3

Yesterday in chat, an unfortunate event occurred. We were discussing how difficult it is to distinguish two morphemes in a foreign language that do not function as such in your own language. Then at some point two people were displeased at something I said; but I believe they had interpreted my line in a way not at all connected to what I meant.

Normally I would not go through this much trouble, but getting the same angry reaction from two different people I know well means that I need to set things straight. I hope they will read this and understand what I said, and consider it in the proper context.

As an example of a pair of vowels that are not very hard to distinguish, I brought up the example of /ʌ/ and /ɜ(ː)/ as they appear to a Dutchman, as in but and bird. I picked this situation because it is one I am intimately familiar with. I said that these vowels are easy enough for a Dutchman to distinguish, even though we don't have them as separate morphemes in Dutch. Then I said that someone with a strong Dutch accent in English would probably pronounce both vowels as /ɜ/, but that most of us get them about right with some practice (as opposed to certain more elusive distinctions).

I added that a Dutchman with a bad Dutch accent in English might pronounce but and bird almost the same. Then, as an afterthought, I considered that such a Dutchman would probably pronounce the r in bird, because r's are always pronounced in Dutch, so that he would say /bɜt/ and /bɜrt/ for but and bird. This is what I said:

A Dutchman might pronounce but and bird the same way.

< unrelated line by someone else >

Although someone whose English is bad enough to confuse /ʌ/ and /ɜ(ː)/ would probably pronounce the r in bird.

This was still about the Dutchman with a bad accent, but apparently my interlocutor missed that, since he didn't reply, suggested that I was born out of wedlock, and disappeared. Then someone else came in and accused me of making a prescriptivist statement about the accent of native speakers. I explained that this was about the accent of Dutchmen, not Americans, but he did not seem to read or accept that.

I will explain my line again. Some Dutchmen have a good accent in English. Their English can be rhotic or non-rhotic: of both varieties, good accents exist in Dutchland. However, because Dutch is exclusively rhotic, a Dutchman with a bad accent in English will almost invariably pronounce the r—he would not even think of the non-rhotic option; and so he will never pronounce bird as /bɜt/, but always as /bɜrt/. That was all I said.

In no way did I say that native speakers who pronounced the r had a "bad accent", which would be a silly statement anyway, in a serious discussion. All of this was about what it is like to pronounce vowels in a foreign language, never about native speakers.

| | | | | |
  • 1
    Don't worry about it. 1) the heat in the conversation was simply heat; it happens by unfortunate misdirection. 2) A rational understanding of the situation would seem that a non-native accent is somehow much too tied up with the non-natives first language and that any kind of statement about what should occur just could not be made. 3) Of any EFL speakers, I have found that the Dutch and the Scandinavians are the only Europeans to have a near flawless English accent (yay language teachers!), but that's no guarantee of actual native-like language introspection. – Mitch Nov 2 '12 at 13:53
  • @Mitch: Ad 1: thanks! Ad 2: not sure what you mean by "what should occur", but we can observe what occurs in fact, right? Ad 3: introspection is notoriously unreliable for anyone. In Dutch, there are plenty of native speakers who insist that they pronounce the n in plural nouns and verbs, while in fact only a few accent groups do so. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Nov 2 '12 at 17:10
  • Re 2: what I meant is that unless a non-native speaker is a certified phonetician, their judgements about what really does and does not happen in a foreign language are highly factually, and a perceived obligatory 'should' would be considered even more than arrogant. That is, I think that they thought that you were saying what they -should- say, and they took umbrage at that. I think. – Mitch Nov 2 '12 at 18:34
  • @Mitch: Yes, that is probably what they thought, despite the context...I was truly very surprised. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Nov 2 '12 at 18:41
  • I'm not sure what the question is here, Cerberus, but if you found somebody's comment offensive, why didn't you just flag it? That's what flags are for! – user16269 Nov 3 '12 at 3:10
  • @DavidWallace: It's not about offensiveness: I don't really care about being offended. And flags don't help solve the problem. This is about a huge and baffling misunderstanding that I would like to see resolved. They just need to read this. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Nov 3 '12 at 3:33
  • "Need"? Do they? – user16269 Nov 3 '12 at 3:39
  • "Yesterday in chat, an unfortunate event occurred. We were discussing how difficult it is to distinguish two morphemes in a foreign language that do not function as such in your own language." Why would you discuss that here and not on Linguistics? I'm offended! :P lol – Alenanno Nov 4 '12 at 19:08

Browse other questions tagged .