Pausal epenthesis in Brussels

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I happened to have the TV going in the background during the press conference where the new Greek bail-out was announced, and it struck me that at an event about Greek sovereign debt, held in Brussels,  Klaus Regling (German), Christine Lagarde (French),  Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourgeois) and Olli Rehn (Finnish) were all speaking English. Nor did I notice any native speakers of English among the reporters who asked questions (in English) afterwards. This is is now completely normal, of course.

But sometimes completely normal things seem temporarily strange, and I had this experience while listening to Olli Rehn's remarks, when it occurred to me that international affairs have become a wonderful opportunity to study non-native pronunciation of English.

Mr. Rehn's English is excellent — he did his undergraduate study at Macalester College in St. Paul MN — but he has a fascinating way of adding an extra neutral vowel at the end of most phrases:

In the past /
two years and /
again /
this night /
I've learned that /
Marathon is /
indeed /
a Greek /
word /
but / in the end / we came to an agreement /
it's a very far reaching and / important / agreement /
and / the commission | welcomes / this / agreement / of / tonight /
which will (/) substantially reduce /
the debt burden of (/) Greece /
and / will help / to reform /
her economy and / administration |

(I've marked the cases of clear final neutral-vowel epenthesis with '/'. A slash in parentheses (/) indicates cases where there seems to be an elongation of the final consonant, without a clear epenthetic vowel; and a vertical stroke '|' indicates a pause without epenthesis.)

It's clear that this is strictly a pausal phenomenon, rather than a general phonotactic constraint on syllable-final or word-final sequences — thus his rendition of "I've learned that" includes the cross-word sequences /v#l/ and /rnd#ð/, which he executes without any epenthesis:

Similarly for the /t#b/ sequence in "debt burden":

From another report, we get this additional sample, which confirms that final nasals and vowels are sometimes left alone:

In order to enhance / the implementation of the program |
we also decided / to create / a segregated account /
uh through which / Greece will / pay an amount of (/)
the coming quarters / debt service /
which will | certainly give /
spine and / strength / to policy conditionally |

I haven't noticed any similar pausal epenthesis in the speech of other Finns that I've known. I don't know whether this is a characteristic of English as spoken by people from Mr. Rehn's home area (Southern Savonia), or an idiosyncratic characteristic, or what.

There seems to be some basis for this in the phonology of Finnish, at least at the word level. According to Kari Suomi, Juhani Toivanen & Riikka Ylitalo, "Finnish Sound Structure", 2008:

In fully native words, only the consonants /t/, /s/, /n/, /l/ and /r/ can occur word-finally, e.g. olut ‘beer’, vieras ‘guest’, nainen ‘woman’, manner ‘continent’, sävel ‘tune’. Of these, however, /l/ and /r/ are very rare word–finally. If full, non-reduced word forms are considered, then Finnish has practically no word-final CC sequences (or longer ones). There are a couple of onomatopoetic interjections like poks, rits, plumps, and a couple of loanwords: morjens ‘hello’ (informal) and preesens ‘the present tense’. But in many dialects many word-final vowels (and some other segments) are regularly deleted (in comparison to SSF), and this also happens in colloquial, informal versions of SSF, and in such varieties word-final CC sequences are very frequent, e.g. (the vowels in parentheses are deleted in these varieties): miks(i) ‘why’, yks(i) ‘one’, kenelt(ä) ‘from whom’, meneks ‘are you going’ (from the full form menetkö sinä).

Borrowed words that end in one or more consonants in the lending language are usually adapted to Finnish phonotactics by adding a vowel to the end. This has happened in the past, and it is happening today. Examples of old loans are masto ‘mast’ < Sw. mast, syltty ‘brawn’ < Sw. sylt, santa ‘sand’ < Sw. sand. In the past, any vowel could be added to the end of the borrowed word (observing vowel harmony, however), but now the added vowel is invariably /i/, as in kurssi, presidentti and trendi (but there are at least two recent slang word exceptions to this generalisation, namely stara ‘(pop) star’ and handu ‘hand’). In this way, the originally word-final consonant (sequence) is made word-internal. Usually /i/ is also added to words that would otherwise end in /t/, /s/, /n/, /l/ or /r/ and which, as such, would be consistent with Finnish phonotactics, e.g. analyysi, mikrofoni, konsuli, printteri. But there are also some established loanwords to which /i/ has not been added, e.g. anis, tennis, karies, neon. Finally, there are words that do not have final /i/ in SSF, but do have it in some other variety, e.g. nailon(i), Eeden(i), röntgen(i).

I haven't been able to find a recording of yesterday's entire news conference, but there are plenty of other samples of Mr. Rehn's speech on the web, from which a more complete statistical picture of his pausal sound patterns in English could be developed. And it would also be interesting to try to model where, in syntactic and informational terms, he chooses to put the breaks, however they are marked phonetically.

The Wikipedia article says that he also speaks Swedish, French, and German, though I haven't found any recordings.


  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    Probably just damaged by years of working with simultaneous interpreting!

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    Isn't a similar kind of epenthesis found with Italians?

    [(myl) Not really — in Italian-accent stereotypes, at least, the vocalic offsets are added to syllable-final consonants throughout phases, and even within a word. Though maybe the real thing is more like this, I don't know…]

  3. Peter said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    This seems to me strongly reminiscent of how native speakers use the pausal filler AmE “uh”/BrE “er”. Could one analyse this as: he has learned this filler as a feature of the language, but is using it slightly imperfectly(/nonstandardly)?

  4. NW said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    Note also that schwa doesn't occur in Finnish, so if it were interference from native phonotactics you might expect epenthetic [i].

  5. SKK said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    I'm no linguist but I grew up in Lappeenranta which is near Mikkeli, Rehn's home town. I doubt that his Finnish dialect is a significant reason for his speech pattern because his dialect is fairly close to mine. When we learned English in school nearly everyone had a prominent accent but nothing quite like that.

    If you listen to him speaking Finnish, he has a peculiar pausing cadence as well. Other Finns have commented on this as well. He is also almost comically careful about maintaining standard Finnish pronunciation.

  6. Lazar said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

    @myl: Stereotypes notwithstanding, it has always puzzled me that the Italian cardinal directions are "nord, sud, est, ovest" (cf. Spanish "norte, sur, este, oeste"). They seem so out of place with the rest of the language.

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    Mark: I was not referring to "Italian accent stereotypes" (e.g. Chico Marx) but actual Italians, who — it seems to me — put a slight epenthetic schwa even on Italian words that are consonant-final (such words are usually borrowings), e.g. camion or lapis.

  8. Joe said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

    Maybe this is a prosodic feature of his Finnish signaling continuation (I think progredient intonation is the term?) getting transferred into English as epenthesis? Can't say I've heard other Finns speaking English do this.

  9. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

    @Lazar – I just happened to be reading about compass roses on Wikipedia the other day and learned that for some reason Germanic names for the directions replaced older names in all the Romance languages:

  10. Lazar said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    @Kenny: But to be clear, I was referring to the way that the Italian forms all end in consonants – a word ending in "-st" seems to violate the usual Itailan phonotactics. I wonder why e's didn't get added as in Spanish.

  11. Garrett Wollman said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

    Apropos of the quotation from Suomi, et al: for the unusual loanwords in -Vs, how do they form the inflectional stem? Is it -kse-, or something different?

  12. T. Nieminen said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 3:08 am

    @Garrett: All the Vs words in the quotation are -kse- words. I suspect there might be recent Vs loanwords which take the -i- form, but I can't think of an example. Using -i- is at least common with foreign Vs names of recent celebrities (for example, "Paris-i" is by far the most common form for Paris Hilton). Older foreign Vs names seem to have free variation between -kse- and -i- ("Callas-i"/"Calla-kse"), or use -kse- almost exclusively ("Elvi-kse", not "Elvis-i").

  13. maidhc said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 3:37 am

    @Kenny Easwaran: Although I only know a little Italian, I remember from childhood Nino Culotta's tales of a Northern Italian immigrant to Australia and his diatribes about the "bloody Meridionali". The older Roman forms were not totally displaced?

  14. Dakota said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    It sounds a lot like the vocalized pause "uh" to me.

    But what about Lawrence Welk? "And-uh one, and-uh two…"

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    I worked with several Finnish speakers in Sweden (quite a while ago) and their Swedish was marked with what seemed like long pauses between syllables and between words, shift of stress forward and lack of Swedish tonal structure. There was a Finnish long-range weather forecaster on TV (Artturi Similää), whose pronunciation of Swedish intrigued school-children (around where I lived, anyway) and they used to imitate him mercilessly.

    One of the finest samples of oral English that has passed my ears recently was the Foreign Minister of Italy (sorry, forget name) being interviewed by Margret Warner on PBS evening news last week. Just enough accent to be detectable, but astonishing vocabulary and clarity of argument.

  16. Tanja said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    @SKK, I noticed one example of pausal epenthesis in the Finnish video you linked to, right at the end:

    yli puolet /
    koko maailmantaloudesta.

    There aren't that many opportunities for it to occur in the Finnish clip because most of the words end in a vowel or a nasal…

  17. Rachel said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    @Dan Lufkin, I suspect that the Italian you mentioned on PBS is the new premier, Mario Monti.

    I'm an American living in Italy, learning Italian and struggling with listening comprehension. I'm always thrilled when a Monti speech or press conference appears on the news, because I can understand his Italian perfectly; it's as clear and lovely as his English.

  18. P Roux said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    I do know of at least one other Finn who uses epenthesis in this way. Mr Petri Pentti is former CEO of Neste Oil (a Finnish oil refining company) and I have heard speeches such as this one on CNBC where his speech patterns certainly got me wondering similar thoughts:;jsessionid=653EFC65F643BB5C470306C57AEB173D?phrase=petri+pentti&searchimage.x=0&searchimage.y=0&sortType=1&tickerSymbols=

    Finland is a small country so maybe they both had the same primary school English teacher… I would imagine that speech patterns such as these are acquired at a young age and become fossilised so that even a prolonged stay in the USA does not modify or erade them.

    One other theory I have is that Finnish logopedics might play a role. Many Finnish children have speech therapy in school (eg to help them with the rhotic r) and I have noticed a correlation between English language pronunciation skills and native language speech therapy. Students (I teach English to adults) who have the biggest problems with standard English pronunciation, have almost invariably received speech therapy as young children. However, I have no idea what methds are used.

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