<autobiographical_note date_range="1973">... but there's one among these grapplings with 'problem sounds' that I find particularly irksome: the many and various attempts at the diphthong ão. Gone are the days of Falcão, who dominated the mid-field in the '80s and '90‡‡; but São Paulo will always be with us. And what's a British commentator to do with this outlandish sound. 'I mean, really, we have nothing like it in English!'
In Lisbon just before the revolution I was once taken to be a Brazilian. This is not a testament to my fluency in Portuguese, but rather to my height – that and the fact that my grasp of the language was good but tainted with a tendency to give vowels the sounds of their Spanish analogues.†
I was tempted to reinforce this with reference to Wikipedia's comparative chart of national average heights. But I did a bit of digging and found that the apparently magisterial overview hides some pitifully small sample sizes. And of course the dates were relatively recent. What interested me was average heights of young adult males in the early 1970s, and I could find no online source of that sort of observation.
Of course we do, although if you're hung up on orthography – or 'spelling' as we used to say – you're unlikely to notice it. Nasalized vowels are not phonemic in English; that is, you can't change the meaning of a syllable by making the vowel nasal (diverting the air so that instead of coming out of the mouth [or buccal tract] it comes out of the nose). This doesn't mean that no part of any vowel in English can be nasalized; and when a nasal consonant (/n/, /m/, or /ŋ/) follows a vowel it is not humanly possible to avoid adding some nasality to
Take a word like downtime. Because of the way it's spelt it's hard to avoid believing that it is made up of the sounds /daʊn/ and /taɪm/. But think about what happens where the two syllables meet. The airstream is directed up and through the nose. Meanwhile the tip of the tongue is resting behind the dental ridge (where it is to form an /n/). To form the /t/ it has to start in the same position. Air pressure builds up behind that closure, and then explodes forwards as the closure is released; that's why linguists call /t/ a plosive.
But before the release, the closure isn't complete. In making the /n/ the speaker has left a way through the nose for the 'buzzing' sound. In other words, the /aʊ/ vowel is being nasalized. Normally, when pronouncing the syllable /daʊn/, the speaker releases the /n/. When it's followed immediately by a plosive that uses the same tongue position though, the release often doesn't happen. So the /n/ in downtime isn't realized as an [n]; it's realized as the nasalization of the previous vowel.
Returning at last to our football commentators, they have no need to regard that ão as outlandish. Granted, the vowel sound itself, before nasalization, is not exactly the same; but it's close enough. We can make a passable attempt at that Brazilian ão without straying from known English sounds: take a word like downtime‡ and say the first syllable only (taking care not to release the /n/). [This is reminiscent of my zloty-story, I've just realized. Our minds are quite accustomed to instructing our vocal equipment to make 'outlandish' sounds, phonemic in other languages – it's just that we've learnt not to hear them (as a necessary part of becoming native-speakers of English).]
Update 2014.06.12.22:45 – Small tweak to clarify 'it'.
Update 2014.06.13.09:45 – Added this note:
† Last night in Brazil there was a TV interview that provided a good example of this difference between Continental and Brazilian Portuguese. A demonstrator was reporting something that had happened to a professor – with three clear vowels. In Continental Portuguese this would have only two syllables, and the first would not have an [o].
Update 2014.06.14.22:25 – Added this note:
‡ I have used this example in the past to help students to get to grips with name of the wine Dão. In the context provided by São Paulo, a word like 'sounding' would be more appropriate. The argument is, mutatis mutandis, the same.
Update 2014.06.27.17:05 – Added this note:
‡‡My mind's ear is dogged by a horribly persistent memory of someone (David Coleman?) calling him /fæl'keɪəʊ/. Oh horror.
Update 2014.06.27.18:30 – Added coda (in maroon).
(...Updated 2014.06.28.12:30 – Added correction in bold.)