Tuesday, 9 February 2010

lamb-flavoured ice cream

It is striking that Japanese users of English have difficulty not only in hearing and making the differences between the sounds r and l and between the sounds æ and ʌ, but also in distinguishing the corresponding spellings. They tend to confuse not only the sounds but also the letters r and l, a and u.
Because Japanese has only one liquid and only one open vowel, lamb, ram, and rum are all mapped onto Japanese ラム ramu. And we get confusions like this.It’s meant to be rum and raisin.

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The inspiration for the book with the Russian sunflower illustration that I reproduced a few days ago was John Trim’s English Pronunciation Illustrated (CUP 1975), with illustrations by Peter Kneebone. Here are some of their items for practising æ and ʌ. Surprisingly, they offer none for practising r and l.
It was John Trim who first initiated me into phonetics at Cambridge University, and he is someone whom I have always held in great admiration. I think it’s a little sad that the main thing he is known for in the wider world is this perfectly respectable but, alas, not very deeply intellectual book. Relatively few people know of his work as Director of CILT (the UK’s Centre for Information on Language Teaching) or on defining threshold levels in language teaching for the Council of Europe.


  1. I got a letter from the English-speaking Club at the National University of Tokyo asking me to give a talk was on headed writing paper in Japanese, and therefore correctly addressing me as ラム先生 (I know some students used the nickname Rambo for me). The heading, however, was Engrish Speaking Crub. I swear it. Not Crab, admittedly but I regret to say this did not stop me commenting on it. (And how could I not comment on it here, of all blog entries?) I said I was sure it was the printers' fault, but nevertheless provoked a weep-in about it.

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  4. I don't mind people going off-topic in comments, as long as what they say still relates to phonetics or at least to languages (see recent days). But I shall delete other comments that I judge irrelevant.

  5. ʌ is also replaced in English with the IPA vowels a or ɐ, ɜ or ə and ɑ

  6. Otto Jespersen's English primer (not sure what it was called, possibly "I can hop, I can run"), which was used in Danish schools for decades, used both phonetical transcription and standard orthography. I wish I had a copy so that I could scan in a page or two.

  7. It's simply called "Engelsk Begynderbog".

  8. The poor soul missed out on fun, funner, funnest!

  9. The problem may persist through years of studying English, teaching English and training English teachers. A Japanese fellow student on my Applied Linguistics course was a brilliant English communicator, but one day finished a presentation on certain classroom practice by complaining that the students learned only short utterances and

    I want to teach them wrong English!

    In my memory (maybe exaggerated, but not much ) I hear her using every device to emphasise the word — pause, volume, length and contrastive intonation. if she'd said It's a wrong, wrong way to Tipperary, we might not have noticed.

    When John Trim's book was published, I suspect that CUP had not really discovered the Japanese market. And the Chinese market didn't yet exist. twelve years later, CUP published Ship or Sheep? This does focus on the r/l contrast that English Pronunciation Illustrated neglected. One page uses the same principle, but the style of illustration makes for much duller material. By 1977, publishers had decided to ditch phonetic transcription, although Baker does give articulatory diagrams.

    Even people who are familiar with the Council of Europe project, tend to forget about John Trim's involvement. The first Threshold Level and later books were published under the name of Van Eyk.

    Despite John Trim's role as Director, the project seems to have ignore
    Phonetics and phonology in specification of language syllabuses. It's not that the emphasis on communicative function precluded the teaching of forms. The Threshold document and the rest are full of lists of grammatical and lexical forms, and formal exponents of functions and notions.

    Most English teaching nowadays seems to view pronunciation as something that the students will acquire from the media they hear, and from increased opportunity to speak with native speakers. And younger teachers seem not to studied any phonetics as part of their training.

    [For those who didn't see it, here's a link to an earlier post of a different excerpt from English Pronunciation Illustrated Trim & Kneebone.]

  10. Lipman, thanks, that is indeed the book I had in mind.

  11. To extend the fun, somebody translated the mistake into Korean and even added to it by writing *‹램주 건포도› [ˈɾɛmʤu-].
    I think ‹ㅐ› is the official South Korean transcription for English /æ/ as in “lamb”. The official transcription for English /ʌ/ is ‹ㅓ›, so “rum” should be transcribed as ‹럼›, and is indeed normally translated as ‹럼주›, with the same 주 (hanja: 酒) for alcoholic beverages as in ‹맥주› “beer” and ‹소주› “soju”. If whoever provided the translation had decided to treat the Korean name for the stuff as borrowed from Japanese (ラムレーズン), and to go against official rules by ignoring its obvious but perhaps indirect English origin, they would have used ‹라…› [ɾa-] for Japanese ‹ラ…›. (I'd say ‹ㅏ› is also at least as good for English /ʌ/ as ‹ㅓ›, but hey, I'm not the NIKL.)
    In short, while they may or may not have looked at the Japanese name, they almost certainly looked at the “English” word, if only to figure out which English vowel the ‹ラ› was derived from. They must have understood the meaning of ‹ラム›, too, otherwise they would not have added the 주 for alcoholic beverages. At the same time, they trusted whoever wrote ‹lamb› for ‹ラム›, despite their English being good enough to choose the correct vowel for transcribing ‹lamb›. I wonder whether they understood its meaning. If so, perhaps they just considered it an etymological oddity to have an animal's name for a spirit but amazingly didn't bother to check.
    By the way, Koreans have the same problems with foreign words' initial R and L, despite distinguishing between rhotic and lateral pronunciation in non-initial position in Korean as well as in borrowings.
    Sorry for the long post, thank you for your wonderful blog!

  12. Hadn't even focused on the Hangul at the bottom, so thanks for this additional hilarity!

    I must confess as soon as I saw the 램주 I thought Korean culinary weirdness factor and fermented lamb juice, but of course it's Lamb's Navy Rum, innit?

  13. Something in the news today to cap the Lamb Rum and the Engrish Speaking Crub: the Chilean mint issued 50-peso coins in 2008 with the name of the country spelt wrongly, but no-one noticed the mistake until late last year.

  14. Didn't know about Lamb's Navy Rum, now it all makes sense, thank you!
    I also read about the Chiiean coins on BBC, but Wikipedia doesn't mention it so it can't be true.

  15. Lamb ice-cream! That takes the cake, literally. But seriously, if you grow up in a non-native English speaking environment, and try to learn English as a adult, it's so much tougher. For instance, if you were to learn Mandarin now, I bet you'd end up making similar mistakes or even more. The 4 different intonations is quite difficult for Westerners to master & more often than not, when they try to speak Mandarin, the intended meaning is quite different from what is actually meant. Try to see it from a different perspective. At least the Japanese are trying...