Friday, 19 July 2019

Adeus, João

The name João has been causing newsreaders and sports commentators the usual problems, because of the success of Mr Sousa at Wimbledon (as far as the last 16, but no further) and the death of the father of bossa nova, João Gilberto. Radio and TV announcers see the diphthong ão, and give up before they've started: "Well that's a completely outlandish sound, I've got no hope."

But I've said before, here (and in other words passim)
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)
Elsewhere, in the same post,  I discussed an example word that I used to use in Portuguese "Beginner" classes, to introduce the sound of the  word Dão:
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 nazalization of the previous vowel.
So a native-speaker of English is accustomed to making a vocalic sound not unlike the end of João.

The opening fricative is a little more challenging for a native speaker of English, as there's no English word that begins with /ʒ/; this doesn't mean  producing it calls for  a special  skill.  It occurs medially (as we say in the trade) in words like measure. And cookery programmes like The Great British Bake-off, Masterchef etc have (increasingly over the last twenty years, I would guess)  inured English ears (and mouths) to words like jus.
In an earlier post I discussed epenthetic vowels:
In The King's Speech the Geoffrey Rush character advises the king to deal with problem consonants at the beginnings of words by taking a run up: /maɪ əpi:pəl/ for 'my people'. Languages often take a similar course with outlandish phonemes or consonant clusters at the beginnings of words. Among the signs of this are changing names of places over time. Stamboul Train could have a 21st century sequel: Istanbul Plane. That 'I' is epenthetic.
Possibly (just an idea, which you don't have take as gospel) the usage "with a jus" is the result of a speaker with an English phonological background dealing with a word with initial  /ʒ/  by adding an epenthetic vowel and coining a new word /'əʒu:/ with the /ʒ/ comfortably supported by a vowel on each side.
<I_KNOW_I_KNOW theme="wrong vowel">
(I've never heard an English chef even attempt the [y], but if you want to, pretend you're whistling and with the lips pursed like that try to say /i:/ – all right, "ee" if you must, but IPA symbols are so much clearer [and unambiguous {see this old post for a fuller explanation of my feelings about "sounds-like" transcriptions}.)
So anyway, there's little excuse for the repeated João-abuse. Start with a  /ʒ/  and then say "wow" (remembering to nasalize the diphthong – as  if you were talking about a clockwork mechanism that had wound down [and don't say the "d down" bit]).


PS I wrote this mostly before a break in the Somerset levels (very flat), but luckily held back from hitting the Publish button until I had the leisure to fix a couple of howlers – which may well have gone unnoticed,   but would have cost me a week's sleepless nights (before I logged in again).

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