Thursday, 19 March 2009

More about e and ɛ

Here’s some more on the question of whether the vowel of English DRESS is best represented as e or as ɛ (yesterday’s blog). I’m sorry that the three extra points I planned to make have grown to five, making seven in all.
3. The vowel of English DRESS varies considerably. A former RP quality, now obsolete, was very close to cardinal 2 [e]: a similarly close-mid quality is to be heard in Australian English, and in New Zealand it is often even closer. The current British average quality is somewhere between cardinal 2 [e] and cardinal 3 [ɛ]. There are also local varieties in which it is fully open-mid. In American English it can be open-mid and considerably centred. If we want to symbolize all of these possibilities in a single symbol, the phonetic case for [e] is not much different from the case for [ɛ].
4. The choice of symbol for DRESS is bound up with the question of the choice of symbol for FACE. In accents where the FACE vowel is monophthongal and not distinctively long (e.g. Scottish English, perhaps some northern AmE) we must write face as fes and dress as drɛs. In all other varieties of English, where FACE is either a long monophthong or a diphthong, there will be no confusion in writing DRESS with e as long as FACE is written correspondingly as or (or, with Trager and Smith, as ey, or with Chomsky and Halle as ēy).
5. Furthermore, there are many accents in which the diphthong of FACE starts more open than the height of DRESS: for example, popular London and SE England (“Estuary English”) and Australian and New Zealand speech. (It was phonetically perverse of the Macquarie dictionary of Australian English to write FACE as and DRESS as ɛ.)
6. Consider now the position, say, of Japanese learners of English. In their own language they have just a single mid front vowel, ェ e. It is (in my view) entirely satisfactory for them to use this sound for the English DRESS vowel, and as the first part of an diphthong for English FACE. If we were to write DRESS as drɛs we would be implying that they need to learn to use a special (non-Japanese) quality for DRESS, different from the starting point of FACE feɪs. And instead of occasional emails from Europe asking why I don’t use ɛ, I would be faced with hundreds of emails from Japan asking me to explain why I use a funny symbol ɛ. (My readers will correct me if I am wrong, but — as far as I know — Japanese, Korean and Chinese dictionaries of English, except in Taiwan, all transcribe the DRESS vowel as e.)

7. Lastly, the tradition in English pronouncing dictionaries ever since the first appearance of EPD nearly a century ago has been to write DRESS as e. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


  1. It's okay, I suppose, but it also beats the object of IPA as a standard transcription system to an extent. People might not be able to pronounce a language based only on the transcription and might have to know more about its phonological rules.

    There are others that seem to differ in English for simplicity's sake, e.g. /r/ for /ɹ/. Yes, it does differ in some dialects, so could be said to be a compromise, but the approximant is used by most speakers of English and that is standard.

  2. I can't help but find myself skeptical of that simplicity principle (although I suppose it's tolerable if it's only an ESL context) - in my mind, interlinguistic and interdialectal comparisons make it greatly preferable to use transcriptions like [ɛ] and [ɹ] rather than [e] and [r].

  3. I always thought this issue was covered by broad vs narrow transcription

  4. I have a related question: why does nearly everyone use "æ" rather than "a" as a phonemic representation for the vowel of "trap"? It may be that the reference accents are closer to [æ] than [a], but many other accents are closer to [a], and "a" is the simpler typographical symbol.

  5. vp,

    reasons might be:

    - Historical, as even a few decades ago that was different, and even today, conservative RP and dialects have [æ], if not [ɛ]. (By the bye, it's a bit disturbing to see one's own pronunciation called "obsolete", demit.)

    - Chances are Italians, Germans, Spaniards will hear their own languages' /a/ in English but, not bat, even if the speaker is using progressive RP, Estuary E or Cockney. I think this is even true for speakers of French or Arabic, where /a/ is probably even further [æ] than in English. Their education is to blame, of course.

    I suspect the recent trend to represent the English sound by [a] is a bit of a counter-reaction to the traditional [æ], in order to stress the undoubted opening.