Friday, June 19, 2009

Pronunciation & ambiguity.

Pronunciation is always a hot topic. Most people have very strong views on it, and it's often a very important and difficult part of any language. Since I'm not really a big speaker, I find pronunciation a bit tedious, not to mention boring. But, I do realize the importance of it, and just like anyone else, I like a bit of self-torture, so by no means do I ignore the matter. However, I have been thinking about how good different people are at understanding people with shaky pronunciation (and I'd really like some comments on this matter, cause these are just speculations), so that's the matter I will discuss today: pronunciation, grammar vs. no grammar and ambiguity. I will do a more hardcore Pronunciation Exclusively post later.

Let's start with English speakers. Aren't they quite good at understanding various sorts of mistreated, bastardized versions of their language? Even if a word is pronounced wrong (which can, after all, easily happen in English), don't people usually understand which word it is? Or is it just non-natives who are good at this with other non-natives? When someone says a word to me in Swedish that sounds wrong, I think I automatically rely on spelling to find out what word he/she really meant. If the person said /kyrka/ I would realize that the intended word was /shyrka/, since it is after all spelled "kyrka".

Another possible factor in this is the difference between languages that rely on grammar for meaning, and languages that rely on context for it. Are those who speak grammar poor languages and who have to look to context a whole lot more apt at analysing the entire sentence to find the sense of it, rather than relying on perfect caption of the words? Now, take Russians. Their language is extremely clear in its structure, everything has it's specific shape in a specific function, you don't go around wondering "wait, who the hell is the subject really? and whose what are we talking about??" - if the sentence is correct, it is usually all understandable to begin with. Even I can understand tricky texts! The grammar makes it all possible, whereas in Swedish (and possibly in English too, although I have the impression that it is often punctuation which muddles things in English), you have to watch your tongue and make sure not to lose your interlocutor among your subordinate clauses.

Just to not lose everyone, let's take some examples from Wikipedia on Swedish "phrase braids" ;).

Chefen tycker jag är konstig. (Word to word: The boss thinks I am weird)
This can mean "The boss thinks I am weird" and "I think the boss is weird".
Imorgon vet jag vilken dag det är. (Word to word: Tomorrow I know what day it is)
This can mean "Tomorrow I will know what day it is" and "I know what day it is tomorrow".

Or this one from another source:
En ponny äter inte mer än en schäfer per dag.
A pony doesn't eat more than a german shepherd does every day.
A pony doesn't eat more than one german shepherd a day.

So, what I am trying to get at is that people whose native languages are ambigous ones, may be more attentive to context and logic to figure out the sens of sentences, than those who speak more strict languages. What do you think?

And here of course pronunciation plays a great role as well. Do you understand a sentence in your native language if something important in it is mispronounced? If the emphasis falls on the wrong syllable of a word or if the wrong tone/vowel length (for Swedish) is used, giving a whole other word? I think English folks are good at it since English is so widely spoken and exists in so many different variants. From what I can remember of my first time in France, the French were awful at it. I had the impression that if I said [e] instead of [ə] the word was completely incomprehensible for them.

Does anyone have any interesting experiences with this? From what I remember in Russia, I think people were quite good at understanding me despite my faulty emphasises, but then I did also mostly speak with someone I knew well, and who knew "my Russian" well, so it's hard to say.


  1. Well, it probably indeed has to do with how often speakers here speaking their language as a second language and how many variety there is in language.

    In English, they are very much used to hearing their language spoken in all kinds of ways so it's not much of a problem anymore.

    This is also becoming true for languages like German and Russian where they have a lot of foreigners learn the language.

    Whereas for languages which are spoken less or which have lesser populations, they are more or less used to everybody speaking the same and any change makes a difference.

    At least that seems to make sense.

    Your remark about the French, however, doesn't quite fit in because there is a lot of variety in spoken French.

    Well, though, your experience is a bit strange. I have spoken with French in French quite a bit and there didn't seem to be many problems at all and I figure my French pronunciation is still far from perfect.

    Perhaps you spoke French in some isolated areas or small cities?

  2. I was in the Loire region, in a place where they themselves claimed they spoke "pure" French ;) I don't remember any specific examples of words, I just remembered being very surprised when I pronounced some word a bit wrong, and they stared at me, and I tried again and then they went "ooooh, you mean /blabla/" and the difference between the correct word and my variant of it had really been minimal.

    I would however point out that I think Norwegians, even though they are speakers of a small language, would probably be good at deciphering odd speech as well since their dialects probably offer as much variation as some of the big languages of the world.

  3. About two years ago I worked in one company and my boss was Pole. He studied Russian in Russia and didn't mind speaking wrong :) He had an incredible accent! It took me about two months to start to understand him in telephone conversations :)

  4. I think it is, at least in part, language related, but I don't know if it is about grammar vs. context languages.

    I'd say that Italian is quite easy to understand regardless of the pronunciation. Very little risk of ambiguities. The most common error, misplaced stress, gives a "Hardy & Oliver" effect (don't bother...), but ambiguities are found only in grammar books (àncora vs. ancòra).

    There is another factor in Italian: its dialects. People talk all kind of dialects. You'll see people from different parts of the country pronounce everything differently. For example:
    - open vs. closed vowels (è - é, etc.)
    - z (Cyrillic: ц - з)
    - s (Cyrillic: с - з)
    - "soft" c, g: (correct: ч, дж; dialectal: ц, дз/з)
    - and most importantly, all different kinds of intonations.

    On the other hand, French is maybe difficult for a foreigner (like me!), as what distinguishes two words is not the way my languages do (mostly: each character a sound), but your example of different shades of the important vowel in a word. Same amount of information but conveyed in a different way.

  5. I totally agree abou difference between context-languages and structure-languages. In Russian, as long as I understand the cases and the meaning of words, it's rare that I won't understand the sense of the sentence. But I've spoken to Russians in English and I can tell it's difficult for them to understand the word order.

    English speakers may be good, but we're not perfect haha. I had a Polish woman ask me the other day if "ve ad any ebs." It took me a few seconds to figure out that she asked if "we had any herbs."

  6. English speakers receive better “ear training” than anyone else to recognize various native and non-native varieties of English.

    Look up syntactical or morphological ambiguity in Russian.

    A non-native speaker could easily miss a lot of ambiguities. Your idea about Russian clarity might also be due to your reading habits.

    Context-free grammar can be ambiguous. Natural languages are usually assumed to be inherently ambiguous.

  7. I tried looking for that but I couldn't find anything. Of course a non-native speaker can miss things, but I still think you have a pretty good idea about whether you understood a text correctly or not. What do you mean by my reading habits by the way? :-)

  8. That glass of wine and the book behind it are a clue :) Ambiguity or clarity in works of literature of this caliber is carefully crafted business which sharpens the reader's feeling for the language.

    A non-native speaker might also see ambiguity where there is none. This does not necessarily refer to you.

    I had a handy link to a boring (to you perhaps interesting) paper about a specific type of ambiguity in Russian. Now I can't find it.

    Some snippets

    "There are nine types of case and number ambiguity in Russian that are not resolved by agreement."

    "...genitive case and by prepositions associated with it results in a very high
    degree of ambiguity in Russian constructions of the type..."

    "...Semantic and syntactic ambiguity in Russian..."

    Regarding English speakers' uncanny abilities:

    Kato Lomb:

    "A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with some very cordial and cultivated interpreter colleagues in England. Right at the introductions, I asked them to correct my mistakes. Three weeks later, at our parting, I had to reproach them for not having corrected a single error. Had I not made any mistakes? “Oh, indeed, you have,” came the reply with a shrug. “But you see, we are so used to it that our ears have developed an automatic error-repairing mechanism. Only corrected forms reach our brains.”

    However mistreated or bastardized it may be, English has the largest pool of competent non-native speakers which might also add to this phenomenon you're describing.

  9. Actually, I can't afford a whole lot of wine and recently I've been on non-alcohol compatible medication, so that's not really a big factor :D
    I think anyone who is in frequent contact with learners of their language get used to errors; I speak a lot to people learning Swedish and I no longer noticed some of their mistakes. But then I don't think it is necessary to correct all of their mistakes all the time, I think it just hinders communication and may be disencouraging, so that may be part of my explanation.