Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bananya peppers?

I'm not sure they were actual hypercorrections. This evening on Jeopardy! Alex Trebeck used two incorrectly affected pronunciations. Okay--on one I'm not sure I heard him correctly. The correct response called for the capital of China. The clue was "Hu Jintao" as each clue in the category gave the name of the country's president and asked for the name of the capital city. No contestant took a guess so Alex provided the answer: Beijing. His pronounced the middle consonant using the de-affricated [ʒ] (a common English pronunciation of Beijing instead of the more accurate consonant sound [ʤ].

The name is pronounced by native speakers with the non-English [tɕ]. I'm not sure why the English pronunciation voices the affricate. The initial consonant [p] is realized as [b] in English--probably because of the unaspirated quality of the [p] which in English is almost indistinguishable from a [b]. (See here for a related discussion.) Perhaps a fortis analysis would help explain the voicing. I'll ask John Wells about it. But we do have affricates in English. The pure fricative [ʒ] in place of [ʤ] or [ʧ] is probably based on a belief that [ʒ] is a more 'foreign' or 'exotic' sound, and more likely to be found in borrowed words. It is an relatively uncommon sound in English, found mostly in recent and ostensible borrowings. But it's not necessary in Beijing as it uses an affricate and we have affricates in our inventory.

The other pronunciation I noticed was in Alex's reading of a clue naming three dances. One was the Habanera, the Cuban dance. Alex pronounced it [abanjɛra] affecting the 'n' as if it was identical to the palatal nasal in jalapeño. This palatal nasal [ɲ] is not an English phoneme, so it's usually pronounced with an alveolar nasal followed by a palatal glide [j]. In a word like jalapeño the 'e' is pronounced as the diphthong [ej] and this will often palatalize the following nasal making it very close to the Spanish [ɲ]. Nasals love to assimilated in place of articulation.

But Alex's mistake was not due to any gap in his phonemic inventory. His mistake was to assume that "Habanera" is pronounced with the palatal nasal in the first place: in Spanish. The name of this dance comes from its connection to Habana/Havana in Cuba. The 'n' is not palatalised. I've heard this mistake many times in the masculine form of the word when referring to the habanero chile. It's likely by contamination with jalapeño and probably by an exoticizing effect similar to the previous process by which [ʤ] becomes [ʒ].


  1. Reminds me of a conversation I had recently about the pronunciation of "Pinochet". Most people seem to put an SH sound in there... just because it sounds "foreign" I guess.

  2. Yes I remember when he died and everybody was saying his name differently. I think there were a couple of posts about it over on Language Log and Phonoloblog.

    And it wasn't just the "sh" sound that people were confused about. I heard "peenoshay" "peenoshet" "peenochay" "peenochet"...the first and fourth pronunciations were the most common.

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  4. I am sometimes curious as to what neurological mechanic allows the learning of some pronunciation; obviously in childhood this is an open pathway. But for many people at some point in early adulthood it seems this shuts down completely. The atrocious pronunciation of foreign words made by my grandmother makes me cringe at times. In some cases it actually seems to be less an issue of how they are trying to say the word than how they are hearing it; it seems that some people's brains perform a significant amount of "short handing" incoming language to things they are familiar with. This leads into issues in other areas as well, when even in conversations in their native tongue they hear what they want in lieu of what was being communicated.

  5. I'm sort of a semi-native Mandarin speaker. I can handle the phonology of the Singaporean dialect, but it merges some initials that the Beijing dialect would distinguish. I can't speak the language itself, because of immigration at the age of 5, though I reintegrated into my country's culture at the age of ten.

    Without tone even having to come into play, the merger doesn't create more homonyms: for example, in the Singapore dialect pinyin x- and s- are often merged, but since each initial has a different set of vowels, "sa" would not have any homonyms (there's no such thing as "xa"), and "xi" would use /i/ while "si" would use /I/.

    It's funny, because as an English speaker, I knew to pronounce my Mandarin consonants differently, but I didn't perceive them as different from English. Before I started becoming in linguistics, I thought it was just stress and other suprasegmental treatment of the letters.

    I remember that I used to think that vowels were primarily distinguished by the shape of the lips, and the stress or "emphasis" of the vocal cords behind it, not having any familiarity with phonetics whasoever.

    I vividly remember learning the word "ge ge" and "mei mei" as a child. The former is more interesting, because it uses an unaspirated /k/. Probably because English was my true first language, it seemed like a /g/ to me too, but I simply thought you were a bit more "disciplined" with the /g/ (when this was in fact, holding the voicing back) and exerting the stress to "release it all at one go" (which I now realise would affect voice onset time). So these are what I remember are my private childhood perceptions of linguistics concepts.

    Also, perhaps due to the spelling, I always thought "Beijing" always used a form of a "j" sound of English, just stressed differently. Spelling in English often influenced my childhood perception greatly. I never had to worry about spelling tests, but perhaps because that's due to the fact that I overrationalised the non-phonetic spelling system so. I used to think there was an /l/ in "would", only that it was really soft. I also thought that the initial sounds in "cent" and "sent" were similar but slightly different.

    Anyway, just some thoughts about perception. I think a lot of it may not be any specific process by the brain actually, just an innate curiosity, like a child learning motor function. In what I remember (having to migrate and even constantly switching between environments in the same country), it was just about being attentive about linguistic details most adults usually overlook.

    A lot of it seems to be about familiarity. I wonder whether we "lose it" so much as more become accustomed to our inventory. For example, when we use our different vowels, we don't really feel our tongue -- just the stress on our face muscles. Initially I remember when discovering phonetics, I remember having to insert fingers in my mouth to check that the tongue was really at that position when I pronounced a certain phoneme, after reading about it in Wikipedia. We haven't lost the ability to perceive our tongue, it's just that we've become desensitised to it. If we can be desensitised to body parts like our tongue, then perhaps it's not hard to lose our sensitivity to different phonemes we never use.

    I believe with enough coaxing, you can reactivate the brain's linguistic sensitivity again. It seems to have worked for my French. It's difficult, but that's only because it's like trying to get an obese person to be good at running.


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