In a comment on yesterday's "Mele Kalikimaka" post, Eric asked:
When is a foreign sound so alien to a language that it's "disallowed"? When does a linguist–or just a transcriptionist–decide to throw her hands up and say: "these people will never get this"?
I apologize for misleading Eric by using the word "disallowed", which he seems to have taken to mean that some authorities — linguists or "transcriptionists" — have made a conscious decision to ban certain sound-patterns, or at least to stop trying to get people to say them "correctly". And I also need to make it clear that this has no necessary connection to what people can or can't "get".
Each language has its own phonological system, which provides an inventory of basic sound-elements and principles of sound-combination. Like most other aspects of language, this is what Hayek calls a "grown order" rather than a "made order": it develops organically through the communicative interactions of a speech community. No ruler or government agency (or linguist!) decides what it should be.
So what happens when members of one speech community borrow a word from another? As a rule, they map the alien sound-pattern onto (what seems to them to be) the most similar sound-pattern available in their own system. In some cases, if enough borrowings motivate it, they may adapt their sound-system a bit by introducing a new sound or a new pattern of sounds; but this is less common. Even when most speakers are bilingual, there's less adaptation of this kind than you might expect. [In modern times, the factor of spelling also enters into the process; but I'll ignore that aspect of things for now.]
It's easy to see examples of this process in English. One example that's been in the news recently is the name of the embattled quasi-president of Côte d'Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo. The first name is French, and therefore various familiar adaptations are needed to render it in English, which we'll pass over in silence for today. The last name, Gbagbo, is presumably from his native language, which is (said to be) Bété. He was born in the town of Gagnoa, so the variety is presumably what Ethonologue calls Ganoa Bété, which is a language in the Eastern Kru family. (See this Ethnologue language map for more information.)
The Eastern Kru languages generally have only open syllables — vowel, consonant + vowel, or consonant + /r/ + vowel. However, like many languages in Africa and a few languages elsewhere, their inventory of consonants includes doubly-articulated labial-velar stops, generally written in IPA as /k͡p/ or /ɡ͡b/, where the tie over the top of the two consonants indicates that this is a doubly-articulated consonant, not a cluster. For English speakers, one way to think of these sounds is to start from English /kw/ and /gw/, which in generally are also phonetically doubly-articulated labio-velars, in that the lip-rounding for the /w/ starts from the beginning of the /k/ or /g/, and is released synchonously with the velar occlusion. To turn this into /k͡p/ or / ɡ͡b/, just make the labial part a complete closure rather than the partial closure of /w/.
(See William Everett Welmers, African Language Structures, for more information. And note for the record that Eastern Kru languages generally have labialized velar stops /kʷ/ /ɡʷ/ as well.)
It's not very hard to learn to make these doubly-articulated labio-velar stops — but that doesn't mean that English speakers should necessarily do so when pronouncing Dr. Gbagbo's name in English. The second /ɡ͡b/ fits easily into the sound patterns of English, as a syllable-final /g/ followed by a syllable-initial /b/, as Digby or Dogbert. For the first one, though, there are three basic options:
- Insert an epenthetic vowel to break up the apparent "cluster", as in the pronunciation of Ptah here;
- Omit the velar (/g/) part entirely;
- Try to approximate the Kru labiovelar stop.
Among broadcast news, option (3) hardly ever happens — at least I've never heard it — and option (1) is pretty rare. The result, unsurprisingly, is a name that sounds pretty normal in English, as if it were spelled "Bagbo". (Kru languages also generally have a complex system of lexical tone, which we're ignoring completely.)
Here's one set of examples, from NPR's Tell Me More, broadcast on 12/22/2010 ("Political Tensions Continue in Ivory Coast", NPR . Michelle Martin (the program's host), Marco Chown Oved (an Associated Press reporter in Abidjan), and Y.J. Choi (the head of the U.N.'s operations in Côte d'Ivoire).
Note that Ms. Martin starts with a somewhat disfluent attempt at (1), and then goes with (2) the rest of the way. Mr. Oved sticks with (1), and also adapts the first vowels to an American /æ/ rather than Ms. Martin's backer (and thus more stereotypically foreign-sounding) /ɐ/. She accomodates a bit to his pronunciation of the 'a', and then reverts to the educated American "'a' in foreign words" norm.
(I've omitted all but one of Mr. Choi's renditions of Gbagbo, since the case of a speaker of Korean adapting a Kru word to English norms is more complicated…)
Martin: There, incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo lost his bid for reelection […]
Martin: And most of the international community is standing firm against Gbagbo […]
Martin: But Mr. Gbagbo says […]
Oved: If we're not openly supporting Gbagbo we're being portrayed as […]
Martin: Now Gbagbo last night announced that he was ready to meet […]
Oved: ((Mis))ter Gbagbo ((who)) lost […]
Oved: What we're seeing now is Gbagbo's camp […]
Oved: So I think Gbagbo's trying to […]
Choi: But since the declaration made by president Gbagbo yesterday evening […]
Martin: It's our understanding that president uh Gbagbo has told […]
Martin: Mr. Gbagbo seems to be […]
Oved: A virtually unanimous uh international opinion against mister Gbagbo […]
Oved: uh resources of Gbagbo's government […]
Oved: Mister Gbagbo's not receiving any development money […]
Oved: … to cut off all funds to mister Gbagbo and this would literally mean that Gbagbo would not have a treasury.
This kind of adaptation is normal and reasonable, even for people who speak the source language to one extent or another. My favorite personal example of this is a memory of the British phonetician Dennis Fry offering a glass of Dubonnet. Dennis was bilingual in French and English, but he unselfconsciously anglicized French words when he was speaking English, and so in his English, Dubonnet was pronounced as "dew-bunny".
[Dr. Gbago himself speaks many languages: this BBC profile explains that his high-school nickname was "Cicero" due to his fondness for Latin. He also has a doctorate in history from the Université Paris 7 – Denis Diderot, and lived for a decade or so in France. And I would guess that like many other West Africans, he speaks one or more other local languages as well as his mother tongue and the colonial language.]