Monday 14 March 2011

fun with phonetics

I had a great time this weekend at the University of Sheffield First International Languages Festival.

What was particularly remarkable about this event was that it was created not by the academic staff, but by the students themselves — an enthusiastic band of a dozen or more young people who had put together an impressive programme of language taster sessions ranging from Portuguese, Hungarian, Polish and Welsh via Arabic and Hebrew, Yoruba and Xhosa, Tagalog and Thai, to Japanese, Korean and Chinese. And that’s only a selection. There were also sessions on BSL, Braille and Old English. The initiator of all this was one Maks Marzec, a student from Poland with native-like English and fluent Mandarin, who picked up the idea from a similar event he had attended in Nanjing.

The opening ceremony attracted the presence not only of the Vice-Chancellor of the University (who gave a witty and inspiring opening speech) but also of the Lord Mayor of the city and one of the city’s members of parliament. The VC reminded us that language study was valuable not only intellectually and socially but also because it was fun.

A highlight of the opening ceremony was a click song performed by a speaker of Ndebele, accompanied by a drummer.

The idea of inviting me came, I assume, from one of the organizers who was an Esperanto enthusiast. The committee asked me to give two talks (“presentations”) at the opening ceremony, one short and one longer.

The short one was 10-15 minutes on ‘Languages in My Life’. I told the two hundred or so people in the auditorium how from a monoglot start I had learnt — in chronological order — French, Latin and Greek at school, Esperanto on my own, German through a family exchange, and Welsh by attending evening classes. Halfway through the lights failed because the projector lamp had overheated, but I continued Powerpoint-less in the dark until power was restored (“every decent lecturer has a plan B”). I finished by urging them to learn as much as they could while they were young, because the older you grow the harder it gets to memorize things. Latin and Greek declensions and conjugations were a doddle when I was aged 9-14 — but now I would never be able to master such complexity. In my thirties I still retained sufficient powers of memory to learn Welsh reasonably well — but I couldn’t do it now. Strike while the iron is hot, when the brain is not yet sclerotic!

My second contribution was a 45-minute lecture on ‘Speech Sounds Around the World’. This was a combination of serious analysis (classification of consonants by voice, place and manner; airstream mechanisms, etc) and entertainment (fun with exotic sounds). I got everybody practising switching voicing on and off, ffvvffvv, zzsszzss, and using this to learn new sounds: mmm̥m̥mmm̥m̥, xxɣɣxxɣɣ, ççʝʝççʝʝ. This led into exotic sounds of various kinds. Wherever possible I found a speaker of a relevant language to do an authentic demonstration. A Greek young lady was delighted and proud to be called on to say ˈɣala (‘milk’) for us, and to take us through the present tense of the verb ‘to have’, ˈexo, ˈeçis, ˈeçi, ˈexume, ˈeçete, ˈexun, and of ‘to open’ aˈniɣo, aˈniʝis, aˈniʝi… (just add voicing — see?). I found a Swede to demonstrate ɧ, a Welshman to do ɬ, and an Arabic speaker to give us ħ, ʕ, sˤ, ðˤ. And so on. The Polish student I called on to pronounce język ‘language’ thought that my own pronunciation of that word sounded rather old-fashioned and mannered. Ah, well.

There is no better audience for an elderly lecturer than a crowd of enthusiastic young people.

Since it was my birthday, Tim Owen got the audience to finish by singing, to the tune of Happy Birthday to You:
Ĉion bonan al vi, ĉion bonan al vi,
ĉion bonan, profesoro, ĉion bonan al vi!

The success of the Festival shows the foolishness of current education policy in this country, which has dropped the requirement to study a foreign language at secondary school.


  1. hapɪ ˈbɜːθ.deɪ fə last ˈfɹaɪdeɪ

    Sheffield Uni is a good place for languages. It's also a very big uni, so it can provide a large audience for these events. Did John Widdowson make an appearance?

  2. It was an immense achievement, one thoroughly worthy of recognition. Maks is only 20; his media person (and compère beyond compare), Emma, is only 18.

    When I was a student, over a decade (and 30 KG!) ago, I could barely organise myself to get to a bus-stop on time; these young people somehow managed to organise a magnificent spectacle, which not only reflects superbly on them, but also counters the all-too-prevalent negative images of students that abound.

    I hope that this will be the first of a new tradition, and extend my thanks and admiration to Maks and his team on a job exceptionally well done.

  3. jɛs! ˌhæpi bəˌlˠeɪɾɪd ˈbɹ̩θdeɪ, dʒɑ̃n

  4. The initiator of all this was one Maks Marzec, a student from Poland with native-like English and fluent Mandarin, who picked up the idea from a similar event he had attended in Nanjing.

    I suppose reference has been made here to Nánjīng 南京, Jiāngsū, not to Nánjìng 南靖, Fújiàn.

    Honestly I don’t understand why so many educated people who are eager not to forget any accent of any other common or less common foreign language keep ignoring the tone marks of romanized Mandarin, or Hànyǔ pīnyīn. In this language they are absolutely essential, as any bisyllabic word is pronounced with just one of 4×5=20 possible tone combinations. What’s more, even when the diacritics are used as they should be, countless homographs —or, from a phonetic point of view, homophones— still remain undistinguished.

    Happy birthday and many happy returns anyway!

  5. Anonymous: I regard Nanjing as its English name, Nánjīng / 南京 as its Chinese name. Compare Warsaw / Warszawa.

  6. No, Nanking is its English name (like Peking for the national capital).

  7. No no, people. Nanking is based on the Cantonese name and Nanjing is the Mandarin name. Modern newscasters elect the Mandarin names (Beijing instead of Peking) because, afterall, the official language of China is Mandarin, not Cantonese (the predominant language of the Hong Kong area). As we all know, Hong Kong is now China too so there seems to be a largescale trend of squeezing Cantonese toponyms out of the English language altogether. If you're saying Peking nowadays, you may be dating yourself.

  8. Ahh, Ffynnon Ioan, 'rwyti'n siarad Cymraeg. Da iawn a phenblwydd hapys hefyd.

  9. I don’t think Steve is being serious, Glen, but I do think he's being subtle. In a sane world, Nanking and Peking would be the English names, just as Warsaw is, and Nánjīng and Běijīng would be the Chinese names, but not quite as Warszawa is the Polish name. A better parallel would be that Tokyo and Chiba are the English names and Tôkyô (Tookyoo) and Tiba the Japanese names, but that in the case of Japanese the international community, including Japan, but not ANSI et al., have had the sense not to adopt the official romanizations of the Japanese names.

    Japan itself is half in and half out of any sane world: the well-established Japanese names are Nankin and Pekin, which it seems are quite good enough for the sensible Japanese, but the spellings 南京 and 北京 are the same as the former names Nankyō and Hokkyō.

  10. Was your mannered Polish 'język' down to a diphthongal ę?

  11. Nanking is based on the Cantonese name ...

    I’m not a fluent Cantonese speaker, but according to my Zhōngwén Xīn Cídiǎn 中文新詞典 from Hong Kong the city is Nam⁴giŋ¹ (=Jyut⁶ping¹ Naam⁴ging¹) 南京 in Cantonese, retaining the final -m that no longer exists in Mandarin. Also the 南 morpheme is still 남 (nam) in Korean, and English too has -m in Vietnam 越南 and Annam 安南.

    Nánkīng is the older Mandarin form that still conserves the ts~k distinction even before i and y. By the late Qīng Dynasty they merged into which is now written j. The corresponding aspirates and fricatives underwent the same sound change, and are now tɕʰ q and ɕ x respectively.

  12. If it's good enough for the French, it should be good enough for us. In fact, if it's good enough for the Chinese...

    For Nanking, cf.,,,

    It doesn't seem any less logical to say 'Peking' than to say 'Cologne', 'Munich', 'Nuremberg', 'Rome', 'Moscow', 'Georgia', or, indeed, 'China'.

  13. Paul Carley: Yes. I made it ˈjɛ̃w̃zɨk.

  14. When did Maks Marzec start learning English?

  15. Happy birthday to you, John!

  16. Mallamb: "I don’t think Steve is being serious, Glen, but I do think he's being subtle."

    Yes, it was wrong of me to miss a pedant's point which was too unserious and subtle to be worthy of direct communication and hence my consideration. I'll try to seppuku myself quietly in the corner. ;o)

    As for Anonymous (great name, btw! good for you), thanks for the correction. I did carefully say "Nanking is **based** on the Cantonese name" instead of "is Cantonese" because I was well aware of that -m- but I should have considered a longer history of these names.

    Ultimately I concur with Steve that our choices in toponyms and ethnonyms are arbitrary. Consider "Greek" instead of "Hellene" or "Hittite" instead of the more accurate "Nesite". Is it "Istanbul" or "Constantinople"? Oh damn, I better get my tapshoes on quick. I feel a musical number coming on...

  17. @John
    The nasalised diphthong is only, I think, 'unmannered' in one word - the name of the letter. Within a word the letter represents 1) /e/ plus nasal consonant homorganic with the following stop 2) nasalised cardinal three when a fricative follows 3) /e/ when an approximant follows.

    In word final position the monophthongal nasalised diphthong is often heard, but this isn't what I would call 'unmannered' speech. Completely natural in a certain style, but not unmannered. Better to use /e/.

  18. Glen, don't beat yourself up about it. At least you didn't say "Nanking is **based** on the Guangdongese name" or "Nanjing is the Beijingese name". And if you'd said "Pekingese" or even "Pekinese" for Mandarin you'd have had the support of the OED, which along with other examples of the toponymic and ethnonymic chaos you refer to, gives the definition "The form of Mandarin Chinese spoken in Peking (now Beijing)", with the latest quotation (1991) from Internat. Jrnl. Lexicogr. 4 84: "The modern Sinitic vernaculars (Pekingese, Amoy, Swatow, [etc.])". BTW it tells us we may still say Amoy for Xiamen, but that Swatow is now Shantou. It has no entry for that, but Collins tells us to mispronounce it [ˈʃænˈtaʊ].

    And you have not only the assurance of the OED and the Internat. Jrnl. Lexicogr. for "Pekingese", but my assurance that it is "Mandarin" which is a ridiculous appellation! And lo! The OED appears to have neglected to have any entry at all for that! It only appears under other lemmata. Is this not a shining example of the great wisdom of that ever-fixèd mark which is the OED?

  19. The OED defines Mandarin in its linguistic meaning as sense 2 of the word mandarin n.¹.

  20. Yes, Steve, of course it does. I realized it must be, but do you not think they should have a separate entry for the capitalized word? An awful lot of dictionaries do, you know. The fantasy that it was not there at all was fun while it lasted, though.

    The fact remains that I went to the lengths of doing a case-sensitive search for "Mandarin" in Full Text, checking All Quotations, and there is no indication in the results that there is a separate subheading for that sense in that entry. Unfortunately I did this on the new OED site, for which I am still in the middle of a learning curve which now seems to have gone asymptotic. I see now that even if I had done it on the Senses tab it wouldn’t have helped. For all the improvements I find the new OED software so horrible that I am mostly using the old site until they take it down. Doing the corresponding searches on that now, the results are perfectly obvious, but perhaps that's just familiarity with the old software. It's like Microsoft XP. I'm hanging on to that like grim death. It's not just senility: I used to be able to do things with MS-DOS that nobody thought possible, but XP had already gone beyond the foolproof to the user-proof, and Windows 7 on is sanity-proof.

  21. David Marjanović17 March 2011 at 14:12

    I've read the -ging instead of -jing forms are nonstandard Mandarin.

    Nánjìng 南靖, Fújiàn

    Wow. I had no idea...

    I made it ˈjɛ̃w̃zɨk.

    The form I've encountered in the company of university students from Warsaw and Opole is [ˈjɛ̃nzɘk], with a loud and clear [n]. ([ɘ] is the HAPPEH vowel.) Similarly, mięso "meat" is [ˈmʲɛ̃nsɔ].

  22. 'Tongue' in Polish, 'język', is pronounced 'ḭẽzɨk', I do not know any other pronounciation, being Polish and middle-aged. I wonder what kind of well-mannered or old-fashioned pronounciation of 'język' J. C. Wells achieved; I can think of no pronounciation of that word (known to me) that would deserve either adjective. Maybe they failed to tell him 'j' in Polish' is not like 'j' but like 'y' in English? But even so, that wrong pronounciation of 'język' would not be either well-mannered or old-fashioned; just wrong.

  23. Henryk,
    as John said above, it was about the diphthong, with a w after the nasal vowel.

    (I myself use this exclusively for the word ˈʃɔˑpẽw̃ in Polish, and just for fun. As another aside, isn't it interesting that the nasals developed differently?)

  24. Ad Lipman

    being an ingenuous native speaker of Polish I can't really judge, but my impression is that splitting nasal vowels before 's' 'z' and their ilk in Polish, especially into an oral vowel and a nasal 'w' or such-like has something dialectal, or affected or in any event something un-standard and to-be-avoided about it. (Maybe comparable to saying 'meyarn' or 'mairn' or 'meearn' instead of 'man' in certain variants of English?) In a pronunciation which I'd judge 'correct' such words as 'język' have a nearly perfect nasal vowel. So if you say that word the way you describe 'for fun' you're, I'd say, on the safe side... .

  25. Sorry, Henryk, you're being misled by the spelling (and/or prescriptivist advice). I have yet to hear a native speaker of Polish produce a nasal monophthong anywhere, even finally for any of the so-called "nasal vowels" in normal speech that is not meant to be mocking. No such thing.

    But, then, a clear [n] before a fricative is quite unusual, too (@David M.).

    I'd say my own usual pronunciation before a fricative has a very slightly nasalised [ɛ] followed by a glide that almost forms a [n] but there's never full alveolar contact along the midline of the tongue; and there's no real velar action, either. A very good example of the shortcomings of segmental-like transcription; I don't think there's a satisfactory way of showing this.

    I find using [w̃] for this quite misleading, and that's what could have tripped John up. It suggests lip rounding and no involvement of the tongue tip. I think this does not reflect the phonetic facts. If memory serves, Wiktor Jassem once had a paper about this -- way back in the 1950s, I think. I have it somewhere in the drawer, but don't have the time to look for it at the moment.

    Finally, Henryk, splitting nasal vowels... into an oral vowel and a nasal 'w' or such-like has something dialectal [etc.]... about it: Well, that may have been the effect that John achieved. But I think what you may really be after is diphthongs without nasalisation whatsoever, especially [ɔw] for ą finally. Yes, that does feel dialectal.

  26. Ad wiarek

    I do not think I am being misled. I wasn't saying 'anywhere', of course. 'zęby' (teeth) is pronounced with an 'em', 'błędy' (errors) with an 'en', this I know, I think every educated Pole knows that. Yet in front of fricatives (s, z and their ilk) we do have a nasal, even when the spelling is different and suggests a non-nasally-vocalic pronunciation, for instance in 'sens' (sense). Your extremely subtle description of how you pronounce that 'surpasseth myne intellygence' as one cobbler once said, it is probably right, I can't judge.

    Again, 'hawański' has a nasal 'j' (non-syllabic 'i'), this again is clear. But I'd say, you seem to be kinda agreeing, that pronouncing 'język' with a diphthong constituted of an oral 'e' and a nasal something-or-other, say a possibly un-rounded 'w' or something like that is in a sense sub- or para-standard. Some adolescents, particularly she-adolescents seem to have that, some women, some wanna-be highbrows, if my observations are any guide. No slur intended of course, but people have various reasons to take to non-standard pronunciations.

    Perhaps John said 'jełzyk' with a nasal 'ł' ('w') and someone felt it was well-mannered or old-fashioned. I'd say it's ... well.. rather new-fashioned and affected, but that's opinion.

  27. Phonetics: the study of speech sounds

    Phonics: the relationship between the sounds of a language and the letters used to represent those sounds

    Phoneme: basic sound unit of speech

    Phonemic Awareness: the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds.It includes the ability to distinguish rhyme, blend sounds, isolate sounds, segment sounds, and manipulate sounds in words.


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