Monday, 28 June 2010

from bitch to beach

Native speakers of English have no difficulty in hearing and making the difference between the FLEECE vowel and the KIT vowel. We effortlessly distinguish green from grin, reed from rid, and reach from rich. But anyone who has been in contact with NNSs knows that for many EFL learners this distinction can be very problematic. For most people from southern Europe, and from many other parts of the world too, English and ɪ both sound like versions of the i of their own language. They find it really difficult to hear any difference between them, and even more difficult to consistently make the difference when speaking English.

It’s not for nothing that in the US spick is a derogatory term for ‘Hispanic’.

It is interesting that the potential confusion can extend into written English. You’d think that even if hearing the difference is difficult, nevertheless seeing it and spelling it would be straightforward. The letters in G-R-E-E-N look different from those in G-R-I-N. But there is plenty of evidence that people get the spellings of such minimal pairs confused, too. Sometimes it can lead to awkward or embarrassing results. This, from the Engrish website, was the frontage of a hotel in Jurmala, Latvia. With this name, you might take it for an up-market brothel.I’m glad to say that they have now corrected it. This is from the hotel’s current website.
An unrelated point of linguistic interest: on the website, the hotel gives its address with the street name in Latvian (in the Latin script), as 23 Jūras iela, but the name of the town in Russian (Cyrillic), as Юрмала. Presumably most of their clientele consists of Russians, who wouldn’t notice the difference between a bitch and a beach anyhow.

Even so, why don’t they get their English checked?

The unique location in the dune area lets You enjoy peaceful relax... Be sure, that Your day can have different taste, if You wake up with a sunrise at the sea shore and breathe in fresh pine-wood aroma, walking along sandy beach!

29 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The other side to it is that speakers of English tie vowel quality to length, so that the hybrid Hispanic [spik] is resolved to /spɪk/, not /spiːk/, even if the convention for American phoneticists is to ignore length on the phonemic level and see the quality as primary, ie postulate /spɪk/ vs /spik/, not /spik/ vs /spiːk/.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As a teacher of EFL for 30 years I have collected dozens of such examples. An essay by one of my Greek kids on pollution: 'we must put beans on the bitches for put the rubbishes' and 'I write my second answer on the other shit'.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Lipman: thanks. (I have deleted your first comment.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh, so the term "spick" comes from "speak". I never realized that. I never knew the term existed until recently though.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I like how you write "not for nothing". People from New York City say that a lot.

    ReplyDelete
  7. (Wasn't mine, and alphabet's a good word, I think.)

    ReplyDelete
  8. It was my comment that was deleted, but that is fine since the post was updated as I suggested.

    If anyone is curious about script vs. alphabet, there is a well-written, short online summary here:
    http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode5.2.0/ch06.pdf#G7382

    Make sure to notice the introductory passage about how an alphabet typically applies to a particular language.

    I can also recommend some other books as well if desired.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Even so, why don’t they get their English checked?"

    Who wants expensive language checking by a native speaker when a tiny electronic gadget will do it for a few pence?

    Even the BP chairman didn't find it necessary to take advice before making the gaffe of the year. His direct translation of an everyday Swedish expression turned out to be a bigger insult than the oil leak itself.

    ReplyDelete
  10. If anyone is curious about script vs. alphabet

    Thanks. I'm aware of recent definitions of alphabet and script, and I certainly don't mind your using the latter word, but in everyday language, even among linguists, the normal meaning of alphabet will do for me.

    Who wants expensive language checking by a native speaker when a tiny electronic gadget will do it for a few pence?

    I suspect it's more a problem of lack of awareness, or of a bad estimation of their abilities. (I really wonder why spam messages are routinely in ridiculous English - business thinking would suggest they have a native speaker glance over it before they send it. But either they really don't have anyone available, or they simply think their English is correct.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Lipman - there was an interesting post/discussion about why spam is usually illiterate at Language Log recently: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2333.

    ReplyDelete
  12. John, talking about bad English, why don't you have a look at my language blog? http://alex-ateachersthoughts.blogspot.com/2010/06/shame-on-you.html

    ReplyDelete
  13. Following up on Lipman (I think) I'm curiously about where the vowel quality in "spic" comes from (to be honest, I don't think I've ever seen it spelled "spick"). To the best of my knowledge, the Anglo stereotype for Spanish speakers is to pronounce /ɪ/ as /iː/, not the other way around. The OED says that spic comes from "Spiggoty," which is itself an Anglo corruption of "spikee de’ as in the sentence ‘No spikee de English." I wonder whether the /ɪ/ comes not as a parody of Panamanians but in the Anglo prononciation (i.e., first the length of the vowel was shortened (reflected in the spelling with two gs, and then the quality was changed). So it more the speak habits of Anglo speakers rather than Spanish speakers that is to blame?

    The mistakes above I think are spelling mistakes rather than a failure to differentiate /ɪ/ and /i/.

    What's up with all the troll comments, lately, by the by?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Sorry, forgot to add a point.

    @Sidney Wood,

    I brought this up in the Language Log, but I'll repeat it here. I have a hard time imagining a Swede using "den lilla människan" in a comparable context. Can you really imagine the head of a corporation responsible for an economic and ecological tragedy saying to the press that "Vi bryr oss om den lilla människan" as an attempt to diminish the controversy surrounding their responsibility? (My Swedish is passive, I know other Nordic languages better, so my apologies if it is wrong).

    ReplyDelete
  15. Leo - thanks.

    Anonymous, it all comes from the ambiguity of the hybrid short [i], I'd say.

    Concerning the trolls, those clever bastards must have hacked you - they're posting under your name!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Speaking about what mistakes NNS's make...

    When my students practice their pronunciation and have to pronounce /iː/, they pronounce /ɪ/. They're Chilean, by the way.

    This would prove the "spic" theory.

    ReplyDelete
  17. As for the checking of English I have no idea. For commercial sites it might indeed be a cost-cutting measure, I suspect it is as much Dunning-Kruger at work: the inability to realise one's own weaknesses.

    That at least is my hypothesis for some of the godawful 'scanlations' of manga I've waded through lately. I really do appreciate the desire to share the stories with those of us who do not have the option of buying local editions of particular series, but I'm ripping my hair out at the at times unparsable English used. It's not like there's a lack of fans that are native speakers of English.

    Of course, one group doing translations is from Lincoln College - and while not the worst, they're most certainly not good at the job.

    Sad.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Anonymous (are you the same as above? Could you all please sign, and be it with a pseudonym?), are you sure about the vowel quality? Could it be that they just pronounce it shorter? In Chilean Spanish, there's only one /i/ sound, and while there's some range, it's more on the [i] side. Length isn't phonetic either, and unlike in European Spanish, there's some range here, too, depending on whether the syllable's open and how much it's stressed, but you might still hear it as a short vowel and so identify it as /ɪ/.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Spic = Cockney rhyming slang for "span" (hiSPANic), via "spic and span". Hence also the spelling.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Wouldn't be Cockney rhyming slang. Also, it's an American word, isn't it? But I agree that the spelling's influenced by Hispanic.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Don't forget the role of spelling in these kinds of substitutions.

    In Polish, for example (and, one could argue, in Russian, too), you get both /i/ and /ɪ/. You could insist that they are allophones of the same thing but as a native speaker of Polish I can tell you they are felt to be evidently distinct; Wiktor Jassem has always argued in favour of a phonemic analysis. Yet Poles are firmly among those who suffer from this problem. I think it's pretty evident that interference from the Polish convention of spelling /i/ as "i" is to blame.

    Another piece of evidence are happy words, which tend to be pronounced with /ɪ/. Thus, a typical Polglish pronunciation of city is /sitɪ/.

    ReplyDelete
  22. BTW, it's me, wjarek. Had to get a new Google account... Never posted as anonymous, though ;)

    ReplyDelete
  23. OK, Alex, I've bookmarked it.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @Lipman,

    I, (Joe), am the anonymous who first gave the OED citation for "spic" and then gave the follow-up about "den lilla människan." By the by, the full OED citation is as follows:

    1913 H. A. FRANCK Zone Policeman 88 i. 10
    It was my first entrance into the land of the panameños, technically known on the Zone as ‘Spigoties’, and familiarly, with a tinge of despite, as ‘Spigs’.

    I had the same reaction as you did for the anonymous who had the students from Chile. Back in the day, I did a lot of ESL work, and I remember needing to get students to work on the length of the vowel in a sheet, other than the quality, because otherwise . . . Still, I do agree that "it all comes from the ambiguity of the hybrid short [i]."

    ReplyDelete
  25. In my experience, the glottal stop is also a sound that EFL learners tend to have difficulty pronouncing.

    I've found that before a vowel, /t/ is pronounced as [t]: "No[t] a[t] all", and that before a consonant, /t/ is elided: "No[ ] good" (i.e. not good).

    These are generalisations, of course, but I've very rarely heard any ELF learner, regardless of the country they're from or their level of time spent learning English, master the pronunciation of the glottal stop.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hardly any EFL learner is taught the glottal stop, at least in a classroom setting. Immigrants who more or less learn English "on the street" are a different matter, and there, it probably depends on whether they have it in their own language and if so, in which phonetic environment. Also, they'll be influenced by the spelling.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Where are these "trolls" you speak of? I didn't think those existed. I honestly thought "spick" came from "speak". That's not trolling. I just thought that's what John was trying to suggest.

    And with the New York comment I was just saying that New Yorkers say "not for nothing". I didn't realize people from elsewhere used that expression. Geeze people. Stop being hypersensitive.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I'm the anonymous who had the Chilean students. From now on, call me Chl.

    Lipman said, "In Chilean Spanish, there's only one /i/ sound, and while there's some range, it's more on the [i] side. Length isn't phonetic either, and unlike in European Spanish, there's some range here, too, depending on whether the syllable's open and how much it's stressed, but you might still hear it as a short vowel and so identify it as /ɪ/."

    I agree with the fact that Chilean Spanish has one /i/ sound, meaning one /i/ phoneme, just like the rest of the accents of Spanish in Spain and Latin America. But from what I have heard, Chilean young people, and especially young women, tend to pronounce the Spanish /i/ phoneme with a [ɪ] quality and it is very noticeable that the quality of this vowel is lax instead of tense. It is not the fact that the vowel they produce is short, it is the quality which is different. It doesn't matter whether it is stressed or open. Many of them can't hear the difference between [i] and [ɪ] in Spanish and that's why, I think, they can't make the difference between /i/ and /ɪ/ in English. There are no papers on this, as far as I know, though.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Thanks for the great article. I needed help finding rehab for women and I found many great resources on the web.

    ReplyDelete