Thursday, 23 August 2012

family words

I expect most families have private, family words, used only within the family and never with outsiders.

When I was growing up, we certainly did. And special family (mis)pronunciations, too. I’m not thinking just of nursery words for excretion and body parts, though of course we had those.

For example, my father and brothers and I (though perhaps not my mother) would often pronounce jug as jʌɡ (“yug”) and jump as jʌmp. My father would tell me to get a ˈjʌɡ əv ˈɒlɪndʒ (jug of orange (squash)) to put on the table for a meal. Whether this betrayed some paternal or precocious filial awareness of IPA and historical phonology (confusion of liquids) I do not know.

We also sometimes called ice cream ɪˈkekriæm, obviously in a playful misinterpretation of the spelling.

Our dog was called Carlo, but we sometimes called him Doggus ˈdɒɡəs instead, so recruiting him to the Latin second declension masculine. (We had all started Latin at a pretty tender age.)

Interestingly, when my German exchange friend Klaus came to stay with us at the end of my stay with his family when I was eighteen, I remember that he misinterpreted this name as Doggers ˈdɒɡəz, which would put it in line with champers ‘champagne’, Johnners (Brian Johnstone the cricket commentator) and the Staggers (the New Statesman periodical).

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I'm glad to see that the UCL summer course maintains the tradition of using nonsense words for ear-training. Here's Geoff Lindsey (photo: Masaki Taniguchi).

25 comments:

  1. What’s the vowel sound in the middle syllable of the last word? Is that supposed to be SQUARE?

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    1. That's NURSE. I suppose that it would also be SQUARE if you're Lancastrian.

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    2. I'm sorry, Philip, that you are not familiar with the standard symbols we use for English.

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    3. D’oh! I’m sorry, too; I read it as a regular epsilon, rather than a reversed one, for some reason.

      Thank you for the pointer.

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    4. One, though, wonders whether that should be as open as [ɜ] or, in reality, whether that is just a simple əː.

      English, in creating confusion, isn't nearly as bad as Dutch or Danish, where nothing sounds the way it is written down. Which makes IPA transcription useless unless you're a native speaker or a speaker who's been learning the language for decades.

      In any case, quite simple nonsense words.

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    5. The [ɜː] vs. [əː] problem has been discussed here (cf. section 7): http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/ipa-english-uni.htm (Sorry for having forgotten my HTML)

      Personally, I believe that [ɜː] does as much justice to the phoneme as does [əː] or [ɛː] (if you're Steven Gerrard or some one else from Liverpool). While the actual phonetic realization in RP and near-RP accents is the mid-central vowel, at least some people do retain a more open vowel, such as Emma Watson, who, to my ears, speaks NEAR RP Southern England English (certainly more open than Sir David Attenborough).

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    6. Duchesse de Guermantes, you are wrong on Dutch. Dutch spelling is extremely consistent, well-devised and economical. I can't think of a Dutch word whose pronunciation was not predictable from the spelling.

      You are right on Danish, though.

      Now two examples, not exactly of the requisite sort, but almost.

      A non-anglophone child has misheard the English expression 'pin code' as 'pink coat'. Her native tongue devoices final voiced stops. I have picked this up, translated into another language and henceforth been writing in my notebooks in big letters: pink coat (in that other language) bla-bla-bla-bla, for seen-ones, meaning visa. I can never learn all these pesky pin codes by heart.

      Another non-anglophone child (making his first steps in English), reading aloud the motto of the XXI All-World International Congress of Philosophy (Istanbul 2003): Philosophy Facing World Problems. Phi-lo-so-phy Fah-king ... Need I say more? (The child was innocent of the English four-letter word at that time yet). Well yes, contemporary philosophy being what it is, this modified motto WAS kinda fitting.

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    7. I meant the transcription. Just look at this vowel chart and the symbol inappropriateness:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_phonology#Vowels

      Does the œy diphthong sound anything like what the symbols tell you? Or try ʌu.

      Look where ʏ is!

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    8. The [ɜː] vs. [əː] problem has been discussed here (cf. section 7): http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/ipa-english-uni.htm (Sorry for having forgotten my HTML)

      Personally, I believe that [ɜː] does as much justice to the phoneme as does [əː] or [ɛː] (if you're Steven Gerrard or some one else from Liverpool). While the actual phonetic realization in RP and near-RP accents is the mid-central vowel, at least some people do retain a more open vowel, such as Emma Watson, who, to my ears, speaks NEAR RP Southern England English (certainly more open than Sir David Attenborough).


      I've read that long ago and many times since then, but I am not convinced. For example, we can stretch the condition no. 1. There is no reasonable argument that could make that symmetry alright.

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    9. Ah, OK, I know understand what you meant. Well, IPA transcriptions are conventional and conservative, and don't lift the burden of learning the language for decades off you.

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    10. I get the impression that there is not much of a developed notion of Standard Dutch (in terms of pronunciation). This is probably because so few people learn it as a foreign language.

      The books that I've consulted on Dutch prescribe the [ɣ] for the letter G, and I struggle to say this. I now understand that [ɣ] is largely confined to the north of the Netherlands. I wish that I'd known this beforehand.

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    11. "I've read that long ago and many times since then, but I am not convinced. For example, we can stretch the condition no. 1. There is no reasonable argument that could make that symmetry alright."

      de Guermantes, then I don't know what 'twill take to convince you. But I am of the opinion that [ɜː] fits the concerned sound just fine. I am more concerned with using [ʌ] for what should be [ɐ] or [ɔː] for what's closer to cardinal [oː].

      And yes, I agree with your Dutch and Danish observation. The IPA or whosoever is concerned with making symbols fit for languages should make the effort to update the conventions from time to time, as the phonologies change.

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    12. They should've just used the symbol ɘː. It would be more correct, Daniel Jones said the NURSE vowel was closer than the mid central unrounded vowel, and it would satisfy the symmetry criterion. But I don't know what would happen to the əʊ transcription choice, given that it vaporizes the 'schwa is never accented' mantra.

      For all the rest, I agree. They should change it once they agree upon what is the standard pronunciation of this day that the newsreaders and actors in Shakespearean, Rattiganian and Cowardian plays should use.

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  2. Yes, we had a few nonsense terms in our family.

    tʃɪˈtʃɪn chicken
    aɪ aɪ bye bye (omitting the [b])
    mə:, də: mum, dad
    lɪkl̩ little

    The last one might have been dialect actually but, if that is the case, we weren't aware of it and treated it as a nonsense word.

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  3. My wife and I have similar personal jocular pronunciations, including a spelling pronunciation for "ice cream" (though ours is ɪˈsekriɑm). Another common feature is diminutivization (diminution?) by adding /i/ + full reduplication (minus /i/) and non-high vowel reduction/deletion, e.g., the word "walk" would become wəˈkiwk. Certainly this will be passed on to our daughter and any future children.

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  4. There are some playful mispronunciations that seem mysteriously widespread. Was "coinkidink" popularised by e.g. 'the Simpsons', or spread purely by word of mouth? I wonder how many unexplained changes in historical pronunciation might spring from a joke that caught on.

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  5. We use to call my pug Puggus ˈpʌɡəs (or Doggus).

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  6. John, your family is not alone in saying jʌmp. My high school basketball teacher used to use that, usually prefaced by the phrase "as the Swedish say...." He was also the music teacher, and thus had experience pronouncing foreign languages for singing, which probably explains it. (It didn't help, though; I'm still a bad yumper.)

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  7. Voitjeq,
    Ai lφv dφk diu tu its orþoɡrəfi, wik iz nir t ð prinsəpl ‘wφn letr wφn saund’, n bicoz of ð wei ðt loŋ vaulz r riiprizentid. Ai hv olweiz wornd mai frendz tu əvoid cnfiuȝn bitwiin dφk n жωrmn, fr instns in ð rinaund bir ‘Heinəcən’. Hauevr ə cφpl əv deiz əɡou, ai hωrd ð dφk ricordz in Forvo wer evriwφn prənaunst ‘Hainəcn’ əz ə жωrmn wωrd (ət liist fr forin irz). Dφz it miin ðt poldər dφk iz bicφmiŋ ð niu standrd?

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  9. vɔjtɕɛx,
    aɪ lʌv dʌtʃ djuː tu ɪts ɔːθɒɡrəfi, wɪtʃ ɪz nɪə tə ðə prɪnsəpl̩ ‘wʌn letə wʌn saʊnd’, ənd bɪkɒz ɒf ðə weɪ ðət lɒŋ vaʊəlz ə riːprɪzentɪd. aɪ həv ɔːlweɪz wɔːnd maɪ frendz tu əvɔɪd kənfjuːʒn̩ bɪtwiːn dʌtʃ ən dʒɜːmən, fər ɪnstəns ɪn ðə rɪnaʊnd bɪə ‘ɦeɪnəkən’. haʊevər ə kʌpl̩ əv deɪz əɡəʊ, aɪ hɜːd ðə dʌtʃ rɪkɔːdz ɪn forvo weər evrɪwʌn prənaʊnst ‘ɦaɪnəkən’ əz ə dʒɜːmən wɜːd (ət liːst fə fɒrɪn ɪəz). dəz ɪt miːn ðət pɔldər dʌtʃ ɪz bɪkʌmɪŋ ðə njuː stændəd?

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  10. Among our family words were "gebusted" ("broken"), "struggleberries" ("strawberries"), "automobubble" ("automobile"), and "coinkydink" ("coincidence").

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  11. Ad Hlnodovic

    Gosh, you have patience... I don't know your first transcription, what is it? I like Dutch too for the same reason, although the Czech way of signalling the length of vowels (an acute accent) is even more economical. Anyway,with regard to Heineken, I seem to hear a (very lowered) [ɛ] as the first part of the dipththong. Perhaps with find_your_spot it comes close to an [ai], but listen to how this very same speaker pronunces 'Eindpunt'. So it's mainly for the foreign ear, I'd think...

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    1. Maybe an advanced polderised Dutch has [æi] for 'ei'/'ij'? I do in most cases seem to hear a difference between the Dutch 'ei' and the German 'ei'.

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    2. I hear a difference as well: Dutch ei is like English ay (as in day) (not RP or GA but say not-so-extreme Australian) German ei is like English i (as in ride). I admire that Rebecca Romijn pronounces her name /ɹoʊmeɪn/ and not /ɹoʊmaɪn/.

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