Gil Scott-Heron: Where Did The Night Go?

Gil Scott Heron (1 April 1949 – 27 May 2011) – good profile on Wikipedia. Thanks to Ann Walsh for the link to this, a quieter, more personal side to the angry granddaddy of rap.

Gil Scott-Heron: Where Did The Night Go?

Long ago the clock washed midnight away
Bringing the dawn
Oh God, I must be dreaming
Time to get up again
And time to start up again
Pulling on my socks again
Should have been asleep
When I was sitting there drinking beer
And trying to start another letter to you
Don’t know how many times I dreamed to write again last night
Should’ve been asleep when I turned the stack of records over and over
So I wouldn’t be up by myself
Where did the night go?
Should go to sleep now
And say fuck a job and money
Because I spend it all on unlined paper and can’t get past
“Dear baby, how are you?”
Brush my teeth and shave
Look outside, sky is dark
Think it may rain
Where did
Where did
Where did

The Lords: Poor Boy

Still grinning about how wery hard life was in Berlin in 1965. The German beat band, The Lords, sing and dance “Poor boy”, one of their greatest hits. Now, I’m not knocking writing and singing in a foreign language, on the contrary, it’s really great! But for an English teacher like me it’s fascinating to look closely at the errors they make. Apart from the w/v problem (Germans overcompensate, saying “wery well” to make sure they don’t say “very vell”), The Lords make the typical mistake, “she learned me (to do sth)” (instead of “taught”), and sing “the life is so hard” – using “the” for an abstract noun. Wait a minute: Why are “life” and “death” considered abstract and intangible in English? Englische Sprache, schwere Sprache.

PS: “The life is hard to go/life is very hard to stay” reminds me of the German saying about not having enough money: “zum Leben zu wenig, zum Sterben zu viel” – too little to live on, too much to die.

When I was born you know
I couldn’t speak and go
My mother worked each day
and she learned me to say.

Mother and father and son
sister and uncle are/have fun
and she learned me to say
life is so hard each day.

Poor boy you must know
poor boy the life is hard to go (?)
poor boy you must say
life is very hard to stay

When I was born you know
I couldn’t speak and go
My mother worked each day
and she learned me to say.

Poor boy you must know….

Weird w

I’m having a hard time with that weird phoneme, /w/. Gerald Kelly puts it in a table (Kelly 1988:7) as both bilabial – using both lips, as with /p/, /b/ and /m/ – and velar – using the back of the tongue against the soft palate, like /k/, /g/ and /ŋ/. Bilabial, yes. But velar? Really? I made a video of myself making the sound, to think over in more detail how someone might see w as related to a movement that goes on in the back of your mouth. For me it’s all up front. But I know a Spanish speaking student of mine couldn’t hear or make a difference between “good” and “would”. So this is a video to Catalina, who is teaching the module, and my course mates.

Phonology 101

On our course Patricia introduced us to two great sites to help with phonology.

First, there’s the excellent online typewriter, the Phonemic Character Keyboard, which is based on the comprehensive IPA character picker, two tools which, taken together, are just what you need to be able to write a post like this!

Then, there’s the University of Iowa Phonetics Flash Animation Project. This lets you go to three languages – American English, Spanish and German – to compare the phonemic characters with animated videos of the organs of speach and the ensuing sounds.

These tools are great extensions to the information contained in the Sound Foundations chart (app available) developed by Adrian Pilbeam, based on Received Pronunciation. While this is obviously a groundbreaking approach, and bible, so to speak, it needs extending when you’re focussing on moving students towards greater intelligibility in the ELF world. So this morning I’ve revisited that practice sentence I gave my students a few weeks ago: As she heard the bird, it occurred to her that the word she had heard was “a third”, not “a turd”. For orientation, I told the students to think “ö”. But the phoneme is not all that simple.

  • heard: BE: hɜːd – AE: hɝd
  • German uses different sounds and symbols: œ (öffnen) – ø (hören)

The sound descriptions from the IPA character picker are

  • ɜ – lower mid-central rounded
  • œ – lower mid front rounded
  • ø – upper mid front rounded

They may sound similar at first, but they’re made at different places in your mouth. The English phoneme sort of sits on your tongue, while the German ones are right up front.

Armin Berger writes: “Although the German vowel sounds differ slightly from their English counterparts, the German vowel inventory is sufficient for ELF communication. The English vowel sound /ɜː/, which is considered important for ELF, does not exist in German and might need some practice. In addition, German vowels are not shortened before voiceless consonants or lengthened before voiced consonants. This will be problematic for ELF.”  (In Robin Walker, Teaching the Pronunciation od English as a Lingua Franca, p.107)

So not only do German learners of English need to practice where the sound is made, they also need to make it long enough to be recognized. The most important thing remains for students to recognize when sounds are pronounced the same way, e.g. despite their divergent spellings, for consistent intelligibility. This allows listeners to tune in to them, and decode the sounds consistently.

Next time students need practice in this phoneme, I’ll still give them sentences containing many instances of it, but I’ll also present the four sounds (long and short ö in German, “heard” with and without the r) in comparision.

Phonemic typewriters:

Text to phonetics:

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