Saturday, 11 February 2012

t-epenthesis in Standard Italian: a cartload of rubbish?

In reply to my blog post of the 14th January 2012 on the subject of t epenthesis in Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP), an anonymous reader recently commented:

“I’m sorry, but politicians and TV presenters can no longer be considered valid examples of Italian “standards”. I assure you that in theater and voice acting is still considered a serious defect. Moreover, in all the north (and in Tuscany and Emilia) is practically absent”.

In a subsequent comment written in Italian s/he then added the following (I provide here a rough translation in English):

“I’m not so much into phonetics as I am into elocution (...). I might be considered as too conservative but I cannot accept what you’re saying. t epenthesis in SIP would be like having to accept incorrect spellings in writing simply because too many people use them (...). I also don’t think this phenomenon is as widespread as you claim. My observations are based on personal experience as well as on not so recent recordings I have analysed”.   

First of all, I think we need to clarify an extremely important point here: phonetics has for the most part nothing to do with elocution or acting. Patricia Ashby, in her recently released book Understanding Phonetics (2011; Hodder Education), defines the role of phonetics in the following manner:

“The crucial point here (...) is that unless we are using phonetics as a means to an end in a study of phonaesthetic judgements, for example, phonetics is not about evaluating accents or making any kind of judgement about them. It is not the job of phonetics to say how a language should be spoken; phonetics is in no way prescriptive. Phonetics is a descriptive discipline. The role of phonetics is simply to describe what is pronounced, nothing more and nothing less” (p.12).

Second point: t epenthesis is NOT a speech defect! If this were so, then millions of Italians (including me) would all presumably be “abnormal” in the way they speak and should be advised to see a speech therapist right away. This phenomenon, which, by the way, is also to be found in current RP English in phonetic contexts similar to Italian, is simply due to the fact that

“the speech organs instead of moving immediately from the first type of articulation to the second, anticipate the second in one or more ways so that a third type of consonant is produced on the way. For [ns] → [nts] the soft palate is raised closing the passage to the nose and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [ls] → [lts] the sides of the tongue are raised to form a complete closure and the vocal cords cease to vibrate, again before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [rs] → [rts] the tip of the tongue ceases to vibrate and forms a complete closure with the teeth-ridge and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the organs separate to form [s]” (Chapallaz, M., 1979, The Pronunciation of Italian, p.149; London: Bell & Hyman).   

Third point: t epenthesis is not at all absent in the north of Italy, and it is also to be found in both Tuscany and Emilia. Just listen out more! Canepari, too, in his Manuale di Pronuncia Italiana (2004; Zanichelli), which in many respects is more like a book for elocutionists than for phoneticians, claims that this phenomenon is extremely common “al Centro (compresa la Toscana, tranne Firenze e Prato)” (p.88) [in the centre of Italy, including Tuscany, but not Florence or Prato]. He then adds:

“Pure alla RAI le cose non cambiano. Anche in Lombardia orientale e settentrionale e nella Svizzera italiana e al Sud (tranne la Sardegna) c’è la stessa caratteristica, ma con diffusione meno sistematica” (p.88). [This feature is to be heard on all RAI channels and is also typical of northern and eastern Lombardy (= the region around Milan). In addition, it can be found in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland and in the south of Italy (except in Sardinia), although here it tends to be more variable.] 

I agree with Canepari as far as the geographical diffusion of t epenthesis is concerned, but I just can’t accept the fact that he views it merely as a characteristic of regional speech, which it isn’t (any longer)!

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