Double consonants in English: Graphemic, morphological, prosodic and etymological determinants

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Double consonants in English: Graphemic, morphological, prosodic and etymological determinants

Kristian Berg
Carl-von-Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg

1. Overview

Consonant doubling in English shows regularities on many levels. Some regularities are graphotactic1, some are morphological, some are prosodic, and some seem to be related to etymology. At first glance, the main regularity seems to be phonographic2: There is a close correlation between double consonants letters and short (or ‘lax’) vowel phonemes3. The main problem that arises in the description is that this regularity holds only in one direction: Almost all double consonants indicate that the preceding vowel has a short correspondence (e.g. ammer>4, etting>), but the opposite implication is not valid: Far from all short vowels are marked with double consonants (c.f. e.g. imit>, inity>). For the writer, this poses a major problem: Exactly when are short vowel marked by double consonants and when not? The writer is affected as well, albeit indirectly. Since some short vowel are not marked by consonant doubling (e.g. ), the resulting words are isomorphic to words with long vowels (e.g. ). Exactly when does a single vowel letter followed by a single consonant letter correspond to a long vowel, and when does it correspond to a short vowel? These questions are essential for learners of the English writing system.

This paper sets out to answer them, both from the reading and from the writing perspective, using correspondences between graphemic and phonological forms that are established on the basis of the large lexical database CELEX (Baayen et al. 1995). The first insight into the matter is that morphologically complex words and morphologically simple words behave differently. Double consonants in morphologically complex words can be motivated with reference to graphemic word-formation rules: Under certain well-defined conditions, the stem-final consonant of a base is doubled when a vowel-initial suffix operates on that base (). As will be argued below, these conditions may be framed in purely graphemic terms without reference to phonology. Morphologically simple words, on the other hand, are different in that the occurrence (or non-occurrence) of double consonants hinges on the word ending. In this paper, the term word ending denotes recurring word-final entities without meaning, but with distributional properties (see section 4, Fn. 7 for a more thorough definition). For example, words which end with <-it> are very likely to occur with single intervocalic consonant letters (,
, ), while words which end with <-ow> are likely to occur after double consonants (e.g. , ). Perhaps surprisingly, both kinds of word endings sometimes have the same phonological correspondence: Words that end with <-ic> almost never double the preceding consonant letter (e.g.
), while words that end with <-ick> almost always do (e.g. ). Across both morphologically simple and complex words operate graphotactic constraints. For example, not all single consonant letters can be doubled. These three areas will be covered in the following, starting with graphotactics (section 2), moving on to morphologically complex words (section 3) and finally to morphologically simple words (section 4). The last part (section 5) is a summary and discussion of the main findings.

2. Graphotactic constraints

The first observations come from a purely graphemic perspective. Generalizing over the set of all graphemic words in the lexical database CELEX (Baayen et al 1995) we get (1) and (2):

(1) Only the letters are doubled.

Of these, double , and are comparatively rare (for and cf. Venezky 1999: 6).5

(2) Double consonants occur after a single vowel letter and before one or more vowel letters. There are three general exceptions to this statement:

(2a) Exception 1: Consonant doubling can occur preceding or following a consonant letter in compounds (e.g. , ) or words with Latinate prefixes (e.g. , ).

Double consonants in this position could be utilized to determine the morpheme boundaries: The fact that the probability of occurring morpheme-internally is low is a viable cue for a morpheme boundary. The number of Latinate prefix words with double consonant followed by a consonant is quite low (, , , ,

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , – this list is almost complete).

(2b) Exception 2: Consonant doubling regularly occurs before -le

The word ending <-le> is related to <-el>; as suffixes (e.g. sparkle, as opposed to non-functional word-endings as in bottle), they are allomorphs6. <-le> is the only formative that shows this “inverted” behavior (Carney 1994: 124f., 277). Other suffixes that correspond to syllabic consonants are spelled differently; the spellings * or * are impossible in English.

(2c) Exception 3: Consonant doubling occurs word-finally

Here we have to distinguish two different cases:

(3) a. , , ,

b. , , , , , , , ; , ,

The words in (3a) can be accounted for by a constraint demanding that lexical words in English have at least three letters (cf. Jespersen [1909] 1928: §4.96). This is not specific for final double consonants, it also applies to words like , , etc. Thus the double consonants in (3a) are independently motivated.

The words in (3b) show the regularly occurring word-final double consonants, , , , and (cf. also Cummings 1985: 76f.).

There are two respects in which this group (resp. a sub-group) differs from the other consonants.

1.: In the context where , , and occur - directly after a single vowel letter - neither of the single consonant letters (or ), , or can occur (4a). This sets the group apart from the other consonant letters (4b); there are only a few exceptions to this (most notably the suffix <-ic>/*<-ick>):

(4) a. */*, *, *, *

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