So last Sunday, just two weeks after you wielded absolute power via Twitter over the BBC’s Formula One coverage, you were shamed on live international TV by the same commentator, Martin Brundle, who had previously accepted your correction of his pronunciation of the Russian driver PetROV’s name.
He’d asked PetROV how to pronounce his name, and come away with the impression that the way that he, Martin, and every other English speaker says it (‘PETrov’) was, in fact, correct.
‘After all he should know,’ he ended triumphantly.*
You can think of a number of reasons for the discrepancy between your understanding of the pronunciation and Martin’s**.
- You are wrong. This is clearly not an option.
- PetROV is wrong. Now he has been living abroad for a while. You strongly suspect that he has given up worrying about the mad things English speakers do to his name. If Martin said ‘Am I saying this right? PETrov?’ you can well imagine him thinking himself lucky that his name wasn’t being pronounced ‘Peters’ and nodding enthusiastically.
- Martin is wrong.
Now you do not rule out option two, but in fact you are going for door number three as you would not be at all surprised if the truth is that when PetROV growled ‘PetROV’, Martin heard ‘PETrov regardless. And here’s why.
One of the problems people encounter with language learning, when learning a new language rather than acquiring more than one language as a child, is the amount of interference they get from their native tongue.
This is particularly pronounced when it comes to pronunciation.
Theoretically, babies are born with the potential to speak any language, although recent studies show that even in the womb they are picking up elements of what will become their native tongue. It doesn’t take long before babies are showing a marked preference towards what will become their mother tongue(s). Even babies’ babble is different for different languages.
This means that out of the full range of sounds a human mouth can make, sooner rather than later, they start to fixate on a really rather limited number. And it’s not just sounds either, but things like patterns in sentence and word stress and intonation. Babies quickly get used to a particular way of declaiming a language and, and this is the important bit, they start to lose the ability to really hear, let alone produce, nuances in the pronunciation in other languages.
People tend to think it’s the individual sounds they need to pay attention to in pronunciation. But while you can have a lot of fun discussing sheets with B on laundry day because Russians do not have a long/ short vowel distinction and tend to pronounce the ‘i’ and ‘ee’ in ‘trip’ and ‘tree’ the same, mainly all that mispronunciation of sounds does is tip other people off that you are someone with a charmingly other accent.
Word stress is important for comprehension, much more so than the pronunciation of individual sounds. There are some real WTF moments to be had when struggling to work out what somebody who has just put the stress on the wrong syLAble of a key word actually means.
Now stress in English is achieved in three ways. Firstly, a stressed syllable will be louder than other syllables. So far so obvious. But it will also be longer than other syllables and higher in pitch.
This is not the same in all languages. In French, for example, all syllables take the same mount of time to say, regardless of stress.
Russian has a much narrower pitch range than English. Their lows are not as low and their highs are not as high.
This is mainly a problem in intonation, especially as they also change pitch less often in any given utterance.
And what does intonation convey? Politeness, interest, emotion. In particular, in English we show politeness and interest by starting really high, changing pitch often and swooping up to the full height or full low of our range.
Most Russians, then, tend to come across as flat, monotone, disinterested, rude.
It also means that English speakers sound tragically over excited about virtually everything when they speak Russian. Russians habitually think that English speakers are more tired, more excited, more angry, more everything than they actually are whether they are speaking Russian or English.
And that means it is harder for a native English speaker to spot, let alone reproduce, word stress in Russian. They are only doing two and a half of the three things the English speaker does.
It doesn’t help that in this case, English two-syllable nouns almost always put the stress on the first one.
Now spotting pronunciation nuances, including word stress, is one of those skills that comes with practice.
You are pretty good at it. You have spent 15 years in classrooms wondering why Kirill is virtually incomprehensible and trying to fix it. That’s a lot of time tuning your ear into mistakes.
Martin Brundle clearly isn’t.
Not that he should feel too bad about it. He can hear things in the note of an engine that you wouldn’t even with a pause button and the volume turned up high.
But given that he might feel a little dubious about accepting the expertise of some pseudonymous Internet weirdo, and because you, obviously feel the need to prove to the Internet at large that you are the one who is right, you have decided to provide him, and the rest of the Formula One presenters with some more, some many more examples of Russian people, commentators, newscasters and random fans saying ‘petROV’, sometimes quite loudly, in the hope that if it is repeated often enough they will be able to get their ear in.
You would also like them to pay attention to the fact that there’s a rolled R and the ‘v’ sound at the end is much softer, more like an F, than they are expecting.
But you will be magnanimous in victory and give them till the end of the season to get that right.
The video evidence***.
A feature on Vitaly PetROV on the news. His name is at 9 seconds, 50 secs, 1 minute 25 and 2 mins 34. Or thereabouts.
Another news item. With an interview! See 50 secs, 2 mins 5, 2 mins 42, 3 mins 14, 4 mins 52 and 5 mins 10.
Sports news reports this time. See 10secs, 21 secs, 50 secs and probably at points thereafter as well (and bask in PetROV’s podium).
PetROV is at some promotional event. See 30 secs, 4 mins 18, 4 mins 51, and especially 5 mins 40 – 6 mins where the commentator gets quite shouty. And 6 mins 30. Also, aren’t F1 cars loud?
Last but not least, PetROV is unveiling something in GUM. Organised chanting by the crowd before 1 minute.
*The race is till up on iPlayer for one more day if people would like to witness your humiliation first hand. The section in question is sometime soonish after the halfway point in the race. No, you are not going to be more specific than that.
**Now you are in an actually back and forth dialogue, you are even more sure that you are on first name terms with Marty.
***It is legal, apparently, for you to splice these videos together to make one long ‘petROVpetROVpetROVpetROVpetROV’ drone. Something to do with satirical purposes.**** You would appreciate any help on whether it is possible.
****Satirical? Someone on the TV is WRONG! This is deadly serious.