s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Learning Swedish, part 1 (An IPA Rant)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Learning Swedish, part 1 (An IPA Rant)

By a curious twist of fate, I had the opportunity last year to research online introductory Swedish tutorials as part of my answer to Board Question #26659. (Eleka Nahmen seems to have been surprisingly prescient in the matter. Is it possible that she has inside contacts at the mission office?)

Now that I’ve committed myself to learning Swedish, I have to go back and take my own annoying advice about focusing on my ultimate linguistic goal, finding a support base, blah, blah, blah. (Actually, I think it was sound advice, especially the part about learning what you can for free. It’s just more fun to give advice than it is to take it.)

So I’ve been looking over the resources I originally linked, plus some new ones I’ve since found. I’ve learned that Swedish has two genders (common and neuter), two cases (nominative and genitive), three extra letters (å, ä, and ö, but not ø – that’s Danish), a “voiceless palatal-velar fricative” which may or may not actually have two places of articulation (Melyngoch promises she will determine, once and for all, if this is the case), as well as 9 vowels which comprise 17 phonemes.

As it turns out, that last one is a bit of a problem, since the phonetic transcription of these 17 vowels (plus another 18 consonants) is very inconsistent. One website described a sound as “a soft ‘ch’.” What does that even mean?! I’m guessing it means either /∫/, /ç/, /x/, or even /t∫/, but I’ve no idea which one. Another sound is described as “the vowel in ‘awe’,” which is fine, but there’s a significant difference in the pronunciation of that word between speakers of various dialects of English speakers, and how am I to know which one he’s referring to? I recognize that IPA isn’t the most intuitive transcription system in the world and the symbols can be a bit finicky to display online, but the beauty of it is that you only have to learn it once, and then you can figure out how to pronounce anything that’s written in it, instead of having to invent and decode arbitrary transcription systems on the fly. And you can still include phonetic approximation for the lay person, you just have to say “this sounds like /ɔ/ which is the vowel in ‘awe’.” (And I can say “Actually, in my dialect, that vowel is /ɑ/, but now I know exactly what vowel you’re referring to and can proceed accordingly.)

Seriously, people. IPA. It’s the future. (Just like the metric system.)


At April 27, 2007 7:00 PM, Blogger Squirrel Boy said...


Before college, I tried teaching myself Scottish Gaelic (I gave up pretty quickly). It was so frustrating to try to work through pronunciation guides that described things like "sort of a blurred sound between d and g." What in heaven's name is that supposed to mean? I never did figure it out.

At April 27, 2007 8:22 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Hmm, sounds like a voiced velar fricative, to me. (Welsh used to have them, but they dropped out of the phonetic inventory. They still have a voiceless velar fricative, though.)

At April 28, 2007 8:47 AM, Blogger Miss Hass said...

I agree! We have this problem in Spanish wherein "Hispanists" (meaning lazy, old jerks) use one set of symbols while EVERYBODY else uses another set of symbols. And then there are the people who are all, "I'm going to use this symbold for this" and I want to choke them.

Anyway. I agree.

At April 29, 2007 5:49 PM, Blogger Squirrel Boy said...

Correction: I guess I did sort of figure it out, though I couldn't be sure that I had it right. Mostly what I didn't figure out is how a voiced velar fricative is anything like a blurred cross between a d and a g.

On a quasi-related note, the word verification is hnfwlwl. It almost looks Welsh.

At April 30, 2007 2:57 PM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

And amen. Mandarin would be about 500x easier if we were using IPA instead of pinyin.

At April 30, 2007 7:51 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Well, at least pinyin is an accepted standard, and not concocted on the fly. (You'll get used to it soon enough.)

At May 10, 2007 1:03 AM, Blogger eleka nahmen said...

Yay, people to learn Swedish with!

At May 10, 2007 1:04 AM, Blogger eleka nahmen said...

Oh - and call it divine inspiration :D


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