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How we pronounce loanwords depends on our opinion of the donor culture

Loanwords often contain foreign sounds. New research shows that the way speakers pronounce the foreign sounds depends on social factors, such as how prestigious they perceive the donor culture to be in the loanword's semantic domain.
How we pronounce loanwords depends on our opinion of the donor culture

Shiri Lev-Ari

Loanwords are words which come from a different language, such as tsunami or mojito. Such words often have sounds that do not exist in the borrowing language. There is variation in whether speakers keep the foreign sounds in loanwords or adapt them to sounds that exist in their native language. For example, French speakers do not pronounce the 'h' in Happy hour but they do produce the 'j' in jeans even though neither 'h' nor 'j' exists in French. New research shows that whether or not foreign sounds in loanwords are kept or adapted to native sounds depends on social factors. The study was carried out by Shiri Lev-Ari (Psychology of Language Department) in collaboration with Marcela San Giacomo (UNA, Mexico) and Sharon Peperkamp (LSCP, France)

One factor that was shown to influence pronunciation is how prestigious speakers perceive the donor culture to be in comparison with their own in the loanword's semantic domain. Lev-Ari and colleagues showed this by examining the pronunciation of loanwords from Spanish into Mexicano, an Uto-Aztecan language widely spoken in Mexico. In the village where the study was carried out, Spanish culture is prestigious in domains such as technology, commerce and education, whereas Mexicano is prestigious in the social domain. The study found that speakers were more likely to retain foreign sounds, such as the rolled 'r', in loanwords in domains in which Spanish is prestigious (e.g., maestro 'teacher') than in loanwords in domains in which Mexicano is prestigious (e.g., comadre 'a friend who shares the duties in activities and celebrations').

The researchers also discovered that speakers adjusted their pronunciation according to the identity of their conversational partners. Speakers were more likely to adapt foreign sounds in loanwords to native sounds when speaking to fellow Mexicano speakers who had limited knowledge of Spanish than when they were interacting with fellow Mexicano speakers who were proficient in Spanish. Social aspects of the interaction also played a role in another way: speakers' pronunciation of foreign sounds in loanwords depended on the way that their conversational partners pronounced the foreign sounds. If their conversational partners adapted the sounds to native sounds, the speakers were more likely to do so as well.

In sum, the study shows that the way that we pronounce loanwords depends on social factors. Foreign sounds that enter the language through loanwords may, when retained, even lead to sound change in the language. So social factors of the kind uncovered in this study may ultimately influence sound change.

Full study:

Lev-Ari, S., San Giacomo, M., & Peperkamp, S. (2014). The effect of domain prestige and interlocutors’ bilingualism on sound adaptation. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 18(5), 658-684. doi:10.1111/josl.12102. (PDF)

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