Segundas impresiones del guaraní paraguayo

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La última vez que escribí sobre el curso de Duolingo de guaraní paraguayo tenía hechas 10 unidades (la primera sección del curso). Ahora ya tengo completadas las primeras tres secciones y ando por la cuarta, que es la mas larga. Las notas explicativas siguen brillando por su ausencia, por lo cual se me ocurrió escribir una segunda parte de mis impresiones. (También es porque el idioma es realmente fascinante y me hace pensar mucho.) En este post va a haber un poco de todo, como en el otro, pero va a haber un poco mas de morfología que la otra vez. Específicamente, voy a hablar mas sobre los verbos.

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Spanish R for non natives

AKA Spanish Rs for non natives

This post is for learners, and is targeted to native English speakers. But hopefully it can also be of use to teachers hoping to explain this to their students, and to speakers of other languages as well.

I’m sure this is gonna ring a bell. You’re learning Spanish. Everybody told you it would be a breeze, what with the cognates (thank William the Conqueror for that), the similar word order (…sort of) and the general openness of the Spanish speaking peoples. Then you met Spanish pronunciation. Maybe the JA-JO-JU-JE/GE-JI/GI thing was a little hard – until you realized that you could do an English H sound and everybody understood, and that’s how Caribbean native speakers (among others) pronounce it anyway. You carried on, and then, oh dear, your Spanish speaking friend told you you had to learn to pronounce your Rs more like they did it, or else it’d be like carrying around a banner with the words SOY EXTRANJERO Y HABLO INGLÉS on it.

So you got it into your head you had to learn to “roll your Rs”, whatever that meant. You watched a bunch of Youtube videos, you asked said friend to help you, you bought a copy of Zen and the Art of Rolling your Damn Rs. People told you to “relax your tongue” (not a bad piece of advice, actually), to “say drdrdr a lot really fast”, and other such arcane formulas. Finally, thanks to, or in spite of, those recommendations, you learned how to do the long rolling motorcycle-like sound otherwise technically known as an alveolar trill.

So there you go! You know how to pronounce a Spanish R! Or do you? You’re still having trouble getting people to know whether you just said “dog” (perro) or “but” (pero), and it’s so confusing maybe you don’t even know for sure which spelling corresponds to which. You don’t know how long your “roll” ought to go on for on any given word. And your friend is still telling you something isn’t working.

This is where you need to stop, take a breather, and actually analyze the situation. Here’s the rub: there are actually two different R sounds in Spanish. Here’s the good news: one of them is going to be relatively easy for you to pronounce right off the bat, especially if you speak American, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand English.

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Vowel reduction in Spanish

Spanish does not have the kind of vowel reduction that many Germanic languages (like English) have, but it does have vowel reduction. The difference is that English has the kind of vowel reduction that neutralizes differences between vowel phonemes, and Spanish has a kind of vowel reduction that still maintains the differences of the five vowel phonemes found in most accents of Spanish.

In other words, the stressed allophones of /a o u e i/ are distinct from each other, and so are their unstressed allophones.

To go into a bit more detail, the fact is the pronunciation of vowels in any language is influenced to some degree by the other sounds adjacent to it (as well as other paralinguistic factors affecting the vocal organs – smiling, for instance, tends to spread the lips). Because of this, when discussing a vowel phoneme, we have to consider the different allophones; we can also think of a vowel as occupying a “vowel space” containing its different allophones. In a language like English, with more vowels and a higher degree of neutralization of vowels in certain environments, the vowel spaces will be smaller and have more overlap. In Spanish, the vowel spaces are bigger, and do not overlap. In other words, in Spanish, vowels allow for more allophonic variation, and are less likely to be misheard as other vowels by native speakers.

First off, some facts about stress in Spanish. In Spanish, stress is mainly indicated by three factors: tone, volume and vowel length. Syllables carrying stress have a higher volume and a higher tone, and vowels in stressed syllables are longer. However, Spanish being a syllable-timed language, the difference in length between a stressed and an unstressed vowel is not quite so pronounced as in English.

Let’s talk about the stressed and unstressed allophones (the Spanish vowel space) in more detail.

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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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A primer of accents of Spanish

1- Pronunciation of /x/

The sound written with J (and G before E and I) can be pronounced a number of different ways depending on accent. In the northern and central part of Spain, this sound is pronounced χ, a voiceless uvular fricative, also found in French in croissant. In Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, central Mexico, it’s pronounced x, a voiceless velar fricative, before /a o u/, and ç, a voiceless palatal fricative, before /e i/. These sounds are also found in German in ach and ich respectively. (You can also find a uvular χ variant in Argentina, especially before back vowels /o u/. Personally, I’m guessing this is either due to the influence of northern-central Spanish immigrants, Arabic speaking immigrants, or both.) In the south of Spain, the Canary Islands, the Caribbean (islands and coasts) and Central America, you find a h pronunciation, a voiceless glottal fricative, like in English hot.

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