Monday, April 06, 2009

Lola, Laura, Miracle, Milagro

Eric Crapton jokes aside, the tendency to confuse the letters “L” and “R” confusion when translating between Japanese and English is real. See the website engrish.com if you don’t believe me. If there’s a technical term for this phenomenon, I haven’t heard it. Considering that we chose the word lisp to name the inability to properly pronounce the letter “S,” thereby forcing lispers to engage in the embarrassingly redundant task of announcing “I have a lithp,” I feel we should call the “L”/“R” problem lorlarollerola. Because that would be funny.

I don’t know why this happens, but I’d bet someone with a background in linguistics could explain it. I do know that the sounds English associates with “L” and “R” are both classified as liquids — “L” being lateral and “R” being rhotic. There are other liquids, but I don’t know if translators working in the languages that use them would encounter similar problems. I also am not sure whether the problem exists in all East Asian languages. I feel like Americans might associate the habit more with Japanese and Chinese people, but that could easily result from limited experience with other nationalities that might have the same problems.

My point with this post, however, is not to dwell on Asian languages and the way they approach “L” and “R” but instead to focus on another tongue altogether: Spanish. While watching Dollhouse this week, I noted that the actress who plays Mellie is Miracle Laurie. Aside from sounding like an improved version of Regular Old Laurie, the name is notable to me because I’d never heard of anyone named Miracle before. I had, however, met a few Hispanic women with the name Milagro, Spanish for “miracle.” You can easily see from their similar structure how the words miracle and milagro might be related — and indeed it seems that they are. I don’t have handy resources for Spanish etymology, but a simple Google search did turn up a few documents indicated that milagro comes from Latin via a rarer Spanish word, miraglo. (Yes, it sounds like a new floor-cleaning product and perhaps it should be, especially in Spanish-speaking countries.) It should be noted, however, that none of the Spanish-to-English dictionaries I checked included miraglo, so perhaps it’s obsolete and therefore not of use to the rudimentary Spanish-speakers who would use these online dictionaries.

My question is this: Why would Spanish, which unlike some Asian language uses both the “L” and “R” sounds, still mix them up in this word? Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any other instances of such a phonetic switch-around. (Then again, my Spanish is lousy.) And it’s not just one substitution the change from miraglo to milagro — it’s two, with the “R” at the beginning becoming an “L” and the “L” at the end becoming an “R.” Is the switch something that just happens in human language with these sounds? Does translation make “R” and “L” easily interchangeable like it does with “B,” “V,” “F,” and “P”? If so, why would it be so much more pronounced with Asian languages than with others? Are their words in English that have undergone this kind of change?

Oh, and regarding my reasons for calling the “L”/“R” confusion lorlarollerola, know that lisp isn’t the only case of a speech impediment term incorporating the sound that the sufferer cannot pronounce. The proper term for the inability to pronounce the letter “R,” as exemplified by Elmer Fudd and Barbara Walters, is rhotacism. Sick, isn’t it? I need no further proof that human nature is essentially cruel.

2 comments:

  1. The feature where two phonemes switch positions, as in miraglo ~ milagro, is called metathesis.

    Because Japanese has just one liquid, a lateral flap, the distinction between English /l/ and /r/ is difficult to perceive for Japanese speakers. Korean also doesn't make a distinction between /l/ and /r/, but Mandarin does.

    It's similar to how a Canadian English speaker might have difficulty perceiving, and therefore producing, the difference between the vowels in "cot" and "caught" as produced by an American who doesn't merge those two vowels. (see the cot-caught merger.)

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  2. I have always thought it cruel that "phonics" is not spelled phonetically.

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