Language and Identity.

Rebecca Tan’s “Accent Adaptation” (“On sincerity, spontaneity, and the distance between Singlish and English”) is an interesting account by a college student of her struggle with adapting her Singaporean style of speech to American norms:

Every international student will surely find this idea of performance familiar. The most difficult thing about speaking in a foreign country isn’t adopting a new currency of speech, but using it as though it’s your own—not just memorizing your lines, but taking center stage and looking your audience in the eye. It is one thing to pronounce can’t so that it rhymes with ant instead of aunt, but a whole other order to do that without feeling like a fraud.

I got the link via Mark Liberman’s Log post, in whose comment thread you will find a good discussion of the fact (which had never occurred to me) that US can and can’t are frequently indistinguishable, or hard to distinguish, for foreigners. And anyone interested in the general topic of the problem speakers of localized forms of language have with standard languages should read Lameen’s recent posts at Jabal al-Lughat, “Lexical gaps in diglossia: When you can’t write what you know” (“even well-educated Algerians don’t know enough Fusha to adequately describe their daily life, much less to write all they know”) and “School in a language you don’t speak” (“Even the most divergent Appalachian or inner city dialects are closer to standard English than the home language of the most highly educated middle-class Algerians is to standard Arabic”).

Comments

  1. Do I get it right that Algerians operate on an assumption that any words specific to their Darja popular usage are culturally “wrong”, and it’s “shameful” or “funny” to put them in writing? Yet the “acceptable” literary language is mostly used for religion and high culture, and doesn’t cover the topics of a car mechanic’s trade? So far it’s a common thread with many other diglossia situations … but I find it impossible to believe that car parts and tools are “never spelled”. There are manuals, orders, receipts, car service can’t be done in oral form only? And it’s obviously not Fusha (I remember reading a parallel story on LH about a Russian fellow who used Slavonic to write about most mundane and technical subjects, and how it was perceived as funny and inappropriate).
    So what happens there in Algeria?
    Does the general bias against Darja make an exception for car-repair topics?
    Or do the mechanics adopt borrowed non-Arabic vocabulary, perhaps from “second best acceptable” French? ( Kind of like in the high days of Russian-Slavonic diglossia, borrowed Dutch and French terms filled the gap)

  2. Sky Onosson says:

    As a native speaker, have you never been unclear about whether someone said “can” vs. “can’t”? I think standard Canadian pronunciations are essentially the same as the US on this, and it has happened to me (native English-speaking Canadian) quite regularly, especially on the phone (lack of visual cues which might disambiguate).

  3. Even the most divergent Appalachian or inner city dialects are closer to standard English than the home language of the most highly educated middle-class Algerians is to standard Arabic.

    Yeah, it bugs me when people use within-English dialectal variation as an analogy for macrolanguages like Arabic, Chinese, German or Italian. I think Scots is the only thing that comes close.

  4. Dmitry: I’ve posted your question at Lameen’s site. It occurs to me that perhaps all such things are done in French and not Arabic of any sort.

  5. Dmitry: French was an astute guess. Yes, reading and writing (not speaking) around mechanics, DIY, carpentry, electronics and the like is typically in French; that’s the default language of the manuals and the receipts, that’s the commonest language of formal vocational teaching, and that’s the source of a disproportionate number of the imports. That’s also where practically all of the post-1830 technical vocabulary of Darja is borrowed from. Maybe if the early Arabization campaigns had focused more on vocational training and less on humanities courses, things would have gone better…

  6. David Marjanović says:

    the fact (which had never occurred to me) that US can and can’t are frequently indistinguishable, or hard to distinguish, for foreigners

    Most of the time, the difference is just an unreleased glottal stop. Standard Average European uses unreleased plosives very sparingly, and lacks glottal stops as anything but meaningless voice onsets. In short, there’s a whole /t/ there that we only hear after some training!

  7. Most of the time, the difference is just an unreleased glottal stop.

    Well, that holds true if it’s in final stressed position – “I can/can’t.” But generally the main distinguishing feature is the presence of vowel reduction in can and the absence of it in can’t, which can end in [nɾ] or even [n] before a vowel. For example, an utterance like “I [kʰæn] even imagine it!” quite unambiguously contains can’t.

    That said, some speakers bolster the distinction between stressed can and can’t by raising the former to /kɛn/, which is perhaps related to /kɛtʃ/ for catch.

    (Also, speaking of imperiled distinctions, it’s dawned on me that start and stop would sound very similar in a New York or Providence accent, and perhaps even identical before labials.)

  8. For me, the marker of can’t, beside the glottal stop, is the higher degree of nasalization on the vowel. (All my vowels are nasal to some degree, what people used to call “adenoidal”).

  9. Rodger C says:

    When I was a child in West Virginia I pronounced can and can’t as more or less [kiǝn] and [kɑinʔ] respectively (nasalized–I don’t have good resources at the moment). I think these are exact reflexes of the RP pronunciations. Then I went to school and learned how to speak proper Midwestern Amurrican so that they became barely distinguishable.

  10. I’m with Lazar. In speech can has a reduced vowel unless it’s stressed or is a citation form. Of course, those are just the situations where the ability to distinguish the two would be most useful.

  11. Ken Miner says:

    I once gave a lecture, to a class of about half international students, in which the prefixes ‘macro-‘ and ‘micro-‘ were frequent and crucial. After class, a foreign student came up and complained “None of us [foreign students] could distinguish between your macro- and your micro-“. I had to work up a written version of the lecture and give it to them. I speak what I always thought was pretty standard North-American, and was amazed that they had difficulty with /æ/ vs. /aj/. Lesson: when a distinction is crucial, emphasize it.

  12. In Australia we say “can” [kæ:n] and “can’t” [ka:nt]. So, Americans, if you want to avoid ambiguity, learn to speak Australian.

  13. Bathrobe says:

    Yes, [kæ:n] and [ka:nt] avoid ambiguity, but languages don’t work that way (“Here’s a useful distinction, you should adopt it!”)

    Aren’t there U.S. accents that make the [kæ:n] [ka:nt] distinction, e.g., Boston?

  14. Eastern New England, yes. AAVE has picked up [ɑnt] ‘aunt’, probably from West Indian accents, but not the whole package.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    I speak what I always thought was pretty standard North-American, and was amazed that they had difficulty with /æ/ vs. /aj/.

    Many people monophthongize the latter to [aˤ] or thereabouts. From my very limited experience this seems to be universal in AAVE, but not limited to it.

    Distinguishing [æˤ] from [aˤ] by ear is not for everyone…

  16. Bathrobe, I’m reminded of the poor Australian medic I saw advance the idea of abandoning hypo- and hyper- as prefixes, as they were too close to being homophonous. Aye, lad, or you could pronounce your post vocalic R like the rest of us.

  17. Yes, ENE has the TRAP-BATH split, although the extent of it varies by speaker. As a younger suburbanite who speaks an ENE-GenAm hybrid, I use the split form only in aunt. (My mother, who spent part of her childhood in Lancashire, had the odd experience of hearing the stereotypically American form in England and vice versa.)

    @Aidan Kehoe: Yeah, I’ve wondered about how non-rhotics deal with that. I guess you’d have to make a point of pronouncing an unreduced /oʊ/ in hypo- if there were a danger of confusion, but that could still leave hyper- subject to misinterpretation in other people’s ears. Speaking of Greek, another great example is the merger of Classical ἡμεῖς ‘we’ and ὑμεῖς ‘you’ in iotacist pronunciation.

    Americans with the pen-pin merger would have trouble with immigrate and emigrate, but those two rarely seem to bear much contrastive burden.

    Another one that fascinates me is that in Korean, the han in hangeul means Korean, but the han in hanja means Chinese.

  18. There are language teachers who pronounce “aural” as [ˈaʊrəl], not [ˈɔrəl], when it needs to contrast with “oral”.

    Even in Ireland, where “oral” is [ˈorəl], not [ˈɔrəl], the [o-ɔ] opposition is too weak.

  19. On the other hand, in Australia, “aural” is /ɔ:rəl/ and “oral” is /ɒrəl/ — a nice clear opposition. Odd that the vowels have almost swapped — in Irish English “oral” has the higher vowel and “aural” has the lower one, while the reverse situation obtains in Australian English.

  20. Matt_M: Really? I thought oral was on the Tory side of the Tory-torrent distinction. All the British dictionaries that I can find list it with /ɔː/, homophonous with aural.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Another one that fascinates me is that in Korean, the han in hangeul means Korean, but the han in hanja means Chinese.

    Different tones in Mandarin… I wonder if the tones are also different in those kinds of Korean that still have tones.

  22. @David Marjanović those kinds of Korean that still have tones

    I didn’t know there were any of those, although I know some retain pitch accent.

    If their pitch accent is anything like the Japanese one, it’s a lexical attribute, not a morphemic one.

    漢 and 韓 are both /kan/ in Japanese, by the way.

  23. -Another one that fascinates me is that in Korean, the han in hangeul means Korean, but the han in hanja means Chinese.

    Around the time of Gojoseon’s fall, various chiefdoms in southern Korea grouped into confederacies, collectively called the Samhan (삼한, “Three Han”). Han is a native Korean root for “leader” or “great”, as in maripgan (“king”, archaic), hanabi (“grandfather”, archaic), and Hanbat (“Great Field”, archaic name for Daejeon). It may be related to the Mongol/Turkic title Khan.
    Han was transliterated in Chinese records as 韓 (한, han), 幹 (간, gan), 刊 (간, gan), 干 (간, gan), or 漢 (한, han), but is unrelated to the Chinese people and states also called Han, which is a different character pronounced with a different tone.

    Hanguk – Khan’s country!

  24. Complicating things further, though, is the fact that Korea’s Han River is written and pronounced like the Chinese dynasty (漢 hàn), not like the term for Korea (韓 hán).

  25. On the other hand, in Australia, “aural” is /ɔ:rəl/ and “oral” is /ɒrəl/ — a nice clear opposition.

    I think your pronunciation of ‘aural’ has been influenced by the spelling.

    When I was young we had ‘aural comprehension’ tests, with the pronunciation /ɒrəl/. Perhaps people have now become more careful about maintaining a distinction between ‘oral’ and ‘aural’, but I believe that they were originally both pronounced as /ɒrəl/, just as ‘bauxite’ is pronounced /bɒksait/, ‘auction’ is pronounced /ɒkʃən/, ‘salt’ is pronounced /sɒlt/, ‘false’ is pronounced /fɒls/, ‘fault’ is pronounced /fɒlt/, ‘caustic’ is pronounced /kɒstik/, ‘hydraulic’ is pronounced /haidrɒlik/, ‘halt’ is pronouced /hɒlt/, etc. I may be a holdout, but I certainly don’t use the pronunciation /ɔ:rəl/.

  26. Eli Nelson says:

    @Bathrobe: Where did you grow up? I somewhat doubt that “oral” had /ɒr/ at the very beginning. Thomas Sheridan’s General Dictionary of the English Language, Volume 1 (1780) seems to transcribe “oral” with the FORCE vowel, as I would expect. I’d assume an (incomplete) change in the other direction is more likely.

    With regard to “aural,” all the material I’ve looked at so far describes the use of /ɒ/ in words spelled with “au” (such as sausage, laurel, cauliflower) as the result of shortening original /ɔ:/ (although the shortened forms are certainly older than any living speakers). At least, that’s how I interpret Piotr’s description of this class of words in this paper: http://www.academia.edu/1504190/The_History_of_ɔ%CB%90_Is_There_Regular_Orthographically_Conditioned_Sound_Change

  27. George Gibbard says:

    Piotr’s paper doesn’t seem to provide an explanation for sausage and so forth, but mentions that vowel shortening may occur before a consonant cluster as in salt, and Bathrobe’s other examples fit this, though not aural.

    For my own part I had in school what I thought were oral comprehension tests (I thought: oral in that they involve the teacher speaking, though I now see that aural makes more sense). Such a merger is normal around here (Michigan).

  28. George Gibbard says:

    I have come up with a hypothesis. Given that only what we traditionally call “long o” is possible in words like local, tonal and modal, I would have expected /ɔːrəl/ for oral in RP as well as I suppose Australian. Might this really be the older form for oral, and might /ɒrəl/ have arisen as way of distinguishing oral from aural? And then might /ɒrəl/ for aural have followed as a hypercorrection by people who didn’t realize the important (or not) distinction being made?

  29. George Gibbard says:

    Wiktionary gives RP /flɔːrəl/, but /mɒrəl/. I have no explanation for the latter.

  30. But Piotr missed a golden opportunity there: Story of Ɔː / Histoire d’Ɔː

    I’ll see myself out.

  31. British dictionaries list floral and oral with /ɔː/, but moral and coral – and florist! – with /ɒ/.

  32. @Bathrobe:

    I think your pronunciation of ‘aural’ has been influenced by the spelling.

    You may well be right about my /ɔːrəl/ for “aural” being an idiosyncratic spelling spelling pronunciation. It’s probably motivated by a desire to differentiate it from “oral” –I also pronounce the “o” in “hypo-” as /əʉ/ rather than schwa to differentiate it from “hyper-“. On the other hand, I’m sure I’ve heard /ɔːrəl/ from other Australians.

    As for “bauxite”, “auction”, “salt”, “false”, “fault”, “caustic”, “hydraulic”, and “halt” — I’d pronounce all of them with /ɒ/ as you do, except for “bauxite” — but then maybe that’s because “bauxite” is a word I don’t hear often enough to offset the pull of the “au” spelling.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    I didn’t know there were any of those, although I know some retain pitch accent.

    It’s all a matter of definition; there’s one dialect that can have two high tones in the same word, not just one.

    It may be related to the Mongol/Turkic title Khan.

    If so, it has to be a rather late loan.

  34. Eli Nelson says:

    @Lazar:

    British dictionaries list floral and oral with /ɔː/, but moral and coral – and florist! – with /ɒ/.

    Florist doesn’t seem too odd (I can’t think of any comparable words that have /ɔːr/ in this position) but compared to floral, oral, choral, sororal, etc., moral and coral are definitely confusing. Both words are from French; I wonder if that has any relevance? Perhaps they used to be stressed on the second syllable or something, and that prevented the vowel from lengthening.

  35. moral and coral [and florist] are definitely confusing

    They confuse me too, but they are definitely “original LOT words”, because I have /ɑ/ in them. Forest belongs here too. In all cases, any following /r/ is firmly in the next syllable and doesn’t color what precedes it. There are Americans who say these words with NORTH, FORCE, or NORTH=FORCE, but I’m not among them: orange is a typical shibboleth for this change.

    All of Bathrobe’s words are THOUGHT for me, i.e. /ɔ/ (no phonemic vowel length in AmE), except the ones with following /r/ which are NORTH=FORCE: I pronounce those [or] (definitely not [ɔr]).

    ObJoke: “The crocodile has teeth along his back, for which reason he is called a sawrian” is a perfect pun for me.

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