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4 August 2008

I Sink Therefore I Am (Drowning)

In some ways, it is really great to be rid of my Hotmail account because it meant that I could prune from my contacts list anyone who was in the habit of only contacting me to send really irritating forwards. Now, most of the forwards I get are funny, interesting and/or relevant to me in some way. I particularly liked this new viral ad for Berlitz.

The punchline, of course, involves more phun with phnetics - namely, the frequent inability of non-native speakers of English to pronounce the voiceless, dental fricative known as /θ/ in IPA, which is the th of thigh, as well as its voiced counterpart /ð/ (the th of the). Natural as it may come to native English speakers, it's a tricky sound for non-native speakers to produce and it is often realised as /s/ as in I'm thinking being pronounced, I'm sinking.

Monsieur Exquisite - who speaks near fluent but accented English - always had problems with /
θ/~/s/ but what always got me about him was that he could clearly pronounce the sound /θ/ because he would say things like, "She is from thousand France." Where is thousand France? "No, not thousand France, thousand France; you know: not from the north." Ah, southern France... Similarly, he might say, "There are a southern people in the race." The wonderful Sebastien from the FrenchPodClass (who also speaks excellent English and is also from thousand France) does the same.

The interesting part is that when Monsieur E says thousand France and I repeat it back to him, he knows it is wrong but then fails to make the distinction when he corrects me, hence, no, not thousand France, thousand France. This is akin to young children learnig English who can clearly hear the difference between two phonemes but cannot make the distinction themselves. This is known as the fis phenomenon (from Berko and Brown, exemplified at length in Neil Smith's The Acquisition of Phonology - a good example of why linguists should not be allowed to have children whose acquisition of language can all form part of some great case study). Berko and Brown found that a child who had not yet acquired the phoneme /
ʃ/ (sh) would pronounce fish as fis; however, when the researcher held up the toy fish in question and asked whether it was his fis, the child rejected this notion.

Of courth, thome native thpeakerth of English theem to like using their interdental fricativth tho much that they start hypercorrecting, French-thtyle and thaying that they will thscweam and
thscweam until they're thick (which is all very well, but produces some truly hideous consonant clusters that are worthy of Croatian - thscw?).


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