September 2007 Archives

Properly Identifying the Language of Iran


Persian vs. Arabic

Since the helpful incorrectly labeled the language for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "Arabic" instead of "Persian" (or Farsi), I thought I would point out a few resources on Persian.

Persian Profile Pages

Compare this to Arabic

UCLA Arabic Profile

Although I think most of us in the U.S. tend to muddle the two, it actually is an important distinction. Not only are the two languages NOT related, but the cultural traditions are different yet intermingled.

You may be familiar with "Persian" culture from the Greek era when they and the Greeks were at each others throats. At that time, Persia was a major cultural and technology center who gave us several nice innovations including paradise, divans, jasmine and other important necessities of life. One important facet is that the Persians of this era were not Islamic (Mohamed would not be born for about another 1,000 years). Many Persians at this time were Zoroastrians, and this belief system has persisted into the modern era (it's one reason some Iranians left).

Although Persian civilization later embraced Islam for the most part, there is an awareness of a longer pre-Islamic history. Some Iranians view this pre-Islamic past positively, but others are either ambivalent or negative towards it because it is "pagan." It's always interesting to see how different groups of Iranians react to pre-Islamic Persian archaeology and history.

Arabic civilization is its own unique entity, but it did borrow from the Persian civilization, which is why the two are often blended together in Western minds.

"Persian" vs. "Farsi"

Another interesting aspect of the language of Iran is it's English name. When I was college (before this decade), I heard speakers from Iran call their language "Farsi" (although the culture was "Persian." Now there has been a shift to calling it "Persian" again (but not everywhere)

Here's some information on the debate with different perspectives

If you're getting confused, don't worry - even I got thrown by the Farsi/Persian debate.

For now, I am sticking with Persian, but am prepared switch on a dime. One benefit of the term "Persian" is that people do have a better concept of "Persian culture" than of "Farsi culture" - now you have to make sure we can distinguish "Persian culture" from "Arabic culture".

Pronouncing Ahmadinejad and Foreign Leader Names


This is a complicated post, so bear with me. The recent visit from the President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought up a number of issues, two of them linguistic.

1) For the past several months, most reporters have been pronouncing his last name with a short i on the third -din- syllable (i.e as /amadɪnɨǰad/) But I noticed that by Monday, a few people had changed that syllable to it's original Persian /i/ ("ee") to something like /amadinɨǰad/.

The interesting thing was HOW that Persian /i/ was enunciated.

One Middle Eastern expert pronounced it as if 1) she knew something about Persian and 2) Persian was a language we should know about.

But one news anchor added what can only be described as a semi-ironic sneer. His pronunciation said to me "Yes I can pronounce Persian, but still I think he's a jackass."

I must say that the case of President Ahmadinejad is an instance where I actually agree with BOTH points of view.

2) And my second point is that no matter what I think of the Iranian President, I am honor bound as a linguist to learn the correct pronunciation of his name. The best source I can find has it as /axmadineʒad/

Too bad the source identified it with the WRONG language. Unless things have really changed in Iran, they are still speaking Persian (aka Farsi) and not Arabic.

Ironically, Persian is distantly related to English...which could be handy someday in the future. Arabic, on the other hand is Semitic and related to Hebrew (not that that seems to be helping anyone in the peace process).

Why the /i/ in Yuengling?


One of our in-state beers of Pennsylvania is the much beloved Yuengling, which despite the spelling with the "u" is pronounced /jɪŋlɪŋ/ or "ying-ling." Obviously the exotic "ue" spelling is a clue that Yuengling did not start out as a native word.

Sure enough, if you head over to the Yuengling brewery site, you will find the explanation that it's orignally German for "young man", now spelled as Jüngling 'youth or youngling'. In the semi-nativized spelling, the "ue" represents the sound /ü/ (or IPA /y/) which is a front-round vowel also found in French. To pronounce /ü/, say /i/ (or "ee") and round your lips. It should sound a little different from the back rounded vowel /u/.

The next obvious step is that English speakers "fixed" the exotic /ü/ to a sound found in English, namely /i/. The odd thing is that normally, /ü/ is changed to /u/, not /i/. For instance the French expression déjà vu [deʒa vü] is normally pronounced as [deʒa vu] in English not [deʒa vi] (i.e. not "deja vee").

So why not [juŋlɪŋ] for Yuengling? I'm speculating here, but I think the reason is the [ŋ] "ng" in the first syllable. English does not generally allow [u] or [ʊ] before [ŋ]. That is, you won't find many "oong" [uŋ] words while "ing", "ang" and "ong" words are much more common.

The only "oong" word I found in the Oxford English Dictionary was the Australian slang word boong (borrowed from a local aboriginal language). The only other one I know is Star Trek warlord Khan Noonian Soong, but that is meant to be an "Asian name" (and it does exist in Chinese as in Soong Mei Ling, Madam Chang Kai-Shek). Therefore I think it is valid to conclude that English did not favor [uŋ] clusters.

FYI - There are "ung" words, but they are actually pronounced [ʌŋ].

When the pronunciation of Yuengling was being nativized a few centuries ago, I think the normal change of [ü] to [u] was rejected because you would have gotten another disfavored cluster [uŋ], so the only alternate left was to change [ü] to [i].

Interestingly, we do not have names like Carl Jung [juŋ]. It would be interesting to see what would happen to Jüngling today, but in the meantime, the pronunciation of Yuengling has become fixed as "ying ling"...and there's no going back in this case.

The Addams Family Breaks a Vowel


Most phonologists working with the English language have to explain that many vowels in English (specifically /i,e,o,u/ aka "long e, long a, long o, long u") are actually pronounced as diphthongs in an U.S. English accent (actually all English accents, but details vary a lot).

For instance, the Spanish word "Rico" which is pronounced as [riko] in Spanish will come out something like [ɾijkow] in U.S. accented English or even [ɾijkəw]/[ɾijkew] in Baltimore. This is when a language teacher might try to get Anglo students to "use pure vowels" instead of our diphthongs.

The problem is that English speakers do this diphthong trick unconsciously and often have a hard time hearing the difference, unless they've got a good ear or had LING 100.

BUT... the theme song from the classic TV show The Addams Family actually takes advantage of this quirky to produce this interesting rhyme in the second verse

Their house is a museum
Where people come to see 'em
They really are a scre-am (scre'um)
The Addams Family.

The song writer did notice the hidden diphthong in scream [skriijm], then managed to stretch it out even further to [skriəm] in order to make a rhyme with museum and see'um. An awful pun, but one that's very informative.

A Song of High School French


There's nothing more frustrating than having taken a significant number of credit hours for a language and then having no clue as to what is being said in a simple pop tune.

Fortunately, the New Zealand duo "Flight of the Conchords" has made a song Foux De Fa Fathat even someone with minimal high school French can still enjoy ( You can do just about everything with this level of French except order a croissant.

Confusing /d/and /r/


Most intro phonology classes discuss the fact that English /t,d/ are often flapped as the sound [ɾ] (often transcribed as [D]) which is actually the same as Spanish single "r" [ɾ].

For instance
atom /ætəm/ = [æɾəm]
Nevada /nevadə/ = [nevaɾə]

pero 'but' = [peɾo]
manera 'manner' = [maneɾa]

In theory, an English speaker could confuse Spanish "r" and "d", but in practice English speakers seem to be able to distinguish "d" and "r" (even the Spanish ones) except in some very rare cases.

The one time I experienced a "d/r" confusion from the TV show Roswell which featured a character named Nasedo But for years, I thought his name was Nasero.

I think this word was confusing because it fit the structure of both English and Spanish, and I probably know enough Spanish to think it was an /r/ (the story did take place in New Mexico). In most other cases (e.g. atom, there are other cues (such as the first vowel) to indicate it is English and not Spanish, so an English speaker interprets [ɾ] as either /t,d/.

I also suspect that there could be additional acoustic cues to help Americans distinguish English flap /t,d/ from Spanish flap /r/ ... but maybe I'm just seeing spelled out words too.