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Language and Life

Did You Say What I Heard?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Humans are notoriously creative.  Sometimes it seems people change things just for the sake of change.  Change is constantly occurring in language.  Some of these changes are responses to changes in the life of the people.  Sometimes speakers may consciously change some word usage or use a word with a new meaning to reflect a concern or sensitivity in the society, and in turn this may initiate or facilitate changes in life.

Sometimes miscommunication occurs because one party does not hear what the other said.  So, you ask, what else is new?  No, I mean they hear the sounds, but what they perceive in their head is not actually what was pronounced in the mouth of the speaker.

There is sometimes a great gap between what was intended in the head of the speaker and what actually formulates in the head of the hearer.  We hear through our own pronunciation.  Because of this, what we think a word is may confuse what we think another speaker said.

Finding Buddy
I remember one vivid occasion in Kenya when this happened to me.  I was calling on the phone to speak with a friend named Bertie Paul.  I believe it was a guest house where the Pauls were staying.  Some of the details got lost in my memory, overshadowed by the linguistic event that occurred.

I asked for Bertie Paul but was told there was no one by that name there.  We conferred a bit further to clarify the situation.  Finally through spelling out what each of us meant and understood, I found that she was looking for someone named "Buddy Paul."

Hearing or Interpreting?
The Kenyan secretary did not hear what was said.  She interpreted.  She translated.  Her pronunciation would have no R before the T.  So she failed to hear my clear American R before the T in Bertie.  This left Buddy.  What she heard in her head was not the sounds her ears heard coming from my mouth.  Why did this happen?

Since she never pronounces an R after a vowel, she could not hear the R I spoke in Bertie’s name.  It is common to hear different pronunciations between our various dialects and interference from foreign languages.  We just hear and interpret into our frame of reference.  It is a different matter when we speak back, using our own dialect patterns.  Africans commonly leave out R's after vowels.

This is also the pattern of the dominant British "preferred" forms used in Africa.  The most common American and some British accents pronounce the words "as they are spelled," meaning the r's are clearly pronounced.

Bridging the Gap
This power of interpretation actually helps us bridge dialect gaps within our own language.  We automatically hear what is said and put it into our own pronunciation system.

Then when we use the same word or phrase, we pronounce it in our dialect and the speaker of the other form of English automatically translates.  The written form helps us hold all these English variations together as though they were one language.  Sometimes, though, we get tripped up.  English already has too many totally separate words that sound exactly alike.  French also suffers this malady.

I would think that knowing the written form of the name would have enabled her to recognize what I was saying, even though she pronounces it differently.  This is normally true with native speakers of different varieties of English.  But since English was not her native language, and perhaps because she was not used to hearing my variety of English, and over the phone to boot, her expectations from her own English actually kept her from perceiving the actual sounds I said.  I wish I understood psycholinguistics better!

But aside from the specifics, this is a pattern of interference we all encounter to some extent.  The learner "hears" in the patterns already familiar from the native tongue.  This helps us when listening to other varieties of our own language.  It happens in dialect variations within English, often with results more amusing than confusing.

How Many Vowels?
Midwestern and southwestern US dialects often have fewer vowels than "standard" English.  I recall reading an analysis of American English indicating fewer vowels than I knew existed in the Englishes I had heard.  The author was from Chicago.  Using his own dialect as the standard (apparently), he simplified American English phonology considerably by finding only 9 vowels instead of 11.  So for him fill and feel had the same vowel.

I recall once when I was visiting in a church in Dallas, Texas, I heard this astonishing sentence as a staff member worded a prayer: “Lord, feel us with your Spirit so we may fill your presence!’ Words like this were interchanged all through that service by this associate pastor who had a large part in the service that day.

Aliens, rilly or Elliens, really
These vowels vary in various areas of the USA. You will hear these variations from place to place: rill, real, and especially the extended forms really - rilly.  The mid front sounds ay and eh also get shifted in some dialects before certain sounds.

One I thought really funny was the title of a science fiction TV series several years ago.  The network announcer would promo the upcoming episode of Ellien Nation.  Besides California, you will hear this feature in much of the Northeast and Midwest USA.

Californians, northwesterners and upper midwesterners commonly “mispronounce” words with the aw sound, so that Paul comes out Pahl.  They have baht things and thaht about things, whereas midwesterners and southerners have bawt things and thawt about them.  My Minnesotan friend Chuck French and I have a running battle about whether we drink cahfee or cawfee.  And you are all aware of the multi-syllable vowels pronounced so beautifully in the deep south drawls.

Fun Forms
Just for fun, here are examples of some names we commonly recognize in quite different sound forms from different related language forms:
         Ben~Bin~Beeyun;  Jehnkins~Jeenkins;  Smith~Smitt~Schmidt;
         Charlotte:  Shawlut~Sharlut~Shawlit;  Craig: Krayg~Krehgg

We could go on about this.  But the point is that within dialect ranges of one language or between closely related languages like Spanish and Portuguese, we adapt our hearing.

When you hear a form of English you have not encountered before (like in rural Scotland), you have to tune your ears a bit to understand.  Then you begin to get the range of the differences between that dialect and yours.  And since such differences are regular, we can begin to hear a strange form of English rather quickly.  The more we are exposed to other language forms, the more naturally we can hear without consciously translating.

It is harder to bridge the gap of options in a foreign language.  Your colleagues whose native language is not English may have trouble with your language of English.  But keep in mind you can expect similar difficulties in interpreting the speech of your target language community!

Hearing others in terms of our own speech is a problem in a "foreign" language.  This is called interference.  This is one reason for a foreign accent.  A foreigner sometimes just misses some sounds, hearing only those sound patterns and combination of sounds already present in his or her native language.

Foreign Speech
Sometimes the foreigner does recognize the odd sounds or sound combinations in isolation but cannot clearly distinguish them in common speech.  Or the foreigner might hear the difference, but have trouble making the tongue produce the same sounds.  Just remember, when you are outside your home country, you are the foreigner!  The burden is on you.

These various problems need to be identified.  We can continue to monitor ourselves and request help from others on pronunciation.  But the most critical resource is continued listening and conversation with a wide variety of speakers of the target language.

Also related:
[TXT] Approaches to Language: Models
[Menu] Cognitive and Social Culture
[TXT] Did I Mean What I Said?
[TXT] Questionnaire For World-View Analysis
[TXT] Worldview in Language:  Language and Thought


An original article on this topic was published in the “Language and Life” series in Afri-Com, a cross-cultural communication journal (Nairobi, Kenya) October 1997
This version written for OJTR 2 November 2008
Last edited 30 March 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1997, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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