Friday, May 30, 2008

“Let them sa-si, if they can speak no better.”

Today’s post is about allophones, speech impediments, and onomatopoeia — with a little Tolkien thrown in for good measure. (What isn’t improved by the addition of a little Tolkien? ;)

Browsing Omniglot today, I came across a great WOTD: the Czech verb šišlat, which means something like “to lisp”. More specifically, it refers to the substitution of /∫/ for /s/ (whereas, lisping in English is the substitution of /θ/ for /s/). The word is marvelously onomatopoeic, isn’t it? It’s lovely how the word includes the very sound in question, isn’t it? Just as the English lisp contains the very sibilant a lisper can’t pronounce. Wait, did I say that’s lovely? I think I meant rather that it’s a bit of a cruel joke on lispers. ;)

While the Czech refers to a speech impediment, Spanish speakers are aware of a deliberate regional variation in the pronunciation of the sibilant sound. Speakers in parts of Spain and Argentina recognize a distinción between /s / and /θ/, meaning that casa and caza are not homophones. The so-called Castilian lisp. In Mexico and most of the rest of Latin America, by contrast, these are allophones. Where pronounced like /θ/, the term used is ceceo; where /s/, seseo. Those terms, once again, exhibit an apt onomatopoeia. Have I lost you? Perhaps it’s me; try Wikipedia for a more detailed explanation.

The Czech word šišlat also reminds me of the story of the shibboleth. In the Bible, there is a passage in the Book of Judges where the pronunciation of the Hebrew word שיבולת (”shibboleth”) proved quite significant. There, the same distinction between /s/ and /∫/ identified members of rival tribal groups. For anyone who couldn’t pronounce the shin (ש) properly, the price was death. Once again — are you hearing an echo? — the word shibboleth contains the sound in question, though in this case, it’s not inventive onomatopoeia, but rather an existing word with an identifying pronunciation which gave the speech pattern its name.

J.R.R. Tolkien — I promised I’d be coming round to him eventually! — adopted this terminology to describe a similar phonological distinction in his Elvish language, Quenya. In the late essay, “The Shibboleth of Fëanor” (circa 1968, published in The Peoples of Middle-earth), Tolkien discusses the change from Quenya /θ/ to /s/ — though Tolkien uses the letter Þ in place of θ in the essay. As in the Biblical story, the Quenya pronunciation became a matter of political struggle. Tolkien writes that:
Into the strife and confusion of loyalties in that time this seemingly trivial matter, the change of Þ to s, was caught up to its embitterment, and to lasting detriment to the Quenya tongue. Had peace been maintained there can be no doubt that the advice of Fëanor, with which all the other loremasters privately or openly agreed, would have prevailed. But an opinion in which he was certainly right was rejected because of the follies and evil deeds into which he was later led. He made it a personal matter: he and his sons adhered to Þ, and they demanded that all those who were sincere in their support should do the same. Therefore those who resented his arrogance, and still more those whose support later turned to hatred, rejected his shibboleth.
A fascinating and diverse collection of words for describing the pronunciation, or mispronunciation, of sibilant sounds, eh?

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