Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Pronu-phono-nunciatio-logy and faith ... or not

There are two subjects upon which I feel I should blog, tonight (or soon, anyway): perceived correct pronunciation and perceived correct response of faith. Since I am giddy about one and reflective about the other, my post will be guided entirely by my own attention span and the battery life of this laptop. There is currently 1 hour and 37 minutes left on this juicer; let's see how far I get.

Sonnjea had a really delightful post the other day about language pet peeves. The pecadillos she focused on were mispronunciations or over pronunciations of brand names. People calling Ikea "ee-kay-uh", Swiffer, "swifter" and Toyota "tie-oh-tuh," were the examples she listed. I don't know that I've heard anyone call any of these brands by those pronunciations - except maybe Toyota, and even that might've been a slightly different pronunciation in the case or two that I've heard. But I have every confidence that there are people who pronounce those words like that. Because I'm a linguist (since I'm a semester away from graduation, I'm finally allowing me to call myself that), I was immediately drawn to the phonological issues at work in all three of these words.

Frankly, I'm not sure exactly what's going on with Ikea being called "ee-kay-uh," other than people are probably overlaying their perceived foreign pronunciation onto a known foreign word. I don't know any Swedish or fjordish tongues, so I don't know how Ikea is pronounced there, but it wouldn't be surprising to me if it were not at all like "ee-kay-uh," which is probably closer to how it is pronounced in Mexico City than Stockholm. (Pissed Off Pencil, are you out there to comment?)

As for Swiffer being pronounced "swifter," that's just a simple screw up. "Swiffer" is a deliberately manufactured word used in specific cases, but "swifter" is a real word in the organic lexicon that a speaker can use in many cases. It's simply easier to reach for the familiar.

Now for Toyota. Sonnjea contends that the correct standard American pronunciation is "toy-oh-ta." The last two vowels seem non-controversial for Sonnjea, as I suspect, when she says Toyota, the last vowel is more shwa-like or "uh"-like than "ah"-like. (Please forgive me, if I'm wrong Sonnjea and you have a beautiful "ah" at the end.) I suspect that the reason she hears it sometimes pronounced "TIE-oh-tuh" has something to do with the speaker playing with the diphthong or maybe he hears the first vowel differently to begin with.

You see the "oy" vowel in standard American pronunciation is made of up two different vowels elided together (a diphtong). The first vowel in "oy" is a not-so-round "oh" sound. The second is an "ih" sound like what we hear in "click" or "hit." ("oh" + "ih"). The diphthong in "eye" is made up of the "ah" sound - not like what we do when we go to the doctor, more like in the word "market", minus the "r" - followed by the "ih" sound mentioned above. ("ah + ih"). Great! You say. Clearly it's just diphthong substitution.

Not so fast! It's not just substituting any old "vowel-ih" combo for another. The "oh" of "oy" and the "ah" of "eye" are actually produced pretty close to one another in the mouth. The "oh" is in the back of the mouth and the "ah" is in the front, and both are made with the tongue on almost the same plane. And the "ah" actually requires less work from both the lips and tongue than the "oh" does. Americans LOVE to reduce vowels to schwa (the middle do-nothing vowel we probably all learned about in grade school), so this might just be a similar reduction.

Here's a link to the International Phonetic Alphabet's vowel chart. The "ih" of each diphthong noted is the "I" that looks like a capital "I", in the upper left corner. The "oh" is the one in the lower right that looks like a backward "c," and the "ah" in question is the "a" in the lower left hand corner. The chart is designed to show where in the mouth vowels are produced and how rounded or unrounded they are. For instance "ooo" is rounded, the "u" in the far upper right, and "eee" is unrounded, represented by the "i" in the far upper left.

After I figured out that Sonnjea's Toyota offenders are simply shifting their diphthongs - and my guess is that's probably a reflection of their native region or education - I had another observation. Sonnjea pronounces Toyota "toy-oh-ta." I grew up calling my family's car "To-yoh-tuh" or alternately, "Toy Yoda." I've heard both so much in pop culture, that I suspect both are equally acceptable in standard American pronunciation. The difference is really in where we break the syllables. I know very little about Japanese. If it's anything like other Asian languages I've kind of sniffed, my guess is that it disallows ending a syllable in a consonant, or if it allows syllable-ending consonants, they must be an "m," "n" or "ng." I'm leaning toward thinking they don't allow it. Using that point of view, either pronunciation is right. However, I really don't know if Japanese recognizes or allows diphthongs. If they allow diphthongs - yea! All pronunciations are technically permissible. But if they don't, then we're looking at "Toh-yoh-tah" being correct. That diphthong in English really puts words like Toyota on the fence when it comes to syllable break down, because it creates a glide there, a "ghost Y," if you will.

Sorry to geek out on y'all like that.

For the record, I agree with Sonnjea that people calling Swiffer "swifter" is annoying as hell, as anyone calling a Toyota a TIE-ohtuh would be. I'm indifferent to the Ikea/ee-kay-ah issue. It cracks me up more than anything. I just love language and simple phonology, and her wonderful post just inspired me to get out my gardening gloves. ... considering I'll have to be in that mode next week, when school starts again (groan), that's a good thing.

As for the response of faith issue (something VA Gal and I were discussing this weekend) I wanted to blog on, it'll probably have to wait till later this week when I have more time. I really wanted to make sure I blogged on this, because I'm a massive nerd. And because I like having my dessert first. ... which also probably explains why there's more of me to love these days! Yikes!

1 comment:

Sonnjea B said...

I love this post, Molly! I learned quite a bit. And you're right about my pronouncing the "ah" at the end of Toyota in the slacker American "uh" fashion.

I suspect the reason I hear Ikea pronounced ee-kay-ah is that here in So Cal we're sort of trained to pronounce anything not American/English as a Spanish word. ee-kay-ah would be the correct Spanish pronunciation of Ikea.