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#1
Old 06-17-2010, 09:44 PM
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DO opera singers know what they're singing?

I understand that some non English-speaking band members sing English songs phonetically. Do professional opera singers know all the languages that they sing?
If so, to what degree? Just enough to know the words they sing, or enough to hold a conversation?

Last edited by SantaMan; 06-17-2010 at 09:44 PM.
#2
Old 06-17-2010, 10:07 PM
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It varies greatly from singer to singer. Most opera singers know at least the meaning of what they are singing and what is being sung to them. Some, admittedly, do not have a clue - such singers are rare, and not knowing what you are singing about is not something many singers would be particularly proud of. It's considered both lazy and sloppy.

Most of us have at least the equivalent of a first year university course in the standard operatic languages - French, German, Italian, English (maybe not so much for singing as for its usefulness as a universal second language...) Some folks take Russian or Czech as well. There are also some pretty astonishing people involved with opera - I'm thinking specifically of Nico Castel here, who grew up in an incredibly multi-lingual household. In addition to his work as a singer, he teaches diction for singers and has published an extensive series of translation of opera libretti. Nico is the kind of guy who can demonstrate what a Middle High German song would sound like when sung with Hungarian accent.

It is one of the unique privileges of singing opera and art song - we get to learn other languages through their singing. Other people may learn languages through their television, film or even their poetry, but we learn through song. It does give us a very different take on language, and I can bore you with tales of talking to the guy who repairs appliances in Vienna or getting strange looks for using a word that hasn't been common for two hundred years if you really wish.

Last edited by Le Ministre de l'au-delà; 06-17-2010 at 10:09 PM.
#3
Old 06-17-2010, 10:20 PM
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Originally Posted by SantaMan View Post
I understand that some non English-speaking band members sing English songs phonetically. Do professional opera singers know all the languages that they sing?
If so, to what degree? Just enough to know the words they sing, or enough to hold a conversation?
They do. I work with several opera singers and for the most part they just learn enough of the language to sing their lines, but they know what the lines are in english so yeah, they know what they're singing.
#4
Old 06-17-2010, 10:35 PM
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Originally Posted by Le Ministre de l'au-delà View Post
...getting strange looks for using a word that hasn't been common for two hundred years if you really wish.
Heh. I worked for a woman once who studied 14th century Italian Literature (or something) in college. One day in 2005 or so, an Italian speaking man wandered into our shop looking for directions to the train station. She did the best she could, but told me later it was probably the Italian equivalent of "Hie thee westward unto the setting sun and maketh a sinister turn!"
#5
Old 06-18-2010, 03:03 AM
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I'm not an opera singer, but I was a music major for a couple of years. I never sang a song in another language that I did not know what it meant. Even in high school, the sheet music would have the translation, and the director would translate for us.

In fact, the only singers I've encountered who do not know what they are singing are those singers from Korea who sound exactly like whatever music star sang the song.
#6
Old 06-18-2010, 06:42 AM
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The translations on the sheet music are often pretty laughable. If the original language is in the score, I generally decline to sing the English.
#7
Old 06-18-2010, 06:53 AM
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Originally Posted by BrotherCadfael View Post
The translations on the sheet music are often pretty laughable. If the original language is in the score, I generally decline to sing the English.
Which is why the director would tell us what it actually means. The English translation is a poetic one, essentially rewritten by the translator to fit the rhythm and feel. It's like dubbed animation.

And, in college, we had to look up each individual word to know what it meant (assuming we hadn't already learned it) so we'd know what inflection to put on it.

ETA: I've never sang a foreign song in English, either. I always wondered who actually did that, but learned there was actually a movement towards using the native language of the audience, in some circles, to help them appreciate it more.

Last edited by BigT; 06-18-2010 at 06:54 AM.
#8
Old 06-18-2010, 06:59 AM
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A professional opera singer ought to know the literal meaning of every word they sing as well as the overall meaning of the phrase; the dramatic nature of the medim requires it. This doesn't mean that they'll be fluent in the language conversationally (although many learn at least basic French, German and Italian as part of their training) but they'll know what their lines mean.

And yes, no one pays any attention to the poetic English translations unless they're actually singing them, as some do. The English National Opera, to pick a notable example, performs in English as a general rule (as opposed to the performances at the Royal Opera House which are in the original languages). I don't know who does their translations but they're generally better than what's in the average score.
#9
Old 06-18-2010, 07:08 AM
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My college required English and your choice of French of German, but you had to learn it on your own, all they provided was the testing. My German class at Berlitz included a soprano who had left school as soon as she'd finished compulsory education (14yo, for us) and who was working on learning the languages she worked in because she knew it would improve her singing.

Songs are extremely difficult to translate. If you translate each word literally, you will likely end up getting something which makes no sense in the second language; in order to get the sentences to make sense, you need to reorder things. If you want the translated song to make sense, you don't just need to reorder, you need to make deeper changes. So being able to read the original will make you able to sing it better and the more familiar you are with the original culture and with the writer's surroundings, the better you will understand the song, and again you'll know better which parts to emphasize and how to emphasize them.

An example (translations mine) from Juan Luis Guerra:

original:
Me dio una sirimba un domingo en la mañana
cuando menos lo pensaba
caí redondo, como una guanábana,
sobre la alcantarilla
quizás es la presión, pensé,
o me ha subido la bilirrubina.

Literal:
It gave me a faint one Sunday in the morning,
When it least I thought
I fell round, like a guanabana,
on the sewer,
perhaps it's the pressure, I thought,
or it has raised me the bilirrubine.

More understandable, but not quite matched to the rythm:
I got all faint on Sunday morning,
when I least expected it
I dropped like a guanabana on top of the sewer;
perhaps it's my pressure
or my bilirrubine got too high.

The first translation makes no sense. The second one makes sense, but knowing it won't tell a singer which word in the original is what. An explanation, even less. And of course neither translation will inform someone that one of Juan Luis Guerra y los 440's biggest hits is called La Bilirrubina and talks about the ill effects of love on the singer's health.

Last edited by Nava; 06-18-2010 at 07:11 AM.
#10
Old 06-18-2010, 09:00 AM
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Originally Posted by BigT View Post
The English translation is a poetic one, essentially rewritten by the translator to fit the rhythm and feel. It's like dubbed animation.
Very badly dubbed, in my experience.
#11
Old 06-18-2010, 09:02 AM
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The question is pointless anyway, as nobody is even able to make out what they're "singing".
#12
Old 06-18-2010, 09:03 AM
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A little off-topic but an interesting factoid: Luciano Pavarotti doesn't read music.

My guitar teacher played with the symphony when LP was here and was quite surprised to find this out.
#13
Old 06-18-2010, 09:57 AM
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Originally Posted by ThelmaLou View Post
A little off-topic but an interesting factoid: Luciano Pavarotti doesn't read music.
Well he certainly doesn't now.

To back up what others have said, even if you're not fluent in language you're singing in, you still need to understand the piece well enough to express and act it. This is a huge part of my voice lessons.
#14
Old 06-18-2010, 10:36 AM
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Originally Posted by Khaki Campbell View Post
The question is pointless anyway, as nobody is even able to make out what they're "singing".
I don't know that it is pointless, but you raise a point about understanding the words. This is much broader than opera - heck, when my cover band started playing Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads, I took the time to work out the pronunciations and meanings for the French words in the bridge:

Quote:
Ce que j'ai fait, ce soir-là [What I did that night]
Ce qu'elle a dit, ce soir-là [What she said that night]
Réalisant mon espoir [Making my hope come true]
Je me lance vers la gloire ... okay [I hurl myself toward glory]
But in the heat of a gig when I am just barking out lyrics at a sweaty mass of dancers, I just kinda make mock-French noises and fake the heck out of it.

No different than the lyrics to Jumping Jack Flash
Kidding - I actually know those and sing them clearly...
#15
Old 06-18-2010, 11:20 AM
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In opera, the characters express themselves through the music -- that is to say, the music itself is their language. This is why the enjoyment of opera does not require the listener to be fluent in Italian, German, French, or whatever "spoken" language the libretto may happen to employ. It's not at all unusual in opera for the same words to be used over and over again, or for multiple singers to be "talking" over one another, so the lyrics themselves, while not irrelevant, are of secondary importance to the performer.

That being said, the singer should understand the lyrics, because it is his or her job to communicate the meaning expressed therein. A skilled composer makes the task easier by inventing melodies, rhythms, harmonies and instrumentation that support the ideas conveyed. The singer adds further value to the performance by alterations in tone, whether subtle or broad, that reflect the meaning of the lyrics.

I think a good parallel would be the performance of a Shakespeare play. A great many of the words one finds in just about any of the Bard's works are no longer a part of our standard English vocabulary, or are used in ways that are unfamiliar to modern ears. It is the actor's responsibility to render the text in such a way that the audience understands as much as possible -- a difficult task indeed if one does not comprehend what one is saying in the first place.
#16
Old 06-18-2010, 09:45 PM
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Originally Posted by Khaki Campbell View Post
The question is pointless anyway, as nobody is even able to make out what they're "singing".
Why the quotation marks around the word singing?

I can't answer for what someone else is or is not able to make out - that's up to them. I don't have any difficulty in understanding most opera singers, even in works that I'm not familiar with.

Perhaps a better way of putting that last paragraph would have been to say "I don't have any more difficulty understanding most opera singers than I have with most pop singers." If all singers of every style were absolutely clear, there would be no Mondegreens.

All I can tell you is that we singers work very hard on our diction because one word lost actually means a whole phrase lost as the auditor tries to figure out the word they missed.


In fact, a very interesting production I had the pleasure of seeing was a double bill at Théatre Français de Toronto. It was the Jean Cocteau play "La Voix Humaine" with the Francis Poulenc opera "La Voix Humaine" - I think the opera was first and the play second, but I don't remember for certain.

What I remember being struck by was that both the play and the opera had passages with words that were difficult to catch, but they were different passages and for different reasons. When the actress, Diana LeBlanc, spoke rapidly, I couldn't follow it all (French is, after all, a second language for me.) When the singer, Rosemarie Landry, sang sustained passages in her upper register, I had to listen closely to follow, but because singing is slower and more sustained than speech, I was working harder to 'get' the play than I was the opera.


One of our Canadian national treasures, Maureen Forrester, died this week at the age of 79, and there was a lovely article about her in the Toronto Star this morning. I wanted to quote a story from the music critic William Littler -

Quote:
Years earlier, in 1978, we were in China together, she as soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, one of the first western orchestras to tour the People’s Republic following the end of the Cultural Revolution, and I, as music critic of the Toronto Star.

To compensate for introducing the music of Mahler to bewildered Chinese audiences, she decided to learn by rote a Chinese revolutionary song, ``Nanni-wan,’’ only to be greeted by choruses of titters when she performed it.

It turned out that she had managed to mangle the text of the third verse, making the revolutionary army responsible for a village’s desolation instead of rescuing it. Wherever she went after that widely televised concert, Chinese would come up to her, gently touch her arm and giggle ``Nanni-wan.’’
Now, I quote that story, from this article, for two reasons. One is to illustrate a good reason why opera singers learn at least first-year equivalency in the languages they sing in, because it can backfire in an embarrassing way.

And the second reason is to make the point - if the Chinese audiences were unable to make out what she was singing, why did they giggle when she got it wrong?
#17
Old 06-18-2010, 10:10 PM
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Here's a video I shot of a friend of my niece singing La Violette by Alessandro Scarlatti. She doesn't know Italian and some of the comments are about that, but not bad at all for a high school senior.
#18
Old 06-19-2010, 01:56 AM
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Le Ministre de l'au-delà: I'm impressed with your ability to understand sopranos in their upper ranges, as that's when all the vowels stat sounding the same, as you are singing above their first formants. Especially a language like French, were a large percentage of the written consonants are not pronounced. And as a second language, rather than first? That's pretty impressive.

Still, I've never been nor participated a classical vocal performance that did not include the lyrics or a translation for people in the audience who want to follow along. That doesn't mean we weren't taught to enunciate clearly--to the contrary, I now have a problem with over-enunciating, especially for popular music. I have to feel like I'm mumbling my consonants if I use a microphone.
#19
Old 06-19-2010, 08:23 AM
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I suppose it depends on what level you are at.

When I studied classical music in school it seemed important to me to know the meaning of the song and what the singer was expressing to capture the emotion.
I even told the audience a brief translation so they wouldn't be clueless but it wasn't required.

My daughter is a professional opera singer and studied at the Met's artist development program in NYC. part of that was studying the classic languages of opera and even included a summer program called language immersion in which she traveled to Europe for several summers and lived for several months in Germany, Italy, and Sweden I think, to learn the languages from the natives. Nifty summer work right? I think most pros have a pretty good idea what they are singing but it's sure possible that in certain roles for a limited preformance they learn it phonetically. Most roles require a lot of prep and practice and for my daughter that means learning the character and what she is saying,

When I went to see her preform at the Met I noticed they have a little read out on the back of the seat in front of you to translate.
#20
Old 06-20-2010, 05:42 AM
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Wow! Learning a lot from my first thread. I hadn't thought about one at least needs to know the meaning of each complete phrase as well as the individual words.
And I guess I should not be surprised that language classes are part of the curriculum for a professional opera singer. Thanks to all!
#21
Old 06-20-2010, 06:34 PM
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Whenever our choir sings anything in a foreign language, we're always taken through the translation, so that we understand the meaning, where the word stresses should be etc. After singing for a number of years most of us now have at least a basic knowledge of Italian, German and French.
#22
Old 06-20-2010, 07:07 PM
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Slightly off topic - not opera singers, but I knew quite a few Germans who performed in American/British musicals professionally. When you heard them sing, you would think they were born in the US or UK, but after the show when you would ask, "Where did you learn to speak English so well?" they couldn't answer the question, as they did not speak enough English to understand what you were asking.
Some people simply have the talent (ear for it?), and take the time, to learn how to sing in another language phonetically, without actually speaking the language at all. Many pop singers in Germany (and other non-English speaking countries) sing their songs in English, but still could not converse in the language.
#23
Old 06-20-2010, 07:33 PM
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Yep. That's what prompted my initial question. Thanks for the response.
#24
Old 06-20-2010, 10:01 PM
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Originally Posted by ThelmaLou View Post
A little off-topic but an interesting factoid: Luciano Pavarotti doesn't read music.

My guitar teacher played with the symphony when LP was here and was quite surprised to find this out.
I don't think that it is true that Pavarotti couldn't read music. It was an accusation in an unauthorized biography of a man who was so bitter that I couldn't read past the introduction. It was very much a personal attack on Pavarotti.

What I have come across other places is that he could read music but not scores. Additionally, he didn't have a gift for language so his understanding of what he was singing, as well as his inflection, could have been better.

As far as understanding opera singers, I am good from baritone to mezzo, and can understand dramatic sopranos. Lyric and coloratura sopranos are impossible for me in their upper registers even when they sing in English. It's one of the reasons that I didn't like Peter Grimes...if it's in my native tongue, I feel like I should be able to understand it. When the libretto is in another language I don't feel bad about not making out words.
#25
Old 06-21-2010, 02:22 AM
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I don't mean to hijack, but Le Ministre, would you mind recommending a good mezzo or soprano to listen to for French diction? I am tackling an aria or two from "Carmen" without having any experience in speaking French.
#26
Old 06-21-2010, 04:15 PM
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The number one with a bullet, you must get this book, run to the library, order it from wherever as soon as possible book is Thomas Grubb's Singing in French. It is indispensable.

Recordings - well, I work frequently with a conductor who says "You should do one of two things - listen to none of them or listen to all of them!"

That being said, I did the smart thing and asked my FaceBook friends their opinions - I'll pass them on once they've had a chance to respond. I'm a terrible person to ask about recordings because I went nuts when I worked at A & A records in the '80s and I all but stopped buying when I left that job.
#27
Old 06-22-2010, 01:48 AM
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I wish I could see inside it before I buy. I don't know how I would learn to pronounce French well from a book if I don't know what it's supposed to sound like. For what it's worth, my voice teacher thinks I'm doing fine, but I worry about only having one person's input.
#28
Old 06-22-2010, 10:54 AM
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Originally Posted by Silvorange View Post
I wish I could see inside it before I buy. I don't know how I would learn to pronounce French well from a book if I don't know what it's supposed to sound like. For what it's worth, my voice teacher thinks I'm doing fine, but I worry about only having one person's input.
I would never recommend learning diction exclusively from a book - that being said, some of his descriptions of the sounds themselves make it much easier to form the sound. For example, in the passage on the mixed vowels, his description of how to form the vowels is bang on. For the sound in 'lune' ([y] in IPA), it is the tongue position of [i] (like 'ee' in English) plus the lip position of [u] (like 'oo' in English). Put the two of those together, and that's the sound. Beautiful. Simple.

One of the challenges of singing in French is that you pronounce a word differently in isolation than you do in the context of a sentence. For example, the word 'grands' (adjective meaning 'big', here modifying a plural noun.) would be pronounced differently in the phrases 'de grands libres' and 'de grands arbres'. In the first, the 's' would not be pronounced. In the second, the 's' would be pronounced as a [z] sound. This is liaison, and it is a difficult subject for non-native speakers of French. To make matters worse, liaison is different in conversation than it is in singing. Some liaison are compulsory, some are optional (a matter of taste and a source of controversy.) and some are forbidden. One of the useful things about Grubb is that he deals with liaison throughout the book, including a whole chapter devoted to the subject.

As I say, get it from the library first if you like, but I think it sets the standard for singers' reference books.



You had asked about recordings - from among my FaceBook friends, Agnes Baltsa was the most recommended; Mignon Dunn, Tatiana Troyanos and Maria Callas were runners up. As I say, though, listen to as many as you can if you're going to listen, and see if you can learn to pick out where x does something different from y (It is a certainty that they will - if everyone did it the same, there'd be no point in more than one recording ever.).
#29
Old 06-22-2010, 12:09 PM
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Originally Posted by Le Ministre de l'au-delà View Post
I would never recommend learning diction exclusively from a book - that being said, some of his descriptions of the sounds themselves make it much easier to form the sound. For example, in the passage on the mixed vowels, his description of how to form the vowels is bang on. For the sound in 'lune' ([y] in IPA), it is the tongue position of [i] (like 'ee' in English) plus the lip position of [u] (like 'oo' in English). Put the two of those together, and that's the sound. Beautiful. Simple.

One of the challenges of singing in French is that you pronounce a word differently in isolation than you do in the context of a sentence. For example, the word 'grands' (adjective meaning 'big', here modifying a plural noun.) would be pronounced differently in the phrases 'de grands libres' and 'de grands arbres'. In the first, the 's' would not be pronounced. In the second, the 's' would be pronounced as a [z] sound. This is liaison, and it is a difficult subject for non-native speakers of French. To make matters worse, liaison is different in conversation than it is in singing. Some liaison are compulsory, some are optional (a matter of taste and a source of controversy.) and some are forbidden. One of the useful things about Grubb is that he deals with liaison throughout the book, including a whole chapter devoted to the subject.

As I say, get it from the library first if you like, but I think it sets the standard for singers' reference books.



You had asked about recordings - from among my FaceBook friends, Agnes Baltsa was the most recommended; Mignon Dunn, Tatiana Troyanos and Maria Callas were runners up. As I say, though, listen to as many as you can if you're going to listen, and see if you can learn to pick out where x does something different from y (It is a certainty that they will - if everyone did it the same, there'd be no point in more than one recording ever.).
That is very helpful. I was afraid it would be full of IPA, which is yet another thing I need to learn.

Thanks so much, and tell your friends I appreciate their recommendations as well!
#30
Old 06-23-2010, 07:36 AM
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Originally Posted by Silvorange View Post
That is very helpful. I was afraid it would be full of IPA, which is yet another thing I need to learn.
I would be remiss if I left you the impression that it wasn't full of IPA. It is.

The good news is, in the discussion of each sound, its IPA symbol is given and the production of that sound discussed. By the end of that section, you will at least have a reference guide to every sound that is shown in IPA in the rest of the book and in other sources.
#31
Old 06-23-2010, 09:56 AM
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Originally Posted by Le Ministre de l'au-delà View Post
I would be remiss if I left you the impression that it wasn't full of IPA. It is.

The good news is, in the discussion of each sound, its IPA symbol is given and the production of that sound discussed. By the end of that section, you will at least have a reference guide to every sound that is shown in IPA in the rest of the book and in other sources.
I meant just IPA without the descriptions. What you are describing sounds great. I need to learn IPA anyway.
#32
Old 06-23-2010, 10:21 AM
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Originally Posted by Le Ministre de l'au-delà View Post
One of the challenges of singing in French is that you pronounce a word differently in isolation than you do in the context of a sentence. For example, the word 'grands' (adjective meaning 'big', here modifying a plural noun.) would be pronounced differently in the phrases 'de grands libres' and 'de grands arbres'. In the first, the 's' would not be pronounced. In the second, the 's' would be pronounced as a [z] sound. This is liaison, and it is a difficult subject for non-native speakers of French.
English does that as well, doesn't it, in that some words are different when the noun after them starts with a vowel or a consonant? Exactly the same as in the example, and similar to the Spanish case where words which are feminine but start with an a take the male article in the singular to avoid "sounding bad" ("un águila" and "el águila", but "unas águilas" and "las águilas"). I'm drawing a blank for specific English examples, though!

Last edited by Nava; 06-23-2010 at 10:22 AM.
#33
Old 06-23-2010, 10:49 AM
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I'm drawing a blank for specific English examples, though!
The ("ði") and the ("ðə") pop into my head. "the extreme" vs. "the bird"
#34
Old 06-24-2010, 02:26 AM
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And I found another one, "a" vs. "an": someone who pronounces his hs should say and write "a herb", someone who doesn't "an herb". I think it exists in many languages to some extent, but it's one of those li'l details that are likely to trip anybody... they even trip people on their own first language sometimes.
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