What misspellings can tell the reader about the underlying speech: This shop on Portobello Road had three or four hand-written signs indicating the prices of various types of “scalf”:

'scalf' on a sign in London
And even more scalves.

No rhotic speaker (who would pronounce the R in scarf) would have chosen this spelling.

This is London!

Version ramassée : j’ai posé ma tente à Londres, ville où il fait bien vivre ; je présente mes excuses pour la sécheresse blogique par ici ; une petite série légère basée sur mes photos de panneaux londoniens et parisiens devrait réanimer ces pages ces jours-ci.

For once there is a good excuse for this latest bout of silence on Diacritiques: For the last month I’ve been in London, after a somewhat hurried move across the Channel. Indeed, if everything goes well, I’m here to stay. I manage to be insanely busy just settling in, searching for permanent work and in the meantime trying to pick up enough short-term jobs to keep myself financially afloat.#[1]

London is a quiet, relaxed, friendly place full of fresh air and green spaces. I’ve been called a “nutter” a number of times for expressing this view and I can sort of see the point. However, compared to spending many months trying to hang on seriously underemployed in a draughty Parisian flat whose rattling windows exposed me to the traffic noise 24 hours a day, even the state of genteel poverty I’m finding myself in here is preferable. Don’t take me wrong, I miss my wonderful French friends terribly, and Paris is a lovely place — just not a good one for me to be right now.

More to the point — this is supposed to be a language blog after all — London is full of English. Strange English. New English. A whole lot of English!#[2]

I was, for example, completely unaware of the charming use of the verb alight on London buses and the Tube — how do public transport systems in other English-speaking places avoid the informality of get off/out in their announcements (as in “get off the train/tram/bus at station XYZ”)? Exit? So it’s not only pigeons that alight on Piccadilly Circus (though Tube passengers alight there using at).

I’m pretty sure over the last weeks and probably some more time to come my own (English) speech would have made a good object of study for anyone interested in second-language speaker accent adaptation: often it feels as if my accent is changing by the hour, or even minute.

As for the bit of citizen journalism into the speech of East London youngsters, in particular of Bangladeshi ancestry, that our betters at Language Log are calling for, I’m temporarily staying in West London and may move to South London soon; and I’m in a state of major accent-confusion (see above); and I’d need a better recording device. In any event, it is clear from direct observation that there isn’t much of a correlation between ethnic ancestry and accent; or at least not enough to predict anything with a high enough probability (for this particular, often rather delicate, issue).

Right, now I don’t want to promise something I’m not going to keep.#[3] Though in addition to the huge backlog of post-to-write, there’s a number of pictures I’ve taken of signs and other public writings in London which provide excellent blogfodder — and I’ve still a bit of similar material for Paris. So let’s get back to a more regular Diacritiques with a series on London and Parisian signage and its oddities. Upcoming: “The curious phenomenon of the intermittently missing apostrophe (or: why I feel a measure of sympathy for Lynn Truss)”, “What rhymes with calves and halves?”, “What comes after due to?” and various and sundry enigmatic London Transport signs.

Meanwhile, here’s about five and a half minutes of London sound, from the Tube, recorded with the very basic microphone on my Samsung flash player. Featuring the announcements for three stations on the Bakerloo line, various crowd and train noises, and a busker. Not much speech, mostly noise, but it does illustrate the above-mentioned usage of alight.

[As this is the first time I’m using Martin Laine’s wonderful audio-player plugin, please let me know in the comments section if you have any problems with it.]

[My spell-checker didn’t know: nutter, Perl, Bakerloo, Piccadilly, blogfodder, signage and insisted on the spelling draughty; who am I to disobey?]


[1]: So, in case you know of someone who might need a numerate and literate non-developer Internet person please give me a bell; I hold a good science degree and a teaching certificate, speak and write French and (obviously) German, have managed web sites, taught English, translated comic books (into German) and worked in an archive in the past, and can also do software localisation and know what a Bash, Perl or Python script is. I’ll put up my CV once I’m more fully happy with one version; it’s been somewhat in flux and hard to pin down lately. In any event, I’m working on putting the more geeky stuff that might serve as a showcase on the top level of this domain, and that’s where it’s going to live.

[2]: It is also surprisingly full of French. Oh, there are French, German, Italian, Eastern European tourists aplenty, but most of the French I hear on the streets is uttered by residents. I’m clearly not the only one seeking her luck over here.

[3]: And I owe the faithful contributors to the Eggcorn forum a huge apology. For a much too long time I’ve only been able to tend to the spam and do a small bit of housekeeping over at the Eggcorn Database. At least all the contributions are searchable and indexed by the search engines. Then there’s my news aggregator, which just doesn’t seem to fall below 5000 unread messages…

Show me your vowels!

L’accent écossais, ou : comment analyser les voyelles quand on a du mal à bien les distinguer à l’oreille nue.

This is a bit of a side-piece to the investigation into the pronunciation of the and a — reduced or unreduced? in which context does which form occur? My previous posts are here and here, Mark Liberman’s principal ones here, here, here and here, and David Beaver chipped in here and here.

Looking into when a speaker says [ði] or [ðə], [ɛj] or [ə], or something in the middle, like [ðɛ] isn’t a hard task. You just have to listen to a recording and write down what is said and how, right? Well, yes, if you can indeed hear what’s going on in someone’s speech.

So I was digging up speakers of not-quite-mainstream English accents, and was stumped by Mark Hunter, a Glaswegian who has a podcast on Scottish music. There were two problems with his clips: First, “The Tartan Podcast” is stunningly good, and I was tempted to just listen to the spectacular rock music#[1]. Second, and more seriously, I couldn’t for the hell of it decide when Mark Hunter’s articles were reduced, and when he was employing unreduced vowels.

This is not a problem of understanding what he is saying. Understandability is very much a subjective thing, and indeed I find Mark Hunter’s speech rather euphonious, and much easier to transcribe than others I’ve listened to; for some reason it’s some Californians who require more concentration from me than others — it’s a question of being used to hearing a particular accent.

No, the difficulty came from me not being able to distinguish clearly between his instances of [ðə] and [ðɛ] and [ðʌ]; there’s even a [ði] here and there, along with other vowels, but just by ear it sounded random and all over the place, even before vowels. I was quite unable to tell by ear which of these vowels would have to count as reduced and which as unreduced.

There’s a more technical way of looking at sounds: to plot the principal frequencies in a diagram. With the canonical orientation of the axes of the plot you get a vowel chart — see for example the collection of vowel charts for a number of European languages on the University of Helsinki site: each vowel phoneme of a language occupies its own area of the plot; those along the top are called “high”, those at the bottom “low”; left is “front” and right is “back”.#[2]

Doing this for the vowels of the in a small (3 min) excerpt of Mark Hunter’s speech, we get this:

[ə] is located. But what about the unreduced articles, which are supposed to occur before words starting with a vowel, sound like [ði] and therefore be located in the upper left-hand corner?

Well, Glaswegian is obviously more complicated than that. The before arts, artist, ultimate and answer has a vowel that’s in the area of [ʌ] or even [ɑ]. Apparently, the before vowels — and some consonants, like /m/ and /w/, gets assimilated to the next vowel-like sound in the following word (vowel-like, because /w/, which sort of sounds like [ʊ], counts as well). A fair number of the vowels are also realized as diphthongs, sliding from one value (around [ə] most of the time) at the start of the vowel to another at the end. And they aren’t any longer than normal for that — pretty short actually, around 50ms.

And that’s pretty hard to hear. Short of making spectrograms of each vowel, I’m not sure how to find unreduced articles in unexpected places. It’s a mess.

As a point of comparison, I wanted to hear (and record) the same words pronounced by speakers of more standard dialects. Since I live in France, finding a native speaker of English would have been a hard task if it hadn’t been for the wonders of Internet Relay Chat. John “DogBoy” Tocher (male, originally from San Francisco, now living in Huston, Texas) and Stephane Miller (female, originally from the Midwest, now living in Australia) were kind enough to record themselves saying the words on the labels in the above chart and sending me the mp3 files.

The method is far from ideal, though, because reading out isolated word combinations is quite quite a different task than spontaneous speech. But still, let’s have a look at John’s vowels:

That’s more like it! We still see the “sliding” in the ultimate, from the [i] of the unreduced the towards the vowel in ultimate, and the effect from words starting with /w/, but at least the artist, the other, the arts and the answer are firmly in [i] (or [ɪ]) territory, where we’d expect to find them.

Strangely, John pronounced the April and the e-mail with a reduced article. This may have been due to the artificial character of the exercise.

Now Stephane’s recording stumped me. I won’t even plot it: she pronounced every single the with a reduced vowel, i.e. [ðə]. This had to be an artifact, right? Still, I went back to her and asked whether she always spoke that way, and she replied that she thought she did, except when talking about “Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth” (see also this Google search) because, as she said, “the spelling is weird”. Be that as it may, this is at least one more item on the list of thee subcultures (and I have yet another one, which I’ll blog later).

Back to Mark Hunter and his Scottish vowels. He must have gotten a few remarks on his accent from his listeners and other podcasters. Which is why he is offering some advice on “how to cope” with his accent. And sound advice it is. Listen to it here (lo-fi mp3). This was in his Tartan Podcast number 15 — and he’s at number 48 now.

Okay, I’m off listening to the Tartan Podcast Sleepy Sunday Show

[1]: If you are into this check out Gum, Electrum, Finniston, Team Salt, Ally Kerr, Miss The Occupier, Conestone… I’d buy a CD by any of these singers and bands in a blink. [2]: This page on the University of Manitoba site has a very nice and gentle introduction to English vowels. I have also been collecting links to phonetics/phonology resources on my wiki — thanks to whoever corrected a spelling error there some months back.

An interesting site: Les Accents des Français: We — the authors of this site — are two students at the École des Mines [a prestigious civil engineering school — C.W.] in Paris and victims of the speech “standardisation” that these pages are concerned with… since we speak “accent-free” French. We recognise that a heritage […]

 read the post »

More Scots

Lien vers un beau document audio en anglais écossais.

  • 2004-08-25
  • Comments Off

Yet another English audio document in an accent other than Estuary English (also known as “BBC English ”) or what is sometimes called “General American”: Here are excerpts from several of poems by Robert Burns read in a Scottish accent. Via Blogging in Paris, from where Claude Covo-Farchi remarks on the “translation” of the film title […]

 read the post »