Accent and Dialect: Do You Get to Be Choosy?

As many people know, there are frequently regional varieties and accents of almost every language, even within languages spread over fairly small areas. This presents an interesting problem for non-native speakers and new learners of any given language. For certain languages, the accents aren’t sufficiently different from the standard or most commonly spoken variety. However, for others, such as those spoken in different countries, particularly ones that are far apart, the accents and dialects can be distinct, and to a degree, somewhat unintelligible. So, what do you learn? Is one more “right” than the other? Do we non-natives even have the right to choose? I discussed this in a previous post, but recently I’ve been rethinking this idea.

In order to consider this problem properly, let’s look at a few different languages where dialects and accents are reasonably present. What I mean by that is that the language in question has regional varieties and pronunciation variations that are fairly apparent to natives of the language. These dialects may even constitute social barriers. The languages I’m going to discuss are Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic.

First, let’s consider Spanish. The Spanish language is spoken in many countries, most notably in the majority of nations in South and Central America, Spain, and the United States. The varieties of Spanish in each country are generally viewed as fairly distinct. For example, Cuban Spanish, is very different from the Spanish spoken in Spain. The principal difference is the use of ceceo, a rule of pronunciation of the letters s, c, and z. However, Cuban Spanish has its own peculiarities. Take the word pescado (seafood/fish). In Castilian Spanish, the variety spoken in Spain, it is pronounced as written, but in Cuban Spanish, it is widely pronounced as pe-ca-o. This can be seen as an almost intolerable difference, to the point that you might have to devote separate studying to understanding spoken Cuban Spanish. However, this is an extreme example. Mexican Spanish, though spoken with its own accent, is not incomprehensible to the average foreign learner of Spanish, and in fact is used as the de facto “natural example” in most classrooms in the United States. (I say “natural example” to denote a variety used most often in the classroom for practical purposes.) The point is that most varieties of Spanish have their regional differences, mostly in the way of slang and regionally exclusive concepts (such as food, items in daily use, etc.), but are, overall, fairly mutually intelligible. Now, this brings us to the main problem: do learners of Spanish get to choose what variety they learn or speak? Usually, classrooms teach a version of Spanish that is politically correct, without much slang or regionalisms. Personally, I don’t view this as a huge problem, because, in the beginning, it gives a learner a decent foundation to work up from. But, in the long run, if one continues to use this approach, the end result is an overly newscaster-y sounding Spanish that everyone understands but nobody really uses in everyday conversation. I believe the solution to this problem is that students learn the “politically correct” version to a point, perhaps to the lower intermediate level (B1), and then specialize or at least become familiar with the regional dialect of one country. For example, I would say I understand most varieties of Spanish, but I personally speak and am most comfortable using Castilian Spanish. But it is not a terrible thing if you can’t do so, since the “standard form” of Spanish is readily understood and can be switched to by most, if not all speakers of the language. However, not all languages are the same, since Japanese and Arabic present different problems.

Japanese is spoken only within Japan, but the effect of regional differences is widely recognized. The Japanese spoken in Tokyo is the standard, but if one goes to the Kansai region and Hokkaido region, one will notice a marked difference in pronunciation and use of the copula (the verb “to be”) and even conjugation of verbs. This poses a particular problem for learners of Japanese, because even if one never leaves Tokyo, there are people from all over living there. It’s very similar to New York City, where I’m living right now, and I have met all sorts of different Spanish speakers. Sure, these speakers might speak the standard Japanese when they’re talking to you, but if you go to their hometown, or you end up working in Osaka as an English teacher or something, it would be in your best interest to learn how locals speak. Just because standard Tokyo Japanese is the most commonly spoken version and it’s convenient to learn only that, doesn’t mean that it’s the only one you’ll ever hear. A responsibility of non-native speakers of different languages, I think, is to understand as many people as one can. It is pretentious and even offensive to say “I don’t like the way Kansai-ben sounds, so I’m only going to speak Tokyo-ben” (-ben is a Japanese prefix referring to the dialect of a region). This is different from Spanish, because you can avoid going to Cuba, and have no contact with the Spanish spoken there. Japan is much smaller, and it is significantly less likely that you can worm your way out of going to a specific region of Japan, if you are sent there. Think about it: it is less likely that you’ll be sent to an entirely different country versus a different region within a country. Therefore, it is easier to not have to learn all the different varieties of Spanish, but in Japanese, it would be a good idea to at least understand, if not speak, a localized variety of the language.

Now, we come to the curious case of Arabic, which I have discussed several times before. Unlike some other languages of the world, Arabic’s regional varieties differ greatly, to the point that some are not mutually intelligible. According to some speakers of Arabic that I have met, this is mostly in the way of slang, but formal sources say that even the written and common, non-slang instances of the language vary. The Egyptian and Levantine versions of the sentence “I read the book” can differ greatly in pronunciation, syntax, and even sentence order, for example. When it comes to learner, they must make a choice, I believe. Modern Standard Arabic is used only in formal, pan-Arab announcements and news broadcasts, and learners should decide from there, what variety of Arabic they will learn and use more often. If you’re going to be spending most of your time in Syria or Lebanon, you should learn Levantine Arabic, and even within that, there are national and sub-national variations in the language. Likewise, if you’re working in Morocco, Moroccan Arabic is your best bet. Arabic is a language that forces you to pick a dialect, since you can’t really get away with speaking only the standard form.

The overall conclusion is that the more unintelligible two given varieties of the same language are (though you should definitely compare all of them), the more likely it is that you’ll need to become familiar with one in detail. In a way, learners do have the right, and depending on the way you look at it, and even the responsibility to choose a dialect or accent to emulate.

I hope you found this piece informative and interesting! Feel free to leave any comments and please share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

Playing Final Fantasy X… in Italian! – Part 1

Recently, I changed my PS3’s display language to Italian, just for practice, as I rarely get opportunities to use the language anymore. When I loaded my copy of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster, I discovered that the game’s text had changed to Italian as well! The dubbing was the same as in the English version, though. I decided to take advantage of this is as a learning experience. Since I’m playing this game for the umpteenth time, I know the script and the events of the game almost verbatim (I exaggerate, but I know the game very well). So far, I’m almost halfway through the game (just started the Thunder Plains, for those of you who are familiar with the game).

I’ve taken great care to note translations of text and character lines, comparing them with the original text (in English), as much as I can remember, and when there are cutscenes, the English dialogue helps me contextualize the words used in the text. I’m not sure whether the Italian text has been translated from English or from the original Japanese. Despite my experiences with Italian, many lines in the game are surprisingly concise, which is not what I expect it to do. Here, I’m going to note some interesting things I’ve found about the game in Italian. (I think it goes without saying, but SPOILERS AHEAD if you’re planning on playing the game; I’m trying as best as I can to not reveal too much about the story.)

  1. Much of the narration, as well as character’s lines in real time, are written in a somewhat literary manner, making extensive use of the passato remoto, a simple (as opposed to compound) form of the past tense, also known as the preterite. 

The use of this tense is to be expected in narration, as many of the events up until a certain point are told in retrospect, as a story, to the player. However, I was struck more by its use in the lines of characters in conversation, rather than through narration. For those of you unfamiliar with the Italian language, the passato remoto is an archaic tense, whose use is restricted almost entirely to literary and legal language. Some parts of Southern Italy use it as well. In modern Italian, the passato prossimo, also known as the present perfect, takes the passato remoto’s place. Currently, I’m guessing that the translators were going for an older style of speech in between modern times and pre-Industrial revolution, where the passato remoto is still in use, but the language is changing. The setting of the game is 1000 years after a highly mechanized and industrialized civilization is wiped out by a supernatural force, setting back the world’s people in technological advances, as they fear it will bring them destruction again. It might make sense that they would speak an older form of Italian, simply to reflect the setback. Then again, this is all speculation, as if it were me aiming for an older style of speaking, I might have changed the third person pronouns as well. Italian’s current (or rather most common) third person pronouns are lui and lei. The older forms, egli and ella are largely reserved to formal and literary contexts. In the game, these pronouns are not used, which would be odd, considering the use of the passato remoto, which is also formal and literary in usage.

(A side note on grammar/syntax: If you talk to some of the elderly NPCs (non-playable characters) in one of the rooms in Guadosalam, their Italian text is changed to reflect what is called the “old language of the Guado”, which simply changes the syntax of their sentences to something like OVS, putting adjectives before verbs and subjects at the end of sentences.)

2. The translations of various in-game terms for aspects of the universe can be odd or decidedly ordinary.

Examples include the following words: fayth, Sin, maester, pyreflies, sending and the Farplane. Let me explain a couple of things first about the universe. In the game, the world is plagued by a supernatural force called Sin, which, according to the priesthood, is the embodiment of people’s vanity, and is their punishment for using machines to wage war, destroying many things and killing many people in the process. The people depend on gifted individuals, summoners, to protect them from Sin’s wrath. These summoners embark on pilgrimages throughout the world to train themselves to receive what is called the Final Summoning, which allows them to defeat Sin, banishing it for two years at a time. The Final Summoning, as well as the lesser summonings that these summoners can perform, are enabled by spirits that reside in the temples of the land, called the fayth. The summoners pray to the fayth for their power and the ability to defeat Sin.

Now, in the game, the word fayth is an intentional “misspelling” of the word, and in the Italian version, it is called l’intercessore, or an “intercessor”. An intercessor is a person that prays on the behalf of others, or communicates with the Divine, as a mediator, to grant something to other people. In a way, this is what the fayth do, though it is the summoner who receive power from the fayth to combat Sin, not the other way around. Either way, this word has religious connotations, which fits into the context of the game, though I might argue it’s not entirely parallel in meaning.

Next up is the word Sin itself, which is left untranslated. The word “sin” is peccato in Italian, though the game is not using the word literally, and to be honest, I don’t really mind it.

Then we have the word, “maester”, which is one of four religious authorities who lead the people, and act in more or less governor-like capacity. The word chosen to translate it into Italian is maestro, which, truthfully, has a completely different meaning in Italian. A maestro is usually a teacher or other person who instructs in some way, such as conductor of an orchestra. I’m not sure the word is appropriate, as it lacks the religious connotations that, “maester” has, at least for how it is used in the game. Now, there’s not much you can do, considering that it’s not a real word in English, and they’ve done the best they can.

The next three words are related, so I’m going to do them in one paragraph. First is pyreflies, which are luminescent wisps that float around dead organisms, embodying their souls, sort of. They are called lunioli in the Italian text (unless I’ve misread the game text), which leads me to assume associations with the moon, which is not really what is going on with them. The pyreflies appear when someone or something dies, and they act on people’s memories and feelings to produce images of the dead. Left alone long enough, the spirits of the dead manifested as the pyreflies grow resentful of and angry at the living, their hatred turning them into monsters called fiends (mostri in the Italian text). In order to prevent this (it’s physically required as opposed to a superstition), a ritual called the sending is performed to grant them peace, laying their souls to rest. This ceremony’s Italian name is trapassato, which comes from the verb trapassare, one of whose meanings is, “to pass away”, or more formally, “to depart”. It carries the sentiment of the original word very well. My only qualm is that the verb is used transitively in the same way, though the actual word’s only transitive meaning is, “to pierce” or “to perforate”, which, to the native speaker unfamiliar with the game, and/or unable to understand English, would be exceedingly strange. Now, the sending sends the souls of the departed to a place called the Farplane, which is basically the hereafter or the afterlife, and is dubbed l’Oltremondo in the Italian text, which is literally “the world beyond”, which fits perfectly, in my opinion.

That’s all for this post, and I will be sure to write Part 2 of this as I get farther in the game, and I’m definitely going to be using my Final Fantasy games in other languages to learn more. I encourage you gamers out there to do so as well. I realize this was kind of long read, but I hope you found it interesting! Don’t forget to share this post!