Deck the house in puffs of bug spray, falalalala lalala…aaaaahhh!!!, or Linguistic Woes and Other Stories

“So long and thanks for all the blisters”, I wistfully said to my sandals, as I took them from their spot on the floor and returned them to the shoe rack. The view through he window presented a gloomy, not to mention cold and windy, outlook, and it seemed I wouldn’t have need of my trusty Roman styles in a very, very long time.

Jup, it’s autumn alright. Every autumn I return my designated walking shoes to a place where they won’t be in the way and think “Dammit! It’s officially cold now!”

Also every autumn, as if I’d send out invitations, golden lettering and engraved envelopes and all, the bugs return.

I live in a house that was built in 1930. The windows have never been changed, just painted over and over with white paint. Those windows are… well, for lack of a better word, they’re leaky. (Stay in school, kids, this is what happens when you’re poor.) Everything gets through. I dread every storm because I have to rush to soak up all the water building on the wooden inside window sill before it seeps into the the cracks, making them bigger. And apparently, there’s gaps big enough for giant, nasty, annoying bugs to climb through.

I have no idea what kind of bugs they are. They are about two centimetres (a bit less than an inch for my non-metric peeps) long, they’re a dark brown, and they’re annoying. They seem to be some kind of tree bug things but I’m not going to check their catalogue number before screaming discretely and diving for the can of instant-death-to-bugs. Forget catching them and throwing them out. I tried; those things have wings and just come right back, as if they think I’m just playing a game with them. “Weeee! Throw me again, human!”

Bug killing is the only thing where my usual procrastinational (that’s a word now) tendencies do not hit me. Like, for obvious reasons. And speaking of procrastination (cower before my segue powers!), that brings us to today’s Blogging101 thing, because The Metamorphosis of a Wallflower hit the nail on the head with her post about this well-known topic. And then I ran around her blog for a bit longer and found a post about her fight with the IPA chart, which is relevant to my interests or lack thereof. (See here)

And my face flushed and my heart raced and like a nightmare from beyond time itself….

For once upon a time, I was an English undergrad struggling to understand the diabolic nature of Linguistics. I hated it and sucked at it, so my only choice was to become very, very good at it to pass the tests and then never hear about it again (or so I thought, until I checked the curriculum for the Master’s programme. Let me shake my fist at you, English department!).

[Random personal aside] I also flunked the pronunciation course three times. You see, the curriculum is just a teensy bit stupid: In the intro lecture for Linguistics they tell you over and over how most adult people cannot, even after years of living in another country, successfully change their natural accent. Then, two semesters later, they stick you in a course all like “Here! Do exactly what we told you is not possible in just three months!”

This was hell. This was also one of the reasons it took me so long to finish my degree. Because for some reason, speaking RP or speaking GA is SO IMPORTANT that they’d rather you drop out (and yes, I’ve seen it happen, and my thoughts go out to all my fallen brethren and sistren) than not be able to, y’know, change your natural accent to another one. I’m a German native speaker. Of course I’m not going to sound like some git from Oxford, godammit! You, person teaching the course, are a native speaker of German, and you sound it. Don’t tell me what to do. [/Random personal aside]

I have this theory that the field of Linguistics was started by engineers, because the whole idea of the thing sounds like something my dad would do. “Hm, how can we make it easier for people to learn a language? More importantly, how can we make it easier for academics to sound clever and academic-y? I know, dress everything in confusing symbols that do not at all represent what a sound might look like, slap some arbitrary not-always-the-case-but-sometimes rules on it and derive some formulas, I mean, it works for maths, right? Efficient communication is now rendered impossible but who needed that anyway? If you want to communicate, that’s what 1’s and 0’s were made for.”

Anyway, the poor Wallflower apparently has to learn the entire IPA chart. For anyone who has no idea what we language nerds are talking about here, it’s a chart of symbols that supposedly represent the sounds of human speech. No, I have no idea how that was done, seeing as there are some 5000 languages being spoken on this planet and some of them sound like they consist entirely of clicking sounds. Actually, learning symbols is not so much the problem as recognising them when they are spoken. Now, when they are spoken in isolation, that’s still sorta easy. In a sentence… not so much, especially in a language you don’t know.

Or even in a language you know, because in German? You’re lost. Sometimes I’m lost, and I’ve been speaking German for more than two decades now. Unlike British English and American English, German does not have an established spoken standard (RP for BE, and GA for AE, if you’re interested). I know people believe what we call “Hochdeutsch” (High German – misleading name if you as me) to be the standard, but it’s not official. Apart from that, speaking Hochdeutsch gets you beaten up in Austria anyway (trust me, I speak from painful experience). So spoken German is basically a hotchpotch (what we might call “Sammelsurium”) of dialects, and as we all know, dialects have different pronunciations as well as grammars.

But a problem all of them share is what we call “deutsche Auslautverhärtung” (German final devoicing. Man, you’re learning a lot today, aren’t you?), which is the reason most of us have so much trouble in English (besides “th” sounds and the vowel in words like bird) and which despite the big scary words only means: we mumble. Terribly. You know your consonant pairs like p-b, k-g, t-d? They are not readily discernible in German. In English, for example, tank and dank don’t sound much the same (okay, they sound the same except for one sound – what we Linguists call minimal pairs!). In German, you have to rely on context to find out what the flying fuck that German speaker just said, because the t and d somehow merged into one entity. (And yes, I know the same phenomenon exists in English dialects of every continent, but I’m talking about German here, so shut up and lemme finish.)

Interestingly, you have a better chance at distinction towards the north. Towards the south, once you cross the borders of Bavaria and head ever further down, forget it. “Bank” (bank) will be the same and “punk”. You think they’re trying to say English “dish”, but what they mean is “Tisch” (table). You come to the border and wonder if the custom officials are starting a band because they keep asking for your “Bass” (okay, it’s only funny if you know that passport is “Pass” in German.)

The distinction is supposed to be clearer in Hochdeutsch, because after all, it’s a northern variety. But even here, if you come from a language that has a very clear distinction, you might have trouble.

And that’s only a few tiny facts about pronunciation in German. Now multiply that by all other human languages. So to Wallflower I say, stay strong, hang in there, make your ear a warrior, because by damn, you’ll need it. And hope to a deity of your choice no one will make you pronounce stuff.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Deck the house in puffs of bug spray, falalalala lalala…aaaaahhh!!!, or Linguistic Woes and Other Stories

  1. Oh my, this was beyond wonderful. First, procrastinational is definitely a word. Two, I am so happy that someone else understands the plight of IPA and how ridiculous the courses can be, but you can somehow make me laugh about it instead of cry. And third, thank you for making my day 🙂 🙂

    Like

Speak up, I can't hear you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s