Building blocks: More on pronunciation

by Suw on April 30, 2005

An addendum to my post on learning pronunciation.
Break it down
A good tip for dealing with long, complicated words is to break them down into syllables, and to start at the end of the word rather than the beginning.
Let's say you're trying to learn how to say 'hunangyflogedig', which means 'self-employed' in Welsh. Don't start from the 'hun-', start from the '-dig' and build it up from there:
You can also split it into pieces, particularly where those pieces have meanings. In 'hunangyflogedig', 'hunan-' means 'self', 'cyflog' means 'salary, pay' ('cyflogi' means 'to employ'), and the '-edig' end means that the word is an adjective. So you can use these building blocks to help pronunciation too: hunan cyflog edig – hunangyflogedig.
(Note: The C -> G change in Welsh is called mutation and is a grammatical feature of the language.)
You can also use words from the same root to build up fluency in pronunciation, and increase your vocabulary at the same time. For example, 'llyfr' means 'book' in Welsh, and there are several words that use 'llyfr' as a root:
llyfr – book
llyfryn – booklet
llyfrgell – library
llyfrgellydd – librarian
By learning the simple 'llyfr' and working your way up to 'llyfrgellydd', you give yourself plenty of practice with the same/similar sounds which will increase your confidence as well as improve your pronunciation.
Don't get stressed
Every word is made up of syllables, and these syllables can be stressed or not stressed when pronounced, e.g. the stressed syllable in 'pedestrian' is the second syllable: pedESTrian. Try saying PEDestrian, or pedestriAN and you'll see how awkward they sound.
When you are learning pronunciation, you also need to learn where the stresses are. Compare the English pronunciation of narrator and the French narrateur: In English, we stress the second syllable, narRATor, whereas in French it's on the last syllable, giving us narraTEUR.
In English, the stress moves about quite a bit. For example:
In French, the stress is always on the last syllable:
In Welsh, it's always the syllable from last:
Learning to get the stresses right will help you sound much more like a native speaker and will help your pronunciation too. It may feel uncomfortable to start with, particularly if the stresses are different to those you are used to, but you will get used to it.

Anonymous May 1, 2005 at 3:40 pm

Useful. One of the hardest things about learning a new language is getting the rhythm right – knowing where to put emphasis, where to pause for a beat, etc. This is why it's really really difficult to learn from a book; listening to native speakers is essential, or you'll find yourself running out of breath in odd places as you try to speak longer sentences (or at least, I do. My Mandarin gets way better when I've got a native speaker to listen to).

Anonymous May 1, 2005 at 3:49 pm

And I think being a bit drunks helps too – you pick up the rhythms subconscious because you stop trying so hard.

Anonymous May 1, 2005 at 5:05 pm

the stress on the syllable also falls on the last syllable in german, too, which can be very confusing, as words which have been adapted from English are stressed in a whole different way.

Anonymous May 2, 2005 at 6:38 am

I think you may have hit upon a brilliant new model for language schools…

Anonymous May 2, 2005 at 6:40 am

Ooh good idea!
The Vodka Language School
Learn Welsh and get munted at the same time!

Anonymous May 2, 2005 at 7:30 am

“Munted”? Doesn't seem to be in my dictionary, that… 🙂

Anonymous May 2, 2005 at 7:33 am

That'd be a 'Shaun of the Dead' special. Although not sure where they got it from. You never can tell with all these new fangled colloquialisms.

Anonymous May 2, 2005 at 7:43 am

Oddly, that hasn't been released here in Singapore 😉 I expect I'll be able to find it on a pirate 100% legitimate DVD when I go to Beijing though… After all the hype you gave it, I have high expectations!

Anonymous May 2, 2005 at 7:49 am

Oh yes!! You simply must see it! It's a fabulous film. Not that I'm biased or anything. Oh no. Honest. *cough*

Anonymous May 2, 2005 at 7:56 am

Ysgol Fodcafelin
Ysgol Myntaman
Ysgol Myntglais
Ysgol Iolo Morfodca

Anonymous May 3, 2005 at 12:37 pm

Love the language posts; keep 'em coming.
Of course if you started a “lubricated language school” you would have to cope with the inevitable phenomenon of … wait for it … consonant muntation.
In American English we stress “narrator” on the first syllable instead of the second. I don't know why, or if there is a more general principle at work. But “narRATor” definitely has that sexy Brit sound. Say it again, would you?

Anonymous May 3, 2005 at 12:38 pm

Oops, that was me, ACW. (Though maybe I should have left the bad pun unattributed.)

Anonymous November 26, 2006 at 10:40 pm

I'm obvously 18 months too late to comment on this thread, but for the benefit of any future archaeologists who might stumble upon a fossilised hard drive in 100,000 AD can I just point out that one of the most irksome aspects of brits speaking foreign languages is their wilful refusal to hear stress patterns. A good example is the Marcel Carné movie Les Enfants du Paradis which even educated brits insist on pronouncing Les ENfants du PARadis, though anyone without cloth ears will have heard the froggies say 'Les EnFANTS du ParaDIS'.

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