, I've avoided doing this one because it is such a well-discussed point. World Wide Words does it well.

But to prove that it's pretty useless to have these discussions in the comments, I'll grant that I already discussed this in the comments for another post (on rutabaga--that word is easily searched), and that's why no one can find it!

So, requests for new topics to email, please!

Johnny E said...

On the subject of oddly-pronounced place names, a rather good one near my home town in Kent is spelled Trottiscliffe, and pronounced... Trosley.

Picky said...

Yes, proper names can be a law unto themselves, which is why I was surprised to find the article you quoted making such a meal of Cavendish, Ogilvie and badminton. ("Cavendish" at least should suggest "Rutherford", which has the same stress).

The point I was making about the three distinguished American rebels is that their names were formed as or borrowed from compounds, and stressed as such.

Andy JS said...

Strange that British English (which usually misses letters out more than American English) actually pronounces every single letter in "badminton."

In fact I think some British people add an extra "g", pronouncing the word as "badmington."

Ginger Yellow said...

Since nobody else has mentioned it yet, I might as well relay Tim Vine's cheesy gag:

"I had a cat called Minton who swallowed a shuttlecock. I said 'Bad Minton!'""

Roger Owen Green said...

FWIW: In Wiki Answers, it says:
In England pronouciation of "Badminton" is: bad (as in not good), min (as in minute (time NOT size)), ton (as in the end of WashingTON)

In America Bad, mitten (as in glove)

So "bad mitten", which I (US, upstate NY) have always said, has some defenders.

Valerie said...

This post reminds me of one of my pet peeves- the word caramel. In BrE we pronounce it as spelled, but in the US, I've generally heard it pronounced 'carmel', and then, inevitably, it starts to be spelled that way. I know I need to be tolerant, as a foreigner, but this one really sets my teeth on edge (or should I say, sticks them together?)!

vp said...

@lina:

I agree that a contraction of [nt] or [n?] to [t] or [?] is phonologically plausible. The real question is why we don't see the same phenomenon in superficially similar cases. Why doesn't "Clinton" become "Clitton? Why doesn't "apparent" become "a parrot", or "apparently" become "a-parrot-ly"?

We could specify that the contraction can only occur in an unstressed syllable. This explains why "Clinton" doesn't become "Clitton".

We could specify that it can't occur in the final syllable, which rules out "apparent" -> "a parrot".

The case of "apparently" can be explained by the strong analogical influence of the word "apparent". Same thing for "parenting", "patented", etc.

We are still left with "inventory". Why doesn't this become "invettory"? I don't know.

Sili said...

RWMG,

THANK YOU!

I seriously haven't laughed this hard in a long time!

That's standup that resonates with me for some reason. And I had no problem with the accent, surprisingly enough. But the Bad Mitten was very pronounced, yes.

Julie said...

In my native California accent, I pronounce it as John Cowan describes it.

Hmmm....is there really an audible difference between an unreleased "t" like the one in "mitten" and an similarly unreleased "n," when both are followed by a glottal stop and a swallowed final syllable? I'm pretty sure I don't pronounce "mitten" and "badminton" alike, but I'm not sure that the difference is all that audible. As a small child I did mishear it as "badmitten."

The final syllable is swallowed in a lot of two-syllable words and names: "kitten," "Clinton," and "Martin," but not "Washington" or "Lexington."

Nic said...

I live in the state of Wisconsin, US, up north-east by the Great Lakes. We're mostly German, Dutch, and Norwegian here. I always pronounced the word like you described--I knew the N was there based upon spelling, but I would sort of put a glottal stop in there, so it was "badmin'n." I say some places in the UK like that too--like "Brigh'n."

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I never knew Americans said it differently! Oddly, when I saw the post title, my first thought was of the Horse Trials, not the other game - does any other British person think that, or is it just me?

I think we drop consonants less frequently than we used - my father says "Goff" instead of "Golf", but I am fairly sure that is obsolescent now. But place names are still fraught with pooh traps for heffalumps. Off the top of my head: Ardingly, Leominster, Cirencester, Shrewsbury...

Rick S said...

You can use the HTML character entities &lt; and &gt; to generate the < and > characters.

I think there are several factors contributing to "badminton" getting analyzed as "bad mitten" by Americans. First, the unstressed /ton/ vowel gets reduced to a schwa, and then eliminated as the /t/ becomes unreleased (in informal speech) due to the /n/ being articulated at the same place. The unreleased /t/ then gets supported by co-articulating a glottal stop (cf. final "-mit", where the alveolar stop can disappear altogether). This gives us /bædmɪnʔn/.

The first /n/ gets shortened by the glottal stop, so it's easily eliminated by the listener as meaningless articulatory transition noise. Also, /ɪ?n/ is a very common sequence (written, sittin', bitten, etc.) where /ɪn?n/ is not.

Finally, the initial "bad" conditions us to expect a separate or compound word, and hearing "minton" conflicts with that expectation, while "mitten" supports it.

vp said...
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vp said...

@Rick S:
Finally, the initial "bad" conditions us to expect a separate or compound word, and hearing "minton" conflicts with that expectation, while "mitten" supports it.

Interesting you should say that. For me, the "bad" in "bad Minton" is about twice as long as the "bad" in "badminton". So when I hear the initial "bad" of "badminton" (at least in my own accent) I already know that I'm not going to hear a phrase of the form "bad X".

Catherine said...

@Adjusting - people here in NZ also pronounce it Badmington. Actually, they usually pronounce it more like Babmingtin...

CGP said...

just stumbled upon your blog, i like it :)

i'd never heard of the american pronunciation (-n) before this but it reminds me of a discussion that came up on an electronics forum.
the word Solder is pronounced in the UK as it is written, but in the US the 'l' is omitted, making it Sodder.
none of the brits were aware of the american pronunciation, and vice versa, to the bemusement of all.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@CGP - I read that as "soldier" at first, which made me wonder, as the "l" is sometimes dropped in British English (hence Kipling's "sojers").... which, of course, it isn't in "solder"!

Chris said...

To my ears (and I speak this way), the final syllable of words like 'badminton', 'mountain', 'cotton', etc, isn't so much swallowed in AmE as made softer. It's not glottal or gutteral, but more like grunted. It's like the consonant equivalent of the schwa sound. But for place names that end in 'ton' (i.e. 'Town'), I never hear that phenomenon; the 't' is very clearly pronounced.

My big gripe about AmE pronunciation are words like 'library' and 'February', which come out sounding like 'lye-berry' and 'Feb-you-erry'. I think it makes me crazy because I was born in February, so I take it quite personally ;)

yeajung said...

I feel as if the 1st n in the "-nton" sequence is lost in "Clinton" and "mountain" (AmE) as well, but we just notice it less because the first syllable is stressed, making the nasalization of the vowel more apparent.

We're tricked into thinking the n is still there. For the -min- in badminton I guess the n-feeling is too weak for us to catch it.

I tried this out on myself, and my tongue certainly doesn't hit alveolar for the n "Clin" or "moun" in those words if I go for a glottal-ish stop instead of t. (I speak east coast AmE.) So "bad mitten" for "badminton" doesn't sound so out of the ordinary for me. Just more noticeable.

By the way, I DO pronounce the 1st n in badminton, because I keep the t a plain old t.

( I lost the first version of this comment for some reason. If two entries come up for moderation, please keep this one! ;) )

Anonymous said...

My husband's from Dorset where thus is common. A strong accent pronounces 'over the shoulder boulder holder' as 'over the shoder boder hoder'. Hours of fun for all the family, right there :)

Anonymous said...

I live in southern american and almost everyone says 'bad-mitten'. My mother and I pronounce it 'badmington'. Actually more like 'babmingtin'