Language sonority and phonetics revisited

2021-10-25 @Languages

I return to this linguistic issue time and time again. And now seems like an opportune moment. (Either that, or I’m over-caffeinated and, worse yet, bored.)

First off, I struggle to define one language in which I’m universally superior. You see, aptitude can spawn a range of dimensions:

  1. Colloquial speech
  2. Higher language speech
  3. Pronunciation and phonetics
  4. Reading
  5. Writing
  6. Listening

A number of these components tend to bear strong correlation to the others. They aren’t independent: developing one, you develop the other. For that reason, many, if not most speakers prevail in one language universally. Dimensional analytics doesn’t enter the thought process.

How does this transpire in practice?

In my case, the Spanish language accompanies me for half my life to varying extent.

(Miles Davis' Filles de Kalimanjaro is thrashing in my headphones at the moment. Pure ecstasy of fusion … which really allures me to write a dismal Jazz review. But even there, my ability to articulate doesn’t measure to the ability to judge and perceive.)

And yet, all the above dimensions considered, the accursed phonetics/pronunciation has always been a relative weakness. However simple the soft-consonant, limited phoneme structure might otherwise appear, I drain more energy in the pronunciation than I do with any other language I’ve ever mastered or worked on (none of which share the said properties).

It likewise doesn’t help that Spanish isn’t among my favourite of languages musically, however strong of a case Jorge Luis Borges makes in favour of. Maybe at some point I’d reconciled the image of me properly articulating these sounds, but other languages juxtaposed, it’s no longer the case.

Otherwise, I command a mighty expansive range of the language. I can read complex works that confound many of even the native speakers. Granted, most people don’t read. All street noise and face masks aside, I can listen to Spanish on end … especially the cleaner diction.

Yet come articulating those phonemes, especially the dialogue initiators, and especially the compacter directives, that is, that sensitive, low-entropy moment: either I concentrate as if walking a tight-rope, or I most certainly will repeat myself, and possibly twice. Those feeble consonants and the sparse, yet capricious vowels cause those initiating three-four words to slip and slide. (If that’s not it, I’m likely over-caffeinated and, worse yet, bored.)

But that precarious introductory exchange brushed aside, the remainder of the dialogue gains regular traction and presents little problem. Though I still consume too much energy to articulate.

Borges ascribes a pleasant sonority to Spanish, by far not universal across Latin-derived languages. Maybe I once thought the same. And I agree on the second point.

As it stands, I heavily prefer pronouncing Portuguese, and have taken quiet a liking to the Italian phonetics, compared to my previously indifferent demeanor. And this latter probably relates to my involvement with Classic Latin, which I’ve been loosely engaged in for the past several months. This, in turn, might owe to my increased curiosity for the Italian/Latin poetry, even though the Spanish I’m clearly more capable of experiencing and (consequently) appreciating. I think Dante’s Divine Comedy along with other Latin-influenced readings notably impacted my overall outlook.

For the record, all languages considered, Polish still makes my favourite language to hear and pronounce. And though it be the language of my slimmest vocabulary range, at least I haven’t often needed to repeat myself or waste needless energy … until I run out of words, at which point my speech fades out like a perpetual refrain.

Nothing compares musically to quality Polish: not the profane, street tongue, but the higher caliber material - music to my ears, anyway, surpassing Portuguese, Italian, Japanese or German (for particular kinds of music - here Borges and I do align).

But there’s no musicality I derive in the Spanish language any more, even if I once have. However, when it comes to reading prose, even poetic prose, among the Romance languages, with Borges, Cortázar, Allende and the whole the 20th century boom in the mix, Spanish is still my strength and preference.

Do any of you stop to ponder these different aspects to a language: the literature, the poetry, the sonority, the mechanics, the plain colloquialism? Or is it all the same, pragmatic purpose foremost?

Questions, comments? Connect.