Koh Fee Fee

One professionally produced and presented travel video talks about a resort island in Thailand named Koh Fee Fee. My entire travel experience of Thailand amounts to spending one hour in the middle of the night at Bangkok airport, but I know there’s no island named Koh Fee Fee any more than there’s a country named Thighland. Thai has a /f/ sound, but phi is pronounced identically to English pea

English has two relevant phonemes: /b/, which is voiced and unaspirated, and /p/, which unvoiced and unaspirated. But at the start of a syllable, /p/ becomes aspirated – there’s a little puff of air immediately after the sound. Thai has three relevant phonemes: /b/, /p/, which is always unvoiced and unaspirated, and /ph/, which is always unvoiced and aspirated. Thai speakers can make a distinction between pi pi and phi phi (I don’t know if pi pi is actually a word in Thai, but they can say it), but English people can’t. (It’s more complicated than that, but I’ll stop there.)

Calling the island Koh Fee Fee seriously brings into question whether anyone connected with the production of the video has actually ever been there, and whether the information they give comes from their own experience or is copied from someone else.

If you’re lucky, your first thought when you hear /phiphi/ is an Australian clam or a New Zealand mollusc. Mine isn’t. Some years ago, a colleague’s student was showing my colleague and her other students her photos of Koh Phi Phi on a computer in the college’s common room. I heard her ask my colleague “Teacher go pee-pee?”. With admirable restraint, my colleague said “No, I haven’t”. I quietly said “You should see a urologist about that”.

If you’re making travel videos, either professional or amateur, please check pronunciations. At least they weren’t talking about Phuket.


Consonant clusters

Posting about Sprite recently, specifically mentioning consonant clusters, reminded me that I have not fully explored these in this blog. Some time ago I posted a list of common words with the possible clusters of English, but didn’t analyse the clusters themselves.

All of the two-phoneme initial consonant clusters in English start with /s/ and/or finish with /w/, /l/, /r/ or /j/ (the ‘y’ sound in you, not the ‘j’ sound in jewel). Starting with: 
/sw/ switch, suede
/sl/ sleep, slow

The other ones starting with /s/ are:
/sm/ small, smile
/sn/ snow, snap
/sp/ speak, spend
/st/ state, still
/sk/ school, scale, skin
the rare, Greek /sf/ (sphere, sphinx)
and the very rare, Greek /sθ/ (sthenic (I don’t know what this means, but it appears on lists of consonant clusters)

The ones ending in /w/ are:
/tw/ twenty, twelve
/dw/ dwell, dwarf
/kw/ question, quite
/gw/ guava, Guam
/θw/ thwart

The ones ending in  /l/ are:
/pl/ place, play
/bl/ black, blood
/kl/ close, clear and scientific words starting with chl
/gl/ glass, glance
/fl/ floor, flat

The ones ending in /r/ are:
/pr/ problem, provide
/br/ bring, break/brake
/tr/ try, train
/dr/ draw, drive
/kr/ create, cross and many Christian and scientific words (chrome, chrono-)
/gr/ great, group
/fr/ from, phrase
/θr/ three, through
/ʃr/ shrug, shrink

Finally, the ones ending in /j/ are:
/mj/ music, museum
/nj/ new/knew, nuisance
/pj/ pupil, pure
/bj/ bureau
/tj/ tune, tube
/dj/ during, duty
/kj/ queue/cue, curious
/fj/ future, fuel
/vj/ view
/hj/ huge, humour

In table form:

switch, suede sleep, slow

m small, smile

music, museum
nsnow, snap

new/knew, nuinsance
pspeak, spend
place, playproblem, providepupil, pure

black, bloodbring, break/brakebureau
tstate, stilltwenty, twelve
try, traintune, tube
dwell, dwarf
draw, driveduring, duty
kschool, scale, skinquestion, quiteclose, clearcreate, crossqueue/cue, curious
guava, Guamglass, glancegreat, group
fsphere, sphinx
floor, flatfrom, phrasefuture, fuel

three, through

shrug, shrink

huge, humour

(I tried to make a table unambiguously showing which combinations are possible and which aren’t, but couldn’t make one that is both complete and clear.)

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A travel video blogger’s video contained a brief shot of a can of Sprite, labelled in hangeul as 스프라이트 (seu-peu-ra-i-teu). So one syllable of English becomes five syllable blocks (jamo) of hangeul. There are three reasons for this. 

The first is that the phonotactics of Korean do not allow for initial consonant clusters. The s and p must be extracted to their own syllable, completed with the most neutral vowel ㅡ (eu). This is not quite as reduced as the English schwa, but performs many of the same tasks. 

The second is that there is no single letter corresponding to the English vowel in Sprite, but it can be approximated by using ㅏ and ㅣ. Compare the IPA symbol /aɪ/, which clearly shows that the English vowel is a diphthong. I know of two Korean words which use this combination of vowels: 아이 (a-i, child) and 아이고 (a-i-go, approximately ‘gosh!’, most often used by middle-aged women).

The third is that only a few consonants can occur at the end of a syllable. While ㅌ occurs at the end of 밑 (mit, bottom), this is rare, and as far as I know is never used in transliterations of English words. So the t must also be extracted to its own syllable. Whenever you see a long string of Korean syllables, with the first and last containing ㅡ, it is almost certainly a transliteration of an English word. Some common English loanwords are 스트레스 (seu-teu-re-seu, stress) and 스포츠 (seu-po-cheu, sport(s)). 

I can’t remember seeing Sprite in Korea; the ubiquitous soft drink is Chilsung cider.

There is considerable variation in the names for carbonated soft drinks in English. To me, in standard Australian English, the neutral/slightly lemony drink is lemonade, the distinctly lemony drink is lemon squash or squash (sometimes with real lemon (which might be called traditional lemonade, sometimes only with flavouring), and cider is apple unless otherwise specified (eg pear cider). Other terms include soda, soda pop, pop, coke and cola. There is also soda water, which I would categorise separately. Koreans also use ade and chino either by themselves or attached to part of other drinks.

Korean consonants

In October 2015 I wrote about the consonant sounds of Korean, especially the three series ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅ (plain, or unvoiced and unaspirated), ㅍㅊㅌㅋ – (unvoiced and aspirated),ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ (tensed). Yesterday I found a video by Talk to me in Korean which explains and demonstrates these. Even if you are not learning Korean, can you hear the difference? Bear in mind that English p and b, t and d, and k and g sound as alike to some speakers of some languages as these sounds to do us. 

By the way, I met Hyunwoo at an English teachers’ conference in Korea in 2015.

Grammarbites part 7 – Pronunciation

Part 1 – introduction

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

this part goes in here

Part 4 – consonant clusters

1 – The basic sounds of English

Standard English uses 44 basic sounds (phonemes). They all occur in the following sentence:

Catching weary waterfowl on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they enjoy good meat unharmed.

(This sentence was written by Richard Gunton and posted to the blog Literal Minded.)

meat; unharmed — on; thin; and; ensures; enjoy; unharmed — catching

polar — bears — waterfowl; meat — and; good; unharmedcatching — gives; good

catching — huge; enjoy

thin — they — waterfowl — gives — ice; surly — gives; bears; ensures — ensures — pleasure — huge; unharmed

weary; waterfowl — waterfowl; surly; polar; pleasure — weary — h(y)uge

catching; thin; gives — pleasure; ensures; enjoy — catching; and — unharmed — on — good — polar; pleasure

weary; surly; meat — surly — unharmed — waterfowl — huge

theyice — enjoy — weary — bears — ensures — waterfowl — polar

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“I ate Madonna for breakfast”

My college is around the corner from a branch of a well-known fast-food restaurant chain (no name, no free publicity, even though it’s perfectly obvious who I’m writing about). Several years ago, a student arrived in class and told us “I ate Madonna for breakfast”.

The pronunciation issue is consonant clusters. All languages have rules about what consonants and consonant clusters can occur at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a word. Some languages allow none, some a very limited number and some many. English allows a moderately high number of consonant clusters, so most of my students speak languages which allow fewer.

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Fox in Socks – pronunciation and spelling





So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.

Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)

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The Axe of the Apostles

At church this morning (Easter Day), the first reading was from The Axe of the Apostles – sorry, The Acts of the Apostles. English allows final consonant clusters of two, three and four consonants, but almost everyone simplifies these in some way (natives speakers probably only the three- or four-consonant clusters; second language speakers/learners even two-syllable clusters. I have even noticed that some students tend to drop any consonant at the end of a word.). Acts = /ækts/. I suspect that most native English speakers reduce to this to /æks/ = axe most of the time, even in the very formal setting of a major historic parish church on Easter Day. (The reader was otherwise impeccably enounced.) Many second language speakers/learners, on the other hand, drop the s, especially if plural marking is optional or non-existent in their language and/or it does not allow many/any final consonant clusters and/or /s/ is not permitted at the end of those which are allowed.