Friday, March 30, 2007

Excuse Me, Are You A Nigerian?

This excerpt from an article by Samuel Lee (ST Life!, Saturday, March 17, 2007) caught my eye. Interviewing a Nigerian musician wary of his country’s media, Lee was probed whether he was a countryman, prompting him to wonder: Do Singaporeans speak English like Nigerians?

Yes, we do. There is a strong superficial similarity between our accents, and it has to do with intonation — specifically, what are known in Phonetics as level tones and contour tones.

In British and American English, which have contour tones, the ‘tune’ of a speaker is generally fluid, with one pitch blending seamlessly into the next for the most part. It is like the undulating peaks and falls of a mountain range.

In a level-tone language, however, each syllable has its own pitch, largely unaffected by its neighbours’. Hence, the appropriate analogy is steps rather than slopes. Singlish and Singapore English have mostly level tones — this is almost certainly an influence from Chinese (specifically, Hokkien), in which most words have inherent tone. (However, it should be pointed out that Standard Mandarin is more ‘contoured’ than Singapore Mandarin.)

Where does Nigerian English come in, then? Well, some African languages (including, possibly, those spoken in Nigeria) have what is called ‘downdrift’: The speaker utters syllables that are alternately high and low, continuing on a downward slide towards the end of the utterance. Each successive high-low pair is lower in pitch than the last. You can picture this as a downward zigzag (or a rather depressing sales chart!). It is likely that the English spoken in Nigeria and also Ghana inherited this feature in the form of level tones.

So, Nigerian English and Singapore English do sound superficially similar — and that is because they both have level tones.


loey said...

I was recently going through a phonology class where we started talking about stress patterns in Singlish, and how stress always falls on the same syllable. I as a Singaporean never realized that until I hear my RP-speaking lecturer try to pronoun Singlish.

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Hmm, I guess she/he was trying to demonstrate stress timing vs. syllable timing? Last I heard, this dichotomy was being discredited by experimental studies, but there's no doubt that most languages do seem to fall broadly into one category or the other. Someone should really write a paper on the similarities between Singlish and Nigerian/Ghanaian intonation...