15 January 2015

Fried Data Recorder

I was listening to a news report about the search for the crashed Air Asia plane, and when I heard the Indonesian official mention the 'fried data recorder', I immediately thought, oh no, the data has been destroyed and is no longer usable.

Of course, that is not what the official said. In fact, he was referring to the 'flight data recorder'. But my momentary misunderstanding illustrates two things. First, context does not always enable us to understand things. You would think that the context would make this misunderstanding impossible, yet I was briefly confused. (Well, alright, I admit that maybe I am not a very good listener. But I believe that misunderstandings like this are quite common.)

Second, we can analyse what caused the misunderstanding. There are two basic features of pronunciation involved:

  • the occurrence of /fr/ instead of /fl/ at the start of the word
  • confusion between /t/ and /d/ at the end of the word

In my book on Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca, I found that confusion between /l/ and /r/ in initial consonant clusters like /pl/ and /fr/ was one of the most common causes of misunderstanding, so the occurrence of /fr/ at the start of 'flight' is indeed predicted to be a problem.

The second pronunciation issue needs careful consideration. In fact, the final /t/ in 'flight' usually gets dropped before a following /d/ in all varieties of English. However, in most native varieties of English, the difference between word-final /t/ and /d/ is maintained by means of the duration of the vowel: the vowel in a word such as 'flight' is shorter than in a word such as 'fried'. However, this distinction in the duration of the vowel before voiceless and voiced word-final consonants is not maintained in many new varieties of English.

My guess is that local users of English would not be confused by this neutralisation of word-final /t/ and /d/, and it is only native speakers like me that would get confused. And this illustrates that people like me should work harder to get accustomed to different ways of pronouncing English.