at least 10% Discocunt (biascut) wrote in linguaphiles,
at least 10% Discocunt

Ob[ɑː]ma or Ob[æ]ma?

I grew up in the Midlands, with a father from London and a mother from Grimsby, and my mum and us kids regularly fought with my dad over the trap/bath split (although neither of them are linguists so we didn't call it that - we just called it long A vs. short A, or "Stop sounding so posh, Dad.") Trap and bath are the same vowel sound for me, but I am very aware of the trap/bath split and I nearly always notice when someone has it.

What I find really odd is that it doesn't seem to be part of the BBC's "foreign names and places must be correctly pronounced" policy.* Around the time that many people in the British media were sniggering about George W. Bush saying "EYE-raq", English presenters would use [æ] in the second syllable if they were Northern, and [ɑː] if they were Southern, apparently without noticing that these were two completely distinct pronunciations. They've now started doing the same thing with Obama: second syllable is [æ] if you're Northern, [ɑː] if you're Southern.

Obviously people's accents differ, and you're rarely going to be able to reproduce the exact sound of a native speaker of any particular language. When I hear Barack Obama say his own name, the second syllable isn't really either of these - it's a particular American sound that isn't really reproduceable in an English accent, I think.

However, I'm wondering what this phenomenon is. Describing it, I'd say the second syllable of "Iraq" and "Obama" seems to get adopted by English English speakers as "analogous to A-in-bath", and then is reproduced as they would produce the A-in-bath in their native accent. Whereas other sounds will get learned as sounds - as [æ], say - and reproduced more accurately. Once that's happened, there seems to be a degree of "accent-blindness": so you'll get two comedians, one Northern and one Southern, mocking Bush for saying EYE-rack without apparently noticing that they were using two completely different sounds on the second syllable. In their heads, I think, they are using the same pronunciation: [ ɪ ] + A-as-in-bath.

Does anyone have any parallels in other languages or dialects? I'm assuming that there's some process whereby, the way Obama says Obama and Arabic speakers say Iraq aren't part of our native accent, so we nativise it, and then cease to notice variation. Does that sound right, and how does it fit into foreign-language learning in general?

* I'm sure this is more about sounding convincing to British people than sounding convincing to anyone who speaks the language in question. I definitely remember "Slobodan Milosevich" changing emphasis sometime in the mid-nineties, and Pinochet seemed to have two possible pronunciations, as well.

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