Saturday, February 21, 2009

10 Interesting Language Facts

Here’s a quick list of tidbits and resources about the English language (and language in general) which I’ve picked up throughout my time as a speech & language trainer in Europe and Asia. I hope you find them as interesting as I do!

1. The majority of the world’s languages are believed to stem from a common root: Indo-European. For a gorgeous illustration of the Indo-European Family Tree, click here:

2. Two languages that are not related to Indo-European, but are related to one another are Hungarian and Finnish. Granted, the two languages went their separate ways around 6,000 years ago, but they are still considered to be siblings in the Finno-Ugrian family.

3. The word “set” has the most definitions out of any word in the English language.

4. Countries where English (or other Germanic languages) is spoken account for more than 40 percent of the world GDP, while comprising only about 8 percent of the world's population (as of 2006).

5. A Singaporean client taught me that in Chinese, the word crisis is a combination of two characters which, on their own, mean risk and opportunity. Now isn’t that an interesting outlook?

6. My Danish husband’s favorite English word to say is humongous. The hardest word is refrigerator, and the funniest is hippopotamus. I always love to see how other people view our language! The hardest word for me to say in Danish is gulerødsrugbrød (carrot rye bread).

7. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, states that out of the world’s 6,000 languages, 2,500 are in danger of becoming extinct or have recently disappeared. How very tragic!

8. Every human being is born with the capacity to make every sound of every language in the world perfectly. With time, we filter out the sounds we don’t need for our primary language and focus on the ones we do.

9. It should come as no surprise that English has the largest number of non-native speakers. There are actually more non-native speakers of English than native speakers in our world today. This leads to some interesting arguments about how “Standard English” should really be defined.

10. The longest word in the English language is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters). Sing that, Mary Poppins!

Do you have more interesting language points to add? List them in the comments!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Speech Training: Say WHAT? How to pronounce the word "what"

Last week a participant in my Speak up Successfully course asked me a very good question: "How do you pronounce the word, 'what'?" He was under the impression that it should be pronounced hwuht with an h in front.

As an American in Singapore I can sometimes be too quick to answer pronunciation questions by explaining how I personally pronounce things. This isn't always fair because Singaporeans have been taught British pronunciation which can be quite different.

I answered his question by saying, "No. There should not be an h sound before the w in what." Like a good student, he went home after the course and checked the online dictionaries I listed in the resource section of his workbook. The next morning there was a mail in my inbox:

"Remember, i asked you how to pronounce WHAT.. says: '/ʰwʌt, ʰwɒt, wʌt, wɒt; unstressed ʰwət, wət/
Show Spelled Pronunciation: [hwuht, hwot, wuht, wot; unstressed hwuht, wuht]'

hwuht means that there's a 'h' in it?"

Hmmm... This is a tricky one.

First of all, it is important to note that several pronunciations are acceptable. Depending on where you are in the world, you may hear people pronounce what with or without what looks like an h sound in front.

My original answer, that there shouldn't be an h was correct for my own variety of English, but wasn't entirely accurate for all varieties. At the same time, in order to really understand what the spelled pronunciation is calling an h sound, we need to go into slightly deeper phonetics.

The superscript h (called a diacritic in the phonetic alphabet) means pre-aspiration. Aspiration refers to your breath, so what that means is that the w sounds slightly ‘breathy’ (for lack of a better non-technical word).

When we breathe out, the closest real sound we make is the h sound which is why it is transcribed as hw in the spelled pronunciation (a slight downfall of spelled pronunciations, in my opinion). This sound is very slight in most varieties of English and I would not classify it as a pure h.

Try putting your hand up in front of your mouth while you make the p sound. You should feel an explosion of air on your hand. This is aspiration. You are not really making the sounds p-h. Rather, your breath accompanies your pronunciation of the p.

The same is happening when you make the w sound, but the breath is coming slightly before the w. If you were to look at the visual imagery of a recording of someone saying what you would be able to see slight aspiration at the beginning of the word. I believe this would also be true of the way that I say it. I cannot however agree that the word starts with an h.

Does that make any sense? What do you think? How do you say WHAT in your variety of English?