17 April 2012

The Swedish sj-sound

The word for "shit" in Swedish is "skit", sometimes pronounced very much like the English word, but frequently using the voiceless postalveolar-velar fricative /ɧ/ or "sj-sound" . Roughly speaking, this sound is a combination of / ʃ / and an aspiration (in proportion 1:9, in my opinion). Some people describe the "sj-sound" as doubly-articulated voiceless palato-alveoar-velar fricative. The symbol /ɧ/ appears in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and is only used for this specific sound of the Swedish language, but it is debatable whether the phoneme, as a distinct entity, exists at all. Here is how a Swede pronounces "sju" (seven), using both phonemes (i.e. / ʃ / and  /ɧ/). Someone from the west of Sweden would rather use /ɧ/ in "sju", but someone from Stockholm, or someone wanting to be more pretentious (they tell me), uses  / ʃ /. Other examples of the sj-sound, pronounced both ways, can be found here.

What is of interest (to me) however, is the evolution of the sound. Once upon a time, the "sk" in "skit" was, indeed, pronounced as it is written. The word came into Swedish from the proto-Germanic equivalent, which itself was probably derived from a classical Greek word, which is "skatos" in genitive. The word "sju" was "septem" in Latin, "hepta" in Greek (the aspiration now lost in modern Greek), "sapta" in Sanskrit and, probably, "septm" in PIE. We see that, in both cases, there is an "s" sound there (changed to pure aspiration in Greek).

I am neither a linguist, let alone a phonologist, so anything I write is only a personal theory. It is unlikely (impossible, I would say) that the sound  /ɧ/ existed in old Swedish. Rather, it was an "s" sound which turned into an / ʃ / (much like people in N. Greece pronounce "Serres"). The transformation  / ʃ / → /ɧ/ probably is one of lingustic laziness™ (my terminology), meaning that / ʃ / requires more effort than an aspiration-type of phoneme, like /ɧ/. So "station" (the word for "station" in Swedish) is most frequently pronounced as sta/ɧ/on, rather than sta/ ʃ/on, or, simply, sta/x/on. It appears to me that the the same kind of linguistic laziness™ explains the pronunciation of the phrase "¿como estas?" by Cubans: they replace the first "s" in "estas" by a (voiced) "h" sound and the second one by a voiceless "h", or, by simply omitting it.

This is, at least, my (Occam razor-based) theory, probably badly explained. I have been unable to find any references for the linguistic transformation which resulted in the "sj-sound", and, of course, asking a native speaker doesn't help (one does not think about one's own language). Any tips would be appreciated.

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What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
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