“I ate Madonna for breakfast”

My college is around the corner from a branch of a well-known fast-food restaurant chain (no name, no free publicity, even though it’s perfectly obvious who I’m writing about). Several years ago, a student arrived in class and told us “I ate Madonna for breakfast”.

The pronunciation issue is consonant clusters. All languages have rules about what consonants and consonant clusters can occur at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a word. Some languages allow none, some a very limited number and some many. English allows a moderately high number of consonant clusters, so most of my students speak languages which allow fewer.

The well-known fast-food restaurant chain in question ends with the consonant cluster /ldz/. One way of coping with an unusual cluster is to leave it out completely, which is what this student did. (Maybe he thought he was saying it, but I certainly didn’t hear it.) Another is to omit one or two of the sounds. In this case, there are three ways to omit one sound (/ld/, /lz/, /dz/) and three ways to omit two (/l/, /d/, /z/). I suspect that many native English speakers omit the /d/ and say /lz/, and equally suspect that none say /ld/ or /dz/, or any of the single consonants. In fact, many Australians say “Macca’s”.

The cluster /kd/ occurs in the middle of the name, as the result of the last sound of the first syllable and the first sound of the second. I suspect that no-one omits the /d/ or both: in the whole name, the /d/ just has to be there. (In the Aussie nickname, it can (indeed must) me omitted.)

Cluster reduction is a feature of every native English speaker’s pronunciation, to some extent and whether they realise or admit it. “I want to go” in careful speech becomes “I wan_to go” then “I wanna go”. Some speakers of some varieties of English say “I wan_” all the time. It’s not part of standard English, but it is of their variety. Some clusters in the middle of words are (almost) always reduced even in standard English. Very few people say Chri/st.m/as and no-one says cu/p.b/oard. When a cupboard was a board for cups, people no doubt did pronounce it that way, but the function of the object changed, so the pronunciation of the word changed, leaving the spelling as a clue to the object’s and word’s origins.

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