Know Your Vowels

Did you know that the English language has at least 15 vowels? The pure vowels in English, technically known as monophthongs (from the Greek mónos “single” and phthóngos “sound”) are:

/iː/, /ı/, /ε/, /æ/, /ɜ:/, /ə/, /Λ/, /u:/, /ɔ:/, /ɑ:/, /ʊ/, /ɒ/, /a/, /oː/, /e/

These strange-looking symbols which come from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) are more precise than the A, E, I, O and U (and sometimes Y and W) which we use in written English. In fact the five written vowels themselves can be transcribed (in their “long” form) with IPA symbols as:

/eɪ/, /iː/, /aɪ/, /oʊ/, and /ju:/

As can be seen, the letter E is the only real pure vowel (the two dots after the “i” mean that it is long); the others are combinations of multiple sounds. All syllables and words in English- or any other language- are built up of combinations of vowels with consonants and with other vowels. This makes a working knowledge of phonetic symbols a great boon for two categories of people- those who are learning a foreign language and those who are teaching their language to foreigners.

Imagine teaching the word “stood” to a Spanish-only speaker. You are trying to get him to say /stʊd/ but what comes out is /stu:d/- which usually corresponds to the written word “stewed.” The smart ESL teacher will realize that her student is having a problem because the Spanish language only has 5 monophthongs:

/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/

The /ʊ/ – a sound which we use in words like “good”, “should”, and “hook”- is just not part of a Spanish speaker’s repertoire. Likewise, an English-only speaker learning Spanish will find difficulty in pronouncing the Spanish “o”, which we usually read as a diphthong, a combination of two monophthongs. In the United States “o” is generally /oʊ/ while in England it is /əʊ/. We might consider ourselves fortunate if we’re from Minnesota, where “o” is said in the same way as it is in Spanish; the state that is /mɪnɨˈstə/ for most of us is /mɪnɨˈsotə/ for the natives.

The Italian language is phonetically very similar to Spanish; however it has two extra vowels- /ε/ and /ɔ/- which we refer to as “short E” and “short O”. These vowels give the Italian-speaker a significant aid in learning English as they are used in many words, such as bed (/bεd/) and cot (/cɔt/). The Italian-speaker from Naples has an additional advantage, as her dialect contains the vowel /ə/ as well. This vowel, also known as the “schwa”, is the most common vowel sound of all in the English language. It is generally used in unstressed syllables, such as in the second syllable of “sofa” /`soʊfə/ or in the definite article “the” whenever it appears before a consonant.

English speakers find that the tables are turned when they are learning a vowel-rich language such as German, which has 17 pure vowel sounds, including the distinctive /ø/ sound, which appears in such common expressions as dankeschön (thank you very much).

Being aware that the language you are studying has not only different grammar and vocabulary, but a different set of sounds as well can help accelerate the learning process. Foreign language teachers and students are only doing themselves a favor by getting to know the symbols of the IPA.

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The German Language in the U.S.

Although the popular tale that German missed becoming the official language of the United States by one vote is nothing more than an urban legend, the German language has been spoken in America from the earliest colonial days to the present.

The first German colony in the US was Germantown in Pennsylvania, founded in 1683. The first German-language newspaper in America, the Philadelphische Zeitung was published in this state in 1732 by none other than Benjamin Franklin. The operation was short-lived, not even surviving the year, but many small German dailies have been printed in cities across the country; at their peak it was estimated that 800 daily and weekly German-language periodicals existed in the US. This included the still-existing New York Staats-Zeitung, which in 1886 had over 60,000 readers, more than the 40,000 of the New York Times, and the Westliche Post, a German-language newspaper of St. Louis which employed the Austro-Hungarian Joseph Pulitzer, the namesake of the prestigious journalism award.

Who were the readers of these newspapers? In 1790 as many as 100,000 Germans had immigrated to the US, making up 8.6% of the country’s population and 33% of the population of Pennsylvania. Over the years the Deutsch spoken in this state evolved into a dialect known as Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, or Pennsylvania Dutch, just one of many varieties of German which developed in our country. Professor Mark Louden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (a fluent speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch) shows that there are distinct dialects of German spoken (or historically spoken) in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin, and Kansas, and also provides many recorded interviews in “Dutch” with native speakers.

Unfortunately the past century has witnessed the demise of American German dialects- except among the Old Order Amish and Mennonites. Professors B. Richard Page of The Pennsylvania State University and Joshua Brown of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire discuss how the difference in how they view their mother tongue dictates the respective survival and decline of German for sectarian (read: Amish) and non-sectarian (non-Amish) speakers. Bilingual non-sectarians are generally not ambilingual, meaning that they reserve the use of the minority language, Pennsylvania German (PG), for certain situations- usually profanity or to express anger or humor. Its domain of use keeps it far from children and thus prevents it from being learned by them and passed on to successive generations.

On the other hand the Old Order Amish and Mennonites view Pennsylvania German as an important marker of their identity and so maintain it for in-group communication. Amish children grow up speaking PG as a first language and only learn English upon entering school. At this age English takes on an important role- it is the language of instruction at Amish schools and is also the language in which all written communication takes place. The Amish also receive formal instruction in the High German spoken in Germany, and so some may even be trilingual. Interestingly enough, Professors Page and Brown also note that the Amish are less likely to have an accent when speaking in English than are their non-sectarian brethren.

The Amish are now the only custodians of the American German which once so richly flourished in these United States to the point of becoming a language on its own right, distinct from its mother European tongue. The secret to their success are not their horses and buggies but the fact that they view their language as an important part of their heritage, not as a scar or a defect. This kind of attitude might allow German to be cultivated once again among German-American communities in our modern towns and cities. The story that German nearly became the official language of the US may be nothing more than an urban legend but nonetheless, there is no official language in our country. Professor Louden’s audio collection of German interviews are a beautiful sample of simple stories of American life in this century, and they remind us that being American can be expressed in a language other than English.