Swapping Ls and Rs.

Joss Fong, who describes herself as a “tragically monolingual producer,” presents a splendid video which she describes as follows:

A foreign accent is when someone speaks a second language with the rules of their first language, and one of the most persistent and well-studied foreign-accent features is a lack of L/R contrast among native Japanese speakers learning English. It’s so well-known that American soldiers in World War II reportedly used codewords like “lallapalooza” to distinguish Japanese spies from Chinese allies. But American movies and TV shows have applied this linguistic stereotype to Korean and Chinese characters too, like Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police, or Chinese restaurant employees singing “fa ra ra ra ra” in A Christmas Story. However, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese are completely different languages that each handle L-sound and R-sounds differently. In this episode of Vox Observatory, we take a look at each language and how it affects pronunciation for English-language learners.

But it doesn’t start out with L/R, it starts out with Cantonese tones: if you don’t say wai faai bat po ‘only speed is unbreakable’ right, it sounds like you’re talking about wi-fi (thus giving birth to a Cantonese meme). This is brilliant, because it immediately puts English-speakers on the wrong foot and makes them see how hard it is to recognize and reproduce distinctions that your native language doesn’t make. The video has linguists and vocal tracts and everything; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I got it from MetaFilter, where user os tuberoes (Alex Chabot) links to his Glossa paper What’s wrong with being a rhotic?, which is also well worth your while; here’s his MeFi summary:

The objects we hear when someone speaks (or see when someone signs) are not what we actually have in our heads. As you don’t have any blue wave-lengths of light in your head, but can still conjure up an idea of what blue is and means to you, so we don’t actually have the physical objects of sound in our heads. They must be represented somehow. One question some linguists like to ask is, what is the relationship between those mental objects and the physical ones that vibrate through the air? The paper is an investigation of that question via r sounds across different languages.

Tl;dr: There is a kind of psychological unity across languages concerning so-called rhotics, or ‘r-sounds.’ As touched on in the video, there is enormous variation between various members of that class, so while everyone agrees there is a psychological reality, there, no one really knows if it is articulatory or acoustic or what. The paper argues that it is in fact, all in our head, and then it goes into some fairly arcane arguments for why the computational system of linguistic sound is arbitrary and not really related to actual pronunciation, and that R sounds are an especially good example of this arbitrariness since they are especially prone to variation.

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think possibly the very first time I was exposed to East-Asian-accent humor of the sort that might now be thought in poor taste was circa 1972 when as a boy I read the newly-published Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl, which contains the following “period” schtick: “It is very difficult to phone people in China, Mr. President,” said the Postmaster General. “The country’s so full of Wings and Wongs, every time you wing you get the wong number.”

    So there’s an r/w mixup stereotype floating around adjacent to the l/r mixup stereotype.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    … and then shortly thereafter at age 8 I moved to Japan where mastering L-lessness and saying コカコーラ for Coca-Cola seemed like acquiring cultural capital.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    Surely in these days of Flower Power and Letting It All Hang Out we no longer have to explain that there is nothing wrong with being erotic.

  4. I remember being rather disappointed with the “Deck the Halls” bit from A Christmas Story. Beyond the flat-out mistake with the syllables, it seemed like a cheap ethnic gag—not worthy of Jean Shepherd, whose extensive oeuvre was normally well researched and tightly constructed.

  5. There was a much more racist East-Asian accent comment from Arthur Caldwell, Australian Minister for Immigration back in 1949. Speaking in defence of the White Australia Policy (keeping out Asian immigration), Caldwell said:

    Two Wongs do not make a White.

  6. Is “wing the wong number” meant to mock a Chinese accent? I interpret it as an instance of a different kind of racism: “foreigners have funny names that sound like ordinary English words”; with a hint of “It’s not worth bothering trying to pronounce their names correctly”.

  7. I agree with mollymooly. /w/ for /r/ is a common enough speech error among native speakers of English. It’s just being used here to facilitate the pun.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    In fact, the stereotypical Cockney w-for-r is not a merger (or error); it just sounds like it to a typical English speaker, who can’t hear the difference between [ʋ] and [w].

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronunciation_of_English_/r/#R-labialization

  9. Who said anything about Cockney? I was thinking more of Elmer Fudd.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotacism_(speech_impediment)

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Using [ʁ] for [r] in Welsh is called tafod tew “thick tongue.”
    Just thought you’d like to know …

    Fudd is of course a classic Cockney name. It must be his heritage.
    (“‘E stepped on a nile an’ got elmer poisoning.”)

  11. [Continuing from my last post] Of course, a lot of people probably don’t clearly distinguish between regional accent features and speech pathologies. But the important point is that there’s a stereotypical understanding, among English speakers, that sometimes “r” gets replaced with “w” in a person’s speech. The joke couldn’t just replace one phoneme with another at random.

  12. John Cowan says:

    every time you wing you get the wong number

    The speakers are Americans, but this use of ring is definitely BrE. Over here, phones ring but people call.

    foreigners have funny names that sound like ordinary English words

    In her second novel How To Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong writes about Isadora Wing, who is writing a novel about the doubly fictional Sandra (?) Wong.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    That Roald Dahl put a Briticism in the mouth of a nominally American character does not particularly shock me. I will defer to others as what the stereotypical ethnic spin of the w-for-r substitution stereotype is and whether it’s been used consistently for Chinese versus just as an ad hoc repurposing of Elmer Fuddishness. For Cockney I think more of the v-for-w substitution used for comical eye-dialect effect in Dickens, but I don’t know if it’s still extant anywhere in the UK. The only time I recall hearing it with my own ears was in the Bahamas, in a sermon given by a presumably local clergyman whose accent was notably different from generic-West-Indian-English. Then there’s the opposite w-for-v substitution, which I associate with Chekhov on Star Trek and which may or may not be consistent with any empirical evidence that it’s paricularly common in the English of L1 Russophones.

  14. there is a Monty Python sketch that is so weird and racist in this one particular way that I didn’t get it for the first … oh, maybe 10 years after I first saw it. Someone rings a bicycle bell, and an Asian stereotype says

    “Ling my berr?”

    … this is just a paraphrased memory, look up the sketch if you want to see the actual dialogue. At the time I had no idea what “Ling my berr” was supposed to mean, or why they said it. Since a lot of Monty Python references flew over my head in those days I just shrugged it off like the others.

    on a possibly more constructive note, there is considerable non-Asian “r-related” confusion just in trans-Atlantic understanding of English literature.

    As an American kid, I had no clue what to make of “Lord of the Flies”‘s characters contemptuous taunting of Piggy with “sucks to your ass-mar”. And in retrospect I realize that every time a character in a British novel says “erm”, “er”, or anything similar that they’re just making normal human vowel noises, not doing a pirate accent.

  15. As an American kid, I had no clue what to make of “Lord of the Flies”‘s characters contemptuous taunting of Piggy with “sucks to your ass-mar”. And in retrospect I realize that every time a character in a British novel says “erm”, “er”, or anything similar that they’re just making normal human vowel noises, not doing a pirate accent.

    Same here.

  16. And millions of Americans mispronounce the name of the singer Sade because the pronunciation was given as “shar-DAY” when she first appeared on the scene (rather than “shah-DAY”, which would have worked on both sides of the Atlantic).

  17. I griped about that in one of the very earliest LH posts.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    For Cockney I think more of the v-for-w substitution used for comical eye-dialect effect in Dickens, but I don’t know if it’s still extant anywhere in the UK.

    Sadly, no.
    This
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249955067_On_the_reversibility_of_mergers_W_V_and_evidence_from_lesser-known_Englishes

    seems to be the definitive account of the phenomenon; Trudgill concludes tentatively that it was an actual merger which was subsequently reversed by dialect contact, which is interesting in itself.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    Evidently the feeling among Londoners is that you have to have [ʋ] somewhere in your sound system unless you want to sound like a plonker.

  20. These stereotypes do have their uses. I once saw a comic in which a Chinese person called the hero (IIRR) “Blitish pig”. It was effective because it succeeded in making a nasty insult sound ridiculous.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    UK cryptic crossword clues involving puns or soundalikes catch me out sometimes because by default they presume non-rhotic pronunciation.

    In the Good Old Days crossword compositors would include in the clue some sort of nod to us linguistic deviant Citizens of Nowhere, like “some say”, but this seems to be exceptional now. O tempora, o mores …

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    Tl;dr

    Presumably a typo for Tr;dl.

  23. AJP Crown says:

    There’s a comment I liked on the MetaFilter:

    I’ve always been interested in the fact that many Polynesian languages seem to have one or the other of these sounds (l/r) but not both. Thus: Hawaiian has L (laulima, liliha, ‘ilima), Tahitian has R (fare, Rarotonga, tiare, Ta‘aroa), Sāmoan has L (fale, palagi, Tutila, Tagaloa), Māori has R (Māori, Wharariki, Tangaroa). i-Kiribati, which is somewhat Polynesian-influenced, seems to just have R, such that the settlement known as London on Kiritimati Island is spellen Ronton (Kiribati R’s are mostly the tapping kind). Which is interesting, given that the Polynesian language (I think) Kiribati was most influenced by was Sāmoan.

    posted by deadbilly at 6:18 PM on March 26 [7 favorites]

  24. Presumably a typo for Tr;dl.

    Heh. Took me a minute.

  25. Ellen K. says:

    The idea that there’s a “psychological unity across languages concerning so-called rhotics, or ‘r-sounds’” makes me think of Spanish and English. A flapped Spanish R doesn’t sound, to my head (psychologically) like a American English flapped d/t, even though they are basically if not completely the same. In fact learning how to say an R correctly in Spanish for me amounted to paying attention to that particular allophone of d/t and moving my mouth that when when mentally (phonemically) saying an R.

    For that matter, you hear that R sound in English from 2nd language speakers, and even some native speakers, and yet, it somehow has a r-ness that the flapped d/t doesn’t. And it really has to be in our heads, not the sounds themselves.

  26. Yes, exactly.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Then there’s the opposite w-for-v substitution, which I associate with Chekhov on Star Trek and which may or may not be consistent with any empirical evidence that it’s paricularly common in the English of L1 Russophones.

    Few languages worldwide have both a /w/ and a /v/. Therefore, most learners of English simply cannot believe that English has both, and assume that [w] is the English /v/ the same way that [ɹ ~ ɻ] is the English /r/.

    For people who start from German, the use of the letter w and a ton of obvious cognates exacerbate this, of course.

    A flapped Spanish R doesn’t sound, to my head (psychologically) like a American English flapped d/t, even though they are basically if not completely the same.

    They’re not. They’re both apical-alveolar, but the Spanish r isn’t flapped, it’s a one-contact trill. It sounds similar to an American flap, but it’s not the same.

    The Spanish r-, -rr-, -r is a laminal-alveolar looooong trill (four to five contacts). Lacking a way to differentiate apical from laminal (or alveolar from “dental”) consonants in the IPA other than by clunky diacritics*, and feeling uncomfortable at interpreting the Spanish sound system as containing one single phonemically long consonant and no other length contrast for consonants or vowels, phoneticians & phonologists traditionally resort to the “tap or flap” symbol to write the short one as [ɾ] and the long one as [r], but that’s just because there doesn’t seem to be any language that contrasts a flap or tap** with a trill.

    Most trills on this planet are limited to a single contact most of the time. Some people end up writing [r] for very few languages…

    * Apical alveolar, laminal alveolar, apical dental: r̪ r̻ r̺ . Have fun with that in small print. Edit: the diacritics come out unusually large in this font, I’ve seen them much smaller.
    ** “Tap” seems to mean “very short plosive”.

    For a real case where the concept of “rhotic” breaks down, I recommend Lakhóta, where [ʀ] is the allophone of /ʁ/ used before /i/.

    and even some native speakers

    Other than Scots, I’ve noticed a few Americans using it behind [θ] sometimes. And of course Trevor Noah does that consistently.

    the fact that many Polynesian languages seem to have one or the other of these sounds (l/r) but not both

    Also common in the Congo.

  28. John Cowan says:

    many Polynesian languages seem to have one or the other of these sounds (l/r) but not both

    I don’t think that reflects anything except different adaptations of the Latin alphabet. Liholiho (later King Kamehameha II) often had his name spelled Rihoriho. The only Polynesian languages showing a contrast where Proto-Polynesian had *r and *l are Tongan and Niuean, where *l > /l/ and *r > zero. In all other Polynesian languages they merge as either /l/ or /r/ or (in North and South Marquesas) glottal stop. PPn glottal stop, written *q, becomes zero everywhere but Tongan.

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    Also common in the Congo.

    Among Western Oti-Volta languages only Mooré and the Agolle dialect of Kusaal (not even the other major Kusaal dialect) have a /r/ distinct from both /d/ and /l/; oddly, it seems to be the reflex of some sort of Proto-Oti-Volta palatal, which often has the reflexes /l/ or /j/ in the various daughter languages.

    AFAIK Proto-Bantu is not thought to have had either *r or *l, but the reconstructed *d was probably really /l/ already, as it is in most of the daughter languages. It does correspond to Oti-Volta *d: Swahili la “eat”, Lingala liya, cognate with Kusaal di; Swahili uma “bite” (< *luma), Kusaal dum.

    Twi has no r/l distinction. Northern Ghanaians like to mock southerners’ attempts to pronounce the word “problem.”

    Hausa has two distinct r’s, like Spanish.

  30. PPn glottal stop, written *q, becomes zero everywhere but Tongan.
    Also in Rapanui, Rennellese, East Futunan, and East Uvean.

    I think the r/l distinction in Hawaiian was more a matter of geographical dialect than free variation, with r losing to l everywhere (and t losing to k almost everywhere).

  31. January First-of-May says:

    IIRC, there are recordings of Hawaiian that prove that t and k really were in free variation. Not sure if they still are (to the extent that Hawaiian is still extant at all).

    Maori /ɾ/ was occasionally transcribed d in early records (up to and including “Maodi”).

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    In Samoan it’s a matter of register: posh (tautala lelei) /k/ and /t/ fall together as /k/ in common (tautala leaga.)

    Interestingly, the distinct /l/ and /r/ of tautala lelei fall together as /l/ in plebspeak.

  33. I was confused at first, thinking “where’s the /r/ in tautala lelei?”

  34. Maori /ɾ/ was occasionally transcribed d in early records (up to and including “Maodi”)

    I guess that’s related to the occasional American habit of describing a refined English accent as ‘veddy posh’

  35. Maori /ɾ/ was occasionally transcribed d in early records (up to and including “Maodi”)

    Compare daan/raan:

    https://learningtagalog.com/grammar/other_describing_words/expressing_quantity_or_distribution/cardinal_numbers.html

  36. January: Ni‘ihau Hawaiian, which is/was a t-dialect, had t and k in free variation in the speech of one young speaker who was documented in detail in the 1940s. I think these days t is used in some words, k in others, but I’m not sure.
    Early sources (pre-standardization) invariably had r and t everywhere west of the Big Island.

  37. John Cowan says:

    Not sure if they still are

    Originally, /k/ was an innovation that started in the Big Island and spread steadily northward without ever reaching Ni’ihau. At one time t/k was probably a sociolinguistic variable, with /t/ H and /k/ L, as in Samoa today, But on Ni’ihau, now the main home of spoken Hawaiian thanks to its isolation, /t/ is L, /k/ is H (because the Bible uses /k/).

    There have been about 20 independent /t/ > /k/ shifts in Polynesian (or maybe Oceanic in general) languages.

  38. It’s more complex than that, I suspect. There’s also the aspect of Ni‘ihau pride, and distinguishing oneself from the other Hawaiian speakers. The only recent discussion of Ni’ihau Hawaiian I know of is in a 2010 dissertation by Annette Kuuipolani Wong. I can’t read it, but the examples show something of what’s going on.

  39. An article about switching between [i] and [r] as an ongoing phenomenon in a Polynesian language (link goes to the abstract, for the full article click on “PDF”).

  40. [l] and [r].
    It’s a fine and original paper, a vivid formal and sociolinguistic portrayal of the complexities of a sound change in progress.

  41. Oops, thanks for finding that typo. 🙂

  42. The paper is Albert Davletshin, “A seemingly on-going sound change in Takuu language of Papua New Guinea: historical and theoretical implications” (Journal of Language Relationship, № 12, 2014 – p.1-20); abstract:

    The Takuu language of Papua New Guinea shows both the lateral [l] and the flap rhotic [r] as regular reflexes of Proto-Nuclear-Polynesian *l. Older speakers tend to pronounce it closer to [r] and younger speakers closer to [l]. This situation is likely to be described as a sound change in progress (r → l). However, it is possible to show that distribution of [l] and [r] is predictable, depending on strictly defined phonological environments and the age of the speaker. Thus, a seemingly on-going sound change turns out to be a series of seven different related sound changes which trigger each other. The closely related languages Nukeria and Nukumanu whose speakers maintain close contact with Takuu show only a part of the Takuu distributional patterns for liquids; in these cases we probably deal with shared sound changes that have recently originated in one of the languages. Intricate distributions involving laterals and rhotics on one hand and fricatives on the other are characteristic of Polynesian Outliers. The author suggests that distributions of this kind are responsible for irregular reflexes of Proto-Polynesian liquids and fricatives in modern Polynesian languages.

  43. John Cowan says:
  44. David Marjanović says:

    From there:

    it’s insulting in any language to call someone a penis.

    Eh, depends. Ure “penis” used to be a perfectly normal boy’s name on Easter Island.

  45. I assume the progression was something like prick–>dick–>dink–>dong. “Dong” is evocative because a bell clapper is somewhat phallic.

    Where did wang-dang-doodle come from?

  46. AJP Crown says:

    In his autobiography, [Willie] Dixon explained that the phrase “wang dang doodle” “meant a good time, especially if the guy came in from the South. A wang dang meant having a ball and a lot of dancing, they called it a rocking style so that’s what it meant to wang dang doodle”.[5] Mike Rowe claimed that Dixon’s song is based on “an old lesbian song” – “The Bull Daggers Ball” – with “its catalogue of low-life characters only marginally less colurful that the original”.[6] Dixon claimed that he wrote it when he first heard Howlin’ Wolf in 1951 or 1952 but that it was “too far in advance” for him and he saved it for later.[7] However, Wolf supposedly hated the song and commented, “Man, that’s too old-timey, sound[s] like some old levee camp number”:[8]

    Tell Automatic slim, to tell razor totin’ Jim
    To tell butcher knife totin’ Annie, to tell fast talkin’ Fannie …
    We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long[9]

  47. Fascinating, even if there’s no clear origin story! I’ve always liked that song.

  48. Stu Clayton says:

    # In slang|lang=en terms the difference between whang and thang is that whang is (slang) a penis while thang is (slang) a thing: usually used to denote a known fad or popular activity.

    As nouns the difference between whang and thang is that whang is (uk|us|dialect|informal|dated) a leather thong while thang is (slang) a thing: usually used to denote a known fad or popular activity.

    As a verb whang is (chiefly|of an object) to make a noise such as something moving quickly through the air. #

    Whang vs Thang

  49. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Wang Dang Doodle” (which I think I primarily associate w/ Koko Taylor even though Wolf presumably recorded it earlier) was adapted/updated for us suburban white boys of the mid/late Seventies thusly, arguably with less nuance and sophistication than you would have found in some “old levee camp number”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAc3MzAfL-o

  50. AJP Crown says:

    Stu,
    I don’t know about the H in whang, but if thang comes from thing, then perhaps wang comes from wing?

  51. J.W. Brewer says:

    AJPC: according to the accumulated wisdom of the Internet, a potential etymology for at least one potentially relevant sense of “w[h]ang” is “Debuccalized (/θw/ > /hw/) from Scots thwang, cognate to thong.”

  52. Now, “thwang” is a great word.

  53. As is (in a different way) “debuccalized.”

  54. AJP Crown says:

    Could Scots thwang-thong have been debuccalised to swansong? We just don’t know.

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