Wednesday, 10 November 2010

believing descriptions

I promised I would write about the phonetic representation of the prefixes be-, de- (etc.). Let’s start with some background.

1. English, as we know, has contrastive phonemes and ɪ, as in the minimal pair green ɡriːn vs. grin ɡrɪn. At the end of words like happy speakers of traditional RP, as represented by Daniel Jones (and for that matter by me) have a vowel that is clearly to be identified with the ɪ of grin, so ˈhæpɪ.

However many other accents, including what you might call today’s neo-RP, have a tenser vowel that speakers identify instead with their . We might transcribe happy in this newly respectable pronunciation as ˈhæpiː.

In 1978, for the first edition of LDOCE (JWL will correct me if I am wrong), its then pronunciation editor Gordon Walsh introduced the additional symbol i, to cover such cases where the contrast between and ɪ was irrelevant. He transcribed happy as ˈhæpi.

This notational innovation was widely welcomed and has since been adopted by most phoneticians dealing with English. EFL students were advised that in these cases they could use whichever they preferred, or ɪ. For the very many EFL learners in whose L1 there was no such contrast, this meant they could just use their undifferentiated native-language i. (In stressed syllables, of course, the contrast remains important and should be learnt.)

This convention saves space. It means that we do not need to give two separate pronunciations for the thousands of words involved: instead of
coffee ˈkɒfɪ, ˈkɒfiː
happy ˈhæpɪ, ˈhæpiː
valley ˈvælɪ, ˈvæliː
etc. we just put
coffee ˈkɒfi
happy ˈhæpi
valley ˈvæli

2. In the first two editions of LPD, most words with the one of prefixes be-, de-, pre-, re-, in cases where the prefix is not stressed and not used productively, were shown with a main pron involving ɪ and variant prons with ə and , the last of these being marked with a symbol to show that it was non-RP. The entry for believe looked like this:
No one has ever raised any queries about the inclusion of the variants.

As adumbrated in my blog of 29 Jan 2007, I decided for the third edition to save space by abbreviating the entries for these prefixes in the same way as I already had for the -y ending. So the entry for believe became
The logic is the same as with happy. It is an abbreviatory notational convention. I am surprised, therefore, when people say they find it ‘counterintuitive’. (Is it relevant to mention the common txtng spelling b4 for ‘before’?)

You could say that for my own speech I find it counterintuitive to write happy with anything other than ɪ. But I am happy (!) to go along with the i notation, given that so many people have a tenser vowel. By adapting the notation we make it more inclusive.

There is a lot more that could be said about the happY vowel. Whole articles (JWL, Susan Ramsaran) have been written about it. Likewise, there is plenty to say about its extension to the be-, de- etc prefixes. Here are some quick points.
  • Quite often, particularly in rapid speech, the quality of the happY vowel is indeterminate as between and ɪ. Or the quality used may be intermediate between the two canonical qualities. Using a special symbol arguably helps to draw attention to this good news for the EFL learner.
  • Some speakers have a lax quality finally but a tense quality prevocalically, thus ˈhæpɪ but ˈhæpiːə. We certainly don’t want to burden the EFL learner with this sort of irrelevant detail. We avoid it by agreeing to write ˈhæpi, ˈhæpiə.
  • I think there is a good case for saying that English has not just one vowel system, but two: a ‘strong’ system and a ‘weak’ system. Like ə, the happY vowel i is part of the weak system. (Notice how the strong of variety alternates lexically with weak i in vary.) Trubetzkoy would have spoken of the iː ~ ɪ archiphoneme, reflecting a vowel neutralization in weak positions. Unfortunately, polysystemic phonology is something non-specialists find it difficult to get their heads round.

Lastly, you might like to know that the conversion for the third edition was done automatically from the existing files of the second edition using an algorithm devised for me by a programmer. I checked the results, of course, but this may have led to certain inconsistencies. But it is not an inconsistency that various words that lacked an variant in the second edition have ɪ rather than i in the third.

More tomorrow.


  1. I have a tense i word-finally, as in "happy" ˈhæpi, but not in unstressed prefixes - perhaps the same is true for those who find it hard to "believe" biˈliːv even though they are aware of "happy-tensing".

  2. Won't the use of /i/ for 'believe' cause some confusion, since it now needs to stand for /ɪ/, /i:/ and /ə/, whereas in its use in 'believe' it only stood for the first two?

  3. What is the article that Ramsaran wrote about this?

  4. Peter Tan: 'i' nowhere stands for /ə/. See the entry for believe, where the bə- variant is explicitly and separately mentioned.

    Levente Frindtː I was thinking of her remarks in the article 'RP: fact and fiction' in the Gimson memorial volume that she edited, Studies in the Pronunciation of English (Routledge 1990).

  5. But the symbolization about the non-RPness of the /bi:-/ variant is lost in the new reduced notation.

  6. Leo: what about before consonants, as in e.g. "happiness", "polygon"? It seems to me that it's that environment, not the word-final one, which is more comparable with "believe".

  7. I think a lot of the confusion over your entries comes from the fact that your dictionary is doing two jobs - describing a variety of English and providing a model for non-native speakers.
    The first leads to numerous typographical conventions in order to include as many variants as possible in a concise way. The second requires a single, simple recommended pronunciation of each word (at least for productive purposes).
    I feel you are justified in including as much descriptive material as possible since, if I remember rightly, LPD is advertised as being for advanced students and every EFL dictionary (and there are many) fulfils the need for a single recommended pronunciation.
    Having written the standard dictionary and the standard work on intonation, do you have any plans to produce an introduction to English phonetics including everything which is implicit in your LPD entries?

  8. JHJ - that's a good question. I think I have ɪ before consonants most of the time (ˈpɒlɪɡɒn), but i at least occasionally, at least in some words (e.g. "happiness").

  9. The notation with i makes sense in a direct way, too, given that for many tensers, the vowel is actually both i and short, eg comparing happy with hap pee (post-nappy age "accident"?). Never mind the consonant length.

    Then again, while it's meant to be inclusive and descriptive, it strongly suggests i(ː) over ɪ to the EFL learner.

  10. The presence or absence of a following consonant does seem relevant. While I have no problem with ˈkæri for carry, I balk at ˈkærid for carried. Other dictionaries seem mainly to have ˈkæri, ˈkærɪd, ˈkærɪz. Oxford (ODPCE) even has ˈkarɪɪŋ for carrying (their a is our æ).

  11. @JHJ & LEO
    I don't think it's so much a matter of the following phonetic context in your examples, but rather a property of such word parts as poly-, tele-, uni-, anti-, multi- etc. and the words they appear in.

  12. With bi- for be-, we are almost back where James Murray was 120 years ago. In fact, believe is one of the example words in the OED1 pronunciation guide for his symbol ĭ, representing an obscured version of the vowel ī (IPA ), normally taken to represent the sound ɪ in ordinary speech, and i(ː) in careful speech or singing. This symbol is used regularly in prefixes like be-, de-, and re-. It's not used in words like carry or happy though, which have i (= ɪ).

  13. Paul Carley: Having written the standard dictionary and the standard work on intonation, do you have any plans to produce an introduction to English phonetics including everything which is implicit in your LPD entries?
    See my Accents of English (3 vols., CUP 1982). You could call that a standard work, too (thanks for those kind words). I am not planning anything else.

  14. I agree with Leo. Lots of people with a tense vowel in happy have a lax vowel in believe. I'd identify the vowel in believe as what the 3rd edition of the OED calls /ᵻ/ (small-cap I with stroke), i.e. the weak vowel of wanted etc. which varies between [ɪ] (e.g. in traditional RP) and [ə] (e.g. in Australian English) and anything in between. A tense vowel in believe is a much rarer possibility, mainly found in singing or over-articulated speech. So, if it were up to me, I'd say "believe /bᵻ ˈliːv/, /biː-/"

  15. The reason I found it "counterintuitive" is that my guess (which may be wrong) was that pronunciations like [bi(:)ˈli:v] are considerably rarer than e.g. [ˈhapi(:)nəs] or [ˈpɒli(:)gɒn] which have the happY vowel before a consonant. (Personally, I have [ɪ] in all three.)

    If I'm wrong, then the i transcription for "believe" etc. makes sense; if my guess was right I still think it's a bit odd to transcribe the two cases in the same way. (For a parallel, if a cover symbol were to be introduced for the BATH set, would it make sense to use it in "half" and "can't" where the distribution of the vowels, at least in England, is rather different from that in the bulk of the BATH set?)

  16. Anonymous: "But the symbolization about the non-RPness of the /bi:-/ variant is lost in the new reduced notation".

    That would be my objection too. Is there no answer to it?

  17. Steve Doerr: ˈkærɪɪŋ is wrong on one count for me - I say ˈkæriɪŋ. But Collins goes one better - it gives "eightieth" as ˈeɪtɪɪθ, whereas I say ˈeɪtiəθ, so we disagree on both the last two vowels.

    It's not that I don't have the possibility of ɪɪ - I pronounce "archaic" ɑːˈkeɪɪk, just as Prof. Wells transcribed it in a post a few months ago.

  18. @Leo: archaic is aɹkē·ik in OED1, which is perhaps more accurate, since the stressed vowel is probably not really a diphthong in the presence of an ɪ immediately following. An IPA equivalent might be ɑ(r)ˈkeːɪk.

  19. @Leo: Well, there are plenty of dictionaries transcribing "infinity" with four identical vowels.

  20. How about /ɪndɪvɪzɪbɪlɪtɪ/?

  21. "But the symbolization about the non-RPness of the /bi:-/ variant is lost in the new reduced notation"

    That would be because the /bi:-/ variant now is (neo-)RP. That's not to say all RP speakers have the same vowel in bElieve as in happY, which is Leo&JHJ&army1987's quibble.

  22. That would be because the /bi:-/ variant [of "believe"] now is (neo-)RP

    Do we have any evidence for this?

  23. My father has an old Oxford Dictionary from the 1930s and it contains a large number of such compromise symbols, including one for the BATH vowel that covers Northern and Southern pronunciations, and different ones for fir and fur (presumably more people maintained the distinction back then).