The Reverse Lisp

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The Reverse Lisp -

One person's prestige accent is another person's speech impediment. Third in the series Accent through the keyhole. Scroll down for the mp3 podcast version.

Can you remind us what a lisp is?

Sure. A lisp, according to one online dictionary, is ‘a speech fault in which the sound s is pronounced th’ (Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary). So a person with a lisp pronounces sink like think and worse like worth. It’s said that a one-time king of Spain had a lisp, and his subjects all started to copy him. So that explains why Castilian Spanish has such a lot of ‘th’ sounds where other varieties of Spanish have ‘s’. For example, the city of Zaragoza is pronounced ‘Tharagotha’ in one variety and ‘Saragossa’ in the others. It’s a high-profile distinction in Spanish accents, so much so that there is a even a word in the language, ‘seseo’, which means the practice of replacing ‘th’ sounds with ‘s’.

Wow, is that story about the king really true?

No, it’s an urban myth. But it’s intriguing to speculate how Castilian Spanish evolved such a lot of ‘th’ when most of the world seems to avoid it like the plague. Because for most people in the world, it seems to be rather hard to articulate. That business of squeezing your tongue between your teeth requires effort, and no doubt for many people, the resulting sound is faintly ridiculous.

The English language also has a lot of the ‘th’ sounds, doesn’t it?

That’s right. But a lot of speakers try to avoid it, and that’s what I’m calling a reverse lisp – the practice of replacing ‘th’ sounds with something else. And there are basically three possibilities – ‘f’, ‘t’ or ‘s’ for the unvoiced ‘th’ and ‘v’, ‘d’ and ‘z’ for the voiced ‘th’. On my diagram photo, that’s up, sideways or down.

A reverse lisp to ‘f’ is what, for example, London speakers do when they pronounce three like free. A reverse lisp to ‘t’ is what, for example, Irish speakers do when they pronounce three like tree. And a reverse lisp to ‘s’ is what, for example, French speakers do when they pronounce think like sink. You’ll notice that the first two reverse lisps described above are present in native accents of English, while the third is in a non-native accent.

It’s a wonder that people can understand what each other are saying!

Yes, I suppose so. Because when speakers merge two sounds into one, ambiguity is created. If a London speaker says three the same as free, how are we to know which one is intended? The two words have become homophones. In fact, reverse lisping creates a hell of a lot of homophones, and that sounds like a recipe for communication breakdown, doesn’t it? But people seem to manage.

Is that because they’re guessing from context?

Yes, that’s part of it. But I think there’s something else too. I think reverse-lisping is so widespread that people are used to it. When they hear someone replacing ‘th’ with ‘f’, they recognize what’s happening and that flips a switch in their brain which automatically scans the conversation and ‘translates’ all further occurrences. In other words, these alternative pronunciations are so common that listeners build up a tolerance of them. They learn to accommodate.

Are you saying we needn’t bother teaching our learners the ‘th’ sounds, then?

Wells, that’s a suggestion that’s been made by applied linguist Jennifer Jenkins in her work on English as a lingua franca. She says that according to her data, reverse lisping from ‘th’ to ‘f’ or ‘t’ does not appear to damage intelligibility. Reverse lisping to ‘s’, however, can reduce intelligibility and so this is not recommended. Personally, as a teacher, I would get learners to aim for the standard ‘th’ sounds, but let them to settle for the ‘f’ or ‘t’ alternative if they prefer. It should be their choice. They may be happy to lisp, but if they really don’t want to, there’s no reason to force them.

Why bother teaching any pronunciation at all? It sounds like anything goes!

Ah, but don’t forget that our tolerant attitude to reverse lisping is because it’s so widespread that everybody will have had experience of it and can accommodate accordingly. There are plenty of other sound switches that are much more localized, and these can present problems. For example, the Brazilian replacement of ‘r’ with ‘h’, so that rock and roll sounds like hock and hole can really throw a listener because it’s so unexpected, unless that listener has a lot of experience hearing Brazilian English.

But saying the number 3 as free just sounds wrong to me.

I’m sure a lot of people would agree with you, but when you think about it, what can sounding wrong possibly mean? Is it something to do with status? For example, pronouncing 3 as free is one feature of cockney, and this doesn’t have the prestige of RP (‘standard’ British English). Some people regard local accents such as cockney as inferior and less educated – they’re stigmatized. But should such accent prejudices be of any concern to a language learner? From the point of view of intelligibility, probably not. What do you think?

Last week: The Brogue Meridian

Next week: The Bad Boy of English Pronunciation

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