‘Castles’ in the air

International flights are a great opportunity to see English working as a lingua franca. When you take off from Zurich to Madrid as I did the other day, the safety demonstration and other standard messages that you get over the speakers are not aimed at native speakers, and usually aren’t given by native speakers.

It was interesting to listen to the Spanish-L1 crew member who guided us into Madrid last week. As we were coming in to land, she come over the intercom to tell us about the ‘luggage [ˈkɛːsel] . It took me a while to realize that she was saying ‘carousel’. A few minutes later, as we were taxiing towards the terminal building, the pilot, also Spanish, hoped that we had had a ‘[ˈkʌmfɔtɪbl] flight’.

Presumably the member of the cabin crew who produceed [ˈkɛːsel] for ‘carousel’ was doing her best to approximate to the weak vowels that are characteristic of unstressed syllables in NS English. Overall, though, the complete loss of the second syllable, together with the incorrect pronunciation of the /æ/ in the first syllable, seriously jeapordised her intelligibility. In contrast, the pronunciation of ‘comfortable’ as a four-syllable word, with the ‘o’ as [ɔ] was immediately intelligible, to me at least.

As Jenkins pointed out back in 2000 (The Phonology of English as an International Language, pp146-148), the theory that the weakening of unstressed items in the speech flow allows the listener to focus on the stressed items is a dubious one. Spanish doesn’t have reduced vowels of any sort, but there are clearly strssed syllables and stressed words in the normal speech flow.

More important, however, is the other argument that Jenkins elaborates on; what NSs do in order to be intelligible to fellow NSs is irrelevant to ELF contexts. What matters in situations like intercom messages in English on an flight from Switzerland to Spain is that the aircrew should be intelligible to other NNSs. I think that [ˈkʌmfɔtɪbl] fulfills this requirement, whereas [ˈkɛːsel] doesn’t. And the problem with [ˈkɛːsel] isn’t the poor pronunciation of the first vowel. If this had been done well, we would have heard [ˈkæsel], which would have been very hard to make sense of, both in the air and on the ground.