The Long and Short of ‘It’

Posted on October 10, 2011 by


There’s a story that people tell in the theatre world about something called a “beat.” A “beat” is a small unit of time – it can refer to a pause, or a bit of business, or a section of a scene – and the word gets tossed around in plays and screenplays and rehearsals all the time. Most of us, I think, analogize it to a “beat” in music, which also has to do with time, although in theatre we don’t necessarily think of beats as coming regularly or rhythmically (they can, but they don’t always).

So the story goes that when Konstantin Stanislavski, the internationally-acclaimed acting guru (most famous outside theatre for being the grandfather of what is called “method acting),” was talking to his American students about his ideas on theatre, he used the term “bit” to describe a small sequence of events or period of time – as in, “the bit with the seagull should be funnier” or “wait a bit before saying that.” This is, of course, perfectly standard usage and both of those sentences (or, you know, whichever sentences Stanislavski actually used) would still be perfectly grammatical and comprehensible to a modern listener.

However, due to Stanislavski’s accent, his disciples believed that he was saying “beat” – that he had coined a special term to describe something that happens specially in theatre. So to this day, the term is spelled “beat” in innumerable published theatrical and cinematic works, and pronounced “beat” (IPA: [bi:t]).

As you may have surmised, Georgians share Stanislavski’s pronunciation of words like “bit.” What we call in English the “short i” (and in IPA the near-close, near-front unrounded vowel) is rendered by many Georgians (and many, many other non-native speakers) as what we call in English the “long e” (and in IPA the close front unrounded vowel). It turns out that not many languages even have a short i. Russian apparently has one that appears only in unstressed syllables (wikipedia lists “дерево” as an example) – which is interesting because I noticed the other day that one of my students can only produce short i in unstressed syllables in English. “English” itself is a good example – most Georgians can pronounce the unstressed short i in “English” quite well, but still have trouble producing it in stressed syllables, or when they’re focusing on enunciating their words.

I have yet to figure out a good teaching technique for eliciting short i from my students in the appropriate places. One of the problems, of course, is that English spelling is especially irregular with the character ‘i’ – consider “bite” vs. “elite,” “pious” vs. “espionage,” “recipe” vs “pipe” – all of which illustrate that the letter ‘i’ behaves differently even in highly similar environments. Another is that when students in Georgia are taught the letter ‘i’ they are taught to pronounce it using the long e sound ([i]) and not the long i sound ([aɪ]).

(As an aside, Georgian students having different names for English letters is a widespread issue. Ask a Georgian student to spell “city” and there’s a good chance they’ll say “s-e-t’uh-u” – not because they can’t spell the word, but because they learn a different naming convention for letters. Even with the Georgian alphabet, Georgians aren’t taught the names of letters (an, ban, gan, don) but the sounds they make (ah, buh, guh, duh). This presents the English teacher with a number of difficulties relating to spelling, pronunciation, and in general communicating about the language on the level of letters and sounds.)

Today my first graders listened to an English World CD. The speaker said: “fuh… fuh… fish.” The students repeated: “fuh… fuh… feesh.” This reminds me of a joke: What do you call a fish with no eyes?