Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Coffee Break Scottish English

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2007

If you’re interested in improving your Scottish accent (“and who isn’t?”, I believe it’s customary to say at this point), then don’t pick it up it secondhand from Shrek or Groundskeeper Willie. Instead, learn from actual Scots in a convenient, free, online resource: the weekly podcast of Coffee Break Spanish, “the show which brings you language with your latte.”

Actually, it doesn’t bring you language with your latte. I’ve listened to about ten episodes so far, and it has never once brought me a latte. However, you can hear authentic rolled /r/’s, fronted /u/’s (like those I wrote about here), the lowered /ɪ/’s (as in weth, defferent, and lesteners), and other phonetic properties that make Scottish English different from American English, from hosts Mark and Kara. For example, Mark might say:

There are two versions of this, depending on whether you’re using the form or the Usted form.

Then you can repeat the sentence, practicing your pronunciation of versions as [vε̩ɾʃəns]. Now that I’ve listened to and practiced with Coffee Break Spanish for a few weeks, my Scottish accent still probably wouldn’t fool anyone, but it has unquestionably improved.

What’s even nicer about Coffee Break Spanish is that there’s an additional benefit: You can learn Spanish from it, too. The format of the show is the instructor, Mark, giving you vocabulary, grammar, and (as appropriate) cultural information; and Kara, an apparently real student of Spanish, “learning with all of you.” Kara’s Scottish accent is still tending to creep into her Spanish pronunciation, but as far as I can tell, Mark has good Spanish pronunciation, and he’ll give pronunciation tips along with the vocabulary. They’re sometimes informal (such as calling fricatives “soft” consonants), but more technical when informal just isn’t enough (for example, talking about the tongue flicking the alveolar ridge in front of your hard palate in order to make the Spanish /r/). Also regarding pronunciation, the lessons cover primarily Castilian Spanish (something they never taught me when I took Spanish in junior high in Texas), but Mark will usually give the Latin American pronunciation of a word as well; this is only an issue for words with a z or “soft” c, which are pronounced as [s] in Latin American Spanish, but as [θ] (th) in Castilian.

In the podcasts I’ve listened to so far, they’ve covered greetings, jobs, family members, pastimes, and a few other topics. The lessons are presented with the aim of preparing you to make your way when traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, so I don’t know how comprehensively I can expect the grammar to be covered, but it’s still nice to pick up whatever I can when it’s in such a convenient, portable form. Finally, I want to say that the laid-back Mark is a much more likable host than the artificially enthusiastic salesman Peter from the other language-learning podcast I’ve sampled, JapanesePod101. But that’s another posting.

14 Responses to “Coffee Break Scottish English”

  1. valeqhk said

    Thanks for this tip. Yes, their Scottish accents are delightful and I like the way they teach Spanish too.

  2. gidler said

    Wow, this is exactly what I need!

  3. Mark said

    Thanks for this interesting review. I have to say that I never expected there to be such an interest in (or, indeed, a big deal about!) our Scottish accents. I suppose we are constantly surrounded by regional English accents, US accents and Australian accents, so maybe we’re more used to regional variations.

    Anyway, I’m delighted you’re finding the podcast useful, even if it’s not quite what we intended!

  4. Jaŋari said

    I think you misunderstand the logic of the tagline. The show which brings you language with your latté to me, says that if it were to bring you a latté then it would bring you language with it. So logically, if you receive no latté nor language, then the tagline still satisfies the truth-conditions it implies. It would only be false if it brings you a latté without language.

  5. Mark said

    In the interests of my education in my native language, I’m curious about the whole which vs that situation. What, exactly, is the problem with our tagline? I may be wrong in this, but I’m sure I’ve heard discussions in the past relating to the fact that which and that as relative pronouns are used differently in Scottish English than in the English of England or perhaps elsewhere.

    On another note – and please don’t take this the wrong way – I thought it may be worth pointing out that the word latte shouldn’t have an acute accent on the “e”. I’m not sure if this is an Americanism based on the fact that the final -e in the word has a sound similar to the French é, but é does not exist in Italian, where the word latte simply means “milk”. It’s quite possible that latte is written with an “é” in coffee shops all across the US (and no doubt, indeed, further afield). However, as far as I’m aware it doesn’t even fall into the category of certain foreign words adapted into English and optionally retaining their accents, eg. rôle, café, etc. Note that café is the French word for both “coffee” and for an establishment where you would drink said coffee, but in Italian “caffè” (with a grave accent, the only accent which exists in Italian) can only mean “coffee”, and is not the equivalent of the French “café”.

    Again, I hope this isn’t taken in the wrong way. Best wishes!

  6. Mark said

    One addition to what I wrote there: there are some Italians who use an accute accent to specify stress in the numbers from 23 upwards which end in the word for three: ventitré (23), trentatré (33), quarantatré (43), etc. However, these are equally written as ventitre, trentatre, quarantatre, without the accent. I’m fairly certain the acute accent isn’t used in any other situations. And 100% definite that it’s not used in “latte”! [Apologies for beginning a sentence with “and”…]

  7. Neal said

    Mark: It’s nice to hear from you. I was just listening to some more CBS today, learning the numbers up to the thousands. Anyway…

    1. You’re right in that here in the midwestern U.S., you don’t hear as many regional variations of English as you would in the UK; hence my fascination when hearing a distinctive one.

    2. No problem with your tagline. I linked the which to one of a number of posts on Language Log on the topic of which vs. that, specifically the rule that appears in a number of grammar/usage books, stating that which should be used exclusively with nonrestrictive relative clauses. However, these posts are unanimously critical of this rule, showing many attestations of which in restrictive relative clauses, and arguing that there is little justification for this rule’s existence. The post I linked to notes that the rule seems to have been invented only in 1926, but that evidently some people “never met a rule they didn’t like”. I just thought the post might be of (tangential) interest to readers of this blog, and possibly useful for any readers who think the which in the tagline is an error.

    3. Thanks for the correction regarding latte; it’s all fixed now.

    4. I start lots of sentences with and. Or and but, too.

    Muchas gracias por el podcast CBS. Hasta pronto!

  8. Jaŋari said

    Ah, I read Mark’s comment, then re-read the post to find no such accents in your original, Neal, and thought, ‘my bad – them’s my accents’, but alas, I’m not to blame after all. I was just following suit!

  9. Mark said

    In a little addition to the discussion you may be interested in our latest show in which we challenge those who have been complaining about our “unintelligible Scottish accents” by showing them what a really strong Scottish accent sounds like. It’s basically just a fast version of how we talk normally, but it’s already caused some hilarity on the forums and in emails. The section is at the beginning of lesson 23.

  10. Neal said

    Unintelligible? Sheesh. Readers: The beginning of CBS #23 is informative, and is a good reminder that phonetic variation isn’t the only kind in different varieties of English (or any language); Mark and Kara point out that there are also differences in lexicon. For example, to say little in a Scottish accent, you don’t turn the i into a short E and neglect to turn the tt into a flap. Instead, you say wee. And at long last, Mark and Kara talk about the unfulfilled claim of providing lattes to their listeners!

  11. […] you might try the recently inaugurated Coffee Break French from the same people who brought you Coffee Break Spanish. But if you’ve had some French that you want to refresh and build on, these […]

  12. Joe Columbo said

    I think Kara’s accents is absolutely enchanting.

    She should come to America and work in television — simply reading the news or something. Her voice is music.

  13. Brian Healey said

    For those who like Mark and Kara’s accents allow me just to point out that they are making a concerted effort to make themselves clear and understood, with the knowledge that they are going to be broadcast internationally. If you ever happen to visit Scotland try to listen in a conversation between natives then tell me if you think it would be suited to an American tv station 😀

  14. It’s fantastic that you are getting thoughts from this paragraph as well as from our dialogue made at this time.

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