linguistic follies

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jul 24 14:55:11 UTC 2007

I'd like bring up a study by Bansal (Bansal, R. K. 1969. *The
Intelligibility of Indian English. *Hyderabad Da'iratu'l-Ma'arif Press.)
that has always been salient for me as someone who has worked with Indian
English over the years. Bansal reports that American and British native
speakers of English are most "thrown off" (my term) by shifts in stress in
Indian English, where stress is often shifted to the first syllable, and the
vowel of the second syllable is then deleted or reduced. This results in
words like "development" or "facility" being pronounced [dEvl at pm@nt] (where
I'm using "@" for shwa and capital letters to indicate stress) and [fAEsl at ti].

I find this salient because I was once thrown off by this same phenomenon
(even after having read Bansal's article) while waiting in the airport in
Chennai, where I heard an announcement for a plane departing for [kAElkt@].
I asked myself what city this could possibly be, since it was unknown to me,
but was surely an important enough place to have air service. I learned what
 it was when a passenger passed me with her boarding pass, on which was
stamped "Calcutta" in large letters. It is true that in context, i.e. in a
sentence where the rest of the words are unproblematical, one would not have
the same problems.  But in an airport departure announcement, only the city
name changes, which doesn't give any other clues.

Over the years I learned to adapt my American pronunciations whenever I was
 in India to a style that was more comprehensible to Indians, but never to
my knowledge did I feel the need to adjust the stress system. Whatever I
did, it was judged by one hearer, after I addressed a large audience at a
conference in 1995, to be very "nice", or as he put it, I didn't have that
"awful American accent."

So I think this validates the claim that native BAMA speakers do not do as
well as non-native speakers in understanding variant (non-native) forms of

Hal Schiffman

On 7/24/07, Anthea Fraser Gupta <A.F.Gupta at> wrote:
> Re (Christopher Thomas):
> "It is also hard work for even the best non-native speakers to understand
> other
> non-native versions of English, whereas it is no great strain for the
> British
> or Irish to decipher the various accents."
> I don't know why or how this can be claimed. Time and again, it is the
> native
> speaker who fails to understand or be understood by non-native speakers.
> are at least aware of the difficulties involved in communication that NS
> are
> oblivious to. Is there any "good" research to definitively support either
> position?
> --------
> Surprisingly few studies have been done on inter-accent intelligibility
> (and even fewer on face to face negotiation). You might be interested in a
> paper I did on this. Native/non-native was not an issue here (I did not ask
> what the listeners' native languages were). But the findings were robust. If
> anyone is interested in extending this study with other groups, I'll be
> happy to discuss it!
> 2005. Inter-accent and inter-cultural intelligibility: a study of
> listeners in Singapore and Britain. In D Deterding, A Brown & E L Low (eds).
> English in Singapore: Phonetic research on a corpus. Singapore: McGraw-Hill
> Education (Asia), 138-152. [ISBN 007-124727] <
>        Interviews with two well matched speakers (a student from Singapore
> and a student from England) were played to hearers (students of English
> Language from Singapore and from England), who were asked to transcribe them
> into normal orthography. The transcriptions were scored for intelligibility
> of main content features, and accuracy. When listening to a familiar accent,
> all hearers were equally skilled, but when faced with an unfamiliar accent,
> hearers demonstrated a wide range of skills. It was not possible to say that
> one accent was intrinsically more intelligible than the other: both included
> features that would be challenging for a hearer unfamiliar with the accent.
> Anthea
> *     *     *     *     *
> Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
> School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT <
> NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at
> *     *     *     *     *


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at

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