Who's Harder to Understand?


A video making the rounds in John Wells' Phonetic Blog is a 1940s educational piece on helping a Sinhala speaker (from Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was called back in those days). The student is trying to get directions to 48 Paddington Street, Edgeware Road, but the newspaper vendor he asks is perpetually confused. Hence the student visits the local phonetician's office (wouldn't you?).

Wells makes some interesting comments on how old-fashioned the phonetics instructor (A. Lloyd James) sounds. It is amazing how even the "standard" has significantly shifted in 50 years. What's interesting to me though is that I actually find the Sri Lankan speaker far easier to understand than the instructor (or the newspaper vendor). Apparently, I've had more exposure to speakers from South Asia than this variety of British English.

I have no explanation for the instructor's advice to "change the rhythm." It's not a recommendation most linguists would make today, certainly not in terms of "Morse code." However, now that Professor James has mentioned it, it is true that there is a longer pause between phonological phrases in English than the Sri Lankan student. I think the professor is trying to point out that in the address "48 Paddington Road, Edgeware Road" there is a pause in English (indicated by the comma) which the Sri Lankan speaker is not always making. I guess that "pause" is supposed to make the difference. To me, the change sounded very miniscule though.

In fact, in the student's second attempt, he only inserts pauses in the address. The rest of his sentence has the same "rhythm" has before!