24 November 2010

altitude / attitude

Last night, I was talking to a chap from the UK called Rich Homer who teaches flying to trainee pilots in Brunei, and he told me that confusion between some English words can be a problem here, because of local patterns of pronunciation. When I asked him for some examples, he suggested that altitude and attitude can be confused.

This sounded surprising to me, as I couldn't think of any situation when these two words might be mixed up, so context should always sort it out. But apparently attitude has a technical meaning in flying, as it refers to the tilt of a plane. For example, Concorde used to land with its nose up in the air, and this would be described as its attitude. So you can see that an instructor might ask a student about the altitude of the plane and be given its attitude instead, or vice versa.

What is interesting here is that the problem may be occurring because the /l/ in altitude is being omitted, presumably by a process of L-vocalisation (the /l/ is being pronounced as a vowel). However, though L-vocalisation is common in many New Varieties of English, including that of Singapore, it is also found in the UK, particularly in London English. So this confusion between altitude and attitude is actually liable to happen for speakers throughout the world, not just in South-East Asia. I find it stunning that the aviation industry can use such similar words for such a crucial distinction.

One other consideration is relevant here: in her recent PhD thesis, Salbrina Sharbawi suggested that L-vocalisation does not occur in Brunei English, partly because final /l/ is common in Malay (in words such as ambil 'take' and kapal 'ship') and is not usually vocalised in Malay. So in fact, it is possible that it is the UK instructor's pronunciation that is causing the problem and not the pronunciation of his students.