Wednesday, December 03, 2008

WNW: A Non-Native English Tongue-Twister

Wow: Word Nerd Wednesday two weeks in a row. It's a record. :P

I mentioned this one before, so I thought I'd elaborate on it (because of course these things fascinate me; I guess that's the point of WNW).

When I lived in Finland for a few years of grade school, the students were already taking foreign language classes. They started in third grade and got to pick either Swedish (the second national language of the country) or English. When they'd reach the equivalent of junior high, they'd pick up the other language.

I was part of the English class, which actually helped me learn Finnish. If you get a quiz where you have to write down "ruoka" in English, you have to know what it means in Finnish first (it means food, in case you were wondering).

My friends often tried out their English on me. When I first arrived in the country, the boys in our class yelled English phrases they'd heard on TV and in movies. I got a lot of "Bond, James Bond!" and "Knight RRRRRider!" (with a long, rolled R) in my face. One boy even tried swearing at me repeatedly, but I just laughed, because he kept telling me to sit. (There is no [sh] sound in Finnish.)

But one of my most distinct memories was about the tongue twister my friend Katja just couldn't wrap her mouth around:

The big, pink pig.

It sounded like, "The big, big, big."

I couldn't figure out why she couldn't say it right. Each word sounded so different to me. Dad (Mr. Linguist) helped explain the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants.

A voiced consonant uses your vocal chords to make the sound.

A voiceless consonant does not.

I'd never noticed that the only difference in how you pronounce [b] and [p] is whether you're using your vocal chords.

Both sounds are bilabial plosives, so you're basically blowing air in a burst and using both lips to do it. But for [b] you also use your vocal chords (it's voiced), while with [p] you're just using air and your lips (so it's voiceless).

The same principle applies to [k] and [g], which are both velar (which describes what area you're using to make the sound—the back of the roof of your mouth), but [k] is voiceless and [g] is voiced.

Katja was voicing all the consonants in, "Big, pink pig," so it came out instead as, "Big, big, big."

"Twinkie," a woman we knew from church, often passed as American because her accent was so good. But she had one big shibboleth: [j] and [ch]. To her they sounded exactly the same.

Juice came out as ch-uice.

If I've explained today's concept well enough, you can probably figure out what her problem was.

21 comments:

Annie Valentine said...

How do you manage to make me laugh AND completely educate me AT THE SAME TIME? Impressive, this one.

word: oyabalt

"Oyabalt peed my pants laughing."

Don said...

OK - so I'm really glad I work in my own little home office with nobody around to hear me babbling voiced and voiceless consonants (making sure that really is the only difference).

This is a fun series. Thanks for doing it.

Lara said...

Ah, yes. You're bringing me back to college where we had to do these in our diction classes for the opera languages.

Did you know that singers tend to voice all voiceless consonants? I mean, it makes sense, since you have to stop singing to un-voice it. I'm constantly explaining this principle to my students.

However, you made me realize that I need a review on bilabial, velar and so forth. :)

Do the Finnish not have any voiceless sounds in their language? Fascinating.

Blondie said...

I didn't realize the similarities with the "J" sound and the "ch" sound until I learned Korean. The two are used interchangably when notating Korean words in English. Same is true for "d" and "t."

I also hadn't noticed that "ch" and "tr" can sound the same to a kid until I was once reading a story by one of my first graders about how he came home late and got in "big chouble"

Melanie J said...

I think I've mentioned this before, and I'm sure you've already read it, but if not, you should totally read The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louis Plummer. It's a YA novel (perfect at holiday time) about a girl whose dad is a professor of linguistics (although that's a minor point). So funny.

Jenn said...

2 of my boys still confuse TR and CH all the time.

I didn't realize it until we had the spelling word TRUCK. Obviously spelled CHRUCK.

LisAway said...

OH!! I've only ever heard them referred to as voiced and "devoiced." And its an issue in Polish.

In Polish the last consonant is always devoiced. So Poles pronounce mad: mat, leg: lek, etc. But only if they're lazy and not thinking. Also when there is a voiced and devoiced consonant side by side they are both devoiced.

My husband's name is Grzegorz. The rz makes a sound similar to the middle of the word measure, and that's how the first rz is pronounced. The last one is devoiced and sounds much more like a sh.

Love WNW (and peeks into your exotic past)!!

Heidi Ashworth said...

ABsoLUTEly fascinating! I never learned any of that before (can you tell I only did one semester of college--but I have an excuse, I had to work to save money for my wedding so I could marry my missionary when he got home. It was a fair exchange).

Sher said...

These posts make me realize just how incredible smart you are, and how incredibly stupid I am.
But thanks for trying to teach me.

Anna Maria Junus said...

My father came from the Soviet Union and grew up in Finland and Sweden. Consequently he spoke several languages.

I never noticed that he had an accent except for one thing. He would always pronounce thousand as tousend, eliminating the h.

When I went to school I learned that it was thousand so when I corrected him he bacame furious with me.

I guess having a five year old tell him he was wrong was disturbing.

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the Lara's statment that singers voice voiceless consenants.

Heather B. Moore said...

Very interesting!

Kristina P. said...

Wow, I didn't really understand any of this, but I'm sure it's very smart.

And I would love to add you to my bloggy post. It will be this weekend or next weekend. Not sure yet.

LeeAnn said...

Argh! The ch sounds unvoiced to me, but it must be the opposite. Right or wrong?

Annette Lyon said...

No, LeeAnn--you're exactly right. J is voiced. CH is not.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

I love WNW. This is so fascinating. It almost makes me want to take up linquistics.

Alison Wonderland said...

Very interesting. It's so strange to me that a person can be unable to make a sound but it happens all the time. Kids can pick up any language but as adults we get so we absolutely can not learn to make some sounds.
My BIL tells me that the Japanese can't make most of the sounds in MacDonalds so they call it MacuDonalodos. Because K(c) has to be Ku to them and L has to be Lo and D comes out the way we say Doe. My brother didn't understand how they coould be unable to make those sounds until I asked him if he thought he could pick up that African bush clicky language. He (and I and probably you) just wouldn't be able to do it.
Anyway, it's not exactly a voiced v. not voiced problem (and there's probably a word for it and you can even use this as next Wednesdays topic) but it's strange.

Larsens said...

Ärrän kierrän orren ympäri, ässän pistän taskuun.

Kokoo kokoon koko kokko. Koko kokkoko? Koko kokko.

How's that?

Annette Lyon said...

Alison, that's really interesting. I've heard similar things w/ other languages--like how in China they pronounce "Harry Potter" as "Haly Poty."

Marja, Awesome Finnish tongue-twisters! I hadn't heard the first one, but I've used the second on friends and love seeing them get bug-eyed with it. They can't imagine that so Ks and Os in a row can actually mean something.

Luisa Perkins said...

I'm guessing that Twinkie gave herself away whenever she said "Cheesus."

Fun, fun, fun post! I love it.

The Francophone missionaries in my MTC district couldn't say "Thus saith" to save their lives. It came out "Zus sayef."

Of course, I had a shibboleth of my own--the French word for squirrel, 'ecureiul,' which is absolute murder for a non-native--but that word came up much less frequently.

David G. Woolley said...

Absolutely the best. I love your Weapons of Nerd Descruction (WND) on Wednesdays. I also know some bilabial plosives. They live next door. Maybe you can help them.

Dave Woolley

Luisa Perkins said...

Blast. It's "ecureuil."

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