Retroflex sounds

Vidhyanath Rao vidynath at MATH.OHIO-STATE.EDU
Mon Jun 29 18:24:00 UTC 1998

Sudalimutthu Palaniappan wrote:

>I do not have access to Hock's paper. But from what I see in Tamil, the
>reinterpretation of alveolar as dental or retroflex should be easily
>understandable. Consider the following. (R here represents alveolar t)
>oTTikkiraTTi < oRRaikkiraTTi etc
>ottai < oRRai etc

On the other hand, intervocalic _t becomes r, produced near the
alveolar ridge, but is not retroflex. Alveolar _n, which is still found
in some dialects at least. This differs from what happened in IA.
Furthermore there is no phonological pattern in Tamil. It seems to be
affected by semantics (oTTu) or by assimilation to retroflexes occurring
nearby, but no phonological pattern as we see in IA.

>I also have questions about Vidyanath's position that one does not confuse the
>phonemes in one's primary language. Is there any sociolinguistic evidence for
>this position? How do most Malayalis pronounce certain original Tamil sounds
>correctly while many Tamils do not? If they were part of the same language
>community at one time, at some point in time some people must have started to
>confuse different phonemes.

You are confusing language change with language learning. Pronunciation
can and change over time, and such changes can cause previously
distinct phonemes to merge or one phoneme to split. But synchronically
distinct phonemes in primary language(s) are not confused. In fact
it is more likely that what were learnt as distinct phonemes would
still be felt as different when hearing a language where they are not.
A good example of this was given in the very first book about phonetics
I read. A friend (I am not sure of his native language, but it was a minor
one in the Middle East) of the author told him that he always felt that
the sound of `t' in top and stop were different. The feelings of
English speakers learning Japanese concerning r and l are not any

>According to a film industry source, Prabhu attributed his bad pronunciation
>of Tamil to his studying in a convent school.

He may not be completely wrong. People think that the first language
learnt will influence the others but not the other way around. This is
not quite true. My seven year old, when he was in preschool three and
half years ago, would become disconcerted if I spoke to him in English
in front of his teacher. But now, after a year of full-time school, he
sounds exactly like other neighborhood children; so much so that my
sister complained that she cannot understand him anymore!

But more seriously, this may be partly due to the more cosmopolitan
nature of Chennai. I did not go to a ``convent school'', but my younger
sister did go to a school (from 3rd grade) where talking in Tamil in
class was frowned upon (but it was Protestant run, so not quite Convent;
also the children did talk in Tamil in the playground and outside the
school, and of course in Tamil class). This seems to have been
sufficient to make her and her friends sound like typical Madurai kids
born in the 60's, although they did affect American mispronunciations of
some words, most irritatingly Tamil. That this was an affection was
obvious when they said, say `taLLippO' (of course their L and `zh' were
not clearly distinct).


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