Rush Push Lush Bush Hush
October 6, 2010 5:37 AM   Subscribe

Other than, "It just is!", how do you explain to someone the pronunciation rule for: bush/push versus hush/lush/rush where the ush is pronounced differently.
posted by querty to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think the OP means "bush" versus "hush". Surely, you don't pronounce the "ush" the same in those two words if you speak English (in the US, anyway).

OP, I don't know how to explain the rule. Pronunciation rules is what they is, I just accept them.
posted by King Bee at 5:45 AM on October 6, 2010

Comb vs bomb vs womb? Just refer them to that Gallagher clip, and tell them English is a messed up language!
posted by Grither at 5:51 AM on October 6, 2010

Surely, you don't pronounce the "ush" the same in those two words if you speak English

Yep, all those words have the same "ush" - I can't imagine how you could pronounce it any differently. I'm not from the US but I do watch quite a bit of US TV and don't recall any 'ush' words being pronounced anything other than 'ush'.
posted by missmagenta at 5:58 AM on October 6, 2010

I'm not totally sure what you mean by "explain to someone"... Do you want to explain to them WHY they are spelled the same but pronounced differently? Do you want them to simply know that there is a difference in the pronunciation? Do you want to offer a list of *ush words and be able to give them a formula so they will know which are pronounced one way and which another?

Anyway, I guess to begin with, I would say bush and push, and then say hush and rush, and try to get them to hear the difference.
Then I might direct them to a resource on phonetic symbols. I'm not sure which system I'm using (there seem to be more than one), but if writing these phonetically I would write the u in bush/push as a rounded u (without the tail, and with pronounced serifs on both risers) (not sure what Greek/Cyrillian character this is), and the u in lush/hush as a capital A without the crossbar (lambda?).

Pronunciation is, IMO, the hardest thing about English, or at least about teaching English.
posted by segatakai at 6:01 AM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: Push is from the Anglo-Norman/Old French pousser; rush is from the Anglo-French russher. Pronunciation differences may be explained by the different vowel sounds in this earlier words; spelling was standardized long after the words entered the language, and the similar spelling is merely coincidence.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:02 AM on October 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

They are definitely different.

hush / hʌʃ /
bush / bʊʃ /

Off the top of my head I can't remember any specific phonetic rule that would apply, but maybe I'm forgetting something. They probably come from very different words and their similarity in the present is just a coincidence, or in preview, what mr_roboto said.
posted by Memo at 6:07 AM on October 6, 2010

or, what mr_roboto said
posted by segatakai at 6:08 AM on October 6, 2010

Yep, all those words have the same "ush" - I can't imagine how you could pronounce it any differently.

Rush is pronounced rʌʃ while bush is pronounced bʊʃ. The difference is the vowel sound: ʌ vs. ʊ.

Which of these vowels do you use to pronounce both words?

posted by mr_roboto at 6:10 AM on October 6, 2010

Explain that there are not enough vowel symbols in English to represent the full range of vowel sounds. Then explain that, yup, we really do have to learn each example one by one. And then point them to the phonetic system/pronunciation guide in their dictionary. If appropriate, let them make a tape of you pronouncing each of the examples in their dictionary's index of phonetic symbols.
posted by Ahab at 6:11 AM on October 6, 2010

I definitely pronounce the words differently. For bonus difficulty, 'mush' can be pronounced either way.
posted by amtho at 6:15 AM on October 6, 2010

Perhaps missmagenta has a Yorkshire accent?
posted by Ahab at 6:15 AM on October 6, 2010

Same thing with -ough, which is my favorite. No reason exists today why through, though, and tough are all pronounced differently, same for push, hush, etc. English has what is known as deep orthography. The spelling-to-sound correspondences are often ambiguous, leading to feedforward*- or feedback**-inconsistencies.

On the plus side, the beauty of the whacky English orthography system is that it favors no one. No matter what dialect you speak, the spelling system will be a source of mystifying complexity and byzantine ambiguity. We can all agree on that.

I suppose that if you *really want* to make up a rule for this particular feedforward inconsistency set, you could say that push and bush start with bilabial stops and should be pronounced with [ʊʃ] and that the rest should be pronounced as [ʌʃ], but that is not an actual phonological's just a coincidence, and should be treated as such (like all other mnemonic devices).

*Feedforward inconsistency: words containing an orthographic character(s) that could conceivably be pronounced multiple ways.
**Feedback inconsistency: words containing a sound that could conceivably be spelled multiple ways.

posted by iamkimiam at 6:29 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

b and p are plosives; the others aren't.
posted by scruss at 6:56 AM on October 6, 2010

Well, if you want to get all phonetics on them...

Looking at the first phoneme of each word, /b/ and /p/ are both labial stops, which is to say they are articulated at the front of the mouth with the lips, and they involve stopping the airflow completely.

/h/, /l/, and /r/ are all articulated further back in the mouth, and none of them involve a complete stoppage of airflow.

Now, the vowel in "hush"/"lush"/"rush" is an open back vowel, which is to say it's pronounced with the tongue at the back of the mouth and lowered. It's sort of the "neutral" vowel in that it's the vowel one articulates with one's tongue in its normal resting state.

And the vowel in "bush"/"push" is a near-close near-back vowel, which means it's pronounced with the tongue slightly more forward in the mouth and raised almost to the roof of the mouth. It's also a rounded vowel -- your lips purse while you pronounce it.

I started typing out a whole explanation about why these two phonetic differences would co-occur with one another, but then I realized that whatever I typed would be bullshit because the last historical linguistics course I took was seven years ago. But what I can say is that if one wanted to assume that these words all used to be pronounced the same, one could probably reconstruct a hypothetical process by which this split occurred. Phonetic change tends toward greater simplicity in articulation; when words change in pronunciation, they usually become easier to articulate rather than more difficult. So if I had to come up with a logical explanation, I'd say that there's some reason that a near-close near-back vowel is easier to articulate after a labial stop, and an open back vowel is easier to articulate after a consonant pronounced further back in the mouth.

Or, on preview, iamkimiam is right and it's just a coincidence. But I'm curious, iamkimiam: is there a particular reason you think this specific phonetic difference is just a coincidence? Do you have historical data to back that up or is it that no plausible pattern jumps out at you?
posted by pluckemin at 6:56 AM on October 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: pluckermin has nailed the phonetic distinction but . . .

I am surprised that no one has pointed out a very basic underlying fact here: spelling is not sound. Spelling represents sound. Writing systems do not determine dialectological features.

The words are pronounced differently because they have phonemically different vowel nuclei that make them contrastive (the phenomenon you are describing, named). Spelling is a highly variable set of conventions. Conventional writing systems are rarely phonetically precise for any language that has developed literacy. Writing systems condense and shorthand many phonemic features that are intuitive for native speakers of a language to interpret from context (and there are common errors at the margin, often evident in such genres as punning and rhyming verse, that prove we read through a filter of a far more primary oral competence).

So "it just is," is sort of correct, if by that you mean, "this is historically how English spelling has evolved into a standardized system with a very imperfect fit to its many dialects or even the common phonological core of most of those dialects."
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:12 AM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Try, "this is English, of course it makes no sense."

Really, "it just is" is the correct answer, and certainly the one that makes sense to the most listeners. If you want to mess with them, ask them to think about the different "th" sounds in "the" and "thought," and then tell them that Russian has two different letters that (basically) correlate to "sh" and one more for "ts."
posted by SMPA at 7:27 AM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: I'm very glad someone mentioned the Yorkshire accent, because I've been sat here saying those words and going "but they're the same?", and I do indeed have a (mild) Yorkshire accent.

Ergo, the solution is not to explain but rather to become more Yorkshire.
posted by Coobeastie at 7:41 AM on October 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

pluckemin: I was looking at this synchronically (right now, at this point in time) and not diachronically (or from a historical perspective). I have no idea what the specific history is for those sounds. I'm saying that I think it's a coincidence for this set because it's obviously not a conditioned sound change. I put the following string /ush/ into RegEx dictionary and got 108 matches...only 4 distinct variants had the [ʊʃ] pronunciation: bush, push, tush, and cush(ion). The rest were the other pronounciation (or something else entirely, like 'sushi', which is a loanword anyway). The fact that there are other plosive/stop-initial 'ush'es NOT pronounced with [ʊʃ] - like gush - suggests that this isn't a conditioned sound change (even if it was at some point in time, it isn't anymore, and these 4 words are the idiosyncratic remains). And of course, there's all the other p-, b-, t-, c-([k])-initial words that are pronounced with an [ʌ] sound immediately following them (but not necessarily a [ʃ] after that, but something accoustically similar).

There's also a word like shush, which can have both pronunciations (and doesn't start with a plosive/stop). That's a fun one that really blows any conditioned sound change idea right out, I think. I don't even think you can make a case for front/back conditioning, as you have words like tush, cush(ion), and mush.

I am sooo not a historical linguist. But inconsistency effects are in my bag 'o fun! I love those things. You say MeFi, I say MeFi.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:43 AM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

fourcheesemac makes really good points that should be paid attention to...a lot of my blathering above assumes that the spelling is more or less reflective of the sounds (I was looking for a sound-based reason that might be driving the pronunciation variation and would therefore be somewhat loosely conveyed in the spelling system (as a feedforward inconsistency, prompted by a conditioning environment), which there isn't and it is not). Basically, as he says and bears repeating, spelling is not sound.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:52 AM on October 6, 2010

If you want to come up with yet another, different mnemonic device for whomever, you could also say that bush, tush and cushion (for the pushin') are (mostly) nouns and have some, uh, semantic similarities that all those [-ʌʃ] words don't have. But that's really, uh, stretching it.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:59 AM on October 6, 2010

iamkimiam: Thanks, that makes sense to me. My instinct when approaching these kinds of questions is always "there's got to be some kind of systematic explanation!" because I feel like the big takeaway from linguistics is "even things that seem completely random are actually systematic," but you're right that there are lots of counterexamples to the concordance I suggested. (And, most importantly, there's no evidence that all of these words are spelled the same because they were once pronounced the same.)
posted by pluckemin at 8:01 AM on October 6, 2010

I have just moved to Yorkshire to write my PhD dissertation on consistency effects and sociolinguistic/pronunciation variation, with of all things, MeFi as my data set. It is all very strange and echo-ey in here. I am going to leave campus and this thread now...
posted by iamkimiam at 8:09 AM on October 6, 2010

Seconding what iamkimiam said about deep orthography and English's sound representation problems, probably stemming in these cases from the origins of the words.

The same pronunciation as bush/push is usually used with "tush" and sometimes with "shush" and "mush," so it's not necessarily a bilabial or plosive distinction, either. I think think there is a bias toward the open-mid back vowel (ʌ) the farther back on the tongue the words are pronounced, with a few dual pronunciations.

Relatively "front" consonants that are pronounced with ʊ - push, bush, (mush)
Relatively "front" consonants that are pronounced with ʌ - (mush)
Relatively "back" consonants that are pronounced with ʊ - (shush), tush
Relatively "back" consonants that are pronounced with ʌ - (shush), gush, hush, lush, rush

My arbitrary dividing line for front/back in this particular case was between the dentals and alveolars. That made the sets work better. Normally "alveolar" is not considered all that far back. Some dialects do pronounce hush with the ʊ, and cushion is perfectly easy to say even though it uses the near-close vowel.

So...if you use an arbitrary delineation at the alveolars and the person knows IPA, you can say there's a sort of rule in American English about it. I, personally, would find it easier to say "it just is."
posted by wending my way at 8:10 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can I go slightly meta to say how much I enjoy the level of linguistic discourse on metafilter?
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:58 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

And pluckemin, I wouldn't rule out systematic explanations for inconsistencies, where the levels of determination were properly modeled. There certainly do seem to be principles of written language change, at least within delimited contexts -- the trend toward simplification in English spelling is pretty longstanding now, for example. But that is a dialog for another day. IFYKWIM.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:01 AM on October 6, 2010

Also, I will add the idiosyncratic "mush," which can be a spelling for "mush together" ("moosh") or pronounced like "hush" to mean the same thing, or as a command to a dog team.

I have the arctic on my mind, obviously.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:06 AM on October 6, 2010

My dad, who is an otherwise excellent speaker of English as a second language, still has problems with these kinds of heteronyms. He *hates* how (seemingly illogically) inconsistent English is; he'll love this thread.

Just for fun, here's the classic illustration of how much heteronyms suck.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:18 AM on October 6, 2010

Although they're not perfect matches, so I guess they're not really heteronyms? Who knows :)
posted by peachfuzz at 9:20 AM on October 6, 2010

All of these words are pronounced the same in my accent. To whom are you explaining this? I really struggled with phonetics at university (in the UK) because I do not speak RP.

I've just tried pronouncing 'bush' and 'hush' from the phonemes above and they sound really odd to me! It may be that English RP and American English use different phonemes, and there is less variation across US accent/dialect, but I can't work out how you couldn't pronounce them differently. And I say this as someone who speaks English...
posted by mippy at 9:28 AM on October 6, 2010

Another (northern) Brit who says that in my accent, all of these words sound the same...
posted by Decani at 1:32 PM on October 6, 2010

So this is an allophonic distinction (although I am familiar with northern dialects and can't quite convince myself the sounds are undifferentiated, but I always defer to the native speaker!). It is apparently a (phonetic and social) context-conditioned variation in any case. Mush/mush (the example I cited above) is the only minimal pair I can come up with where the distinction is actually semantically contrastive, and I think that's a marginal case.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:18 PM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: There is actually some historical basis to the observation that push and bush start with labial consonants. The two vowels we're talking about here are /ʌ/ and /ʊ/, which we could label STRUT and FOOT if we wanted to use Wells' lexical sets. STRUT is unrounded, FOOT is rounded. The STRUT vowel class originally developed from the unrounding of certain FOOT words, with some amount of irregularity leading to the development of a phonemic opposition. This is the FOOT-STRUT split. It forms a major dividing line in British dialectology, as the split did not take place in northern Britain (which is why you Yorkshire etc. folks can't tell the difference).

On preview: No, this is not an allophonic distinction. It's a phonemic opposition in the dialects where the split developed. Contrast putt (STRUT) and put (FOOT). Mush is a tricky example because it is variable for speakers who have the split (at least it is for me)--that is to say, it can have either phoneme in it, the same way for many speakers route or vase or aunt have two possible pronunciations.
posted by ootandaboot at 2:40 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

To make my previous comment a bit more useful to the original question of helping (I assume) non-native speakers who want to learn the difference:

To be clear about the articulatory basis that we assume underlies a conditioned unrounding process such as the FOOT-STRUT split: labial consonants are themselves round, thus would discourage unrounding of the following vowel. So someone wanting to figure out the difference should check out their lips while forming /p/ and /b/ and /ʊ/. The lips should be pursed for both the consonants and the vowels. Contrast this with, say, /l/ and /h/ and with /ʌ/--the lips should be more neutral or even spread. So, the unround vowel of STRUT goes with the unround initial consonants, and the round vowel of FOOT goes with the round (labial) consonants.

This isn't going to help once you move beyond the words that end in -ush, though. After all...why is put pronounced with the FOOT vowel and but pronounced with the STRUT vowel? They both start with labial consonants, but historically one unrounded and the other didn't. If the vowel quality were actually fully predictable from the initial consonant, we would indeed have a nice tidy situation of allophonic variation. But it isn't, because hey, language change is messy, for all kinds of complicated and fascinating reasons!
posted by ootandaboot at 2:56 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

> I feel like the big takeaway from linguistics is "even things that seem completely random are actually systematic,"

No, this is not true. Many things that seem completely random are in fact completely random. Your takeaway should be that some things that seem completely random can in fact be explained in ways that are not intuitively obvious. Another takeaway should be that many things that seem like they must have a common origin or explanation are in fact completely random. Coincidence plays a huge role in language as in life. And the distribution of these vowels is best treated as coincidence in synchronic terms; whatever conditioning factors there may have been historically are mostly irretrievable now, and won't help a learner anyway. English spelling is one big barrel of "it just is."
posted by languagehat at 5:49 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Great answers everyone!

If any of you fine Yorkshire folks could read out "Rush Push Lush Bush Hush" and put it on Tindeck, I'd love to hear that distinct accent.
posted by querty at 10:06 PM on October 6, 2010

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