Our favourite wince

linguolabialEven if you couldn’t stand the music, the 58th Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö this weekend provided plenty of phonetic entertainment. This is the annual event where, in front of more than 100 million viewers, musicians get together from all over Europe to try and sound, for the most part, like Americans.

Green-room host Eric Saade, himself a previous Eurovision contestant for Sweden, exemplified the non-European flavour:

Pop-rock English actually has roots in African American English and the American South, hence e.g. a variably front-monophthongal PRICE vowel, and variable rhoticity. Representing the UK was the veteran Bonnie Tyler, sounding like she’s from several thousand miles further west than her native non-rhotic Wales:

By contrast, rhotic native speakers tend to pick up on the non-rhoticity of the pop-rock accent, so we had Ryan Dolan for Ireland de-rhoticizing e.g. but in our darkest hour:

Of course it wasn’t all Americanization. Eight of the 26 songs in the final weren’t in English at all, and host-in-chief Petra Mede (a comedian, not a pop-rock artist) presented the show in decidedly British English:

And one particular deviation from pop-rock English caught my ear in Tahoma’s song Waterfall, performed by Sopho Gelovani and Nodiko Tatishvili. I kept hearing its chorus as Your lav is pouring down on me, you’re my waterfall (lav in Britain being short for lavatory):

Transatlantic pop-rock English has a relatively schwa-like STRUT, which the occasional jokey spelling of love as lurve is probably intended to represent. But Tahoman has a classic system of five peripheral vowels (see my post on the vowel space), making ləv a phonetic challenge. As I said in my long STRUT post, non-native learners must above all acquire a good schwa, and this will make a better choice for STRUT than the typical international ‘a’.

Once you’ve acquired schwa, however, don’t overuse it. A reminder of the tricky fact that English words often contain more than one prominence came from Malta’s singing doctor Gianluca Bezzina, whose spontaneous indeed had the spən- commonly heard from non-natives:

This may be a feature of Maltese English (which is an official language, spoken by a majority of the population), but BrE and AmE speakers generally give prominence not only to the second syllable of spontaneous but also the first, so we get BrE spɔn- and AmE spɑn-.

The weirdest articulation of the contest was by young Belgian Roberto Bellarosa. The repeated chorus of his Love Kills contained the phrase over and over, in which he consistently pronounced the d as an extreme linguo-labial (pictured above), without any marked effect on its auditory-acoustic quality:

The irony here is that in native speech the d of unstressed and is generally omitted altogether.

Arguably the most important phonetic lesson of the night came from host Petra Mede. In my experience, the great majority of English learners need to work on maintaining the fortis/lenis (or ‘voiceless/voiced’) contrast in final position. Unlike many languages, English has countless word-pairs that are kept distinct in this way, e.g. bet/bed, dock/dog, batch/badge, loose/lose, etc., etc. The fortis consonant which ends the first member of each pair is generally more intense, and causes its syllable to be ‘clipped’ (cut short). Clipping alone can cue the contrast: here phonetician Peter Ladefoged creates a shift from bad to bat merely by editing down the vowel in successive steps:

My attention, wandering during the contest’s voting stage, was suddenly recaptured by a reference to your favourite wince:

It took me a moment to reconstruct Petra’s whole sentence, you need to vote to make sure your favourite wins:

In the light of my last post, it might be worth pointing out that the fortis/lenis contrast which distinguishes wince from wins – a crucial aspect of English pronunciation – can’t be taught by mirror work or sensitization to one or another of the articulators. The relevant distinctions of intensity and duration really demand ear-training.