Does English Need the Eng?

No, I'm not talking about some weird slang where I shorten the name of the language to "Lish"; I mean the NG sound in words like strong, singer, and slang. Almost everyone who analyzes the sound system of English calls that sound a distinct phoneme (rather than a blend of the N sound and the G sound). My question is: Do we really need that eng phoneme?

My answer is: It depends. If you give syllable breaks phonemic significance, then you don't need the eng at all. The G sound is never released in words like strong and dingbat because it's not able to be part of the next syllable's onset as in stronger and English. (Incidentally, this runs completely parallel to the combination of M and B, which is why the B in thumb is silent but not the D in hand.) So if you just split N and G up with a syllable boundary every time the G should be released, then the two phonemes work just fine in combination to describe that eng sound.

If you don't break words up into syllables and just analyze speech as an unbroken stream of phonemes, then you do need the eng because of pairs like singer and finger (which don't rhyme perfectly). But if you don't break up words into syllables, you'll have problems. Like why is the T flapped in whatever but fully pronounced (and aspirated) in words like attach and saute? The obvious answer is that whatever is really like two words: what and ever.

So why not just say that morpheme breaks (but not necessarily syllable breaks) have phonological significance? That would be fine, but you'd have to be very careful how you define morpheme in that case. If morpheme breaks have phonological significance, then you should be able to look at phonological patterns to determine where exactly morpheme breaks occur.

Let's do just that. We'll look at two words, each with an NG sound and each presumably comprising two morphemes: singer and stronger. With a morpheme break, the NG in singer occurs in the first syllable, so there's no strong release of G, as expected. Stronger seems to follow the normal rules of syllable division I describe in my post "English Phonology (The Basics)". But isn't it strong+er? That's what they told me in my introductory syntax class! 'Fraid not.

There's an important difference between the er in singer and the er in stronger: the first er can be applied to any verb, but the second is only a part of some comparative adjectives. By default, the word more is applied to adjectives to make them comparative. But there's no need to do this if a better word (like stronger or better) already exists. That's the key: it's a single word. You could even say it's a single morpheme.

So the short answer is: No, we don't need no stinkin' eng. And also, we could use a more clear (and useful) definition of the morpheme. Or maybe we should just define the linguistic word based on phonological patterns instead of writing conventions.

Related Posts: English Phonology (The Basics)

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