Who is responsible for that surfer /o/?

I’m sitting in Helen Coffee, in the way back, which is a deep freeze.  It’s actually not that hot out today, only 34°C | 93°F… blue skies, cool breeze; humidity is 49%.

They’re piping in some hateful saxophone covers of “You Are Not Alone,” “Without You,” and “Are you Lonesome Tonight,” complete with full orchestra.  I imagine the musicians after that recording session all went home and wept.  Note to self:  do not forget earphones!

I wish that Minimal Café wasn’t so expensive, and that it wasn’t filled with so many cats.  The Quince goes right there; it would be the perfect place to study, eat next door at Borneo, and hang out behind 師大 Shida.  But alas, expensive.  And cats.

(ambient music:  alto sax cover of Phil Collins “Take Me Home”)

So I took the Dieciocho up to 228 Peace Park and Helen Cafe, where I usually have my lessons.  I thought I’d give Benny’s Nuissance Café a break.

Anyway, as I sat on the Dieciocho, I had a good hard think about the Chinese ESL /o/, which is almost exactly the same as the American Surfer /o/.  Imagine Keannu Reeves saying “Nooooo!” and you’ll come up with a distinct two-syllable “neh-ew.”

Surfer /o/ in Chinese ESL Announcements

So for some reason, ESL speakers whose first language is Chinese use this surfer /o/ when pronouncing English (and Spanish!) words.  I’m not talking about regular Chinese ESL speakers, I’m talking about the ones they like; the ones that Chinese people choose for public address when announcements have to be made in English.  I used to hear it all the time when I lived in Shanghai, I heard it again at the PRC Consulate in San Francisco; and I’ve been hearing it on the buses in Taipei as well.

The classic example is when they are reading numbers; phone numbers, waiting room take-a-numbers, etc.  Chinese people seem to fear the pronunciation of the English word “zero”  which, is silly, since the vowels and most of the consonants are the same as 雞肉 and 肌肉.  In fact, if they just said 細柔 (with a south China accent), most English speakers of the world would perceive that as “zero.”  But the “zero” story is another post.

The point is that Chinese people, when given the chance, will replace the number “zero” with the letter “O.”  Regular people will pronounce this “O” correctly (it’s the same /o/ as in 狗,都,and 后).  Public address announcements, in contrast, for some reason require the surfer /o/.

When you ride a taxi in Shanghai, there’s a hotline that you can call.  I only remember the last 4 digits:  0000.  The taximeter reads it first as 零零零零, and then does the whole announcement again in English, and the last 4 digits sound like “eh-oo, eh-oo, eh-oo, eh-oo.”  Imagine that the mousy Chinese girl chosen to record the announcement learned English from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Who is responsible for this?  Where does it come from?  Is there some kind of national teaching standard set in Beijing that the /o/ sound in public address must sound like Cameron Diaz just smoked a fat doobie?

Because it’s only in public address recordings, and not in regular Chinese ESL pronunciation, I can only conclude that it’s a prescriptivist misapproximation that’s been standardized somehow.  They’re probably going after the British /o/, but someone forgot to tell them that it’s monosyllabic.

BONUS!  The Australian /o/

The Australian /o/ is pure comedy joy to my ears.  If you’re an American and you want to pronounce the word “go” with an Australian accent, first say “oh!” and freeze your lips in that rounded position.  Now, keeping your lips in that rounded position, say the word “gay.”

It will sound and feel weird at first… but then you’ll start to hear it!  You’ve just said “go” with  a crazy Australian “o!”

Practice practice:

  • “No” (round your lips and say “nay”)
  • “Slow”  (round your lips and say “slay”)
  • “Dingo” (round your lips and say “ding-gay”)
  • “Holy smokes!* (round your lips and say “hay-lee smayks”)

*Note:  I have no evidence that Australian people actually say “holy smokes.”  

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