So when they come to write textbooks they can’t give clear explanations of how to pronounce the language.
The Guardian is publishing a series of Spanish phrasebooks this week. At the back there is a Pronunciation guide. Put yourself in the position of a naïve would-be learner of Spanish, and see how much help it offers.
What kind of sound would you take a less forceful ‘d’ to be? A fricative, perhaps, or an approximant? Or a very lenis plosive with no voicing? No, that’s the description the booklet gives of the Spanish single r — which is actually a pretty forceful tap, [ɾ].
Fortunately there is a supporting audio CD available (at a price). But if the author devotes a page in the phrasebook to pronunciation it ought to give accurate and helpful advice.
If you have even a very elementary knowledge of Spanish phonetics, you’ll know that the voiced plosives /b d g/ have weakened allophones [β ð ɣ] intervocalically and finally. The Guardian booklet tells us nothing about this for the dental and velar.
You’d think it would at least have mentioned that the d in nada sounds much more like the th (ð) in English father than it does like English d. I would have thought this more important than telling us about Argentinian variants of ll.
Q: If the plosive-fricative alternation in /d/ and /g/ is not worth mentioning, why does the author mention it for /b/? A: Because that’s where the spelling forces it on everyone’s attention. But what does he say? that v and b are “like b in bath, but softer and slightly aspirated”.
Oh dear, oh dear. Here we have a phonetic technical term, aspirated. It’s just that the author doesn’t understand its meaning. For the record, no plosives in Spanish are aspirated (= with an interval of voicelessness between the plosive release and the following segment).
In fairness, I must report that the author, when I remonstrated with him, told me
I can't remember now whether that definition was borrowed from another source or if it was my own specific attempt to describe the bilabial fricative in layman's terms, but it's a fair point about the misappropriation of a technical term...
I suppose I could defend the position by saying it was a non-technical usage (consonant with the rest of the guide), but on the other hand I'd certainly avoid it if I was doing the guide again.
Let me try to explain the facts as I understand them in terms that the ordinary reader might be able to understand.
In Castilian Spanish, the letters b and v refer to the same sound.
At the beginning of a phrase or after m or n this sound is just like an English b. (So vaso sounds like “BAH-so”, and enviar is “em-bee-AHR”.) Elsewhere it is pronounced like an English v, except that you use the two lips rather than the lower lip and the upper teeth.
For a language learner with some phonetic training, it’s easier. All we need say is
Initially or after a nasal /b d g/ are plosives, [b d ɡ]. Elsewhere they are realized as fricatives, [β ð ɣ] (or the corresponding approximants).
Contrary to the impression you may have formed from the above, I cannot actually speak Spanish, because I have never learnt it. But I certainly know how to pronounce it. And I know how to teach other people how to pronounce it. Oughtn’t this to be part of the intellectual equipment of all teachers of Spanish?