Phonology and Me

David A. Mundie

In junior high, I was enamored of Latin. The regularity of its grammar and its sound system enchanted me, to the point where the occasional irregularities in the language tortured me, and I spent time designing a “perfected” Latin.

In high school I was bewitched by my English professor, a serious francophile, who convinced me that French culture and the French language were the best in the world. I studied French and Russian in high school, but as is the norm in the U.S., I learned very little. It was only in collage that I seriously applied myself to learning French.

I don‘t remember the magical process by which I acquired my fluency in French. Of course the university courses were useful, and of course the four years I spent in Bordeaux, Poitiers, and Sfax also played a role, but I‘m convinced that there was one class in particular that had an enormous influence: a French Phonology class that I took in Pau, during my junior year in college. It was in that class that I first encountered the International Phonetic Alphabet, which immediately enthused me, and which continues to be a passion of mine.

Even with French, I have had trouble with dialects. I remember finding the dialect of the Québecois indecipherable, and chagrin at not finding an accesible introduction to its phonology, and of puzzling over the patois of the pieds noirs.

After college I went through a long, depressing list of languages. Some of them are dead, useless languages like Sanskrit and Homeric Greek. Others I studied only superficially, like German, Italian, Arabic, and Bahasa Indonesia.

When I decided about eight years ago that I wanted to achieve fluency in Spanish, I did not doubt the feasibility of such a desire, in spite of my advanced age. I had studied Spanish a bit in Europe and at the University of Virginia while I was working on my A.B.D. in French literature. I remember vividly a night when I stayed up until 2:00 in the morning reading a Spanish novel. “This is great,” I said to myself. “I can read Spanish!” So eight years ago I could already read and write reasonably well, and believed that it would not be difficult to improve my speaking and my oral comprehension.

Eight years later, I realize that I had been much too optimistic. Eight years later, I continue being able to understand every word in the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, but unable to decipher them orally. It‘s a mystery. I have a long list of possible explanations: (a) my age; (b) a small loss of high-frequency hearing; (c) unknown words — I have a pretty large vocabulary, but unknown words can set off chain reactions such that the entire syntagma goes misunderstood; (d) elision, which seems to me almost as widespread in Spanish as in French, although the textbooks don‘t talk about it as much; (e) syllabification, which is very different from English syllabification; (f) the fact that I have never spent more than a week or two at a time in a Spanish-speaking country; and (g) the speed at which Spanish speakers talk.

But now I have a new theory: I think maybe my problem is that I’ve never thoroughly studied Spanish phonology. Phonology is not terribly important for dead languages, nor for languages that are studied superficially, but it is important for fluency in living languages.

And this is especially true for Latin American Spanish, because its dialectology is so complicated. When I first started to study Spanish I was living in Europe, so of course I learned the Spanish of Spain, which is relatively homogeneous. When I decided I wanted to achieve fluency, I was in the U.S., so I decided to switch to South American Spanish. “It‘s easy,” I told myself. “It‘s like European Spanish, except that ‘ll’ is pronounced like a ‘y’ in place of the palatalized ‘l’, and ‘z’ is pronounced like an ‘s’”. That is, of course, a gross oversimplification. It has taken me quite a while to appreciate the exuberant complexity of the dialects in South America."

Now I know that I understand priests because they use faithful allophones, and have trouble understanding street Spanish because its speakers use non-standard allophones. Is it my fault that I can‘t understand absurd allophones such as those in “Pegsi”, “mita”, “otimo”, and “agmitir”? Is it my fault that I can‘t immediately map “eungako” into “es un asco”? “yegoy” into “llegó hoy”?

In August 2011 I began my study of Spanish phonology. I started with the books by Canfield and Resnick, which were almost useless to me because they don‘t use the IPA. (With the help of Face‘s book on the phonetic symbols of Spanish I managed to construct a mapping between their notations and the IPA, but it wasn‘t fun. This mapping is included in the Appendix.) I found Guitart’s Sonido y sentido to be the most useful work; it treats Spanish Phonology in general, but has many paragraphs on regional variations. Lipski’s El Español de America was also very helpful.

Although I have only just started down this path, I would like to believe that I am already better able to decode the street Spanish in the telenovelas I‘m watching. It‘s probably just a placebo effect, but one can always hope.