Issue 4 |

Two Englishes, 11 hours' flight apart

by on September 1, 2015

It is perhaps unsurprising that when people move to a new country, the things that catch their attention are most often those related to their trade (in the making or otherwise). Architects may notice how building designs differ from those they are familiar with. Chefs may notice how particular flavours are evoked with ingredients not found in their former kitchens. Linguists, needless to say, notice how features of speech—its sounds, for example—differ from those they are used to hearing, or uttering. Observations of these kinds for linguists stem as much from an occupational obligation to notice such things as from an instinctive human desire to fit into and be able to navigate within a new linguistic environment.

I found myself in this kind of new environment when I decided to leave the comfort of home and family in Singapore to do my postgraduate research in linguistics in the city of Wellington, New Zealand. Observing how New Zealand English sounds compare to Singapore English ones (and by this, I include both Singapore Standard English and Singapore Colloquial English), and vice versa, became something of an interesting pastime. This is because the sites for these observations are very often sites where views of seeming varietal peculiarities may become just that less peculiar. It should be pointed out that peculiar here does not stand for bad or negative. It just means different, and different surely does not mean bad. This article is an attempt to present those sites of peculiarities (real or perceived), and reflections on them, from the viewpoint of one Singaporean living on Kiwi soil.

Settling down with that shift from ‘end of the month’ to ‘ind of the month’

On arrival to a new country, one of the first things that had to be done was to find a place to stay. Negotiating for the best rental rates in a good location was no doubt a monetary affair. It soon became clear, however, that it was also a linguistic affair, as it was within these sites of negotiation that I noticed the first vowel difference between a variety of English that was rather new to me and one that I was familiar with. “When are you looking to move in?” was a common question asked of me at these sites, to which I would assuredly reply “At the end of the month”. In these so-called turn-takings, which is the term conversational analysts use to describe that switch between who gets the floor to speak at any one point in time, I would almost always have the last bit of my turn, i.e. “end of the month”, repeated back to me by my potential landlord as the next turn, and with the vowel sounding different in the word, “end”. The letter <e> in my Kiwi interlocutors’ pronunciation of the word, end, would (and still does) sound to me like the letter <i> in the word, in, so that the phrase, “end of the month”, when it was repeated back to me, sounded very much like “ind of the month”. Speakers of New Zealand English seem, in other words, to have their tongue in a fronter and more raised position when pronouncing that vowel in end than do speakers of Singapore English.

It did not take me long to realise that I could also raise my tongue slightly higher and push it closer towards the front of my mouth when saying that vowel in end. And not only could I do it for end, I could also do it for other words that have the same vowel. Lecture could be intentionally made to sound like licture, and so could dress be made to sound like driss, and pen like pin. The fact that I am having fewer and fewer of my utterances of words with the end vowel repeated back to me suggests that I must be sounding a little less peculiar to people around me.

The example I have given of intentionally shifting from saying end to saying ind, and of applying that same kind of shift to a whole set of other words, raises an interesting question on varietal peculiarities. This is the question of when the linguistic features of a variety are deemed peculiar and when that peculiarity begins to break down. A good avenue to address this question is the idea of lexical sets, first proposed by John Wells in the book, Accents of English. A lexical set may be understood as a set of words containing a vowel that is pronounced in the same way for all the words in that set. The words end, lecture, dress and pen mentioned earlier would be part of the same lexical set. It follows then that if there is a change in the vowel for one of the words in a lexical set with a change in the variety of English spoken, the vowels for all the other words in that set can be expected to change in the same way also. The fact that the idea of lexical sets has worked in helping me to perform an effective transition of the end vowel from how it sounds in Singapore English to how it sounds in New Zealand English suggests that in terms of how their vowels operate, the two Englishes may have more commonalities than peculiarities between them.

An observation of the sounds of a language is of course not only about an observation of its vowels. It is also about an observation of its consonants. It is perhaps most appropriate that a consonantal difference between New Zealand English and Singapore English should first emerge for me in no other site but the first linguistics class that I am to teach in New Zealand.

Taking that /l/ all the way back

Part of the initiation process to becoming a full-fledged linguist is to teach the subject to 18–20-year-old newbies in the field, and more importantly perhaps, to show them how fascinating a subject of study it can be. Now it happened that one of the things I had to introduce my students to in an introductory linguistics tutorial was the difference between the light and the dark phonetic /l/ in English.

By ‘dark’ versus ‘light’, we are not talking about anything like the difference between brews of beer in a pub (although I did happen to be in a pub when I was writing this) or the difference between the ‘dark’ and ‘light’ side in Jedi business (although I do look forward to The Force Awakens to be released at the end of this year). We are talking rather about the positioning of our tongue relative to the other articulators in our mouths when we flip it upwards to produce the sound /l/. In producing a light /l/, we basically flip our tongue upwards so that the tip of it comes into contact with the part of our mouth roof that is close to our teeth. When we produce a dark /l/ (more accurately transcribed as /ɫ/), however, we flip our tongue upwards so that the tip of it comes into contact instead with the soft bit of flesh further backwards from the hard part of our mouth roof. This soft bit is called the velum, by the way, so that a dark /l/ is also known by people in the field as a velarized /l/. We flip our tongue so that its tip reaches further backwards in our mouth when we produce the dark /l/ than when we produce the light /l/. Generally speaking, in New Zealand English at least, if the /l/ occurs before a vowel, e.g. in the word, lick /lɪk, it will be a light /l/. If it occurs anywhere else, e.g. as the final sound of the word bottle /bɒtl/, it is dark.

The difference between the two /l/s was something that I had to teach to my students in New Zealand, or at least get them to see (metaphorically), if not hear (literally). However, the site where this took place interestingly became a site where the Singapore English feature of not having a very distinct difference between the two /l/s became obvious to me, if not to my students. It was in this site where I realised that in order to demonstrate the distinction between the light and dark /l/ for my students, I had to pull my tongue unusually back with some exaggeration when saying bottle, so that I was no longer saying bottle in a typical Singapore English fashion. I had fun doing it by the way! The students, being speakers of New Zealand English, would repeat that distinction back to me, not to mention in a more naturally New Zealand fashion with the dark /l/ than I could manage, but this whole light and dark /l/ business certainly got me thinking about why Singapore English has such a peculiarity, or to flip our points of reference around, why New Zealand English has that peculiarity (of having such a clear distinction between the two /l/s).

We may get a hint of an answer if we think of just the word bottle, and how it is “normally” said with two syllables, i.e. bot and tle, in all varieties of English. In fact, in Singapore English, not only is the final /l/ in bottle not as dark as the final /l/ in New Zealand English, it is sometimes not there at all and is replaced with a sound similar to what humans make when expressing hesitance, i.e. the er sound. When a Singapore English speaker says bottle, it may really just sound like boter /bɒtə/, with neither a light nor dark /l/. The er sound (transcribed as /ə/) performs the role of realising the second syllable in bottle for a Singapore English speaker in a place where the dark /l/ would have performed this role for a New Zealand English speaker. It is little wonder then that the final /l/ in bottle for a Singapore English speaker (if there is one to begin with) is not usually as dark as that of a New Zealand English speaker’s; Singapore English speakers do not require a distinctly, almost vowel-like dark /l/ to realise the second syllable in bottle because they are doing it through another means. This light and dark /l/ business that crops up when transitioning between Singapore and New Zealand English suggests that where the presence or absence of a clear distinction between the two /l/s emerges as a varietal peculiarity, thinking about the functional purposes behind these peculiarities seems far more interesting than stopping at the simple conclusion that there are peculiarities.

Nevertheless, I am perhaps as guilty at times of stopping at these simple conclusions. Ironically, the sites where these simple conclusions play out are also often sites where speakers self-correct themselves when no such correction would have been needed. I for one started putting the /r/ sound—often spelt as <r>—in places where a New Zealand English speaker would not put them. 

Some things never change

The /r/ sound can occur in a number of places in English words. They can occur in the word-initial position such as in red. They can occur in a word-medial position after a vowel such as in park, and also in a word-final position after a vowel such as in tar. Singapore English speakers, like speakers of some other varieties of English, articulate the /r/ only if it is not found after a vowel. When Singapore English speakers say red, for instance, the presence of an /r/ is unmistakable. On the contrary, you will not hear any /r/ in park or in car from a Singapore English speaker. In this respect, Singapore English is said to be non-rhotic.

Having at first the impression that the non-rhoticity of Singapore English may make me sound too foreign to a New Zealand English speaker, I started semiconsciously pronouncing the /r/ in words such as park, tar and start. The logic behind the belief that I had to switch from a non-rhotic to a rhotic accent is quite simple. If Singapore English speakers are known/prone to ‘gobbling up’ part of the vowel in words such as cat, so that the vowel in cat ends up being of the same length as the vowel in words such as present, there is reason to suspect that being a Singapore English speaker, I may be prone to do so everywhere else. This is especially since /r/ is known in some circles as a semi-vowel—in other words vowel-like in some of its features (see Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, revised by Alan Cruttenden). This suggests that it could have disappeared in my Singapore English speech where it should have been, in the same way that the vowel in cat must get shortened to the same length as the vowel in present if I am to get my hard core Singapore English speak done right.

Little did I realise that by failing to ‘gobble up’ the /r/after the vowel, I have put myself higher on the scale of peculiarity than I would have otherwise. New Zealand speakers of English do not in fact have an /r/ in the places where I thought I was missing one. The recommendation from a new neighbour of a “good craft beer place at the park just two streets away” was made without any hint of an /r/ in either the word beer or the word park. The mention of “road tar” from another new neighbour as the cause of the smell from some nearby road construction site was made also without any hint of an /r/ in the word tar. It soon became clear that any initial obsession I had with /r/ was an example of what linguists would term hypercorrection. The silent /r/ in Singapore English is just as silent in New Zealand English, or the version of New Zealand English spoken in Wellington at least. As far as the /r/ after a vowel is concerned, the hunt for any exotic peculiarities in Singapore English relative to New Zealand English or vice versa seems to have yielded rather disappointing results.

It is very much a part of being human that when we move to new places or when we make new friends with people from new places, we navigate our new relationships by noting how our ways may be peculiar to others in a new environment, or how the ways of people from a foreign land may be peculiar to us. Noticing peculiarities is a method we all use (consciously or otherwise) as a means of charting new physical and metaphorical territories, of finding out how we can better fit into a new environment, or of how we can better accommodate people from new places who are trying to fit into our environments. Discovering any peculiarities in the sounds produced when I speak or when I hear others speak in a country just 11 hours flight away from Singapore is as much a part of the journey of fitting in and accommodating as that of discovering that the few summer dresses packed into that luggage from tropical Singapore must no doubt be layered with thicker (and just as pretty!) coats to keep myself warm and comfortable in Wellington’s more temperate climate. Sometimes, the peculiarities—both in speech sounds and in apparel—that we perceive in ourselves, and in others, may be real. Sometimes, they may not be. And sometimes, they may be real, but not as real as we think they are. Regardless, it is the process of discovering whether perceived peculiarities are indeed real, and if so, when that ‘real‑ness’ begins to break down, that makes transitioning between varieties of English an undeniably exciting experience!

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