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Are these words examples of elision? What effect do they create? If a child says them what does this suggest about their language development? Thanks for any help!!

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    Not "elision". That's way too general, and just means something's missing, without stating what, or where, or how it happened. The frequent contractions of What are you and Aren't you to /'wətʃə/ and /'arntʃə/ (spelled variously -- there is no standard spelling for noncanonic contractions) are examples of Assimilation. Contraction to What're you /'wətryu/ fusing to /'wətʃu/ (because /tr/ is retroflexed and indistinguishable in speech from /tʃr/ -- try distinguising true and chew), and then final /u/ reducing to /ə/ gives you "what-cha". Similar story for "arent-cha". – John Lawler Oct 2 '14 at 22:27
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    @JohnLawler - When my eldest was learning to read/write, he insisted on writing train as chrain. He eventually explained, "No, choo-choo-chrain!" – anongoodnurse Oct 2 '14 at 22:54
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    @JohnLawler thank you for clearing that up for me. Do you happen to have any thoughts on why children use assimilation particularity with regard to "what-cha" and "aren't-cha"? – SRK Oct 2 '14 at 23:22
  • Do they? Everybody uses assimilation all the time, kids included. When you study phonetics, you'll find hundreds of other places where it occurs; and hundreds of other phenomena besides assimilation, too. Though it is awfully common. – John Lawler Oct 2 '14 at 23:30
  • @JohnLawler The coronal consonants all do take a beating — palatalization, affricatization, and more — when followed by high vowels or glides in all forms of speech, and not just across morphemic boundaries, either. I’m thinking of what the long years have done to words like conscience, coercion, contortion, natural, sure, sugar, casual, censure, pressure, mission, Asia, treasure, evasion, erosion, elation. It’s so common that it is more noted in its absence, like when people bend over backwards to stop it from happening naturally in words like issue or tissue — or didju. – tchrist Oct 3 '14 at 4:28
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It's probably helpful to define some terms here:

Elision

This involves the complete omission of individual sounds. It can happen at word boundaries or word internally. An example would be the omission of /d/ in the word friendly, so that it sounds like frenly:

  • He's very friendly --> /hiz 'veri 'frenli/.

Assimilation

This is an altogether different process. This is when two sounds occur next to each other. One of the sounds changes to a different phoneme and becomes more like the sound it's next to. In other words, it assimilates properties of the sound it's juxtaposed with.

So, for example, when we say the word input, the /n/, which is highly unstable, takes on the bilabial quality of the /p/ and becomes /m/. In normal speech therefore the word input is usually pronounced /ɪmpʊt/.

Coalescent assimilation

This is really a quite different phenomenon from normal assimilation. Occasionally, when we have two sounds next two each other the adjustments we need to make to be able pronounce them in succession result in a third completely different sound which replaces both of the original two. One such example of this is when we have /z/ followed by /j/ (the sound represented by the letter 'y'). These are often replaced by the sound, /ʒ/ (the middle consonant in vision). So in the sequence these yours we occasionally get:

  • Are these yours --> /ə ði:ʒɔ:z/

Here /ʒ/ is acting both as the last consonant in these and the first in yours. Arguably, we also get this word type of coalescence internally in words like leisure /'leʒə/.

The Original Poster's example phrases.

The Original Poster's question was about the phrases "whatcha" and "aren'tcha". These are forms of what you and aren't you. In as much as whatcha ever occurs as a form of the phrase "what are you", for example in what are you gonna do about it, it only occurs in sentences where the auxiliary are has been ellipted. In other words the whole word are is completely missing: watcha only occurs as a form of what you gonna to do about it

Both of these phrases are examples of coalescent assimilation, not elision or regular assimilation. This particular type of coalescence is often called yod coalescence. When the sound /t/ occurs before the sound /j/ in normal speech there is a tendency for them to be replaced by the sound /tʃ/ as in chin. In the sequences what you and arent you we find /t/ and /j/ at the junction of the two words:

  • /wɒt ju/ and /'a:nt ju/ [British English] --> /wɒtʃu/ and /'ɑ:ntʃu/
  • /wʌt ju/ and /'ɑrnt ju/ [General American] --> /wʌtʃu/ and /'ɑrntʃu/

In casual speech the /u/'s at the end there may turn into /ə/, which is the whatcha and arentcha in the OP's question.

One might be tempted to think that the /wʌtʃu/ in American English comes from a co-articulation of "what are you ..." /wʌt ər ju/ where the /t/ in what and the /r/ in are join together to give a post-alveolar apico affricate - which is very similar in sound to /tʃ/ (see John Lawler's comments under the original question). However, this is definitely not the case. There are two straightforward pieces of evidence. Firstly, this pronunciation occurs in British English in all the same environments as it does in General American, but British English doesn't have an /r/ sound in the word are at all. Secondly the "ch" sound in /wʌtʃu/ doesn't occur in American English in phrases like "what are they ...". If it was the /t/ and the /r/ that were producing the "ch" sound, it would obviously occur here too - but it doesn't.

Yod coalescence in young people's speech

The Original Poster was wondering why young people use yod coalescence, and what this says about their language development. Well, firstly it should be said that the /tʃ/ phoneme is one of the very last to be acquired by children. Children usually manage to master the following significantly earlier than they manage /tʃ/:

  • / p, b, t, d, k, g, m, n, ŋ, f, v, s, z, h, w, l, j/

So the occurrence of /tʃ/ is a welcome sign in any young person's phonemic inventory.

More significantly, yod coalescence, although it is often thought of as "not proper" is in fact widespread across all standard varieties of English. It doesn't only occur with "what you" and "aren't you", it occurs commonly at any boundaries where we find /tj/ sequences.

To underline this point, linked at the bottom of this section here is a video of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II talking about her working life. If you forward to the following stages of the video you will hear the Queen doing various "watchu"-type articulations:

  • 05.22 "It's quite an old fashioned idea thatchou do put out the red carpet - for the guest"
  • 07.00 "You hope thachour going to get the, the ...
  • 07.03 ... the answer thatchou want".
  • 09.15 "You know. You know exactly whatchour going to be doing two months hence"
  • 09.29 "You have to sort've work out in your mind the hard work, an then whatchou enjoy in retrospect ... "

Video link here: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The upshot of this is that, young people should not be made to feel bad about yod coalescence, it's perfectly normal, standard English. The idea that yod coalescence is not a feature of standard Englishes is a myth promulgated by ne'er do well prescriptionists. Most people who think that they don't have yod coalescence as a feature of their normal speech, in actual fact, do.

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    In AmE, 'student' in deliberate articulated speech is pronounced /stu:dent/ (that is, not /stju:dent/). So there is no assimilation of /tj/ to /tʃ/. In regular AmE speech it becomes /stu:?nt/ or /stu:ent/ or a dental flap or whatever happens to the 'd'. – Mitch Oct 3 '14 at 0:11
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    @Mitch I think what tchrist is getting at, is that the vowel there, if there is one, will be a schwa /ə/. It will never be a /e/ as in "denture", for example. (In this position though there's very unlikely to be a vowel there, or at least in British English, because the tongue is already on the alvoelar ridge from the /d/ and it will just stay there for the /n/ while the velum shifts to allow air to pass through the nasal cavity). – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '14 at 13:16
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    /ɑrəntʃu/ has too many syllables: the schwa is spurious. Also, you’ve gone and spelt ER2’s name wrong. She will not be amused. – tchrist Oct 4 '14 at 20:25
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    @tchrist 'Mrs. Windsor'? – Mitch Oct 4 '14 at 20:27
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    The old kids’ joke “Knock knock. Who’s There? Orange? Orange who? Orange ya glad I didn’t say banana!” illustrates that the same thing happens in both sequences aren’t you and orange you: the [n] nasalizes the vowel a bit (gives it a twang) and gets somewhat lost in the collision, rendering rhymes especially challenging. Also, you cannot use a schwa in a stressed syllable: it has to be [ʌ], which is how we actually say it. – tchrist Oct 4 '14 at 20:37
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I wouldn't say that "elision" is too general, given it refers specifically to omission of vowels, consonants or syllables. However, I'm not sure if it applies here, given that your example is more of a morphing of words into a hybrid phonetic contraction. Regarding why a child would say that, it appears to be part of learning language. It begins with phonetic mimicry, the attempt to duplicate what they hear, but due to inexperience, their initial attempts are slightly off (hence why kids say so many malapropisms; they sound close enough). They opt for the simpliest and most comfortable phrasing, as well as the swiftest pronunciation, which is why assimilation is common occurence. It's not limited to children. Many adults, especially those in accent-heavy regions, also do it. It's rectified by gentle and consistent correction and re-annunciation from the corrector. However, with aren't-cha and what-cha, I don't know that it's necessary, so long as they know the proper way to say it and aren't writing the words out like that.

  • Sorry, but that's a bit misleading that bit about correction. All the evidence shows that correction plays no part at all in the development of child speech. There's been hundreds of studies, and they all disprove it. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '14 at 10:12
  • I'd be happy to read any of the studies you're referencing, though my personal experience with my own minor speech issues and with dealing my nephews seems to contradict that, though naturally that's only anecdotal evidence. – L. Alexandra Oct 5 '14 at 5:52

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