Our favourite wince
Even 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 Georgia’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 Georgian 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.
Very nice post, Geoff!
“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 give prominence not only to the second syllable of spontaneous but also the first, so we get BrE spɔn- and AmE spɑn-.”
Although the spɔn-/ spɑn- variant is the usual one, LPD and CEPD also acknowledge spən- as a possible native speaker’s pronunciation.
Thanks Alex. Schwa turns up in all kinds of places, of course, but I wouldn’t recommend spən- as a target for non-natives, though I hear it from them constantly. The same goes for fəntastic (also an alternative for LPD) and progrəm (shown in LPD but “non-RP”). I think such words are good for sensitizing advanced learners/users to English multiple prominences (or ‘secondary stress’ or whatever you want to call it).
Natives also say things like where ən earth but I teach non-natives to keep on strong.
Geoff, I find your posts wonderfully enjoyable and stimulating but too dauntingly complex to comment on properly with the amounts of energy I can conjure up. Anyway, this one isnt so tough.
Yes, I completely agree about teachers needing to put students off weakening of ‘on’ and the first syllables of ‘spontaneous’ and ‘fantastic’ — and the latter syllable of ‘program(me’ — tho there’s the notable difference that a whole lot of people in the US, in Scotland and in Wales do weaken that last one.
Alex’s ref to LPD and CEPD reminds us that in spite of their complexity, they both fail (short of using a strong word to label a variant as ‘rare’ etc) to distinguish what I call ‘co-variants’ from ‘subvariants’. The former are of similar frequency to the first-given form but the latter, tho fairly common, are markedly less frequent than either of the first two (which might’ve involved a coin-toss decision for which to show first). I like to use a small diminuendo sign ˃ to identify subvariants.
I’m afraid I’m not a devotee of Song Contests but I enjoyed yr audibly well illustrated comments and the remark “he consistently pronounced the d as an extreme linguo-labial without any marked effect on its auditory-acoustic quality” immediately rang a bell with me. I quite regularly, while watching tv, look at speakers’ mouths closely and I never cease to be amazed how offen I see strange articulations that I wou·dnve imagined to be going on if I’d on·y he·rd them.
Lastly, regarding yr wise advice to EAL users, Once you’ve acquired schwa … don’t overuse it. I immediately after having re·d yr remark found myself trapt into hearing a singer I usually hate by a mischi·vous fr·end, ie lissening to ‘You Are My Heart’s Delight’ sung by Richard Tauber. Coming to ‘where you are I want to be’, I found that the ‘to’ was uttered ultra fast in a way that’d be natural enuff in conversation but just didnt fit the dynamics of the musical situation. It was a context in which I’d expect any native-English speaking singer to select the strongform of ‘to’. At best Tauber’s wdve sounded a very mannered delivery. So the problem goes both ways.
Wonderful to hear from you, Jack! You’re right that there are different flavours of variants (co-, sub-, etc.). But of course it’s not just a matter of how frequent the variants are: a given reduced form may be fairly common, but only in certain phonetic or stylistic contexts – which can be hard to teach. I recommend avoiding schwa in spon- and on because I think the non-reduced vowel will always sound okay.
Tauber’s short to is at least partly the composer’s fault. Lehár set the words kann ich nicht sein (translated as I long to be) to the rhythm quaver, dotted quaver, semiquaver, semibreve. So nicht (to in English) should have only one-third of the length of ich (long in English); Tauber produces this more conscientiously than many singers. It sounds even more awkward in the German original.
Sorry about the Wagnerian length of my posts; paradoxically I managed to be a bit briefer for the bicentenary of my ‘birthday twin’. (The subject matter was certainly in keeping with his penchant for operas about song contests.)
Did you seriously call the language Tahoman? Like I get that you wanted a sans-serif theme for your website, but…
Thanks for spotting this! Unless I’ve been hacked, it must be a hangover from redesigning my website years ago and replacing Georgia with Tahoma by find-and-replace. Seems a shame to fix it. But nice to know that these old posts are still being read.
Shame on you then 🙂