Quiz – the answers

This post supplies my interpretations, with discussion, of the audio clips in my grand ear-training quiz for non-native learners/users of English. If you haven’t yet taken the quiz but would like to before reading these answers, please do so. The introduction to the quiz is here, and the quiz itself is here.  You can submit your answers anonymously; all responses are interesting and useful, and of course are completely confidential.

So far there have been 28 submissions from speakers of Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Spanish and… English. It’s quite helpful to have got replies from native speakers, since I myself had the “unfair” advantages of knowing the discourse context of the speech, and seeing the interviewees as they spoke (visual cues can, of course, make a difference).

Unsurprisingly, the responses were all from high-level English users – evidently a lot higher than the person who did the subtitling. This meant that many of the items were relatively unproblematic. Of course, respondents had the opportunity for repeated careful listening which is not typical of natural speech situations. (I wasn’t clear on this point, and one or two respondents asked whether I wanted them to listen repeatedly or not; the results may have been rather different if I’d forbidden repeated listening, but as this was unenforceable I didn’t bother.)

In my “correct” interpretations, I won’t attempt to replicate every hesitation or repetition in the original speech.

1. The Shakespeare play was-is actually one of the most suitable for operatic adaption.

This didn’t present much difficulty. The subtitler apparently misinterpreted one of the repetitions of is as a plural suffix.

2. of the grandeur of feeling, of grandeur of action, of grandeur of ceremony

The main challenge here is the French loanword grandeur ‘grandness’ pronounced as ˈgɹandjə. (In this fairly rapid speech, it’s hard to tell whether it’s dj or , but David Pountney has the kind of conservative accent where the former is more likely.) Of particular interest is the fact that none of the French respondents got this right – since the English pronunciation is so far from the original French gʁɑ̃dœʁ.

I’m sure that this begins of the, but only one non-native respondent caught the definite article. (Not all the native respondents did, either.) Watch out for weak forms!

3. between the ridiculous or the farcical or the humorous

Like the subtitler, quite a few non-native respondents didn’t know the word farcical, ‘ridiculous, like a farce‘.  It’s widely used, as in this recent headline:

Syria holds ‘farcical’ poll while violence continues

4. I’m very lucky here because I’ve worked (?) quite a bit in Zurich.

This is the trickiest and most debatable item in the whole quiz. When I was watching the documentary, there was no doubt in my mind that the subtitler had made a mistake, and that Pountney’s words were intended to be I’ve worked. I may have been helped to this conclusion by Pountney’s visual speech cues, or by the context, or by general knowledge. If I recall correctly (I no longer have the DVD to hand), Pountney is explaining the advantage of having already established working relations in Zurich; but then again this advantage would equally be true if he habitually works there, which would be consistent with the plain present.

Phonetically, the distinction between I work and I’ve worked is very subtle indeed before a consonant. Final t/d maybe be lost between consonants if the preceding consonant agrees in voicing; so the medial t may easily be lost from [wəːktkwɑjt], making worked quite identical to work quite. Further, the auxiliary ve [v] is often weak (non-fricative) before a consonant, and in I’ve worked would be further obscured by anticipatory rounding for the following [w].

The take-home message is this. The present perfect interpretation I’ve worked is at the very least a possibility for this clip, but few non-native respondents even mentioned it as an alternative. (Admittedly, not all of the natives did either.) You should at least be aware of how subtle the marking of the perfective have X-ed is when both the main verb and the following word begin with consonants.

5. the immediate assumption is there’s some sort of antagonism. And certainly there is in terms that there’s an opposition like a magnetic force that gives some sort of energy.

The subtitler appears to have learned British English and to be markedly unfamiliar with American English. S/he makes various mistakes as a result of hearing Thomas Hampson’s General American accent through a British filter.

One of the main differences between BrE and AmE is that BrE vowels are clearly divided into those which are intrinsically short and those which are intrinsically long. In General American, the distinction is primarily one of quality, between “lax” and “tense” vowels. One consequence is that lax vowels like [ɪ] may be drawn out longer than would be typical for the same context in British English. Hampson’s rather lengthy is seems to have misled the subtitler, whose ignorance of American English entails not knowing that ears would have been rhotic, i.e. would have contained [ɹ].

Another major difference between British and General American is the absence from the latter of a distinctive LOT vowel: many LOT words like opposition have the PALM/START vowel, which in General American is [ɑ̟], the vowel which Hampson uses. Apposition would be semantically odd here, and would have begun with [æ], which we can hear in Hampson’s antagonism and magnetic.

Take-home message: even if you want to speak like a British speaker, you should aim to hear like a British hearer, and that certainly includes being able to understand Americans.

6. But there has to be for me an atmosphere of agreeing to disagree.

I think the subtitler’s I need is an abbreviating paraphrase rather than a mistake.

Every one of the quiz respondents heard the final disagree correctly; I can only guess that the subtitler was led astray by the shortness of the schwa in dis[ə]gree, but it’s definitely there.

A lot of respondents followed the subtitler in hearing agreement, but agree(ing) to disagree is something of a collocation in English. (The main nuclear accent is on too because Hampson has just been discussing the idea of disagreement, so he de-accents the old/given information disagree.)

7. Very quickly those clashes turn into variations on a theme.

Hampson here is not discussing a musical theme; he’s using the established musical phrase variations on a theme (which has the indefinite article) as an idiom or metaphor.

8. There has to be a certain latitude.

Practically everyone got latitude.  I wonder, on the basis of the subtitler’s problems with latinate vocabulary, if s/he may be a German speaker.

9. And I don’t mean this as gratuitous praise, I really enjoy working with David.

The weak form of as has pretty much disappeared into the final sibilant of this.

Only a small minority of non-native respondents knew the word gratuitous, which means ‘without good cause’. It’s a somewhat learned word, but here it is in a recent headline from the pretty un-learned Daily Mail:

Road tolls: Yet another gratuitous exploitation of the motorist

In recent decades, the word has probably had most exposure in the collocation gratuitous sex/violence, used of films, TV, etc. Note that for Hampson the onset of the stressed syllable is t, whereas in standard BrE it would be or (more conservatively) tj. The same difference applies to tune, tube (and of course iTunes and YouTube), obtuse, etc. and duo, duke, produce, etc. (But Brits follow Americans in pronouncing dude with d, not or dj.)

10. I don’t wanna come with a preconceived idea any more than I wanna be confronted with one.

Not all of the non-native respondents heard the comparative than. It’s worth learning the conjunction of sentences with no/not…any more than; in this YouTube clip you can hear Prime Minister David Cameron saying

I would no more put that [the countryside] at risk than I would put at risk my own family.

The informal but well-established spelling of contracted want to is wanna, not wonna. (The Beatles conquered the USA in 1964 with a song whose title, despite the contraction in the vocal, was written I Want To Hold Your Hand. The title of the 1978 movie inspired by that phenomenon was written I Wanna Hold Your Hand.)

Note also that the rhotic Hampson has no linking [ɹ] between idea and any, which most standard BrE speakers would have inserted.

11. I don’t think that composers like Thomas, and certainly not Verdi, ever mean to set a play to music as it were.

This is one of the few items where it helps to have a bit of the specialist knowledge in which the subtitler was sadly lacking.  Ambroise Thomas was a 19th century French composer who wrote an operatic version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; like Verdi’s Macbeth, it has a title role for a baritone which Hampson has notably performed. (If you like classical music, the overture of another Thomas opera, Mignon, is a cracker.)

Americans will pronounce French Thomas as tomɑ, as Hampson does; I would normally expect an American to stress the final syllable, but – although in this clip the word is intonationally ambiguous – it’s clear from other occurrences in the interview that Hampson says ˈtomɑ; perhaps he’d been spending too much time talking to the Englishman David Pountney.

The initial t of Thomas creates another problem for non-natives, who (like the subtitler) may misinterpret it as a past tense ending on like, thus misinterpreting like here as a verb.  However, the final consonant of English liked is not a strong t like the one Hampson produces. In fact, t and d are neutralized in this position. It would be at least as accurate, and probably more helpful to foreign learners, if we transcribed Pict and picked not as [pɪkt] but rather as [pɪkd], rapt and wrapped not as [ɹapt] but rather as [ɹapd]. I liked ales is far closer to I like dales than to I like tales.

Once the listener has mis-heard a past tense verb liked, then it becomes difficult to parse the rest of the speech accurately: there needs to be a sentence break before the present-tense verb mean.  And this potentially combines with dialect confusion due to Hampson’s rhotic ever, i.e. evɹ: if (like the subtitler) you aren’t prepared for an American accent, you may be led by the [ɹ] to hear every rather than ever. But every is a determiner, not a pronoun, and can’t stand alone as a subject in English.

Not one of the native-speaker respondents knew the name Thomas – but not one of them got the syntactic structure wrong, because they could tell that the t after like was not a past tense suffix. Whereas about half of the non-natives messed the whole thing up in a manner similar to the subtitler.

12. And of course, then I start working with somebody who can, you know, a repetiteur, hopefully someone

This is another piece of specialist vocab which, in an ideal world, would be known to the subtitler of an opera DVD.  A répétiteur is piano accompanist and vocal coach.  (Neither Oxford University nor the Royal College of Music bother with the acute accent marks, but the Royal Opera House does in this job ad.)  On both sides of the Atlantic, it’s stressed on the final syllable.  In my experience, Brits pronounce it ɹəpɛtɪˈtəː to rhyme with blur or chauffeur.  Americans are relatively variable with the French ending –eur; Hampson pronounces the word as if it were répétiture (even using a French-style final uvular r), which it isn’t.

13. The way Verdi structures that, there’s at least 5 different rhythmic themes.

All the quiz respondents heard themes correctly. The only excuse I can think of for the subtitler’s scenes is that the word scene is very much part of the context.

I can’t really blame the subtitler for “correcting” Hampson’s singular there’s to the plural form. The use of the singular with a plural complement is very common and not really perceived as incorrect in conversational style, but it’s not appropriate in formal writing. (The spelled contraction there’re is not so common: if you google it you’ll find lots of native speakers arguing about whether it’s okay or not.)

The subtitler’s exclamation mark is definitely an error, especially if you know the context. Hampson is contrasting Verdi’s structure with Shakespeare’s, which is why the intonational nucleus is on Verdi and not structures. If his pitch had risen on that, it would be even clearer that this is not an exclamation but rather an adverbial phrase modifying what follows.  Nonetheless I’d say the pitch on that doesn’t fall enough to mark the end of an exclamation.

14. The orchestra essentially carrying all the tumult and reflection of Macbeth.

Hampson’s reflection of Macbeth is a slightly odd wording; in the psychological rather than the physical sense, reflections of is probably more common, which perhaps explains the subtitler’s plural. Less excusable is ignorance of the latinate word tumult ‘commotion, disturbance, excitement’.  It’s not that common, but tumultuous is widely used in collocations to do with enthusiastic audiences: tumultuous applause/reception/ovation/etc.  (Hampson’s American tumult begins with t, whereas Brits would have or tj.)

Most but not all quiz respondents correctly heard carrying. Vowel merger before [ɹ] means that marry, merry and Mary are homophones with ɛɹ for many Americans. To those who aren’t sensitive to this aspect of American English, Hampson’s carrying may well sound more like caring.

15. This is not about lyric singing, this is about the declamation of a text.

Declamation is another latinate word that the subtitler has missed. Meaning roughly ‘forceful speech’, it’s not a very common word, though it turns up more frequently in various musical contexts. Hampson probably means it in this relatively technical sense which I hadn’t heard of until I looked it up today.

16. that would be living life, moral or possible.

All the quiz respondents heard moral accurately, unlike the subtitler, who was misled again by insensitivity to Hampson’s American accent. Before [ɹ], words which in BrE have the distinctive LOT vowel [ɔ] frequently have [o] in AmE. The subtitler has misheard Hampson’s mor(ə)l as mortal, which is moːt(ə)l in BrE.

The subtitler also seems not to know the collocation to live life, and by placing a comma after living may possibly be treating it as a noun like das Leben in German.

17. which is very important in the Shakespeare

A few of you, like the subtitler, missed in the. If you missed it, do listen again and practice saying the phrase like Pountney. He’s not mumbling or mispronouncing – such weak syllables are a fundamental part of English.

18. What we’ve been able to really delve into is this strange love-hate relationship

Delve, meaning ‘to dig’ has been a part of English since Anglo-Saxon delfan. I’d say it’s known to practically all English speakers. Apparently it’s cognate with Slavic words for ‘chisel’, e.g. Polish dłuto and Russian dolbit’, dolotó.

19. to crawl up our own insipid ladder

Two or three of you, like the subtitler, didn’t know the word insipid, ‘lacking in taste or character’.  The word is common enough to be used in the low-brow newspaper The Sun, to describe for example the clothing of female celebrities or performances by the England football team:

England 2 Croatia 3
USELESS, pathetic, insipid, spineless, desperate, rubbish and all those other words we are not allowed to print in the nation’s favourite newspaper.

Probably the biggest mystery is why Thomas Hampson used the word to describe a metaphorical ladder climbed by Macbeth and his Lady.

20. So what David and I tried to convey in this world of uniforms and breast plates.

I told you in my introduction to the quiz that Romanian-born costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca speaks excellent English.  I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t make the classic non-native error of using the plain present try to, which would give an habitual sense that’s not appropriate here; if she’d intended the present tense, I think she would correctly have said So what David and I are trying to convey.  The only phonetic clue, of course, is absolutely minimal: the length of the medial stop closure in tried to.  (As a good speaker, she doesn’t independently release the [d] on tried.)

The subtitler has excusably trimmed in this world of down to just with this, but then has failed to fix the number disagreement between this and uniforms.

As for the subtitler’s breast plaices: the image of flatfish worn as armour is certainly interesting, but the plural of plaice is plaice, not plaices.

21. Korean riot police, very contemporary gear.

Practically all of you got both riot and gear. Perhaps the subtitler heard the final word gear (which is separated by a substantial pause) as yeah.

22. I certainly had some clear pointers to give.

Practically all of you got pointers, ‘pieces of advice’…

23. The absolute nub of solving any production of Macbeth

…but hardly any of the non-natives knew nub.  This word seems to be historically related to knob, and has both the physical meaning of a ‘lump’ and the (now more common) figurative meaning ‘central point, gist, crux’, particularly of a problem or complex issue.  I think it’s widely understood, and examples can be found at all levels of the media. Here are a couple of instances from the BBC:

The German government believes the nub of the Greek situation is that the government in Athens has over-spent, so must cut its spending.

But the judge said the “nub” of the case was whether the UK government was legally “entitled” to apply the exemption “selectively”.

24. although they set in motion events which will prove catastrophic

Unlike the subtitler, you all seem to understand the verbal expression to set in motion.  Almost all of you correctly heard events, the absence of which from the subtitle is simply baffling.  Harder to hear is the unstressed will. Again, Pountney is not mumbling or mispronouncing. Especially if you missed this word, it’s good practice to listen to it carefully and try to copy it.

25. realizing the futility of his life

Again, the subtitler has a problem with a fairly common latinate word. Practically all of you heard it right.

26. They’re simply ways of conveying action and images in conjunction with music

I think the clip begins with a slight slip by Pountney: he blends They’re simply ways with They’re simply a way.   (Another possibility, There simply are ways, is phonetically possible but not, I think, motivated by the context.)

How the subtitler missed action, I’ve no idea; it’s hardly an abbreviating paraphrase, since s/he decided to insert the redundant word certain.

The quiz ends with a final example of the subtitler’s insensitivity to latinate vocab. Conduction is mainly used in a physical sense, for example conduction of heat or electricity.  Conjunction, meaning ‘combination’, is not much used in conversational English but is widely understood.  Bargain-hunters everywhere know the phrase

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Thanks again to those who’ve participated so far!