ɾ, ɹ, l, ɫ
March 26, 2019 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Why some Asian accents swap Ls and Rs in English a video by Vox's Joss Fong explores the different ways people use their pink trombone
posted by gwint (31 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
That pink trombone speech-synthesis site is really cool, and kinda disturbing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 AM on March 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

Hey I just had a paper on r sounds published! Which I am furiously resisting plugging here. But I can't wait to talk about them!
posted by os tuberoes at 11:53 AM on March 26, 2019 [13 favorites]

os tuberoes: "Hey I just had a paper on r sounds published! Which I am furiously resisting plugging here. But I can't wait to talk about them!"

Plug please. This is really really interesting as well as useful.
posted by chavenet at 11:58 AM on March 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's officially ok to plug your stuff in the comments here when it's relevant.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:00 PM on March 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Ok, well cool, here is my paper, What's wrong with being a rhotic? which was just published in famous open-source journal Glossa.

The objects we hear when someone speaks (or see when someone signs) are not what we actually have in our heads. As you don't have any blue wave-lengths of light in your head, but can still conjure up an idea of what blue is and means to you, so we don't actually have the physical objects of sound in our heads. They must be represented somehow. One question some linguists like to ask is, what is the relationship between those mental objects and the physical ones that vibrate through the air? The paper is an investigation of that question via r sounds across different languages.

Tl;dr: There is a kind of psychological unity across languages concerning so-called rhotics, or 'r-sounds.' As touched on in the video, there is enormous variation between various members of that class, so while everyone agrees there is a psychological reality, there, no one really knows if it is articulatory or acoustic or what. The paper argues that it is in fact, all in our head, and then it goes into some fairly arcane arguments for why the computational system of linguistic sound is arbitrary and not really related to actual pronunciation, and that R sounds are an especially good example of this arbitrariness since they are especially prone to variation.
posted by os tuberoes at 12:07 PM on March 26, 2019 [64 favorites]

That's fascinating os tuberoes.
posted by gwint at 12:09 PM on March 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

And now that I've watched the video, that's nicely done -- seems like a really clear set of examples about the many layers of variation at work here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:26 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Reminded me of the discussion on Ask Metafilter about why English speakers don't pronounce the name 'Jose' correctly

Since then, it's really helped me pay attention to the fact that my mouth shape is completely different in Spanish and English - and it doesn't matter if I try to switch accents*. Even if they're letters that I would think are pretty much the same in both languages, I seem to approach them differently. I haven't had to learn a new language since I was a kid, so this is sort of obvious stuff for anyone who has had to learn a new phoneme - but I never really got it before.

*Note: I can do two accents in English, and they're honestly not that different from each other. My Spanish accents are probably terrible and not to be trusted.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:35 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

This video is great--thank you for posting it! The examples are all very well chosen and used, and the graphics likewise. And of course I found myself saying the various things and thinking about my tongue, which is fun.

It reminds me of my favorite accent/dialect/idiolect videos, the ones made for Wired by dialect coach Erik Singer, as part of their little "Technique Critique" series. He looks at accents performed by actors in film and tv:

accents & dialects

constructed languages


more accents & dialects

president dialects [i.e. actors portraying US presidents]

I could listen to discussions about oral posture and lip and tongue placement and that sort of thing alllll dayyyyy.
posted by theatro at 12:37 PM on March 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

Fascinating! (And incredible restraint all around, everyone, regarding the phrase “pink trombone.”)
posted by Barack Spinoza at 1:27 PM on March 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

Ooh that was rather nicely laid out.  My linguistics background doesn't amount to much, but I do remember the professor in the one semester of anthropology-adjacent linguistics I took way back in the dark ages bringing this up in class.  The ways our native tongue shapes how our brains hear sounds is endlessly fascinating.

Since it was in line with that day's class discussion, the professor had emphasized the difficulty Japanese speakers of English have with l's and r's being due in part to the lack of distinction/use of the English versions of the sounds in Japanese. They have a hard time listening for them because they'd never been trained to by their native tongue, never mind even the practice of wrapping one's tongue around the subtle distinctions in the sounds.  We take it for granted, but I like seeing it pointed out in the link how we barely notice the various r's and l's, and how closely they actually resemble each other.

This being college, several students expressed skepticism, so the professor brought up the unaspirated versus aspirated 'p' in English and French as an example we might better relate to, which of course baffled a class of American native English speakers.  English makes no distinction between them—think of the P in "spin" versus "pizza," one typically has a puff of air following it, the other doesn't.  If you swap them, most people would barely notice, but French uses only the unaspirated p, (Generally speaking. Parisian accents tend to aspirate consonants a bit IIRC, but far less than in English) and the English speaker's blithe ignorance of them stands out starkly to native French ears when they try to speak French.

While it was pretty funny to see an entire class of college students quietly whispering 'spin' and 'pizza' over and over, it was a pretty good way to show your own speech biases can really screw you up when trying to speak another language—and that was just between French and English, which have been cross-pollinating for a thousand years, much less between one of the Altaic languages on the other side of the globe and English.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 1:48 PM on March 26, 2019 [15 favorites]

While it was pretty funny to see an entire class of college students quietly whispering 'spin' and 'pizza' over and over

Mine tend to start spontaneously chanting “pizza” too
(in case you need another data point).
posted by Barack Spinoza at 1:54 PM on March 26, 2019

So essentially for the same reason English speakers have a hard time with u, eu, ou ([y], [ø] or [œ], [u]).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:00 PM on March 26, 2019

Great video. Reminded me of a college friend from Japan who could pronounce both L and R but was stuck on calling my roommates Jelly and Birry.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:48 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yay phonetics and speech perception! Thanks for plugging and posting the Glossia article. I wrote my dissertation on category learning in speech perception for second language learners, which I will plug (I passed!) but not post because no one wants to read that. Including me :P
posted by k8bot at 3:03 PM on March 26, 2019

As a brat - like many English speakers - I made fun of those difficulties. Now I hear them as charming (just like the difficulties Brits and Canadians have speaking the language) ... at least, until the missed words get in the way.
posted by Twang at 4:03 PM on March 26, 2019

Oh interesting!

As a mandarin-hearer (-speaker would be a stretch), I had a hard time distinguishing accents 1 and 2 of cantonese given in the video.

But that's a digression:

I'm recovering from a tonsillectomy, and I have a whole new appreciation(?) for the dark l -- I hurt myself this morning saying 'mulch' correctly and have been saying 'swawwo' instead of 'swallow', 'osso' for 'also', etc. this whole week. [I'm actually not sure if I should be 'exercising' these sore movements or avoiding them]
posted by batter_my_heart at 4:15 PM on March 26, 2019

As we saw recently R sounds are complicated, challenging to learn and difficult to explain even among different regions of the same country. I hate that racist L/R "comedy" trope and I hope we never see it again.
posted by bleep at 4:39 PM on March 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

OK, I am not an academic but I can contribute from a practical perspective, having spent ages helping non-native speakers, especially Asians, make R and L sounds.

Step one, you need to turn your tongue into a bowl. Curled up all around the edges, like you are trying to hold a teaspoon of tea or coffee in it. Open your mouth, lemme see. OK, cool.

You keep that same shape for an R and an L. You are making a little echo chamber in your mouth.

OK, close your mouth, teeth just open enough for some sound to come out.

For the L, you are moving your bowl shaped tongue up front. The curled tip is mashed against your front teeth, and there is open space along the sides, that is where the sound is going to leak out. OK, make some sound, fire up your voice box. Yep, that's an L.

For the R, slide your bowl tongue back. Now you are mashing the sides against your back teeth. The front is still curled up, but it is pointing to the top of your mouth and not touching it. So now the sound will be leaking out the front. OK, go! Yep, that's an R!
posted by Meatbomb at 6:14 PM on March 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've always been interested in the fact that many Polynesian languages seem to have one or the other of these sounds (l/r) but not both. Thus: Hawaiian has L (laulima, liliha, ‘ilima), Tahitian has R (fare, Rarotonga, tiare, Ta‘aroa), Sāmoan has L (fale, palagi, Tutila, Tagaloa), Māori has R (Māori, Wharariki, Tangaroa). i-Kiribati, which is somewhat Polynesian-influenced, seems to just have R, such that the settlement known as London on Kiritimati Island is spellen Ronton (Kiribati R's are mostly the tapping kind). Which is interesting, given that the Polynesian language (I think) Kiribati was most influenced by was Sāmoan.
posted by deadbilly at 6:18 PM on March 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Oh, thanks much for posting this. I wish I had real linguistics knowledge but mine is mostly from book study and at least attempts to learn mouth shapes and tongue movements and such. I have a whole set of theories about Japanese phonemes and lazy tongues leading to contractions that make no sense when you try to put them into the latin alphabet that are perfectly cromulent when you take the shape of the mouth and the path of the tongue into account.

This also reminds me how growing up in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia and watching too much PBS I had teachers who didn't believe I had grown up in the area. And how now having lived in California for decades it takes me days to start understanding my relatives when I go back home for a visit.

Speech is weird.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:48 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I like that in the more upper class renditions of RP English, these liquid consonants almost overlap with yer, uh... plosive occlusives? (My last phonetics class was in a previous millennium, and not in the final decade thereof.) If you listen to Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar (as I do all the time) his pronunciation of "Herod" is so posh it more or less comes out as "headed."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:06 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

ricochet, the sound you're talking about is the flapped r [ɾ]. It sounds like d to Americans because we sometimes say d that way! Specifically, between vowels: ladder, rider, middle all have [ɾ].

Also, the spin/pizza distinction that los pantalones mentioned is even more of a pitfall in Mandarin, or Hindi, because they're different phonemes. E.g. aspirated [ph] is in pàng 'fat', unaspirated [p] is in bàng 'oysters'.
posted by zompist at 3:05 AM on March 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

So funnily, since someone brought up my question about how English speakers mispronounce Jose, this video gave me some new insight into that question. I realized that my parents who are native Spanish speakers and learned English as adults, don't really hear the difference between S and Z. They pronounce both as S.

So maybe one reason English speakers mispronounce the S in Jose, is that when they do, the Joses don't notice and don't correct them. So the English speakers say Z either because someone told them that's how it's said or out of habit from English (s between two vowels sounds like a Z) and Jose-the-native-Spanish-not-native-English speaker doesn't hear the Z and doesn't correct it. Nobody corrects them so they assume that's right.

Meanwhile those of us who are fully bilingual are all "WTF, you know how to make an S sound!" (or at least on of us).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:42 AM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Regarding "Jose," at some point you have to distinguish the word in American English, "Jose," which is in most uses pronounced "Hozay," from the original Spanish word "Jose."

People saying "San Hozay" aren't misprouncing the Jose any more than speakers of American English are mispronouncing the capital of France when they say Pairiss instead of Pahree with that loogie-hocking r.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:52 AM on March 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

The ways our native tongue shapes how our brains hear sounds is endlessly fascinating.

Similarly, in my phonetics class the prof brought up how Quebec French varies [i] and [ɪ] based on a final consonant, using the examples petit and petite, and (some of) the francophones saying those were the same vowel, what was she talking about?
posted by jeather at 1:10 PM on March 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

My Japanese teacher talked about this early on and had a couple of us Americans say “lock” and then “rock” as clear as we could. Then she said “sounds exactly the same to me”. Likewise I have trouble getting the right intermediate l/r version when saying something like karada (body) or the kind-of-an-n-kind-of-an-m in something like “kanban”. Languages are fun.
posted by freecellwizard at 4:21 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

People saying "San Hozay" aren't misprouncing the Jose any more than speakers of American English are mispronouncing the capital of France when they say Pairiss instead of Pahree with that loogie-hocking r.

Sure....but people calling people whose first language is Spanish or who were named by people whose first language is Spanish Hoe-zay are. Also, I can't even imagine how frustrating it must be to a portuguese Jose and have people constantly pronounce the J as an H when it's pronounced as a J. I imagine Portuguese people in the US might even avoid the name to dodge the butchering.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:39 PM on March 27, 2019

When I learned about I/r confusion in college, it was the same semester that I made two new friends: Erin who would become a good friend for a long time, and Ellen whom I would eventually marry.

And learning about I/r confusion made it super-difficult for me to keep their names straight. I'm lucky to be alive, honestly.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:16 PM on March 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

There's a 70-something Korean-American woman in my choir. I'll call her Chun-ja. She probably came to the US when she was like 10 or something. She always hits her Rs really hard. This drives my White American choir director up the wall, because we sing mostly classical-ish pieces, and strong Rs are usually Not Appropriate for how Choir Director wants the choir to sound.

My White American mother-in-law was bitching about Chun-ja's Rrrrrs after rehearsal one day. I said, "She probably worked really fucking hard when she was a kid to get the American R sound. She probably drilled it into her brain and mouth, so it's deeeeeeply internalized and really hard to unlearn. I asked a friend who taught English in Korea for years about this. Friend said, 'Yup.'"

Mother-in-law later told me, "I asked Chun-ja about it, and you're right."

I filed that info away in my head next to the memory of Chun-ja telling me, "It brings back painful memories." "It" meaning, 1950s hymn lyrics referring to Asian skin as "yellow". Drilling Rrrrs into herself until they were automatic probably meant one less thing for White Americans to shit on her for. (People of my generation on my mom's side just discovered 2 years ago that of the generation that's now dying off, some of their experiences as kids in small-town Canada decades ago included white Canadians throwing stones at them. Dunno if the stone-throwers included adults as well as kids. I didn't want to probe deeper.)

While I'm on that subject... the video shows a clip from Lost In Translation. I appreciate people's opinions that cinematically it's a fine film. And. I saw it in a theatre where White Americans snickered at the L/R running gag, in a sneery way that's very familiar, and I look Asian but the only languages I've ever spoken are English and French, but my own childhood memories include asshole White Canadian kids harassing me with L/R jokes, so... I would appreciate it if White Mefites would call out your fellow White people for doing that shit.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:06 PM on April 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

I learned to speak and understand Mandarin in my thirties while living in China. The first initial weeks of study involved teaching the muscles of the foreigner mouth and tongue to produce sounds that don't exist in English: the 'r' mentioned in the video, the consonant 'x' (which sounds halfway between the initial sounds of seep and sheep), and the 'c' as in tsunami.

By far the hardest were the Mandarin vowels: 'e' which can sound a bit like the gross-out sound in "eeugh!" and the nearly impossible 'v' vowel which sounds like a cross between yeet and yoot and requires a confounding tightening of the face muscles.

My memories of early Mandarin studies are mostly of sore face and tongue muscles!

I did learn to distinguish tones - to the point where in the video where the Chinese guy demonstrates them and says that he probably blew my mind he did not in fact blow my mind at all. It probably took a solid year of total immersion to begin understanding tones, and I still can have trouble speaking them.

My point is that this can totally go in the opposite direction - I had to learn through practice how to make all those variants of 'r' and 'l' that exist in Chinese and map imperfectly into American English. And other, more difficult sounds too.

Reader, it was worth it.
posted by Enkidude at 12:56 AM on April 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

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