Languages have always fascinated me. Ever since my older siblings taught me smatterings of French, and my father taught me to count to 10 in Japanese long before I went to school, I’ve loved language.
During my schooling, university studies, and even as an adult I studied more and less of a bunch of languages. There was English, of course, including some linguistics. I have a degree in German and lived in Düsseldorf for a year, then went on to teach the language to adolescents here in New Zealand.
I’ve also studied some French, Latin, Japanese, Spanish and Māori, and tinkered with the odd phrase in Russian and Greek.
I love hearing language and languages, and like to notice things about what I hear. I’ll often silently repeat something I’ve heard — a word or phrase — turning it over in my brain as a wine-lover would savour a fine vintage.
A smiling language?
Olivia Judson wonders in her NYTimes.com blog post, A Language of Smiles whether different languages dispose us to different emotions:
But here’s what interests me. As anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language will know, different languages make you move your face in different ways. For instance, some languages contain many sounds that are forward in the mouth; others take place more in the throat. What’s more, the effects that different languages have on the movements of the face are substantial. Babies can tell the difference among languages based on the speaker’s mouth movements alone. So can computers.
Which made me wonder: do some languages contain an intrinsic bias towards pulling happy faces? In other words, do some languages predispose — in a subtle way — their speakers to be merrier than the speakers of other languages?
Fun with mouth shapes
My university lecturers came from various places. I think it was one of the Austrians who taught us the words to a wonderful children’s nonsense rhyme: Drei Japaneser mit einem Kontrabass.
The point of it is that you repeat the same few lines, but substituting vowels in sequence, as explained in Wikipedia (even if you don’t know German you can see how it works):
The first stanza is sung in correct German:
Drei Chinesen mit dem Kontrabass
saßen auf der Straße und erzählten sich was.
Da kam die Polizei, ei was ist denn das?
Drei Chinesen mit dem Kontrabass.
At least eight stanzas follow, in which all the vowels are consecutively interchanged…
Dra Chanasan mat dam Kantrabass
saßan af dar Straßa and arzahltan sach was.
Da kam da Palaza, a, was ast dann das?
Dra Chanasan mat dam Kantrabass.
The music of speech
I recently watched a TED Talk, Julian Treasure: The 4 ways sound affects us:
Playing sound effects both pleasant and awful, Julian Treasure shows how sound affects us in four significant ways.
As Treasure says, music is enormously powerful, affecting us deeply in many ways, playing on our moods and emotions. Try watching a movie with the sound off, or a TV show with your eyes closed to prove the point.
It stands to reason that a language would have some kind of emotional effect as well, not just because of the facial expressions, but also because of the ‘music’.
Kiwi accent favoured
Recent reports ranked New Zealand English highly acceptable:
According to a BBC survey, the New Zealand accent is one of most charming and prestigious English accents outside of Britain.
New Zealand English came in ahead of Australian, American and most regional British accents in the study published in the international Journal of Sociolinguistics, edited by Auckland University of Technology professor Allan Bell.
Kiwi accent changes
One interesting thing about the Kiwi accent being favoured is how it’s changing these days. Down in Canterbury, where I went to University, they’ve been doing a long term study on the ‘Near-Square’ vowels.
That is, they’re listening to how Kiwis pronounce the ‘e’ and ‘a’ vowel sounds, as in the words ‘near’ and ‘square’, as explained in a recent radio interview:
Jen Hay: changing vowels
Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Canterbury, who will discuss changing and merging vowels in New Zealand English. (duration: 15′28″)
[Via : Radio New Zealand National : Programmes A-Z : Saturday Morning with Kim Hill : 2009 09 12. The full audio is linked from that page. ]
Apparently we older Kiwis hear and say the vowels in those two words as quite separate sounds. Younger Kiwis though, pronounce them the same way and can’t necessarily hear a difference.
Hear a 1 minute snippet from the interview where Jen Hay let’s us hear what’s going on: Jen Hay tells Kim Hill about the ‘near-square’ sounds of young Kiwis. (300Kb, MP3).
For a bit of fun, and to hear some great examples of real Kiwi accents watch the Air New Zealand safety video: Bare essentials of safety from Air New Zealand (it’s a video with a twist). The ‘Ear New Zealand fears’ line mentioned in the Jen Hay interview is right at the end:
That’s language change for you!