Tagged: accent Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • The Diacritics 12:57 pm on September 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: accent, afghanistan, buddhism, , hinduism, , japan, korea, pop songs, , sa ding ding,   

    Same mantra, different language 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 2007, one of China’s biggest pop singers, Sa Ding Ding, released a hit song in Sanskrit — yes, that’s right, the dead liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism.

    Check it out:

    The words are taken from the 100-syllable Vajrasattva Mantra, an important prayer in Buddhism. It’s actually a pretty catchy song. But for Indians with any knowledge of Sanskrit, the words are totally unfamiliar: the Chinese pronunciation of Sanskrit is worlds away from the Indian pronunciation.

    Despite how popular the mantra is, I could only find one video of someone using the Indian Sanskrit pronunciation:

    Compare that to the Tibetan pronunciation:

    Buddhism is truly a remarkable religion in that it dominated in regions as far as Afghanistan in the west and Japan in the east. Not everyone spoke a language similar to Sanskrit, so it was inevitable that adopting peoples would adapt texts in Sanskrit and Pali (another liturgical language of Buddhism) to local pronunciations.

    But Indian tradition places the highest value on the oral transmission of sacred knowledge — ancient Indians were notoriously suspicious of written language, despising it as bad for the mind and for the soul. Because sacred scriptures were transmitted through intricate mnemonic procedures, pronunciation was highly preserved. Vedic Sanskrit was shared from generation to generation as a sort of time-capsule, even as the local vernaculars shifted in vocabulary and pronunciation.

    Sanskrit still holds an important place in Indian culture, especially for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Most Indian languages today (even the non-Indo-European ones) borrow heavily from Sanskrit, most obviously in tatsama (literally, “that-same”) words, which are taken directly from Sanskrit without sound changes. For these reasons, many Indians today have a working knowledge of Sanskrit vocabulary, the pronunciation of which is relatively stable.

    And so we come to the curious case of Buddhism, which grew out of this Indian tradition that placed great emphasis on oral transmission.

    Should Indians really be upset that East Asian Buddhists pronounce Sanskrit mantras differently from the “correct” pronunciation? Prescriptivist Indians would shudder. I’m not so sure. Buddhism is as much “theirs” as it is “ours” — it’s been at least 1,500 years, after all. Some Buddhists would probably argue that the understood meaning of the mantras and their value as meditative devices are more valuable than faithful pronunciation. (Some strict Hindus might disagree; others would agree.) But for those who ascribe mystical power to the words themselves rather than the sentiment behind them, non-Indian pronunciation might pose problems.

    It’s a fun exercise to see the shift in pronunciation from India to far-off lands: consider the Sanskrit term dhyāna, meditation. In Pali, a historical vernacular (and later liturgical language) of India, it became jhāna. In Chinese, it’s chán. Korean, seon. And in Japanese, it’s the famous zen.

    In my native Kannada, we still use dhyāna. Perhaps we’re just old fashioned.

    I’m curious to compare the situation of Arabic — which, of course, has been adopted as a liturgical language in non-Arab Muslim countries — to Sanskrit. Islam requires the use of Arabic in reciting the Qur’an, but are non-Arab pronunciations of the text (say, in Indonesia or Bangladesh) different from Standard Arabic?

    • Ahmad 12:02 am on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Great piece!

      Re: your last question. A trained Qur’an reciter in a non-Arab country will have the correct tajweed (roughly translates to elocution) of the text. Qur’an roughly translates into ‘recitation’ and it is a scripture that is primarily experienced orally with a high emphasis on memorizing it completely. (Little known fact: there are actually 7 surviving canonical pronunciations of the Qur’an) The rules of tajweed, however, and the Arabic language in general, doesn’t have any hard and fast rules for intonation so there are a wide variety of ways that the Qur’an is recited (chanted, sung). Certain regions have developed certain trends in the intonation while preserving the rules of tajweed, so it is possible to guess where a certain recitation comes from based on those trends. However, with the advent of audio cassettes, CDs, satellite television, and mp3s, it’s actually not uncommon for someone in Indonesia or Pakistan to try and imitate the popular Egyptian style or Saudi style of recitation instead of their own homegrown tradition. Not to mention physical Qur’an schools being set up by foreign countries and bringing their own theologies along as well.

      In terms of untrained reciters, i.e. the lay devotee, there are bound to be differences in pronunciation, but this even applies to Arabic speakers as local dialects and even Modern Standard Arabic are not exactly the same as 6th century Qur’anic Arabic. Whether these are ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’ pronunciations are more of a theological question than anything.

      If you can, I’d recommend the recent HBO documentary “Qur’an by Heart”: Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpO-a8AIz7M

      • The Diacritics 12:33 am on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Wow, thanks for your detailed response! I’ll have to read more about regional intonation — it sounds like it could be a very rich topic of study. (And I’ve seen the trailer for that documentary before — I’ll have to check it out soon!) -Sandeep

    • Lane 5:14 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Good question about Arabic, but I’d guess something like “no”, though I don’t recall ever hearing a Bangladeshi reading or praying in Arabic. The reason I guess no is the much greater role of Arabic reading learning even among ordinary Muslims, rather than the (as you point out) greater prominence of oral transmission of Buddhism, the filter of Pali for most Theravada Buddhists, and the lesser emphasis on these being the literal words of God dictated directly to a human. Many Islamic circles still strongly discourage translation of the Koran, and there was the case of a man in Afghanistan who put out a Koran in Dari without the corresponding Arabic text alongside, for which he was imprisoned and fined.

  • The Diacritics 9:45 am on September 25, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: accent, Arizona, dialect, discrimination, ,   

    Beware the accent police 

    (posted by John)

    You thought your schoolteachers were bad, but now even they aren’t safe from the accent police. An article in the New York Times today discusses allegations that Arizona engaged in ‘accent discrimination’ against teachers for whom English is a second language.  Since No Child Left Behind became law, the state has been sending “monitors” to classrooms to ensure that English is being spoken properly by teachers.

    “It was a repeated pattern of misuse of the language or mispronunciation of the language that we were looking for,” said Andrew LeFevre, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “It’s critically important that teachers act as models when it comes to language.”

    But the federal review found that the state had written up teachers for pronouncing “the” as “da,” “another” as “anuder” and “lives here” as “leeves here.”

    Check out the “Multimedia” on the left side of the article itself, which plays audio of one teacher whose accent came under suspicion. Once the state came under federal investigation concerning allegations that teachers were transferred or even fired for speaking with an accent, it stopped sending monitors.  But still, this is kind of scary. What, after all, counts as “mispronunciation” of the language? As the lawyer who filed the complaint on the teachers’ behalf put it, we were looking at something beyond the ‘language fluency’ requirement for teachers in No Child.

    “This was one culture telling another culture that you’re not speaking correctly.”

    So does the southern drawl on some words, so prevalent among many of my friends, count as mispronunciation? What about people who “pahk the cah in the yahd?” When not in their home environs, one culture might well think this group is speaking incorrectly. And that’s all well and good until it becomes state policy that they can’t teach certain children or in certain schools or even at all.

    We all have accents–don’t those Arizona officials sound stupid saying otherwise?

    • Bekah 4:32 am on September 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Yesterday, I wrote an article on my blog about a linguistic prejudice against the Spanish language, and I think this article adds an interesting perspective to the argument. (My personal opinion here is that this problem is partially due to a Spanish language prejudice….you can read the article here if you are interested: http://palmerlanguage.blogspot.com/2011/09/linguistic-injustice-rant.html). Like you said, would anyone tag a southern drawl as being “wrong”? What about a French or German accent? All of the “wrong” pronunciations cited were things that Spanish speakers typically due based on native language transfer (“th” to “d” and “ih” to “ee”, etc. — sorry…can’t find the IPA symbols on my keyboard here!) I wonder if there would be more of an uprising if the accent police started patroling the l/r issues of many Asian languages, the w/v German issue, and the french r. Anyway, thanks for the interesting article! I enjoyed it.

    • johnwcowan 11:26 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Bekah: There are many IPA keyboard pages on the Web. My favorite is Weston Ruter’s, which is basically a clickable IPA chart.

  • The Diacritics 1:25 pm on August 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: accent, , regional,   

    “I don’t have an accent.” 

    posted by Sandeep

    What do you drink?

    No, I’m not interested in your bar habits. I’m asking about the fizzy pop in your can at lunch. The sugar-rush soda you drink to stay up late. The caramel-colored coke in your cup. Which one is it?

    According to linguistic surveys, the name of your soft drink is determined by your geographic origins. People in the Northeast and the West call it “soda”; people across the Midwest largely know it as “pop”; and Southerners call it “coke,” no matter the brand.

    (credit: Pop vs Soda)

    The emergence of a mass-market American image in the last few decades has reduced regional differences like these. With mainstream newscasters and sitcom stars speaking in essentially the same dialect and accent, successive generations concerned with embodying a normative American identity have readily adopted linguistic traits that were once confined to certain regions in the central Midwest. They created a General American standard that now defines “average” in this country. This dialect of English is so unconsciously “normal” in the U.S. that speakers of General American identify themselves in a vacuum of identity: “I don’t have an accent.”

    Please. General American isn’t a monolith; it’s a heterogeneous amalgam of related accents. Don’t believe me? Try these simple tests.

    Pronounce these words: “Mary,” “merry” and “marry.” Are they all the same? You are seemingly in the majority, at least in America. The Mary-merry-marry merger is associated with rhotic dialects—that is, those that pronounce the written “R” at the ends of words or before consonants. General American is a rhotic form of English.

    But I grew up near coastal New Jersey, and although I didn’t speak with the non-rhotic Jersey Shore—excuse me, Jersey Shwa—accent, my schoolteachers and my friends’ parents did. I was surrounded by it. Speakers of non-rhotic accents usually pronounce the three words differently—and so do I. Although neither my friends nor I speak with a Jersey accent, this anomaly has stuck with us.

    Here’s another: “cot” and “caught.” If they are indistinguishable, you’re in the same boat as about 40% of Americans and nearly all Canadians. According to linguists, you’re probably from the Midwest, New England or farther north. Most other Americans pronounce the two slightly differently. The cot-caught merger is associated with a large shift in vowel pronunciation that occurred around the Great Lakes—a transformation that gave us, among other things, the much-maligned folksiness of one Sarah Palin.

    Okay, one more: how do you pronounce the ubiquitous suffix “–ing”? Many people drop the velar closure “ng” and say “–in.” Others, like my Pennsylvanian roommate, pronounce it “een,” stretching out the vowel. Sometimes it’s situational: you’re “chillin,” but other times you’re “relaxing.”

    It can be stunning to see how different we are, even when we fall under a “monolithic” label like General American.

    It’s just the same with those accents that are associated with very broadly painted geographic regions (“Southern”), ethnicities (“African-American”) or classes (“redneck”). To ascribe a certain linguistic destiny to swaths of people based on one aspect of their identity is foolish: we all know people who break the mold of stereotypes. Everyone’s accent is formed by multiple experiences and sources. And like other traits, it can be intimate and treasured.

    When we enter a world in which our accent is unusual, though, how do we react? With exaggeration or with assimilation? When I was abroad in Australia, I swung wildly between the two. Sometimes I would find myself emphasizing my accent, amplifying my “R” pronunciation and stubbornly using American vocabulary; other days, I’d yearn to fit in, studying the bizarre intricacies of Australian vowel production. In New York City, a speech coach market has emerged for those desperate to part ways with their distinctive accent, complaining that their “tawking” colors their professional and social relationships.

    When the General American dialect is taken as a homogeneous, normative identity, some react by emphasizing their “heterodox” accent. Others can’t hear the difference. Still others assimilate. Universities pride themselves on diversity—but in truth, to be associated with a regional linguistic idiom can be crippling because it forms a lens through which others perceive you, often to the exclusion of other aspects of your identity.

    Those who fall under the General American normative umbrella are privileged in this country to be evaluated first on non-linguistic traits. Many, if not most, other speakers are not. This discrepancy is antithetical to a mission of diversity.

    Maybe my examples of linguistic heterogeneity are just fun quizzes, but maybe they’re a little more, too. Perhaps even a small understanding of the diversity within a so-seen monolith of identity like General American gets us somewhere toward an appreciation of larger, non-standard deviations from the norm.

    It’s interesting, after all, to see how some of the last vestiges of regional linguistic idioms—minor pronunciation differences among General American speakers—are humorous, whereas bigger dialectal differences can be personal and professional handicaps.

    I do have an accent—we all do. I just hope that I’m far more interesting than my choice of soft drink. (Soda.)

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc