Friday, November 14, 2008

More on Accents

First tonight I'd like to draw your attention to an exceedingly cool visitor I've had the last couple of days, Mike Flynn. If you haven't had a chance to look at his comments on Accents, I encourage you to do so; he has also commented on A Crazy Pattern in English and Cultural Diversity in the Future. His Accent comments include some terrific examples of dialects he has used in his own published work, so check them out. Also he has a new book out, The January Dancer, which you can find on Amazon if you'd like.

I thought I'd just add a little something to the accents discussion tonight, in particular about how people hear accents, not just how they utter them.

Early in life we begin to hear speech sounds and learn them. Studies show that children can recognize speech sounds very early, and like them, and pay more attention to them than to simple noises. By the time we are around six, our ability to learn totally new speech sounds usually shuts down, making it hard for us to sound nativelike in another language. During this critical period, what we're doing is processing the patterns of the speech sounds we here and creating phonemes.

Phonemes are not sounds. They are the ideas of sounds. "t", for example, is the idea of a sound, because depending on where it appears in a word, it can sound quite different, but English speakers still interpret it as "t."

I'll give you an example from my daughter. Until the age of three, she wasn't able to pronounce complex consonants at the beginning of syllables, like the "st" in "star." Her solution was to say the word without the "s" at the beginning. The problem was that the "t" in "star" is not aspirated, unlike the "t" in the word "tar." So when she said "star," to many people it sounded like "dar," because in English the voiced consonants are never aspirated.

The thing I find fascinating about this is that she had the "t" sound totally right, but because it lacked the context of the preceding "s," adults had problems interpreting it.

A chaos-theory view of language considers phonemes to be attractors. In the mind of a person who has well-established phonemes, like an adult, this is certainly the case. An adult mind will unconsciously regularize all sounds that closely resemble "t" and call them "t," even if they aren't quite. This is what's happening when the adult takes the unaspirated "t" and calls it "d." It's a really excellent skill to have, because it helps us interpret sounds that are degraded by surrounding noise, or over the phone, etc. But it makes it very hard for us to learn sounds that don't already form a part of our existing set.

Children who are still learning words as well as phonemes can interpret things in the most fascinating ways. Take my mom, for example, who as a child heard "Hail Mary full of grace" and thought it was "grapes" because the world "grace" didn't yet make sense to her.

My son loves Star Wars, and loves to recite things. He had a really interesting interpretation of General Grievous' speech, because of Grievous' unusual accent. He did regularize certain words into words he knew, because at five years old he knows a lot of words. For example, he turned "I have been trained in your Jedi arts" into "I have been dreamed in..." But on the other hand, he also has a very good ear for new sounds, and so he doesn't automatically regularize everything. He interpreted Grievous saying "the Outer Rim" as "The Outer Reem" - because that's exactly how Grievous said it.

I think this sort of thing gives writers great opportunities in dealing with people learning alien languages. I sometimes see hand-waving in stories about the misinterpretation of something that an alien or human said, but it would be great to see people actually dig into the nature of said misinterpretation. It also seems to me that this could be a great point of view tool, because it would enable people to show a contrast between the ways that different characters hear and interpret language.

Dig deeper. It will make your story fascinating.