Sunday, October 05, 2008

English pronunciation

Steven Pinker and John Conway write about the pronouncation in U.S. English, with an emphasis on Sarah Palin's idiosyncrasies.

Well, they may be baffled by Sarah Palin but I guess that most people in Central Europe are baffled by all Americans because the pronunciation rules in U.S. English seem completely fuzzy if not non-existent. You know, these things are particularly baffling for Czechs because we have a phonetic, WYSIWYH, system of pronunciation: what you see is what you hear.

Each letter corresponds exactly to one sound and there are about five completely general exceptions. For example, "ě" patalizes the previous consonant whenever possible (or otherwise is pronounced as "ye"); consonants lose their sound at the end of a syllable; and roughly three more rules. After an hour of training, you can completely master the rules how to correctly read written Czech text. In fact, this knowledge will also allow you to correctly and uniquely write words that you hear, up to a few notoriously difficult subtleties (not only) for kids, including the "i/y" dichotomy.

(In Czech words, there are "hard" consonants - h, ch, k, r, d, t, n - that are always followed by "y", others - ž, š, č, ř, c, j, ď, ť, ň - that are always followed by "i", and mixed ones - b, f, l, m, p, s, v, z - that are followed by "i" except for exceptional words and their derivatives where they are followed by "y": kids have to memorize the exceptional words, roughly a dozen of words for each mixed consonant. For verbs, "i/y" often distinguishes masculine/feminime forms at the end.)

If you want to be perfect in Czech spelling, it's a couple of rules to learn but you can master this discipline completely.

On the other hand, it seems that in English, you have to remember both the written form of every word much like its sonic counterpart. If you care about the details, they seem to be largely unrelated. Americans should adopt a normal phonetic way of spelling and comb their pronunciation, too. For example, John's first paragraph would be written in the following form:

Evry tajm Aj hýr it, it's lajk fingrnejlz on ej blekbórd: "ňukjulr" instéd of "ňuklír". It's báefling wér dzet lokjůšn kams from. Aj em efrejd it ríly daz bring dze spíkr daun ej noč in maj estimejšn, on dzí intelidžence skejl, dzou aj em jůžualy ejbl tů get pást it. Ívn in maj fílt, wér wí jůz dze wérd ej lot, jů hýr dzí okejšnl "ňukjulr".
Well, if a Czech kid would read it, it wouldn't sound identical to the Americans but the question is whose fault it is! Maybe it's the Yankee's fault. ;-) What's important is that all Czech kids would read it identically. One might design a more natural and less revolutionary system of spelling but it would be great if it followed some universal rules.

During the years in the U.S., I learned to imitate the native speakers' pronunciation more faithfully than I did before but I simply can't imagine that the last differences could ever be eliminated. It simply seems to me that the native speakers are often deliberately swallowing, suppressing, and permuting consonants and even vowels.

Even if you forget about people whose pronunciation is sloppy and look at the official rules, I find the prescription for some situations incredibly ambiguous. Although I was kind of interested in these questions, I have never learned an authoritative answer to the question how to pronounce:
  • a thing: "@ thing" or "ej thing"? ;-) By "@", I mean what's often written as "uh" or "eh" or whatever
  • antimatter (or anti-anything): "enty-medr" or "entaj-medr"? ;-)
  • either: "eether" or "eye-ther"?
  • kilometer: "ki-LÁ-medr" or "kilo-MÍ-dr"? Let's omit "kaj-lou-MÍ-tr" etc. that would be a priori natural options, too
  • research: "REE-search" or "re-SEARCH"?
and there are hundreds of additional examples of words that have to be used all the time. I have never received a sharp explanation which of the choices is more acceptable, which of them is official, which of them is colloquial and why it was introduced by whom. All the possible ways to pronounce the words sound equally bizarre to me, anyway, because the Latin/Czech way to pronounce the words is completely different.

These differences go very far. For example, all Czech textbooks of physics for kids want to be very smart so they authoritatively tell you how to properly pronounce "Joule", the unit of work: "džaul". Every Czech kid and adult knows that which is why they're surprised that in English-speaking countries, it's actually pronounced as "džúl". And "džaul" was meant to be the global pronounciation: the Czech one would be "yow-leh".

The case of vowels is particularly shocking for us because vowels are completely well-defined in Czech and similarly constructed languages: it's about a/e/i/o/u/y - all of them are different and well-defined (except for i/y that sound the same in Czech). With some approximation, the vowels in English seem to carry almost no information because all of their pairs are linked by ambiguities. "A" can be pronounced as "@", "a", "á", "ej", "E" can be pronounced as "e", "í", "ej", "I" is pronounced as "y" or "aj", "o" is pronounced as "@", "a", "o", "ou", "ů", and so on.

Moreover, despite these radical ambiguities about the very rough vowel that should appear in a particular context, the native speakers seem to hide some information in minute variations and interpolations between the basic vowels and their detailed duration. These things are mostly beyond me. I can't possibly understand how someone may distinguish a "70% a, 30% e" from "80% a, 20% e" if he or she doesn't care about the difference between "a", "e" in the first place! ;-)

One likely hypothesis I learned is that if I replace all vowels by the neutral sound, "@", the speech becomes more comprehensible for many Americans. ;-)

Especially in the case of vowels, all these things are very unusual. In Czech and other languages, we are very conservative about these matters. The only widespread ambiguity in pronunciation of Czech vowels I can think of is the ending of masculine, feminime, and neutral adjectives. For example, "far" is "daleký, daleká, daleké" in the official Czech but it is often pronounced (and, if necessary, spelled) as "dalekej, daleká, daleký" in colloquial Czech. But everyone knows that the latter choices are incorrect.

But the English consonants seem to be messy, too. For example, non-English speakers must be taught that Britons and Americans believe that it is impossible to pronounce the initial consonant in words like "psychology" or "knot". Well, this English opinion is clearly bunk as we can easily prove experimentally. ;-) It is very easy to pronounce "ps" or "kn" and we're doing so all the time. But these two particular examples are at least taught in schools. There are others that are not.

When you combine several oversimplifications of this kind, you can find some truly stunning examples of American pronunciation (and I guess that it will be similar with the Imperial English, too). In Massachusetts, there is a town called Worcester. It surely looks like "Vorčestr", a sauce that we add to food, anyway. Now, whenever an American called it "Vastr" and I knew what s/he meant, I always had a tendency to call a physician because by losing 1/2 of the word, s/he may have lost 1/2 of her brain, too. It just looks scary if someone reads "Worcester" as "Vastr". It's hard to believe that I would fully accept such a mispronunciation even if I were brainwashed since the childhood. Frankly speaking, I would probably still think that all the people around me are morons. ;-) But it's the local consensus, too.

Besides vowels and consonants, there is a huge question about the real "accent": I mean the rhythm and which syllables are louder than others. Again, this question is fully answered in Czech. The first syllable has the main accent and the odd ones have a secondary accent. The syllables have a rather regular rhythm, anyway. Needless to say, corresponding universal rules don't exist in English. To make things worse, it is often the second syllable that has the main accent: a very non-Czech choice, indeed. This influences the rhythm and intonation, too. Be sure that it was hard for me to learn the LHC rap (and it's still different from Alpinekat):

Much tinier subtleties have led to intellectual civil wars in Czechia. For example, take the word "president". It comes from "presedere" in Latin (or at least, this word exists in Italian). And the "s" should be pronounced as "s", indeed. The etymology makes "s" the only historically acceptable consonant in this case. But because it may look simpler to pronounce it as "z" in front of the following vowel, "i", many nations, including Russians (and partly Czechs), began to pronounce it as "prezident". A few decades ago, this alternative spelling was ultimately allowed as an official one in Czech, too, in order to keep the WYSIWYH character of the Czech spelling.

Some intellectuals - whose point I kind of understood - argued that it should be written as "president" while "prezident" may be viewed as a degenerative, vulgar influence of the Soviet Union. And in fact, it should be even pronounced in this way, with "s", even though almost everyone says "prezident". A decade ago, when we wrote a textbook about linear algebra, we deliberately used "s" even in many words where "z" seemed uncontroversial, such as "fyzika" (we wrote "fysika", because of etymological reasons). The textbook had a nice conservative, archaic flavor to it. ;-) Of course, unlike the intellectuals above, we didn't really care. It was just fun: the debate is just about language which is no rocket science (or any science, for that matter).

But you can see that these subtle changes - sufficient to lead to confrontations between intellectuals in the Czech context - are much tinier than the actual uncertainties and fluctuations in the pronunciation of the U.S. English. I wonder, is there an official institute that is tasked to regulate the rules of U.S. English? It may help. ;-)


  1. Here's how it would look in Romanian:

    Evri taim Ai hiăr it, it's laic fingărneilz on ă blaecbord: "niuchiulăr" insted of "niucliăr". It's baefling uer thet lochaişun cams from. Ai em ăfreid it rili daz bring dă spicăr daun ă noci in mai estimeişăn, on di inteligiăns scheil, dhou ai em iujiuălii eibăl tu ghet past it. Ivăn in mai fiăld, uer ui iuz dhă uărd ă lot, iu hiăr dhă ocheijănăl "niuchiulăr".

  2. You could just do like my friends from Denmark and substitute "fuck(in)" when you are sure what pronunciation to use.

    It hasn't failed them yet.

  3. Hello, glad to find your blog! I've studied Czech, but as a native English speaker I'll try my best for "definitive" answers here... :)

    * a thing: @ sounds more natural than "ej," though there may be some exceptions I can't think of now...
    * either: either works! :) It depends on the person, I say eether. I think aj-ther might be more of a British thing.
    * kilometer: "ki-LÁ-medr" < - that one
    * research: "REE-search" - for noun form and "re-SEARCH" for verb... ("What sort of REEsearch have you done? / I'm reSEARCHing English linguistics") though it wouldn't sound that odd to switch them.

    Hope this helps! :)

  4. Dear emily, thanks! It's nontrivial that the same "research" depends on the context but it can at least be memorized. ;-)

    "Either" freedom is helpful. So I suspect that "ej thing" is said mostly when people want to spell "a" for foreigners to understand. ;-)