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Idiosyncratic Pronunciations: Tone-Deafness?

The radio interview with President Barack Obama broadcast today on the BBC World Service showed yet again that as a speaker of contemporary American English Mr. Obama has certain idiosyncrasies. For instance, when speaking of the Taliban (ṭālibān, meaning ‘students’ in Arabic), his pronunciation deviates from that of the overwhelming majority of speakers in having the sound [i:] after the [l] preceding the unstressed medial vowel, making it sound like the second vowel of tally rather than that of tulip. This unwonted pronunciation can occasionally be heard from certain American generals when interviewed by the media as well.

The source and impulse behind this idiosyncrasy is clearly speech, mostly by non-natives, that is perceived by some speakers of American English to be “authentic,” namely the pronunciation of the word in Arabic, where the [l] is unvelarized and fronted, creating the impression that in order to reproduce it in English “authentically” one needs to render it like the second vowel of tally. Needless to say, neither Mr. Obama nor the American generals whom he may have heard this pronunciation from in the first place are known to have any authentic knowledge of Arabic phonetics.

In Mr. Obama’s speech this attempt at phonetic verisimilitude in the pronunciation of a foreign item is of a piece with another of his speech traits (already detailed in an earlier post), namely rendering the word Pakistan with the first and last vowels mimicking Pakistani English [a:], as in father, instead of general American English [æ], as in cat.

It’s an interesting question, pertaining to the cultural determinants of language use, exactly why certain speakers persist in deviating idiosyncratically from the overwhelming evidence of the norm that they are exposed to. In the case of foreign borrowings, contrarian adherence to what they perceive to be “authentic” seems to be the answer. Perhaps they feel (at some undeterminable psychological level––quién sabe?) that this phonetic proclivity makes them seem more knowledgeable about the subject of the discourse in which their speech is embedded.


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