The Commonest Speech Sounds

Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic posted without comment a graphic by Suzy Styles, of the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, of The Commonest Speech Sounds: Prevalence Rates for Phonemes of the World. Styles, in turn also doesn’t comment on it, beyond stating that she compared the speech sounds of 1672 languages on a certain online database. What follows are my own thoughts about the graphic, primarily as an ESL teacher and not as a linguist.

(There’s a large space under this graphic – keep scrolling.)

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death by overwork (no, not me)

From How your job is killing you by James Adonis in the Sydney Morning Herald (I try to avoid giving free publicity to companies, but I’ve got to credit my sources):

The Japanese have a word, karōshi, to describe people who work themselves to death. … In China the word used is guolaosi. … South Korea, too, has a term for this pervasive condition: gwarosa.

A little bit of linguistic knowledge shows that those are actually the same word, in the pronunciation systems of those three languages. Japanese and Korean have borrowed a large number of words directly from Chinese, and have also created new words themselves from Chinese characters.

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syllable and stress timing

Languages can be divided into syllable-timed (where each syllable takes approximately the same amount of time and receives approximately the same amount of stress) and stress-timed (where the stressed syllables (longer, louder) fall at approximately regular intervals and the others are shorter and softer).

Many of my students speak syllable-timed languages, and tend to pronounce English in much the same way. The textbook and tests include sections on word stress, but I’m not sure that they understand it, or that I’m explaining it so that that can.

It doesn’t help that many English words have different stresses, for grammatical reasons, for example ex-PORT (verb) and EX-port (noun), or for British v American variety, for example of-FENCE (Br) and OFF-ence (Am) (some students from some countries watch American basketball).

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Fox in Socks – pronunciation and spelling

Fox

Socks

Box

Knox

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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24 years old v 24 years older

Last night my wife pointed to a Youtube video about the new president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and asked ‘Did you know he married a woman 24 years old?’. I’d read headlines about ‘an older woman’, so ’24 years old’ didn’t sound right, but ’24 years older‘ didn’t sound much righter. Except she is. My wife really did know that Brigette Macron is ‘older’ and really did mean to say ‘older’, but either her pronunciation failed at the last syllable or I wasn’t paying attention.

It is perhaps more likely that a 39-year-old man would marry a woman 24 years old than a woman 24 years older. Thinking about it, I was grateful that she isn’t, for example, 15 years older than him. ‘Did you know he married a woman 15 years old?’ really doesn’t sound right.

Some time ago, she was reading about a host/judge on a cooking competition program here in Australia. She said ‘His wife is 19 years old!’ (he was then in his 40s). This is possible, but I wanted to check. The article said ‘his wife of 19 years’. (I remember, many, many years ago, being confused about this phrasing as well. It that case, it was something like ‘his wife of 13 years’.)

hippopotomus

I love digressions, and the textbook’s topic of photography turned into a discussion of cute animal photos on the internet. The page of photos I quickly found had a wide range of animals, which doubled up as a bit of extra vocabulary learning (sloth is not usually included in vocabulary lists). One of the photos was of a baby hippo, so I said ‘It’s full name is hippopotamus‘. Several students tried to pronounce that and generally failed, so I said ‘Don’t worry, you can always say hippo‘. One student from the Philippines then said ‘In Tagalog, we say hippopoTAmus’. I know just enough Greek to know that, by itself poTAmus is closer to the original pronunciation than POtamus. Greek Wikipedia’s page for river is titled Ποταμός and the one for hippopotamus is Ιπποπόταμος (the ‘single accent or tonos (΄) … indicates stress), so Ποταμός is actually potaMOS, but the stress shifts to PO in the compound word. I said to the student ‘In English, we say hippoPOtamus, but you can always say hippo‘.

Many students say PHOtographer and PHOtography, and it is impossible to get them to say phoTOgrapher and phoTOgraphy. When they try, they say phoTOEgrapher and phoTOEgraphy. As far as I know, no native speakers say PHOtographer, but it may come about that in the future, driven by second language speakers, it is recognised as a general alternative pronunciation. I hope not.

Five years ago, I had two students from Greece. As their vocabulary developed and more Greek-derived words crept into lessons, readings and word lists, the more advanced of the two would say ‘ooh, is Greek word’. (But he was stumped by kaleidoscope, which is not a Greek word, but was coined in English from Greek.) (I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned those two – I’ve got many stories about them.)