Saturday, 29 June 2019

Aspiring to pronounce Phelukwayo

 Teachers of foreign languages know that the last thing you do is write down a  word before students have learnt to say it. If they see the spelling before hearing the sound, their first reflex will be to attach to that spelling the phonological characteristics of their mother tongue – in most (if not all: discuss) cases, a pronunciation they're going to have to unlearn.

Which brings me to /p/, which (in most English speech I've met) is aspirated in some contexts (the allophone can be transcribed as [ph]) but not in other contexts. It's something speakers of English as a mother tongue [henceforth "FLES" for "First-Language English Speakers"] find hard to hear: "  A p is a p, isn't it?". But if they know what to listen for, most FLESs can be taught. 
Wet a finger and hold it in front of your lips as you say "pin". You should detect a little puff of air.
When I first met this test, when the Cambridge Linguistics Department was a converted cricket pavilion in the early 1970s, no-one suggested wetting the finger. That's my own addition. The water makes the puff of air have a cooling effect, making the finger more sensitive.
Next say "spin". There's next to no puff of air  (I say "next to no" because the sound of the word involves the passage of air; but aspiration after the [p] is not a contributor).
When a FLES sees "ph" at the beginning of a word, it obviously represents /f/ (as it does in English words). This brings us to Phelukwayo (not an English word). When, in early June 2019 cricket commentators started to meet it most days (he had been in South African teams before then, but June 2019 – the Cricket World Cup in England and Wales – was the moment when it first started to register on my mentions-per-day meter) the English commentators had to learn from the South African ones. Some were quicker than others. For example, in early June Jonathan Agnew was saying /felə'kwejəʊ/ (with the /fel/ of *phel [except that there's no such English word] and the /wey/ of  English "way", but by mid-June he'd learnt. Some of the Test Match Special team have insisted on their Little Englander pronunciation. (No names, no pack-drill, but I bet they voted for Brexit.)

This question of aspiration is something I've dealt with before, here for example:
First World War Tommies, hearing the word blanc (used to refer to a drink of wine – which, in that part of France, was typically white), heard no aspiration after the b and heard p. When they returned home it was just 'wine', which – in 'San Ferry Ann' pronunciation – was 'plonk'. They showed little respect for its precise colour meaning....
Here, also, I mentioned Audrey Hepburn, who (raised in a mixture of Belgium, England, and the Netherlands) did not aspirate her voiceless plosives.
I got it wrong first time around in that post, but fixed it in an update.
It didn't give her a foreign accent, but it probably contributed to the je-ne-sais-quoi that made a viewer of her first screen test say "the kid's got something". It wasn't something that she had, but something that she didn't have – those little puffs of air following p and t and k ("aspirated voiceless plosives").

But aspiration wasn't my first port of call, surmise-wise. As South Africa was involved (and South Africa boasts many of the world's languages that use clicks), I initially went for the more exotic idea of a bilabial click (not unlike the little pop a child makes when imitating his(oh yes I did)/her  mother applying lipstick).
Don't be misled by the Play symbol;
this is just a screenshot.

But this "masterclass" (what qualifies it for that epithet, I wonder –  just that it's from the horse's mouth?) shows that the initial consonant is just an aspirated voiceless plosive: Masterclass-what-masterclass?

That's all for now, Duty calls.


Update: 2019.07.01:14.30 – Added PS
When I first  noticed this, and heard the (Anglophone) South African commentators I wondered where their /f/ came from (as their first syllable seemed to be ...
That "seemed to be" indicates a certain diffidence here.
... /pef/).

I think what's happening is this: English has no phonemic /hl/, but in Phehlukwayo's own pronunciation there is some sort of aspiration before the /l/. As the lips of the speaker are close together after the initial [ph], this takes the form of /ɸ/ (the voiceless bilabial fricative  used in Greek. In English, the nearest we have to that is /f/ (as in all those words borrowed from Greek, philosophy, for example) so the Anglophone South Africans hear an /f/. (Alternatively, though, they get it right, and I hear it wrong; my ear for this stuff isn't as keen as it once was.)

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