A mor moddest proposal

What if we cood put into place a spelling reform that concerned itself oenly, or mainly, with reading, aiming at a French-style transparency where the langwej wood stil be difficult to spel, but easy to read?

Inittially, the usual suspects wood come under atack: silent letters. Debt, biscuit, salmon, knife wood become det, biskit, sammon, nife, and so on. Sum restraint wood be exercised: light wood remain as is, as wood come; the first because of so menny wurds folloeing that same pattern, the seccond to avoid the uther implications of a cum spelling. Knight, acordingly, wood become night. Uther certan glaring exeptions to the regularity of the system cood also remain, like of, is, etc*. Final E wood be remooved unless it shows the previos vowel is long or it is part of an -SE ending indicating that S is a part of the wurd and not a plural morpheme; or to indicate a previos sylabbic consonant, like in double -> duble.

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Teaching Spanish pronunciation: pronouncing D

Ask a native English speaker from America to pronounce todas las noches and they will likely say

tʰoɾaz laz notʃes

While a native speaker from Lima, Peru, would instead say

toðaz laz notʃes

And I, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, would say

toðah lah notʃes.

Assuming the speaker gets all the vowel sounds right or close enough, and leaving aside the aspiration on the t, what sticks out like a sore thumb is the pronunciation of the D as ɾ (that is, like a Spanish ere, i.e. an R, specifically the R in hora) instead of as ð (that is, like a Spanish intervocalic de, i.e. a D).

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Three basic patterns

I have taught English to Spanish speakers and Spanish to English speakers. Because of this, I am quite familiar with common pronunciation problems these learners come across, as well as lexical difficulties. Today, though, I’m going to concentrate on one aspect of Spanish and English syntax that trips learners up, comes up very early in the learning procress, and I consider absolutely basic if you want to get closer to mastering either of these languages.

Let’s start with English. In English, there is a very important syntactic difference between declarative sentences, negative sentences, and yes/no questions. Some examples:

He speaks English
She does not speak English
Do they speak English?
I am Argentinian
She is not American
Are they American?

A declarative sentence in English must contain an overt subject (either mentioned outright or expressed with a pronoun), followed by a verb, and optionally followed by an object if the verb requires it. In some cases, the subject pronoun is dropped, but these cases are, compared to the amount of subject pronoun dropping in Spanish, few and far between.

Spanish speakers have to learn right away not to drop the subject pronoun, and to use subject it (as in it is big), and to use “dummy” subject it (as in it’s raining), and to pay attention so as not to mix up he and she. There is no subject it in Spanish, and consequently no dummy subject it, and since the subject pronoun is so often dropped, it is inserted as a sort of afterthought when speaking English, therefore creating many mixups of he and she, despite the fact that they correspond to Spanish el and ella.

An English negative sentence, on the other hand, must contain not and the auxiliary verb do (conjugated for person in the present, having the alternative form does for the third person singular, i.e. he/she/it), which in turn, as is the case when using auxiliary verbs, means that the main verb will not be conjugated. This is unless the main verb in the sentence is be. In that case, there is no auxiliary verb. So the negative equivalents to declarative he speaks English and I am Argentinian are he does not speak English and I am not Argentinian.

Spanish speakers have to learn first the difference between no and not in English, which does not exist in Spanish, and then how to use the do auxiliary, and then the different word order.

An English yes/no question will have the do auxiliary like in negative sentences, unless the main verb is be; and will have a very different word order from a declarative or a negative sentence. So the yes/no question versions of he speaks English and I am Argentinian are does he speak English? and am I Argentinian?

Because Spanish forms yes/no questions in a much simpler way (see below), Spanish speakers typically have a hard time getting used to using the English yes/no question word order.

These are what I call the “three basic patterns” of English syntax. If a learner does not master them, they will have a hard time getting to anything resembling nativelike syntax.

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“Leísmo” and “laísmo”: a basic introduction

I don’t often get to speak to non-native speakers of Spanish that learned the language in Spain (hi Daniel). The other day, I was speaking to a woman who learned Spanish in her teens while living for nine months in Zaragoza. In the middle of our conversation she said:

Tienes que decirla de casarte con ella ahí

Initially I thought it to be a non-native speaker mistake, since I would say decirle in that context. Moments later, though, I realized it was not a mistake, but an example of what some linguists call laísmo. This post will try to explain how it works, along with the phenomenon called leísmo.

First, let’s do a quick introduction of the pronoun system of Spanish by way of comparing it with the pronoun system of English.

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I saw(r) a thousand points of light

If you like The Golden Girls, you are familiar with Sophia Petrillo (if you don’t like the Golden Girls, well, don’t get me started). She is a Sicilian-American who lived in Brooklyn for most of her life, and has what we could call a “typical New York accent” – at least for someone of her generation. There are many interesting features in this New York accent, but today I’m going to focus on its “non-rhoticity”, a technical term for “r-lessness” or “r-dropping”, meaning that the R sound is dropped at the end of a syllable. In this clip, you can hear this feature in Sophia’s pronunciation of spectacular, gentler, Barbara, George and where, starting at the 1:47 minute mark.

To go into specifics, Sophia drops her syllable-final Rs when another consonant follows (Barbara, George, where was) and when a pause follows (spectacular, forever).

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