Hi Mike, yes accent is relative. Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan all have some lilting and singy-ness to their chanting depending on your lineage. I started off learning Pali pronunciation by listening to Thai monks. There's probably a thread somewhere on this forum from a few years back where I detailed the struggles from using world tipitaka website pali audio dictionary. The inconsistencies and anomalies of the thai pali pronunciation dictionary were driving me nuts, especially coming from a scientific background where I'm in the habit of expecting simple rules to be consistently followed. After I got my hands on some good Sri Lankan chanting where the simple pronunciation rules, especially long and short syllable timing, were consistently followed, it was a great relief to know I wasn't going insane and that the simple pali pronunciation rules are supposed to be followed and give consistent sounding results every time.
Listening the the Abhayagiri chants (they're an ajahn chah thai lineage), their timing (of long and short) is usually correct with the exception of syllables that have double consonants in them. I don't know if this is a feature of all thai chanting, but I'm guessing because they like to group chant continuously with no pause between sentences and phrases, the lack of a full stop on double consonant syllables (instead the pause from a full stop they elongate the last vowel preceding the double consonant) so that there is never a moment in the chanting without a sound. Whereas if the proper rules of long and short syllable timing are observed, you would have a pause of silence for the full stop on double consonant syllables. (and multiple consonant syllables as well, noting that letter "h" is usually an aspirate alphabet character and not an extra consonant)
In the case you mentioned, "sata", where it's not clear to a beginner whether it should be parsed as "sa-ta", or "sat-a", as long as you get the timing of the long and short syllables correct it doesn't matter, it will still be easy to comprehend for the listener. Both syllables in "sata" are short, so when you speak in a conversational speed it's a very subtle difference. Even if you group chant very slowly, and you parse it as "sat-a" instead of "sa-ta", relative to the other words in the sentence chanted at slow speed it is not so big of a difference, compared to the much greater error of getting the long and short syllable timing wrong, which makes them into completely different words. For example, if you parsed "sata" as "sat-a", and you extended the pause after the "sat", such that the timing of the first syllable "sat" is twice as long as the second syllable "a", then this is a timing error. You've said the word "satta" instead of "sata".
For those of you not sure what the long-short syllable concept is:
What I found helpful for myself to learn to pronounce the long and short syllable timings correctly is to tap my hand on the table like a metronome (or just in my mind play a "tick" "tick" metronome sound). One "tick" for each long syllable time that has elapsed.
Pick a simple word, like "Mangala". 3 syllables. "Man-ga-la".
1. the "ng" in mangala is a multiple consonant sequence here, which makes the syllable attached to the "n", i.e. "man", a LONG syllable even though the "a" in "man" is a short vowel.
2. so "man" is a long syllable, "ga" and "la" are each short syllables. One long syllable = the timing of two short syllables.
3. so if you tap your hand like a metronome, you should hear two "ticks" each time you pronounce the word "man-ga-la". One tick at the end of "man", one tick at the end of "ga-la".
4. So if you say the word "mangala" repeatedly, after a few minutes the concept of "short" syllable being exactly one half of a "long" syllable will be very clear.
If you use a more difficult word like "Bo-dhi-sat-ta" , which is long-short-long-short, the metronome method won't work. But at least you should hear a distinct syncopation from the alternating long-short sequence, especially if you say the word repeatedly, you can get the feel of it.
Thanks for the excellent points Frank, and thank you for your tremendous efforts with audtip.org.
Regarding syllables, I think that the difficulty many English speakers have with Asian languages is actually figuring out where the syllables end. So, in your example of sata, the "t" can become attached to the first syllable, sat-a rather than sa-ta. As far as I can tell, unless there are two consonants in a row, a consonant always signals a new syllable.
However, I would have to say that accent is relative. I do find the Sri Lankan style to be very pleasant to listen to, with it's lilting, sung, feel. But since my background is mostly with Thai or Thai-trained Bhikkhus (and lay people) I do struggle to follow the pronunciation in places. It's all a matter of what one is used to, and one needs to be able to adapt to the local style...