Tuesday, July 5, 2011

[ˈjaɭə kai̯ manˈtətʰ]?

My notebook was covered in red ink.

“So, does this make sense?” I began to read my transcription.

 “No, no.” Satyam laughed. “What did you write down? It is patʰs wasta.”

I wrinkled my nose, “Of course!” And another red mark dashed across the page.

Here you see Satyam and Zak hard at work.
We’re in my lab for Field Methods, where Satyam, and I are working on transcribing and translating a story from Marathi, a language from India. Field Methods is a very accelerated class in which my partner Zak and I get practice in applying everything we’ve learned from our previous studies in order to figure out the grammar, sound system, and wonderful peculiarities of a language we’ve never encountered before. We work closely with Satyam, a graduate student of UND, who speaks Marathi fluently and is exceedingly patient in helping us understand the intricacies of his language.

One of the tools Zak and I use is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which has a different symbol for every sound in the world. When I hear a word or phrase, such as in the title of this post (which means, “what is that called?”), my training allows me to listen closely and transcribe it precisely, such that another linguist could read it and pronounce all the details without knowing Marathi. In fact, I have downloaded a special keyboard so that I can type it accurately. The IPA is invaluable in both language-learning and the beginnings of orthography creation (the writing system). We even use it in our English dictionaries to indicate proper pronunciation.

The catch is, accurate transcription takes practice, and since my brain and ears are accustomed to filtering sounds for English, hearing all the sounds in Marathi (which is quite different) is a challenge. Speaking, as you can imagine, is even harder.

In fact, I sound rather like Bambi.

You know the scene—Thumper is doing his best to help Bambi pronounce his voiced alveolar stop (otherwise known as a [d]) and poor Bambi just can’t spit it out. Eventually all the sparrows join in and everyone is enthusiastically cheering Bambi on and waiting for that moment of triumph…

Well, Satyam is often put in the same position as Thumper as I struggle to pronounce and hear different sounds that are not found in English. He leans forward, studying me closely. “No,” he shakes his head, “that’s a different word. You need to sound like this.”

I watch his mouth and try to curl my tongue into the shape to produce the sounds correctly. “Better." Satyam was grinning. "But not quite right…”

I think I might need to purchase another red pen.

(If you're curious, you can see the official IPA chart HERE)