Friday, 30 September 2016

The future of those tricky "th" sounds

A number of newspapers have reported this week that the "th" sounds will die out by 2066 in British English (here's an article in the Daily Telegraph)*. How likely is this assertion?

Dental fricatives [θ] and [ð], spelled "th" in English and found in words like thin and this respectively, are very low incidence in languages of the world; they are found in fewer than 50 of the world's 6000-7000 spoken languages**. In some cases, they only occur because of a phonological process. For example, [ð] appears in Castilian Spanish between two vowels, where it is an allophone of the phoneme /d/.

Dental fricatives are also late acquired in English - i.e., children start using them later than some other consonants.  SLT Info, for example, explains that English-speaking children do not start using them until around four years of age, while some consonants, such as /p/, /b/, /m/ and /w/ (what's the common factor here?), are produced as linguistic sounds as early as the age of two.

Most new varieties of English around the world do not use dental fricatives.  Hong Kong English speakers, for example, produce /θ/ as [f] (three sounds like free) and /ð/ as [d] (this sounds like diss).

There are also accents of British English which have been around for a very long time which do not use dental fricatives. Do any British readers of a certain age remember the Qualcast advert "It's a lot less bovver than a hover" (see around 48 seconds)?  This works because accents such as Cockney, for example, have been substituting dental fricatives for other sounds for some time. /ð/ word initially is often produced as [d], and between two vowels as [v], as in this advert. /θ/, just like Hong Kong English, is produced by Cockney speakers as [f]; in fact, as a child learning Maths, when the new teacher arrived who was ethically Chinese and from Hong Kong in the 1970s, we all thought she was from London as she pronounced Maths as /mæfs/.

Producing /ð/ as [d] is known as stopping - i.e., the fricative is produced as a stop or plosive consonant - and producing /ð/ as [v] and /θ/ as [f] is known as fronting - i.e., the fricatives are produced further forward in the mouth, in this case, as labio-dental fricatives.  These are both processes which are common in developing child language in English.  Some varieties of English stop /θ/, so it is produced as [t] or similar; Southern Irish accents do this, as does Jamaican English.

Given that dental fricatives are very low incidence in languages in the world, late acquired, and often substituted in regional and global varieties of English, it is not really a surprise that they are predicted to die out at some point in the future. This might be down to multiculturalism, or it might simply be because they seem to be of less importance in international communication in English. Which is it? It might be difficult to decide.

Update, 03/10/2016

* This was in the context of multilingualism in British English. My discussion looks at other issues.

** My Twitter colleague Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) has found that there are at least 112 languages with dental fricative phonemes.

Monday, 19 September 2016

International Talk Like A Pirate Day: musings on the pirate accent

Avast, me hearties! Arrrr!

September 19th every year is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Started by John Baur and Mark Summers as a bit of a private in-joke in 1995, it took off in 2002 when it was picked up by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry. But where does that pirate accent come from?

The stereotypical one we hear most often in films and on TV shows has similarities to current South-Western accents of mainland Britain, e.g., Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall. While it is likely that many British pirates originated from that region, others did not (I grew up in Kent, for example, which is also associated with pirates and smugglers).  What we associate with the typical pirate accent may well be based on well-known actors’ portrayals of pirates, with Dialect Blog suggesting the speech of the entire genre was based on 1950s screen actor Robert Newton, who was born and raised in Dorset.  

Interestingly, this is not the direction Johnny Depp decided to go with Captain Jack Sparrow, whose accent – if the trivia is correct – was based on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (Richards appears as Sparrow’s father in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End).  In fact, although Geoffrey Rush does a pretty close approximation to the stereotypical pirate accent, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has pirates with accents of English from all over the world, including rather posh ones (e.g., Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan), Jamaican ones (e.g., Tia Dalma), as well as Russian, Turkish, Chinese and Dutch; this was probably nearer the truth. One theory of pidginisation is known as the 'nautical jargon theory', which observes that many Pidgins have nautical words in them (e.g., the word capsize to mean 'turn over' or 'spill') and may have arisen from the development of a common language on board ship during European colonial days; that certainly has piratical connections. 

But what of the British pirate accent?  As the ‘traditional’, swash-buckling period of pirating is generally situated in popular culture somewhere between the 1500s and 1800s, we would expect the British accent during this time to be rather more close to that of the pirates from the 1950s films than Johnny Depp’s mock London.  British English was rhotic, which means the sound represented by the letter ‘r’ in spelling would have been pronounced everywhere it was written; this is certainly a feature of the pirate accent.  And anyone who listens to David and Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation (from around 2 mins 50 seconds) will hear other vowels and consonants which we associate with the stereotypes of how pirates speak.

International Talk Like A Pirate Day is such fun; perhaps we should think about talking like other character types. 

Something more modern perhaps? 

Talk Like Siri day, anyone ..?