A Special Stamp

Last week, I hosted a prospective student while she visited our department. When not linguisticking, she enjoys crafting, and at the end of her stay, to thank me for hosting her, she presented me with a gift: a rubber stamp she made just for me, while she was here!


“For your book signings,” she told me. (How she found out about Sparkers is another story: There’s an ARC floating around in the department–surprisingly, not my doing–and it surfaced at the informal phonologists and phoneticians’ lunch I brought this prospective student to.)

For those unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the word in the center of the stamp is a phonetic transcription of writer (more on this in a moment). This present was completely unexpected, and it’s one of the most unique and thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. And this from someone who had only met me days earlier and whom I may never see again (though hopefully I will)! Just to give you an idea of how much thought she put into this, the prospective student apparently discussed with another grad student whether I “raise” in words like writer in an effort to make the transcription match my variety of English. They actually guessed wrong, but this stamp is so fantastic I’m not complaining! I love how it’s simultaneously the stamp of a writer and of a linguist, and it makes me smile to think of sending signed copies of Sparkers out into the world inscribed with a bit of IPA.

Speaking of the IPA, who’s ready for a little phonetics? Let’s deconstruct “ˈraɪtər”. That apostrophe-like mark indicates that stress falls on the first syllable of writer. The first sound in writer is of course an “r”; despite the spelling, there isn’t a “w” sound in the word. The American English “r” is actually represented by the IPA symbol [ɹ] while [r] represents the trill (or rolled “r”) used in languages like Spanish. However, in broad transcriptions, which omit precise phonetic details, the symbol [r] is often used for the American English “r” anyway .

The first vowel in writer is the diphthong /aɪ/. Now, I actually pronounce this diphthong differently in words like writer because I do something called Canadian raising. Essentially this means I pronounce writer differently from rider, specifically the sound represented by i. You can test yourself to see if you do this too. (I tend to think that everybody does this, because I do, and it doesn’t jump out at me if someone doesn’t Canadian raise in a word like writer. Clearly they don’t, though. This year, both my phonology professors used my speech as an example to demonstrate Canadian raising in class because I was the only U.S. student present who did it.) If you’re curious, the IPA symbol for the vowel I say in writer is [ʌɪ], and the sound change is called Canadian raising because the vowel raises, i.e. becomes higher, i.e. is pronounced with the tongue higher in the mouth. If you’re more curious, Canadian raising (at least the kind I have) changes /aɪ/ to [ʌɪ] before voiceless consonants like /p/, /t/, /k/, and /s/ but not before voiced consonants like /b/, /d/, /g/, and /z/. Hence the difference in vowel sound between write and ride (and, consequently, between writer and rider).

The “t” in writer is actually pronounced [ɾ] in American English. This sound is called a tap, and it’s the middle consonant in both writer and rider (which is why these words sound identical if you don’t have Canadian raising). Still, you can transcribe the “t” in writer as /t/, as in my stamp, because it starts out as a /t/ and only turns into a tap because it’s in between two vowels. The second vowel in writer is the upside-down e [ə]. This is called a schwa. And of course, writer ends with another “r” sound, though one often sees the entire ending –er transcribed with the pretty symbol [ɚ].

So, there you have it! If you see me this fall, I might be stamping this design in your book!

7 thoughts on “A Special Stamp

  1. Amazing, and deliciously nerdy! I’ll have to pay closer attention to your vowels the next time we meet, though, because I can’t make sense of the raised vowel just by reading about it…

      • Hm, now that I think about it, the vowel in “ride” is longer than the vowel in “write”. But I don’t know if my tongue is raising or not.

      • Yes, vowels are longer before voiced sounds than before voiceless sounds in American English. “Save” and “safe” and “mead” and “meet” are like this too. The question is whether the vowels in “ride” and “write” differ in quality as well as length… I’m not very good at telling where my tongue is, but I can hear the difference.

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