Monday, 17 September 2018

Veja o que fiz

That's Look what I did – and it's my way of introducing the idea  that the Brazilian magazine Veja has a title that means Look. This might go some way to extenuating the carelessness about verbs in a newspaper correction noticed by the News Quiz the other day:
"Eduardo Jorge likes to spend his time reading Tolstoy, not Toy Story as originally reported"
You don't read Toy Story.

This feature threatened the News Quiz's claims for topicality.  Pragmatismo reported the correction on 5 Oct 2014. Veja's gaffe was committed two days earlier – making the News Quiz‘s spot nearly 4 years old.
(not that that is a bad case of déjà news – someone at the end of the same show read a report from a listener who claimed to have seen an old chestnut [the one about washing teapots and standing in the sink with bottoms in the air] that I first saw in the pre-WWW days of the Internet when bored office workers polluted the environment with pages and pages of "jokes"...
A thousand curses be upon the inventor of Reply/All.
...; and I've since seen many variants ["hot bottoms on the draining board", etc], all based on the same old misrelated clause gag.
The News Quiz editors really need to  exercise  some quality  control.
But what struck me most about the slip was that it was a particularly Brazilian one. I know next to nothing about Brazilian Portuguese (which differs much further from its Old World antecedent than American English does from British English), and not  much  more about its phonology. The /l/ phoneme*, however, sticks out a mile, because of something known to students of phonetics as labialization. As the word suggests, labialization involves the lips – so that the continental Portuguese /brɐzil/ becomes the Brazilian Portuguese /brɑzilʷ/.

And "Tolstoy" becomes /tɔlʷ.../ – sorry, can't do the second syllable. In the first syllable something almost entirely (in some speakers, entirely) vocalic happens after the /t/.

Now we come to the "Toy..." (the non-English speaker's expectation of how it will sound). Learners of English as a Second Language (in this case, non-English speakers of a borrowed English word) have trouble with sounds that don't have a 1:1 correspondence with written letters. They learn that English doesn't work like that, but the written letters still intrude in the speech. In many interviews with non-English speakers, for example, you will hear "who" pronounced /wu:/.

In the English /ɔɪ/ diphthong there are not two vowels, although the transcription may seem to suggest there is. There is no /ɔ/ vowel in English in any case, but the end of the diphthong is not the equivalent of the /ɪ/ phoneme. So when a non-English speaker hears /tɔɪ/ it doesn't sound like a representation of "Toy"; that would be, in their mistaken expectation, more like /tɔ + <something>/. Maybe that <something> might be /lʷ/ (which, as I've said, can be entirely vocalic).

There are quite possibly other  languages that would predispose listeners to mistake "Tolstoy" for "Toy Story". I'm acquainted with only about .1% of the world's 7,000-odd natural languages, so couldn't say that Brazilian Portuguese is a uniquely favourable linguistic background for this mistake; but it's the most likely one that I've met.

Ho hum. Things to do (just less interesting things)...


Update: 2018.09.19.09:10 – Typo fix and added footnote

* A guitar concert I went to yesterday evening, which included pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos, alerted me to this over-generalization; it is not the /l/ phoneme that is labialized. An /l/ in a certain  phonological context (closing a syllable, as in Brasil or Tolstoy) gets this treatment.

Update: 2020.01.05.12:45– Added PS

I've belatedly realized the importance of this: for the speaker (and for the journalist doing the interview) all – "Tolstoy", "Toy", and "Story" – were foreign.

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