Category Archives: Pronunciation

Linguistics….on Bravo TV

There’s an excellent clip from the new Bravo show Pregnant in Heels in which soon-to-be-parents from New York request professional help to give their baby a good “brand” name. The maternity consultant Rosie Pope obliges by creating a naming panel who are “very academic” (which of course a linguist must be included).

No one has asked, but I thought I would I would offer my expert advice. The parameters the parents gave are as follows:

  • Name for a boy
  • Upper class, but ethnicity not important
  • Not “decorative”
  • Easy to spell

  • Not too popular
  • No J,E,R and no final S

To these parameters, I would add the following – “will not get you beaten up on a playground.” In other words, even if the name is not common, it should have some positive resonance in multiple social settings outside of Upper East Side. Since we’re talking brand, this criteria should be factored in.

In addition, since the parents are Anglo, I would also tend towards an Anglo name. I have nothing against non-Anglo names, but most “high class” names actually have some sort of family or ethnic connection, so I feel this is an important consideration.

My Choices

The trickiest part was avoiding the “E” because it is the most common vowel in English, but it can be done. These are some recognizable names I believe fit the criteria:

Donald, Nathan, Colin, Dylan, Gavin, Ian, David, Hugh, William, Karl (with a K),

There may be others that fit the criteria, but which I feel are not playground-friendly (some things are personal judgement calls).

FYI – Another option are family names as first names. A nice feature of family names is that they are both aristocratic, but authentic to the family.

Despite my earlier branding parameters, I do believe that any name can work if the parent really believes in the history of it passes it along to their children. As a child, I never really appreciated Alfred as a name, until I learned more about the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great.

From “Adams” to “Adama” – Switching in the “Ethnic” /d/

Found another good linguistic moment from sci-fi, specifically Battlestar Galactica 2.0 prequel Caprica

A little background first – One of the more popular characters in the Battlestar Galactica series is Commander Adama. In the 1970’s original “Adama” was a personal name for the character played by Lorne Greene (apparently they only had single names then). In the 2000’s update, “Adama” was actually a family name, so the new Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) was actually “William Adama.”

In the Caprica prequel, the storyline goes back 58 years (before the Cylons nuked the Colonies), but it still features the Adama family. Except that in the pilot, it wasn’t the “Adama” family, but the “Adams” family. Apparently Commander Adama’s father, Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) had wanted to assimilate into Caprican (i.e. Anglo) culture and had changed his original “Tauron” (i.e. non-Anglo) family name from the original “Adama” to “Adams”. After Joseph’s family suffers a terrible tragedy, he re-evaluates his Tauron heritage and decides to return to using his original family name.

This is cool from a sociolinguistic point of view and you can see a good commentary, but my favorite moment is actually phonetic. We have a great scene where Joseph Adama reveals his true family name to young William…but with a Spanish dental /d/ instead of an English alveolar /d/.

Esai Morales is, of course, a Latino actor (specifically of Puerto Rican heritage) and a Spanish speaker. Now in English, the sound /d/ which is pronounced with the tongue on the ridge behind the teeth – hence phoneticians describe English /d/ as “avleolar d”. Spanish on the other hand, pronounces /d/ with the tongue touching the back of the teeth – hence a “dental /d/”.

When Esai Morales is speaking English, he generally uses an alveolar /d/, but clearly he is bilingual enough to switch into Spanish pronunciation mode when he wants – as he did with “Adama.” When he did that, it definitely emphasized that Adama was NOT a local Caprican name. Well done!

On a final note, Esai Morales commented that the Taurons are any non-Anglo group, not just a “Latino” group. For imstance Joseph Adama’s full Tauron name is Yousef Adama (with a Middle Eastern twist). Morales also points out that not all Taurons have the same skin tone, so we do see some red heads in the scruffy Tauron bar (generic non-English Celtic anyone?).

I’ll be interested to see where this “Tauron” distinction goes, but we can verify a Spanish dental /d/ in the mix…at least in the Adama family.

Postscript: Feb 26

The most extreme change in the pronunciation of “Adama” only happens once, when Joseph first explains it to his son William. Later, it appears that the actor Morales uses a pronunciation more consistent with English. Interesting.

Pronouncing “2010”

A current language issue in the media that is somewhat surprising to me is “How do we pronounce 2010?” In one sense it’s not too surprising because we are at a point where I suspect people’s internal grammars are either confused or saying it’s time to switch to a new pattern.

The Grammar Tipping Point

In general, the structure for reciting years in English has been to split the century and the year into 2 parts. For example:

  • 1776 = seventeen+seventy-six
  • 1865 = eighteen+sixty-five
  • 1984 = nineteen+eight-four

This pattern even holds for older centuries including 1066 (ten+sixty-six), 1215 (twelve+fifteen) and trivially 695 (six+ninety-five). The only time that it doesn’t hold is when we refer to a part of the century from year 00-09. Even in the 20th century, 1900 was “nineteen-hundred” and 1909 was usually “nineteen oh nine” and usually NOT “nineteen+nine”.

The same is true for this century. Everyone agreed that 2000 was “two thousand”. Skipping ahead to the 22nd century for a moment, I suspect most speakers would agree that if 1909 is “nineteen oh nine”, then 2109 is “twenty-one oh nine”. However, because we are also at the beginning of a millennium as well as a century, the “thousand” use was maintained for 2001-2009 in this century – hence “two thousand and two” for 2002 and NOT “twenty oh two”.

But now that we are in 2010, speakers are deciding whether to continue the use of thousand or switch to the more usual “twenty+ten” pattern. I suspect that the “20+” use will eventually win out because “twenty+76” for 2076 is more regular and much shorter than “two thousand and 76”.

Still Surprised

Despite the fact that 2010 is a big year in year-naming grammar, I am surprised at the amount of confusion. Even though we haven’t BEEN in 2010 or after, we have been TALKING about it. Future years come up frequently in science fiction (e.g. the 90s TV show Cleopatra 2525 which had a theme “In the year twenty-five twenty-five”), so many of us had an idea of how we should refer to the 21st century and beyond.

But even if someone (e.g. a confused journalist) is not a sci-fi buff, he or she should have been hearing references to future Olympic games (e.g. 2010 in Vancouver, 2012 in London), future elections or even future car models. I am surprised that the actual arrival of 2010 was such a shock to the grammar.

I can’t tell if it’s a processing issue (like the shock of dating checks with “21…” instead of “20…”) or it’s just that people needed the comfort of an “official” media standard. In this case though, we’ve had a standard all along.

The next interesting question is if we’ve been living in the “Aughties” in the past ten years. It actually sounds very exciting.

A Dollhouse Linguistic Moment

As any regular reader may know, my television viewing habits have led to more than a few linguistic observations. One of the dippiest may be from the sci-fi drama Dollhouse. Yes this is the one where you can order people to be preprogramed personalities to fit the assignment (which do vary in range). The head of the Los Angeles operation is Adele DeWitt played by the deliciously arch Olivia Williams, complete with a perfectly precise Received Pronunciation British accent.

In one episode, the House (and Adele) become infected with a mind-altering substance which removes inhibitions. We aren’t sure if Adele is infected until she begins asking her in-house geek Topher how people view her persona. Her linguistic observation

Still, you have to admit, I am very…British. I don’t say….[intense concentration here] hard…R’s

Or as we would transcribe in IPA “I don’t say….[intense concentration here] hard…R’s [ha:d a:z]”. On the second viewing, I realized that Adele wasn’t merely informing us of the non-rhotic characer of her dialect, but seriously making an experimental attempt to produce an American style final /r/. Alas, the result was as British as ever.

Fortunately for Adele, her attention quickly turned to crisps, at which point her employee revealed his drawer of inappropriate starches. But I love Adele for wondering, for a brief moment, what it would be like to produce a coda-final /r/.

Pronouncing Paella – UK vs. US

On a recent episode of Top Chef the judges had an aumsing discussion of how to pronounce paella. For me, it should be /pajeja/ (pie-ey-a)…just like it is in (Latin American) Spanish, but Toby Young from the U.K. was happy to pronounce it with an /l/.

Who’s right? Most of the Americans agree it’s to use the authentic Spanish (or at least Latin American Spanish) pronunciation, but Toby countered that no one pronounces Mexico as /mehiko/, but as Anglicized /mɛksɨko/ – good one Toby.

Although I do tend to attempt authentic Spanish pronunciation of words, the argument points out that this is more of a U.S. custom than a U.K. one. However, Toby’s point about the pronunciation of Mexico points out that there are lexical exceptions even to this rule. Some Spanish words (e.g. canyon, Mexico, Argentina not to mention Arizona, Colorado, Montana, rodeo) are so ingrained into English that even Americans have nativized the pronunciation.

It is good etiquette these days to pronounce foreign words as close to their original pronunciation as possible. For instance, Toby also commented that no one in English says Barcelona with a Spanish “th” /θ/, but of of his colleagues said she did. Ironically though, in Catalan, Barcelona (and Barcelona IS In Catalonia) may actually have an /s/. So…when playing this game, be sure you do have all the facts or the ghost of Toby Young may laugh in your face.

American/Candian Online Dialect Samples at Library of Congress

One of my Listservs announced that the Library of Congress has classified some of its audio recordings from around the country into a set of American English Dialect Recordings
organized by place (click “C” for Canada). The core is probably the set of collections made by linguist Walt Wolfram, but other samples are included, and the collection also includes some notable figures such as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart. These last two recordings are old enough that you can see how speech in formal settings has changed over time.

The tapes are primarily open-ended conversations or speeches, but the extensive metadata gives you a good context of who, what and when. Many of these were recorded on site, so audio quality for spectrographic analysis is probably hit or miss, but it does have some good samples, and they are available in the .wav format as well as MP3 and Real Player. Note also that samples were recorded across a period of several decades (from the 30s to the 80s), so dialects in that area may have changed since the original recording.

However, they are freely available for educational or research use, so that’s a major benefit. This collection was organized by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), so I am happy to see this as a use of our tax dollars at work.

Who’s Harder to Understand?

A video making the rounds in John Wells’ Phonetic Blog is a 1940s educational piece on helping a Sinhala speaker (from Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was called back in those days). The student is trying to get directions to 48 Paddington Street, Edgeware Road, but the newspaper vendor he asks is perpetually confused. Hence the student visits the local phonetician’s office (wouldn’t you?).

Wells makes some interesting comments on how old-fashioned the phonetics instructor (A. Lloyd James) sounds. It is amazing how even the “standard” has significantly shifted in 50 years. What’s interesting to me though is that I actually find the Sri Lankan speaker far easier to understand than the instructor (or the newspaper vendor). Apparently, I’ve had more exposure to speakers from South Asia than this variety of British English.

I have no explanation for the instructor’s advice to “change the rhythm.” It’s not a recommendation most linguists would make today, certainly not in terms of “Morse code.” However, now that Professor James has mentioned it, it is true that there is a longer pause between phonological phrases in English than the Sri Lankan student. I think the professor is trying to point out that in the address “48 Paddington Road, Edgeware Road” there is a pause in English (indicated by the comma) which the Sri Lankan speaker is not always making. I guess that “pause” is supposed to make the difference. To me, the change sounded very miniscule though.

In fact, in the student’s second attempt, he only inserts pauses in the address. The rest of his sentence has the same “rhythm” has before!

Aspirated Nasal in Gran Torino Eastwood Movie

The recent Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino is a very interesting character study, but is also notable for giving a demonstration of a voiceless or aspirated nasal.

If you don’t know the plot, Eastwood plays a retired Detroit auto worker Walt Kowalsky with politically incorrect views on a lot of things, including his Asian neighbors (fortunately, he learns toleration, but in an interestingly unsentimental manner). It turns out that his neighbors are part of the Hmong culture as one of the younger women Sue Lor (played by Ahney Her) explains to Clint.

In fact, she even says the name “Hmong” where “hm” is a voiceless or aspirated /m/ which I will transcribe as /mʰ/ (and “ng” is really the velar nasal /ŋ/). In an aspirated nasal, the vocal cords do not vibrate continuously through the /m/ but pause at some point. From what I could tell, the vocal cords begin as non-vibrating, but then begin during the nasal. It would be consistent from how voiceless nasals are pronounced in other languages of Burma.

So the transcription for “Hmong” is actually or /mʰɔ̃ŋ/ (not sure about the tone), but to my ears it sounded like “Mong” /mɔ̃ŋ/ with a slight pause in the beginning. Very interesting. It’s another happy example of how linguistic sensitivity is slowly creeping into Hollywood.

P.S. I also have to respect a movie that shows how effectively a Hmong grandmother can spit a wad of tobacco. Needless to say, Walt was impressed in spite of himself.

J’Adore Mon McCafé (dans mon Cubliclé)

It’s always fun to see how marketers attempt to add an exotic foreign language “je ne sais quoi” to their product line, and one of the better ones (IMHO) was the McDonald’s McCafé line which attempted to show how this extraordinary brew could add a touch of French elegance to your daily commute (commuté).

Aside the cheesy sociolinguistic aspect (as documented by Mark Liberman on Language Log), I do think think this does give a little bit of insight into how our grammar treats French (and pseudo French) borrowings.

When analyzing borrowings into a language, it is clear that some languages are a little more privileged than others. For some languages like French, most English speakers will actually make an attempt to pronounce the words “correctly” (the same is true for Spanish in the U.S., but not necessarily outside North America).

For instance, we “know” that French words have stress on the final syllable, drop the final consonant and have /wa/ clusters where English doesn’t (e.g. quoi /kwa/, DuBois /dubwa/ and croissant /krwasã/). If you’re really talented, you may even try to replicate the nasal vowels such as the one in en suite (/ã swit/) as something like /ã/ or maybe /ãn/, but not plain /an/

On the other hand, if the borrowing is from another language like Hindi, Japanese, Welsh or even a native American language, the same effort isn’t usually made (unless an individual speaker knows the language). The reason for the status of French and Spanish is of course due to both proximity and cultural history. There’s enough contact between the two populations that many English speakers have developed linguistic tools to categorize and pronounce these words differently.

For instance both French and Spanish introduce /pw/ and /kw/ consonant clusters, particularly consonant+w /Cw/ which are normally not allowed in English. French words are also marked as having word-final stress, even though the normal English stress pattern is NOT word-final stress. In phonological terms this could be considered a “stratum” or an area in the lexicon (mental dicitonary) where the normal rules don’t apply.

Depending on the level of contact a stratum can become very developed. English technical borrowings with Latin and Greek rules have a class of rules and even suffixes/affixes all to themselves which apply only to Latinate words (One is the alternation of “c” between /k/ and /s/ as in “electric ~ electricity”.

The French part of the grammar isn’t that robust in English, but it does have the traditional property that it’s NOT 100% accurate of real French grammar. For one thing, there are limits in how much authentic French phonology we can accommodate. Few English speakers will pronounce French “u” in the correct way – as the front vowel /y/ or /ü/ depending on your transcription system. It’s very hard for English speakers to distinguish unless they have special French class training.

Also, there are errors in implementation in our English pseudo French versus real French. A classic example is the cold potato soup vichyssoise which in French grammar is pronounced with a final /z/ or /viʃiswaz/. A lot of waiters who didn’t take all four years of high school French though routinely drop the final consonant (i.e. /viʃiswa/)…because that’s what happens in the French stratum.

The one from the McCafé ad I noticed was how the final “e” always became “é” or /e/ “eh” with a stress. Hence “cubicle” /kubikəl/ becomes cubiclé /kubikle/ and “shuttle” /ʃʌtəl/ becomes shuttle /ʃʌtəle/ . Ironically though, in actual French spelling the “e” in “cle” and “tle” would actually be dropped altogether. Hence “cubicle” would be /kubikl/ and “shuttle” might be the really exotic /ʃytl/. Try saying that early in the morning over your McCafé

I also have to applaud McDonald’s for one more thing. In the past few years French has been a neglected cultural resource (even on the Food Network). It’s nice to know there’s a marketer out there who’s willing to bring back some old-fashioned mystique français (or is that mystique française?).

P.S. Technically “French magic” is la magie française. while la mystique is mysticism. Did I mention that borrowings can undergo change in word meaning?