Pronunciation Stereotypes and the Uncrackable IPA Code

Note: I wrote this in 2013. It seems too irreverent in places when I look back, and not quite in the way that I’d like, but maybe it’s kind of amusing anyway?

Disclaimer: just because a significant number of people in group A (esp. of a certain race/ethnicity) also have quality B does not mean that (i) all or most people of group A have quality B or (ii) people of group A who do not have quality B are in any way strange or inferior.

In other words, stereotypes are stupid; don’t apply them to real people.

The stereotypical “Asian” (a person from “Asia”, a mythical faraway continent consisting of two countries, China and Japan) is too hard-working, gets disowned for any grade below an A, has infinitesimally thin eyeslits, and pronounces L’s and R’s identically.

Animation: A door labeled Supplies opens to reveal four Asians in martial arts robes with stereotypical insignias mouthing the words 'Surprise!
jumps at opportunity to find and use .gif seen on Reddit without understanding any context

The internet says the L/R thing is mostly due to Japanese having only a single sound somewhere in between those two. Wikipedia has a page on Japanese phonology which seems to support this. Still, Wikipedia articles on phonology all consist of giving every sound a long incomprehensible name, such as the “apical postalveolar flap undefined for laterality” for the Japanese sound discussed above, and I’m not Japanese, so don’t take my word for it.

Mandarin Chinese (blatantly ignoring the myriad dialect variations) has a perfect L sound (ㄌ) and an R sound (ㄖ) that is only a little different. Of course, there are people who still pronounce them identically, but it’s not common — generally, the language teaches L’s and R’s well. Right?

It turns out the IPA says it can range from the retroflex approximant (ɻ) to the voiced retroflex sibilant (ʐ). In a draft of this post I wrote down the alveolar approximant (ɹ), but I can’t find where I got that from and I can barely distinguish it from the retroflex approximant anyway. What is with phonetics?

“ʐ” is pronounced like the “s” of “pleasure”, a sort of soft “j”? I’ve gone through so many pages and everybody keeps saying they learned Chinese like that, and it’s even “more official” than the other one, but I have never heard any hint of it before. Even the people who consistently mispronounce go the other way.

My life is a lie.

I still think the range covers the English R. Or they overlap partially, or something. Wikipedia isn’t very helpful…

Depending on dialect, /r/ has at least the following allophones in varieties of English around the world:

  1. alveolar approximant [ɹ]
  2. postalveolar or retroflex approximant [ɻ]
  3. labiodental approximant [ʋ]
  4. alveolar tap [ɾ]
  5. post-alveolar flap [ɽ]
  6. alveolar trill [r]

In the traditional Tyneside accent in the North of England, /r/ was pronounced as a voiced uvular fricative [ʁ], but this is probably now extinct. In some rhotic accents, such as General American, /r/ when not followed by a vowel is realized as an r-coloring of the preceding vowel or its coda. For many speakers, /r/ is somewhat labialized, as in reed [ɹʷiːd] and tree [tʰɹ̥ʷiː]. In the latter case, the [t] may be slightly labialized as well.

…which should surprise nobody.

Something else bugs me, though: the transcription of English names and some other proper nouns into Chinese. Wikipedia has a transcription table from the semi-official reference guide; the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds share half their characters, and all of those characters, shared or unshared, start with the L sound.

Why? I know Chinese “R” doesn’t combine as flexibly with vowels as “L” (ex. /ri/ in Pinyin is a syllable but the “i” is a fake and it sounds more like just /rrr/, while /li/ is very accurate), but that can’t account for the entire column being this way. /rei/ and /re/ and /ru/ are all really reasonable, readily recognizable renditions of the original oratory rudiment.

Experimenting on Wikipedia comes up with a lot of reliably consistent transliterations. I admit, using /ri/ would botch the vowel and confuse things even more for a lot of those, but there are quite a few that I can’t justify that way: “Ray” - “雷” /lei2/, “Robert” - “羅伯特” /luo2 bo2 te4/, “Russell” - “羅素” /luo2 su4/. And so on.

There definitely are hardy souls out there who still transliterate with the “pinyin R”, so I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about the relative similarity of these sounds — there are even occasional hybrid transliterations, such as Gregory as “格瑞利” /ge2 rui4 li4/, which contains two English R sounds handled differently.

The only name for which the most common translation seemed to be a counterexample that I found was “Rachel” - “瑞秋” /rei4 qiu1/, and even then there were two or three other not-so-rare variants.

Is this part of the problem? I don’t know. I do have to say that the problem is a lot bigger for pronouncing certain other sounds — “th”, for instance. And people are very conscious of this, or even instinctively avoiding it — whenever an English letter is juxtaposed with a number, every not-fully-native-English-speaker I’ve met here will read the number in English if and only if the number is not three. This happens particularly a lot in math (duh), because subscripted variables like \(a_1, a_2, a_3\) are everywhere.

Back to the transcription table — in this column, θ is mashed up with s and ð as input, and the output combines s and ʂ (pinyin sh) and ɕ (pinyin x). I’m not going to link to all the Wikipedia pages for the sounds, but the confusion in this column is clearly much worse than the Ls and Rs.

(Semi-aside: Sometimes, even more inexplicable things happen in transliteration. Did you know that in our Chinese dub, Perry the Platypus’s name is “泰瑞” - /tai4 rei4/ - “Terry”? And I couldn’t be more certain that our language has a P sound in it. Right?

Well, to answer that question you more or less have to first answer these:

  1. What’s the difference between a voiceless bilabial stop and a voiced bilabial stop?
  2. What’s the difference between an aspirated voiceless bilabial stop and a non-aspirated voiceless bilabial stop?
  3. Which one of these do I pronounce “Perry” with?
  4. Where is Simple English Wikipedia when you most need it?

So I’m not even going to try.)

Okay, I guess people probably don’t consult transliteration tables to learn other languages. The question I have now is more like why stereotypes related to “th” don’t appear more often. Maybe there aren’t as many funny jokes to be made out of it? Or maybe they already reserved it for the Germans?

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