Monday, 13 January 2014

Don't shay a word

For much of the past week, my Twitter timeline has been full of posts with the tag #IHDOS14. A very prolific source (thanks Sandy ) was following a talk given by Robin Walker, now available here.

My attention was first grabbed by this:

Only three? Listen to Ritula Shah (@ritula) saying 'Afghanistan' and see if you dare say that again! Those three parts may be (? – I haven't really thought about this, but my brushes with other languages frequently leave me wondering at the phonological simplicity of English) sufficient for describing English, but many other languages use many more.

<autobiographical_note date-range="1972-3">
I have mentioned Joe Cremona  – the man chiefly responsible for what little I know of Romance Philology –  before. At our first meeting, wanting to know how much I knew about Spanish (very little at the time, deriving chiefly from a short tour of the north of Spain, partially recounted here) he asked me what the Spanish was for 'broom'. I didn't know, but I did know that the family name of the Plantagenet  kings was Broom, and that their emblem featured the plant with the Latin name of Planta Genista (whence 'Plantagenet'). So I guessed at 'genista' – which told him what he wanted to know: when pronouncing a word with the letters 'st' my s was not apical.

FYI, the word for broom is hiniesta; but the point is that in this context the sibilant is produced by a closure between the very tip of the tongue and the alveolar ridge.

When I saw the offending tweet I posted this:

Different languages make demands on different parts of the tongue, and in the process of acquiring our mother tongue we learn not to pay attention to (and even to become oblivious to) speech sounds that don't belong to our mother tongue's sound system. And the process of learning starts in the womb (as I mentioned here):

"The dramatic finding of this study [reported here] is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation," said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany.
So I was not surprised when the next tweet  confirmed my speculation:

This is something that English-speaking teachers of Spanish often say. But /s/ and /ʃ/ (which I imagine is what /sh/ means) are not allophonic in Spanish; [ʃ] scarcely exists in Spanish. These English teachers are referring to the apical s; and the use of 'sh' points to a reason for the misapprehension. The reasoning goes something like this:
<misapprehension  commonness="5">
  1. When Spanish students try to say /s/ in certain phonetic contexts, they make the wrong noise.
  2. The wrong noise sounds like (there is a quite like/very like/exactly the same continuum which depends on the listener's hearing and training) the noise that we Anglophones associate with the spelling 'sh'. [The use of 'sh' concretizes the misapprehension:
Anything spelt 'sh' must be 'like' the English sound /ʃ/
and the concrete is quick-drying. English teachers who have been saying this for years can be hard to convince.]
  1. Therefore /s/ and /ʃ/ are allophonic in Spanish.
 I summed this up in my next two tweets:

I don't have access to a spectrograph at the moment, or to a native speaker of Spanish, but I have an idea for a workaround‡ (more of a limparound really). Stay tuned to this frequency for an update that involves pretty pictures, but I must be getting on; that's quite enough for now.

 Update 2014.
† PS To clarify, I'm not saying that that /s/ is apical (although it may be, my ear has lost the acuity it had in the early '70s). The point I'm making is that every phoneme in the word is more or less subtly different from its English 'equivalent' – and those quotation marks are meant to convey my hesitancy about saying that any speech sound in one language is the same as a speech sound in another language; that's why (as I said here) blanc became 'plonk' in the ears of the Tommies who first heard it.

 Update 2014.
‡ PPS And here it is. I don't have convenient access to a native speaker of Castilian Spanish, so this recording is just of my voice, pronouncing the English s, the Castilian s and in between the two the English /ʃ/:

Two things leap out from this:
  • The apical s used in Castilian Spanish has a higher pitch than either English consonant
  • Whereas the first two fricatives here are confident and constant, the third is not at all. This is not a feature of the apical s, but it demonstrates a point I made earlier: native speakers learn to screen out foreign sounds. The frequency varies so wildly because the tip of my tongue is frantically dodging about trying to make a sound that I have learnt (but did not acquire as part of my mother tongue).
(Incidentally, I carefully specified Castilian Spanish, because there are many parts of Spain where the s is less [and sometimes not at all, I think] apical. In Andalucía for example, word-final s becomes almost inaudible: the difference between lo bueno [the principle of good] and los buenos [good people] is largely a matter of vowel length/quality in the final 'o' of each word.)

Update: 2018.04.26.12:50 – Deleted old footer.

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