I’m fascinated by ‘final devoicing’. Is my brain weird?

Let me tell you the story of how I chose the subject of my master’s thesis because I sometimes misunderstand my boyfriend…

I am looking at final devoicing, which in a nutshell is the tendency of Dutch people (and German people, Polish people, Russian people…) to pronounce “dog” like “dock”, “bed” like “bet”, “prove” like proof” etc. (“Final devoicing” is actually a misnomer; you can read more about that here.)

I chose this particular issue because in my own life I have noticed that it is these words that lead to misunderstandings. My partner speaks excellent English and we hardly ever have misunderstandings, but when we do, it’s usually because of final devoicing. I remember he was once telling me that during a conference he had met someone in the “lounch”.

“In the what?” I said. “In the lunch? In the launch? Like a rocket launch? That makes no sense.”

“No, in the lounch, the lounch,” he said, frustrated. “You know, like, a place with sofas for relaxing.”

“Oh, lounge!” I said.

“That’s what I said!” he said, angrily.

And just recently I was listening to a Podcast where one of the Dutch presenters talked about people skating on a “pont”. It really took me quite a while to realise he was talking about a “pond”.

In both these examples the context should have made it clear to me right away. You can’t meet people in a “lunch”, after all, and “pont” isn’t even a word in English. But for some reason my brain just shorts out when it comes to these kinds of mispronunciations. When vowels get pronounced differently, it’s fine. When “think” becomes “tink” and “that” becomes “dat”, it’s fine. But when “pond” becomes “pont”, my brain just refuses to process.

So I dove into the literature, and though I did not find any confirmation of native speakers finding this one particular issue as confusing as I do, the issue of final devoicing is certainly at the top of very many lists for pronunciation issues in Dutch English that cause intelligibility issues.

So my brain might be weird, but I found enough reason to make this a good choice for my thesis subject!

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

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