Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lamino-dental, lamino-alveolar, and apico-alveolar

/t/ and /d/ are probably among the most common phonemes in languages of the world, but their allophonic variants vary greatly from one language to another. In Japanese, /t/ and /d/ are usually either ‘lamino-dental’ (the tongue blade touching the upper teeth) or ‘lamino-alveolar’ (the tongue blade touching the alveolar ridge and the tongue tip resting on the lower teeth ridge). These two types of articulation are auditorily very similar to each other. English /t/ and /d/, on the other hand, are usually ‘apico-alveolar’, i.e., the tongue tip making contact with the alveolar ridge, whose auditory impression differs considerably from that of the Japanese /t/ and /d/. Alveolar consonants, or coronal articulations in general, are so tricky.

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Thursday, 23 July 2009

Narrative in RP and GenAm (GA)

It is always fun to practice Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GenAm, or GA) contrastively. I used to speak English with a quite strong American accent when I was very young, but I learnt RP when I studied phonetics as a postgraduate student at UCL (University College London) in the late 1980s. Now I'm much more comfortable in speaking RP. Nevertheless, being an amateur singer, I occasionally practice American, too.

The following is part of a passage which my UCL tutor instructed me to practice RP with and which Professor Wells used for RP-GenAm comparison in his English accents course. Since then on, this has been one of the very good materials for my pronunciation training. I also have my own phonetics students read it over and over again:

One day last year, when I was driving back to work after I’d had lunch, I had an amazing and unforgettable experience. It must have been two o’clock. — or perhaps a quarter of an hour later, a quarter past two. It was an incredible thing, really. I was sitting there at the steering wheel of my new car, waiting for the lights to change, when all of a sudden the car started to shake this way and that, rocking from side to side, throwing me backwards and forwards, up and down. I felt as if I was riding a bucking horse.

Now, my attempt at RP:

Well, I’m afraid my vowel of "lunch" is probably a bit too close for RP. This vowel is also increasingly getting more front, probably on the verge of possible /æ/-/ʌ/ neutralisation with the quality of [a] for some RP speakers.

My pronunciation of “really” will be a little old-fashioned in terms of the quality of the final vowel: the word will more likely be pronounced /'rɪəli/, rather than /'rɪəlɪ/ as I have pronounced.

Next is my GenAm:

Mmm... It sounds rather artificial, doesn’t it? It is surprising what a great effort I need to pronounce General American now — the accent I used to speak with so easily in my teens and early twenties!

As you may know very well, General American is rhotic, so I have tried to pronounce /r/ for the spelling “r” of “year”, “work”, “quarter”, “hour”,“car”, “started”, etc. I find it quite hard to pronounce all these r’s now that I’m so much familiar with non-rhoticity.

The GenAm /æ/ (more specifically [æ:]) for “last” and “after” is more difficult for me to make than it would be when I sing. I feel much more comfortable pronouncing these words with /ɑ:/: /lɑ:st/ and /'ɑ:ftə/. Interestingly, the case is reversed when I'm singing. Does it mean that the American accent norm Peter Trudgill (1984: 142) mentions can apply even to non-native speakers of English like me? Or is it simply because my pronunciation was American when I started singing POP songs?

In GenAm, /t/ characteristically undergoes lenition in the 'V_V environment. Thus the intervocalic /t/ in words like “unforgettable”, “later”, “quarter”, “sitting”, “waiting” and “started” is most often pronounced as a voiced alveolar tap of some kind.

Trudgill, P. (1984). On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives, Blackwell.

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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

More training in pronunciation

Elvis Presley’s “Bosa Nova Baby”— one of the songs he sang in Fun In Acapulco (1963) — will be a very good material for your pronunciation training as well as for your singing practice. Since you have to pronounce almost all the words very quickly throughout the song, there are a lot of examples of elision, assimilation, and of course weak forms.

The sound clip below is of my own version of this song (sung to a commercially available karaoke CD):

As is very often the case with American accents and POP songs, the words ending in “ing” are pronounced with /n/ rather than /ŋ/ as the unauthorised spelling “in’” shows: flyin’ /'flaɪɪn/, workin’ /'wərkɪn/, and dancin’ /'dænsɪn/.

In the phrase “just like” the /t/ of “just” is deleted, i.e. /dʒəs laɪk/. In “You got my...”, “you” will be pronounced in its weak form /jʊ/, or even /jə/ which is very common in an American accent, and an assimilation-plus-weakening process applies to “got my”, i.e. /gɑt maɪ/ → /gɑp maɪ/ → /gɑm maɪ/.

An interesting example of elision plus progressive assimilation is observed in “poppin’”: /'pɑpɪn/ → /'pɑpm/.

The most challenging part is “Keep on dancin’ I’m about to have myself a fit”, for which the final phonetic outcome of “...dancin’ I’m about to have myself...” will likely be [dænsɪn am əbaɾə hæm maseof ə fɪʔ].

The complete version of this song is here.

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Saturday, 11 July 2009

Pronunciation training with Professor Higgins

Now that it seems unlikely that I can have another chance to live in England, at least in the near future, I always find It of utmost importance to practice the pronunciation of English whenever time allows me to. I make it a rule to read “aloud” everything written in English — sometimes even academic articles on phonetics — not only to keep the muscles of my speech organs fit for the articulation of English vowels and consonants, but also to retain my acquired British accent and keep it “undamaged”. I do not intend to insistently stick to RP, which I was taught during my three-year postgraduate study in phonetics at UCL, yet I always want to be able to demonstrate it whenever I teach my students English pronunciation.

For pronunciation training, I sometimes choose a native speaker’s fast speech as a model. As a very good model — although a bit old-fashioned — is Rex Harrison’s fast speech as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. On his first encounter with Eliza Doolittle on a rainy evening in Covent Garden, Higgins avowedly accuses her of her Cockney accent by saying:

A woman who utters such disgusting and depressing noises has no right to be anywhere — no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech; that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.”

The lines are a great model for pronunciation training, since they are full of weak forms and linking, spoken rapidly with emphatic intonation. There is also a very good example of nasal release: ‘Milton and the Bible’ (/ˈmɪltn ən ðə ˈbaɪbl/). You can see Rex Harrison’s version here. In the phrase ‘a woman who utters’, ‘who’ is pronounced in its weakest form /ʊ/, linked with the /n/ of ‘woman’: /ə ˈwʊmən ʊ ˈʌtəz/.

This is really challenging for foreign learners of English, isn’t it?

Now, my version goes like this:↓

Well, how is it?

On the other hand, I try to make my accent as American as I can when I sing the songs of my all-time hero, Elvis Presley! Of course, yes!

Here is just a bit of my singing “See See Rider”:↓

The complete version of this number is here.

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