26 November 2010

Pronunciation of 'two'

In my previous blog, I mentioned the discussion I had with Rich Homer about confusion between altitude and attitude.

When we started chatting and he asked me what I do, I replied that I do research on vowel measurement, which he found hilarious. (Maybe he heard a /b/ rather than a /v/ at the start?) But then we started talking about problems with speech in Brunei, and he said that people here often mistake his two for three, which he finds hard to understand.

Actually, it's not too difficult to explain it. You need to know three things:
  • In the UK, we tend to have a fronted /u:/ vowel, whereas in Brunei it is a fully back vowel. So it is not surprising if people in Brunei hear a British /u:/ as /i:/.
  • People in Brunei tend to have [t] rather than [θ] at the start of words such as thing and three. So in Brunei, three often starts with [tr].
  • In Malay, an initial /t/ is unaspirated, so two sounds a bit like do in Britain. As a result, an aspirated /t/ at the start of two can easily be misheard as [tr].
When you put these three things together, it is not difficult to explain why two might be heard as three; and a bit of knowledge about phonetics (including the measurement of vowels for the fronting of /u:/) can actually turn out to be useful!