It’s that old conservative chestnut. We’ve lost our way. We’re falling into an amoral, amorphous, or—in the case of linguistic conservatism—ungrammatical purgatory. But fear not! Redemption is at hand! Just some simple alterations to your accent, to reflect centuries-outdated pronunciation preserved in an obscure, inefficient orthography, and you’ll be saved!
It’s this style of peevology that a recent article posted on The Conversation expounds. The author, Baden Eunson, makes the argument that lazy lips are leading to “real world consequences for [Australian-accented] individuals.” Eunson takes issue with football being pronounced “foopball,” for anything said as “anythink,” and “jool rather than dual”. However, these so-called errors are fairly easily accounted for, and are very well-attributed linguistic phenomena found even in careful speech.
Foopball, for instance, is an example of anticipatory assimilation, where /t/ becomes a sound closer to the following sound’s place of articulation (namely the pressing together of both lips, rather than /t/’s pressing of the tongue to the alveolar ridge). The same phenomenon occurs, for instance, in the word bank, where the /n/ becomes an /ng/ sound (the last sound in sing). No-one says ban-k. Not even the Queen, with her mythically mad English skillz, would be that absurdly baroque.
But in particular, Eunson “rails at vunerable being used for vulnerable,” identifying that “you need to move your tongue and lips, and many are too lazy to do this.” In fact, by my count, even with the so-called lazy pronunciation, you make no fewer than five major movements of your lips and tongue. So why do we care about the loss of that one movement of the lips? Because, says Eunson, “vulnerable derives from the Latin vulnus,” which means ‘wound’. Imagine English if we lost that gem! Speakers slur out the nondescript “vunerable.” Their eyes glaze over, drawn into deep torpor. Reaching panicked for the dictionary, the speaker paws ineffectually at the pages, murmuring “vun… vun… vun…”, but finds nothing. “There used to be a word for that,” the speaker thinks. “I just… wish… I could…” And with that ‘l’ dies a concept for which we once had a word.
The fact is that, in English, the sound /l/ rarely precedes /n/. Even a very basic search of Curley Communication’s British English world list for spell checkers shows that the string ‘ln’ occurs 206 times in a list of 79,765 words. The vast majority of those are words like faithfulness, or cheerfulness, where the -ness syllable has secondary stress, which can also account for its persistence in phrases like ‘little noose’. There’s no stress on the second syllable of vulnerable, and because it’s such a rare sound in English without the stress, the ‘l’ is dropped. It’s as simple as that. No laziness, no decline in the English language (Eunson prefers the rather mean-spirited term ‘denigration’). Just perfectly allowable, normal linguistic phenomena, which demonstrate the speaker’s knowledge of the sound system of her language, rather than an ignorance thereof.
Credit where credit’s due (joo?): Eunson does better than most, noting that language does undergo these processes (the shift from ‘a nadder’ to ‘an adder’) and implies that these changes may not have been entirely negative. But he still falls into that old line of argument that a term’s etymology, and its orthography, are king; and that to lose these aspects through lazy speech would be scandalous and detrimental. There are empirical examples of where this is wrong, too: take smorgasbord. Originally from Swedish smörgåsbord, some might be aware that it etymologically means “sandwich table”, and fewer are aware that smörgås is a compound of smör (butter) and gås (goose). Does it make it any less conceivable to speakers of English? I think not. Fewer still (if any?) pronounce it with the correct vowel sounds for ‘ö’ and ‘å’, and the correct, retroflex consonant sound for the final ‘rd’. Surely calling an English speaker lazy for not using Swedish phonemes and phonological processes would seem absurd here?