Assimilation or elision? This is the question is raised by teacher Regina Cardenes (studying for the Trinity College Diploma) I’m hoping to get help with regards to the difference between assimilation and elision. I know that assimilation is when a sound at the end of a word is modified depending on the first sound in the next word and that elision is when a sound disappears. However, many of the examples of assimilation seem to me to be more like elision. For example, this shop has the final /s/ sound in this changed to /ʃ/ and the phrase is written as having two /ʃ/ sounds, one at the end of this and the other at the beginning of shop. However, I don’t really hear two /ʃ/ sounds when I say the phrase out loud! I would have just said that the /s/ sound at the end of this disappears and labelled it as elision. More than anything I want to be better prepared for an upcoming phonology interview…! Regina Cardenes
Reply: Assimilation or elision – thanks for this Regina. Basically assimilation is changing a sound, due to the influence of neighbouring sounds and elision is omitting a sound, for the same reason. And quite often assimilation and elision occur together. In the famous example of hand bag you can see the dropping (elision) of the /d/ so you get, in ordinary spelling hanbag. But having got there you now have a situation where a further shortcut will be for the nasal /n/ to change (assimilate) to the bilabial version of a nasal ie /m/ as a shortcut to the coming bilabial /b/. You thus end up with, in ordinary spelling, hambag.
Taking your example of this shop you could look at it as elision, since the /s/ disappears if you say it the way you do, or you could look at it as assimilation if you say it in a way that appears to change the /s/ to /ʃ/ as the tongue anticipates the following /ʃ/ at the beginning of shop. One can refer to both elision and assimilation as simplifications. And the thing to keep in mind is that simplifications are short cuts taken by the 4 main articulators (lips, tongue, jaw, voice) because it’s easier. It’s cutting corners. So we probably do it more when we speak faster. If you look at assimilation and elision as ways of making short cuts in the mouth you will find that it all becomes much easier to understand.
So, when you’want to explain what’s going on in connected speech phonology you can ask yourself, and your students, “Why is this a short cut? What is the pay off in saying it this way?” And the way to answer the question is to go inside and watch your own articulators as speaking and whisper the word or phrase, both faster and slower. You will soon find that you can see what is going on, and that you do not need the theory books to tell you. I like the fact that you can go inside to see what your articulators are doing. By articulators I mean muscles like the tongue and lips which move as well as ‘passive’ surfaces like teeth and palate which are acted on by muscles. When you feel what your articulators are doing (see my references to proprioception) you and your students get to see what’s going on. The problem with knowing the answer in theory, from other people’s descriptions, without referring properly to your own articulators through proprioception, is that nothing is personally learnt from the inside. Learning pron is more physical than cognitive.
Let’s ask the same question with your example of this shop. Say it slowly and you can feel your tongue slide backwards from tooth ridge to the beginning of palate, and so changing the sound from /s/ to /ʃ/. On my pron chart this is shown as a move towards the right of the chart along the second row of consonants (fricatives). Clearly the convenient short cut is to omit /s/ (elison) and then optionally to lengthen the remaining /ʃ/, or even appear to energise the /ʃ/ twice (assimilation) to maintain the rhythm of the two words. Thus in transcribing it you might repeat the symbol /ʃ/ as in the case you report. It depends on the speed of the speaker and the carefulness they have chosen to speak with. There’s no single right answer to the use of assimilation or elision, and it’s always useful to look at other ways of doing it. But the variations of assimilation or elision take place within a relatively narrow range of options. Dropping sounds (elision) or changing them (assimilation) is actually quite a straightforward affair with fairly few rules – largely governed by the law of short cuts!