Sunday, May 11, 2008

Consonant Assimilation

This linguistic phenomenon is not limited to Spanish, and certainly not to Costa Rica, but it nonetheless rears its ugly head in interesting ways in Costa Rica. To catch you up to speed, there are several cases in Spanish when consonants change their sounds based on the letter that follows. (We're not just talking about letters, but also phonemes, but I'll just call them letters for the sake of simplicity.) Consider the following examples:

The word 'rasgo' means physical characteristic or trait. The 's', which is normally an unvoiced sibilant, becomes a voiced sibilant like the 'z' in the English word 'zoo' because the 'g' that follows is a voiced consonant. This is consonant assimilation.

Another common example of consonant assimilation is the assimilation of 'n', an alveolar nasal consonant, to an 'm', a bilabial nasal consonant. In the noun phrase 'un barco' (a boat) the 'n', which is normally formed by pressing your tongue against your alveolar ridge just behind your upper front teeth, becomes a bilabial 'm' because the consonant the follows ('b') is also bilabial.

Anyway, I was prompted to think of this consonant assimilation when I came across a sign outside of the movie theater in Ciudad Quesada de San Carlos. The sign read 'Niños del Honbre', which according to the proper spelling of the words would be 'Niños del Hombre'. This was not the first time I had seen this misspelling, but it was perhaps the third time, and was what compelled me to consider it something more than a typo (or a 'write-o' or a 'placing letters on the sign outside of a movie theater...-o'). I can only explain it as a hypercorrection certain native speakers employ when they hear an 'm' but think they're supposed to write an 'n'. In Spanish you will always write 'un barco', even though there's an 'm' sound. On the other hand, within single words, you can NEVER have an 'n' before a 'b' or a 'p'. It's a rule. (We also have this rule in English; e.g., incoherent, but then imperfection.) So, when the 'n' is separated from the 'b' or 'p' by a word break, then it remains an 'n', but within the same word as a 'b' or a 'p', it simply can't be a written 'n'. My conjecture is that whichever case rings truer in the mind of a less-than-perfect speller is the one that is applied to the other case. It makes perfect sense to me that a Spanish speaker would sooner misspell 'hombre' than he would 'un', the latter of which is as essential to Spanish as 'a' or 'an' is to English. If this is true, then the misspelling of 'hombre' should be seen as a hypercorrection of the 'n' remaining an 'n' in the case of 'un barco' where it is pronounced like an 'm'.

In case you want another case of consonant assimilation in Spanish, here it is:

In the word 'banco' the 'n' takes on the sound of the 'ng' in the English word 'gong'. This happens because the 'n' will always assimilate to a velar 'c', 'k', or 'g' by becoming a velar 'ng'.

Pura Vida


www.coruñ said...

I believe one and all must look at it.

My Wacky Friends said...

Well, I do not actually believe it is likely to have success.