Thursday 28 April 2011

Invalid continuity

One word whose pronunciation often ‘trips up’ students (and teachers) of EFL/ESL is invalid. Is this term stressed on the first or second syllable? Are variant pronunciations possible? Many times I hear people (mainly Italians) pronounce the sentence My ticket is invalid with stress on the in- syllable and sometimes others pronounce the phrase treated as an invalid with stress on val- rather than the correct in-. But why so much confusion?

In English the word invalid is pronounced in different ways according to which part of speech it is. If it is an adjective meaning ‘not valid, not correct, not legally acceptable’, or indeed ‘not recognized by a computer’, it is pronounced (ˌ)ɪnˈvælɪd, -əd, the in- being a prefix used in English to make the opposites of an adjective or adverb or to indicate a certain lack of something in nouns, e.g. inaccuracy.

If, on the other hand, invalid is a noun or an adjective meaning ‘sickly or disabled’, or indeed a verb with the meaning of ‘forcing someone to leave the armed forces because of an injury or illness’, it is pronounced with stress on the first syllable, thus ˈɪnvəlɪd, -əd. Now, in British English another option is also possible: ˈɪnvəliːd. This pronunciation, which is definitely not based on the spelling, came into English from Latin via the French invalide, ɛ̃valid. General American normally selects KIT or the schwa in the last syllable, but renderings with the long and tense are possible, too.

The vagaries of English stress don’t always cause problems to non-native speakers, though. When I was a student at university, one of my teachers (an English mother-tongue speaker from Greater London) pronounced the word continuity with main stress on the second syllable, *kənˈtɪnjuˌɪti. When I told her the standard pronunciation was ˌkɒntɪˈnjuːəti, ˌkɒntə-, -ɪti, thus not based on the verb continue, she looked extremely puzzled and embarrassed. It was probably a slip of the tongue, you might say, although I have to concede that it wasn’t the first time I had heard her say *kənˈtɪnjuˌɪti. Well...

Is there anyone out there who uses or indeed has heard native speakers use this kind of (odd) pronunciation?

Thursday 14 April 2011

Instant English?

Last Monday I paid a quick visit to Feltrinelli International, one of Italy’s most famous bookstore chains, comparable to Waterstone’s in the UK. As its name suggests, it sells books in many different languages, including Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian.
Walking around the English section I found a shelf entirely devoted to Instant English by one John Peter Sloan, a book aimed at Italians who want to learn (or improve their) English by means of funny exercises. The book in question also has a website, with information related to its contents as well as videos showing the author “in action”. John Peter Sloan, as the site puts it, is an English teacher who started his career as a frontman in the rock band The Max. He then travelled across Europe until he settled in Italy, a country he adores. Today he is a singer, a comedian, an actor, as well as a teacher of English.
In one of his videos posted on YouTube, he claims that his book is the only one in Italy that can make you learn English “instantly”. Coursebooks like those published by Oxford or Cambridge are – in his opinion – only for English native speakers, not for EFL students, as they are usually written in English rather than in the students’ L1. Italians, he claims, need teachers who can speak to them in Italian rather than in English, as they don’t seem to understand the grammar or vocabulary they learn in class. An English mother-tongue speaker who can speak very good Italian is rare, he stresses at some point during the video – “I am probably the only one!”, he snobbishly concludes.
He then goes on to say that what Italians really need is master what he calls “the Anglo-Saxon family” (?), that is verbs like get, put, set, do. English, he says, is a simple and concise language in which words tend to repeat themselves again and again. That’s why, if you want to improve it, you don’t need a dictionary but Instant English, as all the essential vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation rules you may require are contained in it.
Well, I’m not going to make any comments on these absurd claims, as I suppose our author/teacher/singer/actor... whatever, wouldn’t be able to understand them. What I AM going to say, though, is that his Italian sounds just horrible and that there is no sentence he utters without a single mistake.
But as this is essentially a phonetic blog and not usually one dedicated to linguistics at large, I’m going to concentrate on another video of Sloan’s. In it he describes and explains those sounds that Italians tend to find difficult to pronounce. And this, too, as you can imagine, contains a cartload of rubbish which I just cannot not comment upon.
Towards the beginning of the clip, Mr Sloan states that, unlike Italian, syllable-initial consonant clusters zn-, zl- are not possible in English. Fair enough. Snow is snəʊ and snake is sneɪk. But saying that orthographic ‘s’ is always pronounced as in Italian serpente seɾˈpɛnte is totally absurd. Also, pronouncing snow Italian-style znəʊ or znoː rather than RP snəʊ doesn’t usually cause any breakdown in communication. In my view, there are more important pronunciation features Italians need to pay attention to (for example the difference between short and lax ɪ and long and tense ).
Another nonsensical statement is about the phoneme t. Mr Sloan asserts that English people usually misunderstand Italians when they pronounce the word time. That’s because, he explains, the ‘t’ is different: in Italian the t phoneme is dental, whereas in English it is alveolar. (In the video he doesn’t actually use any of these phonetic terms, but viewers are led to think this is what he means by the way he tries to articulate the t’s in the two languages.) So English native speakers, he concludes, interpret time as dime due to the different places of articulation. Wrong! It’s the absence of aspiration of the t in Italian (aspiration to which he later refers as “attack”) that makes English native speakers interpret as d.
And what about English ‘r’? Well, our teacher says that in English there is no phoneme r (= alveolar trill), only ɹ (= postalveolar approximant), and that in words like water, answer, and river the final ‘r’ is never pronounced. That’s obviously untrue: try and ask General American, Scottish and West Country English speakers! Also, in pronouncing English ɹ your tongue is not “curved at the bottom of your mouth”, as he puts it.
Finally, we come on to the phonemes ð and ə ɜː. The former is defined as being pronounced “con la nota di voce” (“with a note of voice”?) and is the one we find in the phrase the man. According to Mr Sloan, pronouncing this expression Italian-style d̪ə ˈman is “terrible”, but he probably doesn’t know that in Irish English t̪ d̪ are pretty much common for θ ð. Then, the schwas (long and short) are called “il uomo morendo” (“the dying man” – correct Italian would be “l’uomo morente”), as these are the sounds sick or injured people are thought to produce when they’re on the point of passing away. (?)
All these false and inaccurate statements about the English language and the way it is pronounced just leave me speechless and make me express doubts about the quality of most English native-speaker teachers in Italy. The overwhelming majority of these people have no qualification in linguistics whatsoever but are nonetheless the first ones to be employed in universities and schools throughout the country on the grounds that they are ‘better’ than non-natives.
Well, if the quality delivered by these English mother-tongue speaker teachers in this country is comparable to the one we find in Instant English, honestly I prefer those non-native speakers who are very much aware of the fact that NO LANGUAGE is ever learnt instantly!

UPDATE: Here's another video with John Peter Sloan but this time it's in English.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Some old-fashioned sounds

Last week marked 25 years since the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 4 by Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The BBC posted a video on its website showing Prince Charles struggling to cut the tape, as on the day the new terminal building was inaugurated his arm was in a sling. The report was first broadcast on 1st April 1986 and the voice of the BBC journalist we hear in the clip is that of Christopher Wain, at that time the BBC’s Air and Transport Correspondent.

Mr Wain’s pronunciation is phonetically interesting as it includes a lot of those features typical of old-fashioned RP. Notice, for instance, the way he pronounces south in the phrase the south side of the airport. The word sounds something like sɑːθ rather than saʊθ. That is because in our correspondent’s pronunciation the first part of the diphthong appears to be extra long, with a weak glide probably involving comparatively little raising of the tongue and little lip-rounding, if at all.

Terms like passengers, handy, travellers, scanner, landing, tax (payer), which in current RP normally have æ, are pronounced with ɛə or eə, that is closer varieties of æ, which may sound diphthongal in traditional RP.

Interesting is also the pronunciation of year, more similar to jɜː than to jɪə, and the word tube, which our BBC journalist pronounces as tjuːb first and then with its coalesced form tʃuːb.

Other noticeable features include tɑ̈ːm for taɪm time; the smoothed forms of quiet kwaɪət and hour aʊə, realized as kwaət and ɑə respectively; the ɔː in saw, which sounds slightly more open than usual; and the word formality, pronounced fɔːˈmɛəlɪtɪ, as opposed to today’s fɔːˈmæləti.

Finally, it is also worthwhile noting the term walkways, which has something of a monophthongal ɛː, thus ˈwɔːkwɛːz. In the words motorway and today, though, this realization appears to be less noticeable.

More on classical RP in future posts.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Disguised emails

Readers of this blog know all too well that I am a nit-picker and I can’t stand stupid mistakes or inaccuracies in dictionaries or ELT, EFL/ESL materials. That’s why this week I want to discuss two interesting, but at the same time cringe-making, phonemic transcriptions of a couple of common English words I’ve spotted in i) a magazine for Italian EFL students and ii) a famous Italian dictionary.

The first transcription I’m going to talk to you about is of the word disguised, transcribed dɪsˈɡɑiːzd on page 22 of last month’s issue of Speak Up, an Italian magazine written in English and aimed at EFL students. In this magazine, words which are thought to be particularly difficult for Italians are highlighted, translated, and sometimes put into phonemic transcription.

As one can see, the phonetic notation offered above is wrong as the term disguised is today usually transcribed phonemically as dɪsˈɡaɪzd, dɪz-, dəs-, dəz-. But what’s wrong with it? Well, firstly the way the diphthong is represented. OK, I know: with many younger RP speakers nowadays – especially those who live in and around London – this closing diphthong tends to start back, thus sounding more like äɪ, ɑ̈ɪ, but I doubt the Speak Up pronunciation editors – if ever one exists – are aware of this tendency or wanted to underline this particular pronunciation by means of a more complete phonetic transcription. Also, the diphthong in question is usually transcribed , not ɑi, because in RP it glides towards ɪ not i, and it doesn’t take the length mark ː as it is already intrinsically long (diphthongs are similar to long vowels) – if anything the first part of the diphthong is strong while the second is very weak and is much shorter and quieter than a. Thus, aːɪ, I suppose, would have been more acceptable and also more realistic than ɑiː.

Ok, maybe readers of Speak Up won’t have noticed all this, but they will certainly have noticed errors like “ɜ as in box” and “ɘ as in mother” on page 5, where phonemic symbols for English are introduced and exemplified – and sometimes exchanged for phonetic ones.

This week’s second howler is from the Italian dictionary Il Devoto-Oli 2011. On page 958, the authors provide the Italian, as well as the English, pronunciation of the term e(-)mail. In their opinion, English native speakers say ˌiːmˈeɪl, rather than ˈiːmeɪl. Why? Is ˌiːmˈeɪl an Anglo-Italian pronunciation? Also, why is the stress mark not before the syllable -meɪl? Do they think that in English e(-)mail is written something like eem ale?

I give up!