Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There's No-tre in English. Is there?

I remember my grandmother calling me "My-cole." It wasn't the diphthongised 'o' of American broadcasting pronunciation. It was more like the Minnesotan/North Dakotan 'o' that I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The 'o' in forever. The 'o' in more not mower. The 'o' in torrid but not token.

What I always found strange was that she needed that vowel in there. I recognized that she spoke with a Mexican accent (actually she spoke only Spanish) but I didn't realize that she lacked the schwa in her inventory. I thought she should have been saying "my cull." Now I realized that even in English that wasn't an accurate pronunciation. I had no idea then that in English an 'l' could be the nucleus of its own syllable. My first phonology professor spoke with a slight accent that didn't syllabify 'r' -- she would say 'occur' with a stressed middle vowel after the [k]. It sounded like "a color" without [l]. I would transcribe it [əkˈʌɹ] -- cf my own pronunciation [əkˈɹ̩]. (So does this mean that curdle girdle further learner and perhaps even curtain are pronounced with no vowel sounds?)

So my grandmother didn't have any sound like a syllabic [l] to use. So she revealed a default vowel for epenthesis -- at least before an [l]. But I have to do a little research to see if the default vowel before an 'r' is the same. My prediction is that it would be mid front [ɛ] - or [e].1

The issue of phonetic translation between languages with different inventories fascinates me. As a child I was so confused when I saw the name shroeder and heard it pronounced ['ʃɹeɾəɹ] rhyming with raider (yes: i realize the schwa might not be necessary if we syllabify the 'r'). Then I heard someone else pronounce the name as if it rhymed with loader. What was going on? So when I learned about the œ sound -- like an [ɛ] with rounded lips -- I figured that some English ears learned to value the rounded articulation and chose the similar available English rounded vowel; and others simply gave weight to the place features and discarded the lip rounding to use the available unrounded English vowel. Why the difference in choice by the English speakers? I don't know. I'll look it up or await any insight offered.

After I had learned about the mid front rounded vowel I learned about the Goethe. But of course all the high schoolers around me were saying "gertuh" while trying hard to still sound smart. So I had one hell of a time finding his name listed anywhere. I looked for Gerta Gurta Gurte Ghertah and probably even ventured as far as Garta. When I decided to look under "Faust" (I was a slow problem solver) I saw the strange and frustrating reason. Then I developed a vague sense of what happened when I finally heard someone pronounce the name correctly.2

For some time I thought it might be the effect of mishearing and assuming an accent. Maybe it was common to hear this name in a lofty conversation -- and since we Americans all know that intelligence comes across as a British accent we heard the word as a dropped [ɹ].

Or maybe it was mere phonetic assumption. The rounding of the mid front vowel might have been interpreted as the commonly rounded 'r'. If heard as a syllabic 'r' we get "gerda" or "gert".

Considering the pronunciation [gøːtə] I'm thinking it was a combination of these factors. The lengthened quality of the vowel (indicated by the 'ː') makes me think a dropped 'r' was assumed. And this was only supported by the sound of a mid front rounded vowel [ø, œ]that was very close to a rounded alveolar approximate [ɹ].

Last week I was listening to the local sportcaster covering the Notre Dame college football game. He called the school "Norter Dame." This reminds me of the controversial pronunciation of "Favre." I've heard people blame Brett Favre for not correcting the pronunciation and I've read opinions that it's all because Americans are uneducated and don't know how to speak any language other than their own. The word final French 'r' after a consonant is more like a hard English 'h' than 'r'. I believe after a voiceless consonant like [t] it's pronounced without voicing. This of course will confuse an English ear. I have no idea if this might lead to metathesis (ab -> ba).

My guess is that this is another instance of effect of a lengthened vowel. Pronunciations of Favre differ here in the states. Some spell it with an accent over the 'e' and say it "fa vray" - some say it exactly like "favour." Some say only Fahv or Fob (rhyme - glob). Brett's father Irv might be an important factor here. It could be assimilation from the '-rv' of his first name to his last name. A pure guess. I'm willing to trade.

I have heard it demanded angrily that the pronunciation "Noter" is ridiculous. There's no reason to think however that "Notra" is any better. They're both understandable English approximations of the French. In fact if we transcribe the second syllable of "Noter" as a syllabic 'r' it follows the DEP-IO constraint that "Notra" violates by adding a vowel. In that limited sense it's preferable to "Notra". But both are fine. What do the critics suggest? English has no [tʀ]. Let's remember that languages are allowed to be different. And borrowing doesn't require absolute replication. When we try to sound too much like the other language we end up stumbling in the articulation and producing an innaccurate and often laughable result -- like wearing berets and using cigarette holders in futile attempt to be more authentically French.

1. To my ear the Spanish mid front vowel is closer to the lax [ɛ] than the tense [e]. This is only important when describing the sound to speakers of English. There is evidence in Spanish that [e] is distinct from [ei] though it's very limited. the spellings "veinte" and "treinta" support a phonemic difference but not by immediate example. Veinte might be minimally paired with vente -- a 2nd person reflexive form of "come." For the sake of simplicity the English [e] is illustrated with examples like 'bake' 'pale' and 'tame' -- but it would be more accurate to use words like 'pair' or perhaps 'chaos'.

2. How did I figure it was correct? Did I just hear a new pronunciation and recognise that since it was a foreign sound it must be correct because no one would use an incorrect foreign sound when speaking English? That's faulty thinking.


  1. So I think that my phonetic understanding of words if FINALLY improving some. Today when the said the word "Guatemala" at church intead of thinking about Spanish or the country or how much I want to go there I was thinking about how the "u" in the word is a consonant sound not a vowel sound...

    I hope you and Buffy are having an excellent weekend. As much as I love you both, I must say I'm glad that I probably won't see you until Wed or Thurs because that means they are days off!!!

  2. I think part of the problem, particularly with Notre Dame and Favre, is the people pronouncing it. Everyone's favorite Beano Cook or Howard Cosell or Lou Holtz impersonation includes "No-truh Dame."

    Then there is John Madden, who when not lionizing Favre, is lionizing someone else by comparing them to Favre.

    French isn't the only language causing trouble in the sporting arena anymore. Names like Adewale Ogunleye, Chike Okeafor, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, and Touraj (TJ) Houshmandzadeh are butchered even more in the call-a-second play-by-play of the football world.


  3. It's "Noter"--it might even be "Noder." And I think you're getting carried away with the titles of your posts.

    You're walking a fine line between amazing and ridiculous--actually, keep doing it. It's awesome.


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