Monday, 14 February 2011

I Must Stress This

My friend Polly is on her way to China now, on a mission to improve the English of the people who live in a town somewhere near Shanghai. Before she left, she told me about how, when we listen to English being spoken, the most important thing for comprehension is not the sounds themselves but the stress that is put on them. Upholding my family's long tradition, (according to my cousin's husband who says it's the only reply any of us ever gives to anything), I said, 'I know.'

And, in fact, I did know, for just the day before I'd been listening to a review of a new French film. Because of a very faint change in the presenter's emphasis, I'd come away with the impression that the film was about a woman, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who was married to a witch doctor in the South of France. It sounded quite an intriguing premise and certainly nothing like anything I'd heard of before - and, as it turned out, nothing like the actual film, which was in fact about a woman married to a rich doctor in the South of France.

But, Polly, beware -  stress, it seems, is not as helpful to foreigners as to native speakers when they are trying to make sense of things. Judging by the conversation about Radio Four I had with a Hungarian woman some years ago, sounds still matter. 'But what about this Desert Island Desks they all talk about,' she asked me, 'why is it so popular? Why does people talking about their favourite bits of office furniture make good listening?'

Good travels, Polly - we are already looking forward to your safe return.

14 comments:

  1. Inadvertent stress can always cause problems with understanding, even with words. Hope she enjoys herself. When she's finished, she can come to the UK and improve our English too.

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  2. Hello, Madame, I will pass on the invitation - and you're right: imagine if someone put the stress on Mad in your name? The effect, of course, would be completely ridiculous

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  3. I can imagine your disappointment: a film about a woman - played by Kristin Scott Thomas or otherwise - married to a rich doctor in the South of France does sound pretty darn boring.

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  4. Yeah - after all I'm married to a doctor (although, as one of his daughters pointed out once, not the injecting kind) and, if it wasn't for me, he'd be a rich one as well.

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  5. Are you married to a doctor, zedders? (I didn't mean to imply that your life is boring, how could it possibly be.) I somehow imagined he'd be a diplomat, what with all the living and travelling in unfashionable Eastern European countries. But where's the fun in doctoring if one is not allowed to inject things?

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  6. He's a Ph.D type of doctor, not a medical one, Gadj. As to boring, all life is boring, isn't it, if you want it to be?

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  7. According to this story (told by the president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), if it wasn't for you, Zoe, he mightn't have been a doctor...

    A famous nobel laureate is travelling with his wife in their car in the southern United States. They stop for gas. Suddenly she gets out of the car and the laureate is puzzled to see his wife hugging and kissing the gas station attendant. She tells her husband that he was a former sweetheart in her youth and she has not seen him for a long time. The Nobel laureate is not amused and tells her: "It is embarrassing to see my wife hugging and kissing a gas station attendant. After all, I am a Nobel laureate." To which she replies: "No, you don't understand. If I had married that guy, he would now be the Nobel laureate."

    - and hello from Hangzhou, which is nothing like I expected, but that's the point of travel, isn't it?

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  8. Zoe!! I knew it. But, tell me, do you favour the diaeresis mark.... Zoë? This is a critical moment.

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  9. What is your motel like, Polly? Can we skype so that I can see it all, without having to get in an aeroplane?
    I like the diaeresis, Gadjo, but I don't make a fuss about it - or indeed my name: an old retainer made my wedding cake and it was only when we saw my name iced on the top that it became clear that for 25 years she'd thought, like a lot of the other people I'd met up till then, that my name was actually Sue. There was no point telling her the truth at that stage. But what's your real name anyway?

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  10. Francis. A name that nobody even vaguely masculine has been called since the Elizabethan era. My parents.... what were they thinking?

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  11. If it's any comfort, I used to know a woman called Honor Heap.

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  12. Plus, I think Francis is a really nice name.

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