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Linguistic Elements and Foreigners

weather: sunny
outside: 20°C
mood: chipper
識小小﹐扮代表 (sik1/siu2/siu2/baan3/doi6/biu2*)

It's a Cantonese saying that means, "with a little knowledge, pretend to be an ambassador". It's used to deride someone for masquerading as an expert when in actuality, they know very little on the subject.

*ahem* =) That would be me, in linguaphiles. Occasionally, though, the questions and discussion are such that I can offer feedback. Something that always comes up is "how do you pronounce $THIS in Mandarin/Cantonese?"

Often, accompanying that question is "where is the stress in that term/phrase?" To which, I invariably answer, "the concept of 'stresses' and 'accents' doesn't exist in Chinese, everything is tonal." I've realized that this can be a pretty off-putting reply. It sounds like I'm dodging the question and/or being indignant about something...

And I feel bad every time the person says, "I have no clue about tones, I just didn't want to butcher it too badly."

Here's the deal: I'm enough of a "native speaker" that I don't hear the "stresses" across a few characters in a Chinese term or phrase. To me, the emphasis is dead even. But someone who doesn't hear the tones will tell me "oh, the primary stress is here and the secondary is here." And I go, *blink* *blinketty* *blink*. I have learned that, statistically, the first and fourth tones are more likely to be interpreted as the "stress"... just because. And I'm starting to figure out how to use this to get a more accurate pronunciation out of a non-Chinese speaker.

The Chinese language does not assign meaning to voice volume emphasis like English does. A native speaker likely does not hear the stress. Whenever our native language does not assign meaning to a particular linguistic element, we will have some degree of difficulty with it in a foreign language. Conversely, this would be why an English speaker will have problems with tones — we're listening for the emphasis and mostly ignoring the tonality. We don't completely ignore tonality, but it's a lot more subconscious and it expresses something very different in English.

This is precisely why the Japanese think that the United States has a federal erection every four years. The 'l' and 'r' do not make a semantic difference in Japanese.

We don't hear glottal stops in English. Do you hear the extra consonant in front of the word "apple"? Do you hear that it's missing when you say "an apple"? Very likely not. =)

Without training, native speakers don't naturally make the best teachers of a language for exactly this reason.

* Note 1: "baan3" is supposed to be "baan6"; "baan3" is "to hit or strike". "to pretend" has the same tone as "doi6".

* Note 2: if you save all those WAV files, duplicate the siu2.wav so that you have two of them and pull them into Winamp, it's amusing to hear her actually say the expression. =)

See my Word Collection


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 28th, 2004 10:42 am (UTC)
I'll admit, I didn't read this whole post, but I did sit here saying "an apple" "apple" back and forth, and then when I got it, I said, "hmmm..."

I'm such a dork.
Jun. 28th, 2004 10:44 am (UTC)
=) It takes a bit, doesn't it? =)
Jun. 28th, 2004 12:47 pm (UTC)
I must be a bigger dork because I still don't 'get it'.
Jun. 28th, 2004 01:26 pm (UTC)
There's a very slight "stopping" or "closing" at the top of your throat when you say "_apple". That word does not actually begin with a vowel sound. Your throat is completely open in front of "apple" when you say "an apple".

But English speakers are not "trained" to hear that glottal stop. In many European languages, this is an extra consonant in their alphabet. It's like someone not being able to tell that "bear" and "air" are two different words.
Jun. 28th, 2004 02:02 pm (UTC)
Ok I finally get it! Thanks.
Jun. 28th, 2004 07:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the explanation - I didn't get it before, either.
Jul. 4th, 2004 10:53 am (UTC)
Glottal stop as a separate letter, and unreleased stops
In many European languages, this is an extra consonant in their alphabet.

Hm... can you name a few? Off-hand, I can't think of any European languages that have glottal stop marked with a distinct letter except for Maltese (which spells it q).

I also can't think of a language off-hand which has glottal stop distinct from absense of same, even in languages that have glottal stop sounds, so I presume they're not phonemic on those languages. (For example, German also uses glottal stops before words that begin with vowels and also inside words formed by prefix + vowel-initial morpheme such as "beeilen" - though some say "erinnern" without the glottal stop even though it is, to me, from er- + inner + -(e)n).

Another thing that might be difficult to hear is Cantonese "checked" syllables; from what I've heard, what is usually written as final -p or -t or -k is not released, which makes it hard for an English speaker to distinguish between e.g. the final consonants of "sik" and "sat"; both sound a bit as if they have syllable-final glottal stop since they hear the catch but due to the lack of release they have difficulty identifying the place of articulation.
Jul. 4th, 2004 01:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Glottal stop as a separate letter, and unreleased stops
I thought Afrikaans used it... I'm not sure, I blame Dr. Dale Kinkade for planting that thought in my head. We spent a great deal of time talking about the glottal stop.
Jun. 28th, 2004 10:46 am (UTC)
Well said.
Jun. 28th, 2004 10:49 am (UTC)
*bow* =)
Jun. 28th, 2004 11:41 am (UTC)
Japanese think that the United States has a federal erection every four years.

Haha that cracked me up : )

The Chinese language just blows me away. I love to read your entires where you talk about things like this because I find it fascinating.
Jun. 28th, 2004 11:45 am (UTC)
Heehee, yeah, a lot of people like that one. =)
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 28th, 2004 03:49 pm (UTC)
A fun one: "would" vs. "wood". The only difference in how I pronounce them is tonal--and I can tell dead-on which one it is based on that.

Interesting... I say them with the same intonation.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 28th, 2004 04:34 pm (UTC)
Its funny how such a little thing can make so much difference. I notice living in the countryside, only 45 min from Calgary, some of the tone-alilty of common English words sound slightly different than what most Calgarians would say or use. ;o) --Ray
Jul. 4th, 2004 12:38 pm (UTC)
marvelous expression!
It's actually the theme of my work-in-progress novel, and the epigram will definitely come in handy. Many thanks for the inspiration!
Jul. 4th, 2004 01:25 pm (UTC)
Re: marvelous expression!
Oh cool! Good luck with the novel =)
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )


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