Befriending Phonemes

In my first column, back in June 1998, I wrote about how we as sign language interpreters for the Deaf are also “spoken language interpreters for the Hearing.” I emphasized the importance of brushing up on our English so that we could do justice to our clients—both Deaf and Hearing—when we voice-interpret. But is English really all we speak when we voice-interpret? Consider the following scenario:

You are interpreting for a Deaf man who is teaching a Deaf Culture class about the origins of ASL and how it differs from signed languages of foreign countries. How many foreign words and names, from how many different countries, are you going to need to pronounce? How many different speech-sound systems, or phonologies, do you need to have at least a passing familiarity with in order to successfully complete this assignment? How many phonemes will you be able to “pull out of your hat”? (Phonemes are the smallest units of meaningful sound in a language, for example, the sounds “f” and “th” [IPA Θ] which make the difference between “deaf” and “death”—a distinction I’m sure many of us wish more people understood!)

In the above scenario, I guarantee you’ll be pronouncing such venerated French names as Abbé de l’Epée, Jean Massieu, and Laurent Clerc, and such mouthfuls as La Langue des Signes Quebecquoise. You may even have to pronounce words like chercher which sound nothing like they are spelled (the French verb to search, chercher, is pronounced SHARE-SHAY, with the phoneme “r” pronounced as though you were gargling). Then, of course, there are the Spanish names like Ponce de Leon (which is pronounced more like PONE-SAY DAY LAY-OWN than PONTZ DUH LEE-ON, and which is much easier to pronounce than common names like Jorge Villapeña, which contain at least ten (10!) special phonemes that are unlike English). On top of that, you may have to pronounce phonemes from Japan, Italy, China, Africa, Russia, and the Czech Republic! Maybe, just for kicks, this teacher watches a lot of Seinfeld, and he’ll throw in some Yiddish along the way. And you thought all you’d have to speak was English? Oy, were you wrong!

No, my friends and colleagues, the wonderful truth is that we live in a very multi-cultural world, surrounded by polyglot speech that is rich in phonemic variation. The world of academia is a small global network of researchers, scientists, and artists with very specific common interests. Many Deaf people are fascinated with the prospect of connecting with other Deaf people in foreign lands. As they compare notes with each other, they see that those whose signed languages and cultures differ from their own still demonstrate a common flourishing of Deaf communities everywhere. Sign language interpreters for Deaf students in foreign languages must voice these foreign words and phrases when the students are called upon to offer responses or translations in class (in which case you will have to voice lots of fingerspelling—oh joy!). The corporate world’s move toward a “diverse work force” means you may have to voice many non-English phonemes as the employee references herself and her associates, especially in today’s “global marketplace.” The same is true in primary and secondary schools, in the courts, in the social services, in places of worship—in short, everywhere!

I encourage you to develop your phonemic repertoire. Take a linguistics class to learn more about phonology and such handy tools as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Take up a foreign language, or even better, learn to sing in a foreign language! (The singing will slow you down and force you to focus on the careful art of phonemic vocal production). Get a book of commonly used (and misused… and mispronounced…) foreign words and phrases, and learn how to use and pronounce them correctly. Learn the phonologies, or basic pronunciation rules, for a broad array of languages. You will be amazed at the beautiful and intricate symphony of sounds your voice can make when you train it. So, don’t be shy, have fun with phonemes! Phonemes are your friends!

This article was originally published in slightly different form in InTouch, the newsletter for the San Diego County chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in March 1999.






One response to “Befriending Phonemes”

  1. Kyle, happy Singorama student Avatar

    “Take up a foreign language, or even better, learn to sing in a foreign language! (The singing will slow you down and force you to focus on the careful art of phonemic vocal production).”

    That is a fantastic idea! Thank you…I’ve been working on learning to speak spanish AND my singing abilities, and I think that might just be a great way to kill two birds with one stone so to speak…


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