pronunciation guidance

A big part of the life-in-a-new-country experience is exposure to and (if you refuse the specious role of the “ex-pat”) learning a new language. For reasons that are presumably obvious, I have not yet been able to take formal in-person lessons in Swedish, but I have done over 400 days of Du*ling* at this point; as a result, I can read and write to what I’d guess is the same level of competence as a five-year-old native speaker, but my pronunciation and comprehension of speech are lame as hell, because they’ve not gotten much exercise yet.

The thing with a second language is that you question everything about it in a way you simply don’t with your first: I suspect this is (at least for me) a conscious attempt to map the differences between them in order to enact a sort of spontaneous translation. I’m also informed that this is actively unhelpful in the long run, because languages simply don’t map precisely onto each other like that; the really obvious challenge comes with prepositions like “in”, “on”, “to”, in that you expect there will be a word that does exactly the same job of describing relations between other words in a sentence, but there just isn’t. There’s often a fair bit of overlap—“i” and “på” in Swedish are pretty close to working the same way as “in” and “[up]on” in English, for instance—but if you rely on mappings of equivalence, you’ll get tripped up by the still-plentiful cases where they describe a relation that doesn’t fit at all with the supposed equivalent from your own language. Hence the value of repetition and practice: you just have to learn the new word by way of seeing it used in context, repeatedly, which is exactly how native speakers learned to use it, and how you learned to use your own native language.[i]This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, … Continue reading

One thing that is relatively easy about learning Swedish, however, is pronunciation from written text. Or, more accurately, it’s relatively easy to know how a word should be pronounced; actually forming the sounds in the right way with the right rhythm and stress is quite another matter! But here there are fairly consistent rules: most letters only have one sound associated with them, and the exceptions (e.g. the letter g, which quite often sounds more like a y, or consonant pairs such as sk or sj, which come out as a sort of breathy cwh sound which I can’t really describe phonetically in a way that would make sense to an English-speaking reader) are pretty consistent.

This causes one to realise even more than one had beforehand that, to be blunt, the rules of English spelling are utterly bat-shit inconsistent. Which is why this essay at Aeon was such an interesting read, because there’s a reason for that, and that reason is profoundly sociotechnical in nature: moveable type turned up in Britain at a moment when the written language was already in flux, as English reasserted itself after the long hegemony of Norman French.

Some standards did spread and crystallise over time, as more books were printed and literacy rates climbed. The printing profession played a key role in these emergent norms. Printing houses developed habits for spelling frequent words, often based on what made setting type more efficient. In a manuscript, hadde might be replaced with had; thankefull with thankful. When it came to spelling, the primary objective wasn’t to faithfully represent the author’s spelling, nor to uphold some standard idea of ‘correct’ English – it was to produce texts that people could read and, more importantly, that they would buy. Habits and tricks became standards, as typesetters learned their trade by apprenticing to other typesetters. They then often moved around as journeymen workers, which entailed dispersing their own habits or picking up those of the printing houses they worked in.

[…]

Other spellings arose, and were then cemented through the power exerted by the visual shape of similar words. The existence of would and should, for example, brought about the spelling of could. Would and should were once pronounced with the ‘l’ sound, as they were the past-tense forms of will and shall. Could, however, was never pronounced with an ‘l’; it was the past tense of can. Could was coude or cuthe. Then the visual power of would and should attracted could to their side. At printing’s rise, the ‘l’ sound was already often absent from the pronunciation of would and should, so the ‘l’ was less a cue to pronunciation than to word type. Could is a modal verb, same as would and should. There was no explicit intention to make them look the same, but the frequency of their appearance nudged them toward ending up that way.

This is an interesting case-study for the emergence of standards, because the vectors of influence on fixing those standards flow in both directions: from the printing houses, who wanted to simplify and speed up the typesetting process, but also from the readership, which (albeit unconsciously, one assumes) wanted a more consistent written language, because a consistent written language “gets out of the way” and allows reading to be a more efficient and absorbing experience. Movable type frequently (and deservedly) does well in those risible “ten most amazing human innovations” listicles, but there’s an implicit assumption there that this work of standardisation in spelling was either a linguistic fait accompli before Gutenberg and Caxton came on the scene, or was somehow achieved by the print industry as a “solution” to a pure business problem (if indeed the question of linguistic consistency even occurs to the writers of such pieces). But of course there is something rather more dialectical at work, here: the reader and the printer are shaping the language through an interaction mediated by the technologies of the printing press… and the press itself had emerged from a series of similarly complex mutual shapings on the European continent. The emergence of reliable roads is an often overlooked factor in both the production and distribution of printed matter; it’s there in Febvre & Martin (2010), but as description rather than analysis, because they’re Marxist historians rather than STS types.

But to return to the matter of spoken pronunciation, something else was also afoot:

in the years when printing was slowly establishing and fortifying spelling habits, English was undergoing what’s now called the Great Vowel Shift. In broad terms, over the course of a few centuries, sounds changed and vowels moved around. Words such as name and make, for example, once had an ‘ah’ vowel as they do in German name and machen, or English father. During the Great Vowel Shift, it moved to more of an ‘eh’ vowel as in bed, and eventually to the ‘ay’ where it is today. But the words affected in this way continue to be spelled with the ‘a’ of father.

Words that ended up with an oo spelling generally used to be pronounced with a long ‘o’ sound. Moon and book both used to sound something like moan and boke; the two o’s, quite logically, represented a long ‘o’, before moving to an ‘u’ sound, as in June. However, sometimes the long vowel became a short vowel: eg, the more lax ‘u’ vowel, as in push. Moon (also goose, food, school) ended up with the June vowel, while book (foot, good, stood) with the push vowel.

Now, I know very little about the Great Vowel Shift, and certainly nothing at all about its causes. But the article suggests that “[w]hen an English speaker sat down to write something at the end of the Middle Ages, the way they wrote it could depend on where they lived and what the dialectal pronunciation of vowels was there”, as well as “what they had read and incorporated into their spelling habits”. This leads me to guess that the greater consistency of a language like Swedish may be something to do with its smaller population of speakers, and the role of literacy in local governance and economics, which was mediated by the church… but I am suddenly and uncomfortably aware of just how limited I am when it comes to not only the Swedish language, but also the country’s history, and so I’ll stop speculating.

Besides, it’s high time I did my daily language practice…

Works cited

Febvre, L., Martin, H.-J., Nowell-Smith, G., & Wootton, D. (2010). The coming of the book: the impact of printing, 1450-1800. Verso.

Footnotes

Footnotes
i This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, they’ll say they don’t know, and that they’ve never even thought to ask. Because why would you?

One thought on “pronunciation guidance”

  1. This is probably one of the things I just can’t stop thinking and talking about. Learning English (and German recently) from a totally different language family makes things even more interesting. I always had issues with correct pronunciation and still do occasionally. There’s of course the things you mentioned here, which is even harder to comprehend if you’re a total stranger to the language.

    Then there’s the fact that there are two groups of people who uses the same language with different pronunciations 😀

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