Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Often, the sort of things you study in Linguistics can seem really theoretical and abstract. One of the most notoriously abstract fields in linguistics is Phonology, or the study of the sound systems of a language. However, if you’re looking for it, even the most abstract bits of phonological theory can pop up in everyday life, and sometimes, with a vastly humorous result.

Phonology rules!

Phonology is the study of the rules and systems which govern the use of sounds in a language. Some of these rules in English, for example, tell us that a velar nasal can’t start a word in English, that “in-possible” has become “impossible”, and that the /t/ sound is completely different after an /s/ than it is at the start of a word (it’s unaspirated). All these effects, although cool when studied closely, happen at a subconscious level, and really don’t have much effect on the lives of speakers.

However, Phonology can get really fascinating when a person is speaking a language not their own. Although anybody can memorize words and grammar in a second language, it’s a long process to be able to disregard the phonological rules of your own language and use the ones of the new language.

When a non-native speaker has an “accent”, what’s actually happening is that they’re speaking your language, but using some of the phonological rules from their native tongue. With time (and practice), an accent slowly goes away, but it’s often the last stage of language learning, and is the culmination of years of work.

Let’s look at a specific example. In Russian speech, you can never have more than one long /o/ sound in a word. Even if the word you’re pronouncing is written with several ‘o’ sounds (like молоко, ‘milk’), only the one of them in a stressed position (explained below) will be pronounced, and the rest will be reduced into an /a/ or /ə/ (the sounds in ‘p_o_t’ and ‘sof_a_’). So, молоко is pronounced ‘mahluhkoh’ (/malə’ko:/), never “mohlohkoh” (/mo:lo:’ko:/). For more detailed information on this rule, see the Wikipedia page on Vowel Reduction in Russian

From Car Sales to prostitution

So, we’re sitting in my High School Russian class one day and we’re discussing vocabulary related to buying and selling. Our teacher, a Russian woman who still has a very noticeable Russian accent, is explaining the scenario for the next dialogue she’d like to do in class:

“Alright. So, Nick, I would like you to pretend to come up to me on a car lot. We will talk, and then, I will ask you if you would like to buy my Volva…”

Now, at this point, around half of the class either broke out laughing or was a bit too shocked to say anything at all. It’s worth pointing out that in her speech, the /ʌ/ sound in ‘but’ or ‘putter’ was always expressed with an /o/ sound, so to us, it sounded exactly like she just asked a student to buy her vulva.

At this point, she was looking around the classroom, confused, and trying to figure out what she had said. Some brave soul asked her what exactly she was selling, and she repeated, “I’m selling my volva!”. Another round of snickering coursed through the room.

At this point, she started to get frustrated. “No, it is a car. A volva!”. Slowly, the snickering began to calm, until finally, she went up to the board and wrote out “Volvo”, then pointed at it. “See! Volva!”

A chorus of groans of understanding rang out through the room, and she finally regained her composure. I’m not sure she ever understood what she actually said, but in a way, I think it’s better that way.

Although I didn’t really get it at the time, what my teacher was doing is actually perfectly understandable from a phonological standpoint. She was stressing only one of the O’s that she saw in the spelling, and the other vowel was reduced. Because she usually used a shorter /o/ sound for the /ʌ/ vowel, we understood her as saying “vulva”, not “volvo”.

Thus, directly because of a phonological rule, a normal day of class turned into a celebration of cross-linguistic hilarity. To this day, I can’t look at a Volvo without hearing my teacher saying “Would you like to buy my vulva?”, and it’s my favorite example of phonology gone wrong.

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