March 21, 2015
This may seem heretical for a phonetician, but I’ve often thought that it is possible to learn a foreign language too well. When I was a post-graduate student, there was another person around whose first language was not English, but who spoke it as if he’d been at a public school. It was very difficult to like him, until you forced yourself to remember that he was, after all, a foreign learner of the language. His pronunciation was perfect, but other aspects of his behaviour were totally non-British, such as his gestures, and these made him appear arrogant, although he wasn’t. A slight foreign accent – or even a strong one – can fool a native speaker into thinking your control of their language is better than it actually is!
I was reminded of this last week when I watched a TV documentary about Goering. The name of the voiceover artist didn’t appear until the credits rolled at the end of the film, so I spent the whole hour wondering how anybody could think that coup was pronounced /kuːp/. Early on in the film he had said /ˈpentʃənt/ for penchant, and I’d thought, well, maybe there are people who’ve only seen it written, and so treat it like pendant, but then he went on to pronounce anti-semitism as /æntiˈsiːmaɪtɪsm/, and finally indictment as /ɪnˈdɪktmənt/, by which time I was beginning to suspect he was using English as an additional language – if not, then he was a very ill-educated Brit. His name came up at the end as Martin Heckmann. He has his own website and his accent, right enough, is impeccable, but if he is going to work as an English voiceover, he needs to make sure that he knows how to pronounce every individual word. If he had had a slight German accent, I should have had no problem with these pronunciations – two of the words are borrowed from French, one is an exceptional spelling, even in English, and the fourth, taking off the ending, could, at a pinch, be pronounced as he said it, but as it was, he simply gave the wrong impression of his ability.
In case anyone reading this is in any doubt, the usual pronunciation of these words is /kuː/, /ˈpɑ̃ʃɑ̃/, /æntiˈsemɪtɪsm/ and /ɪnˈdaɪtmənt/.