Tuesday, 14 February 2012

ˈtrʌbo

EFL teachers in Argentina receive excellent detailed training in English phonetics, and quite rightly want to apply this knowledge in the classroom.

From time to time I receive queries from classroom teachers there which reflect the fact that like all teachers they want a clear defined set of facts to teach, whereas we academics who train them and who write about the language tend to be conscious of the chaotic nature of the real world, in describing which any generalization has to be qualified by uncertainties and indeterminacies.

María Inés Orge asks about the usage of the schwa symbol in words like trouble and people.
The first option given in the phonetic dictionary of each word is with schwa while the the second is not. They are considered “optionals”. “Optional”,according to the dictionary, means “something you do not have to do or use, but you can choose to if you want to”.

She wants to know, then,
During a dictation of phonetics, can the option ə be considered as a mistake? Is it possible to take the sound between b and l or p and l completely out? Can I really choose the option or not?

I told her
Both pronunciations are possible. But on any given occasion the schwa is either there or not there.

It is perhaps clearest in cases like garden. If there is no schwa between the d and the n (the usual pronunciation) then the tongue remains in contact with the alveolar ridge as we move from d to n, and the only change is the movement of the soft palate, which comes down to allow the air to explode through the nose. If, on the other hand, the tongue tip leaves the alveolar ridge at the end of d and then returns to the alveolar ridge for the n, then there is a schwa between the two consonants.

In marking dictation, it is for you to decide your policy. I would not penalize presence/absence of schwa between a fricative or an affricate and n or l (as in listen, heaven, kitchen; oval, puzzle, satchel), but might penalize it after a plosive (as in happen, garden, organ; apple, middle, eagle), where the difference is perceptually more salient.

On the other hand you could decide not to penalize this at all, since the two possibilities (i) schwa plus sonorant and (ii) syllabic sonorant are phonologically equivalent. Barring marginal cases, there are no pairs of words distinguished only by this difference.

The “marginal cases” I was thinking of would be, for example, BrE ˈpætən, ˈbɪtən (pattern, bittern) vs. ˈpætn̩, ˈbɪtn̩ (Patton, bitten), which a few non-rhotic speakers may have as minimal pairs, although they are normally homophonous for me as ˈpætn̩, ˈbɪtn̩. Compare also modern as a rhyme (or not) for trodden.

I could have continued by mentioning the likelihood, these days, of l-vocalization in trouble, people and other words shown in the dictionary as having “əl”. If we represent the output of vocalization conventionally as o, that gives ˈtrʌbo, ˈpiːpo. In a transcription exercise (orthography to phonetics) I would be delighted to see these forms (particularly if phrase-final, or if the next word begins with a consonant sound). In a dictation exercise, however, I would not consider them correct if I had actually uttered (i.e. ˈtrʌbɫ etc). In the general scheme of things, though, this would count as a very minor error. People who fail phonetic dictation do so because of multiple gross errors, not because of subtleties such as worry María.

Remember, though, that optional symbols in the dictionary should not be shown as optional in these practical exercises. They should either be there or not be there. Their inclusion in the dictionary is an abbreviatory convention. In real-life performance nothing is optional. You either do it or you don’t.

25 comments:

  1. As an AmE speaker, if I heard an EFL speaker pronounce "trouble" as |ˈtrʌbo|, I would consider a perfectly charming error.

    I'm not sure if that's the effect that the EFL speaker was trying to achieve, but I'm sure we'd be good friends.

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  2. I have to ask about abbreviating conventions used in the dictionary, such as the one found in the entry Everett, where it says: ˈev ər ɪt. Does this mean that even if the schwa isn't pronounced, the word still has three syllables? Why isn't it syllabified ˈev ə rɪt?

    Also, how come can dr and tr end a syllable?

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    1. For an explanation of LPD syllabification principles, please read http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/syllabif.htm .

      The schwa in ˈev ər ɪt is italicized to indicate that both [ər] and syllabic [r̩] (= [ɚ]) are possible. The lack of a compression mark shows that the word remains trisyllabic. See the panel on Optional sounds, p. 567 in the 3rd edition.

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  3. I don't see that a vocalized l comes into this query, that's an additional option. The choices were schwa+l or syllabic l. Should the teacher penalize an incorrect transcription? Firstly, is this a level where students can reasonably be expected to detect the difference? And if it is, is the teacher capable of marking the detection correctly? If the teacher is giving the dictation orally, can he/she be absolutely sure it was pronounced as intended each time? I suggest an oral dictation be recorded so that disputed instances can be checked later, and so that repetitions will be identical. As I remember my own school days, dictation responses were written in regular spelling, i.e. testing comprehension rather than hearing acuity.

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    1. Agreed. You'll notice that in my answer to her I did NOT discuss vocalization.

      Years ago, when we had Univ. of London BA Ling students from both UCL and SOAS being jointly examined, with me (UCL) as the dictator for "ear training and dictation", I asked my co-examiner from SOAS to sit in the most remote part of the examination hall and take the same test unseen. We agreed that anything she perceived, that wasn't in my script, would be OK. In the event she handed in a perfect answer sheet (unlike most of the examinees), which demonstrated to us that the exam was fair and that phonetic training by Daniel Jones or his disciples led to a consistent result even though we taught in different colleges.

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    2. We agreed that anything she perceived, that wasn't in my script, would be OK.

      Could you explain? I'm not sure I understood it.

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    3. We agreed that anything she perceived, that wasn't in my script, would be OK.
      I mean, Duchesse, that if for example I had ɪksˈtʃeɪndʒ (exchange) in my dictation script, but she heard my pronunciation of this word as eksˈtʃeɪnʒ, then both the ɪks- I believed I had uttered and the eks- she believed she had heard would count as correct answers when we marked the students' answer sheets; likewise both my -ndʒ and the -nʒ she perceived.

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    4. There is plenty of warrant for dictator 'one who dictates', but I did find it funny.

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  4. I'm a little disturbed by some of the implications of María's question

    1. The way that classroom teacher usually mark dictation, they deduct one mark for each mistake. Even if the marks are not recorded, it would still mean that a script with this minor misjudgment would receive the same amount of positive/negative feedback as a script with a gross error — a completely wrong symbol, for example, or an omitted symbol or syllable. Deducting even half a mark would, I feel, be excessive. A quarter mark perhaps?

    2. Given that syllabic l and əl are equally acceptable from school pupils, how important is it that school teachers should easily detect the difference? And what about university teachers and their students?

    3. I can see why students of phonetics should be trained to hear distinctions that are not phonologically significant, but is that so appropriate for students of English and those who teach them? Of course, there's no harm whatsoever in teachers being trained beyond the level needed for effective teaching, but wouldn't like to see the 'extra' knowledge given high priority — or even equal priority with what will be more relevant in future classrooms.

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    1. I suppose María works with future teachers. Generally, in trascriptions and dictations, we are allowed to have 10% of mistakes (that is to say, 10 mistakes for every 100 words). Important mistakes as you mention are considered as 2. And yes, we are working at a level in which we are expected to realize the difference (this usually comes after more than a year of training). If it is too much or not I am not to tell, but I know a lot of people with a lovely (though very unnatural) pronounciation of English after four years of this.

      María Belén (future EFL teacher from Argentina)

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  5. As an aside: years ago, in Cracow there were English teachers who taught to delete the -le altogether. Their pupils learnt to say 'peop', 'simp', 'trub' (for 'people' and so on)---which sounded bizarre, to say the least. I ignore why (they would teach so). I have never encountered non-Cracovian -le-deleting EFL speakers. But this sinful tradition seems to be dead now.

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    1. Please look in your dictionary for the meaning of the English "ignore". (It is a false friend of the French "ignorer"). Here you mean "I do not know why (they taught that)".

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    2. thank you, good point. But I have it probably not from French, j'ignore, but from older English texts I have to read (with much attention). Most of the English texts I (have to) read day-in day-out are old, like XVIII c. at the latest. Hence the uncalled-for archaisms. I have already been critised for using 'for' in the sense of 'because'. One young American who once read my English texts for linguistic errors had to use the OED to look up various words employed, such as 'vulgar' in the sense of 'non-specialist, or 'Schoolman', or 'prevaricate', which he 'ignored', sorry, did not know.

      As Skelton once put it: 'I wot not where to fynde/Terms to serve my Mynde'. Such is life when you have to read the 'wrong' texts.

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    3. Wojciech

      I have already been critised for using 'for' in the sense of 'because'.

      No really. I was criticising a translation and you were collateral damage!

      The difference between the 'archaisms' is that for is readily understood, but ignore conveys something very different from what you intended.

      The OED entry for ignore is strange in that a great many of the quotations are comments on the use of the word.

      In your sense it's seventeenth century word, but Dr Johnson, writing a century later, believed it was a word introduced to English by Robert Boyle, 'but it has not been received'. Boyle is quoted from 1665 the little that I know, and they ignore.

      Thomas De Quincy is quoted from 1830 criticising someone for using ignore in the obsolete (or Irish!) 'don't know' sense — which sort-of survived (and still survives, I think) as an obscure legal term for something that grand juries may do. To the De Quincy text a note was added in 1857 remarking how quickly the obsolete word had reappeared and become popular with its 'new' modern meaning.

      There is a quote of Sir Richard Burton writing in 1860 The ‘principal men’ at the southern extremity ignored the extent northward but this must have struck his readers as most archaic — or else they misunderstood him

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    4. Thank you. I now remember that even Webster's dictionary of 1828 disadvised against the use of this word 'ignore' in the sense of 'not know'.

      http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,ignore

      Some authors, on the other hand, use the word 'albeit', which I would not use as it smacks too much of Wycliffe's times to me.

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    5. Wojciech,
      >which he 'ignored', sorry, did not know.<

      Or was ignorant of. The etymological sense was apparently never lost in that and "ignorance". Of course, that also has technical uses such as in "invincible ignorance", whatever the legal practice with "ignore".

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  6. Perhaps they had taken that idea from French, where it is common to drop the -le from words like "peuple".

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  7. Do the French do that really? ah yes, they also drop sometimes the -re in words like 'mai^tre', don't they? Well, perhaps they should recommend both to the English, so that these might be released from the 'trubbo' described above..

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  8. Yes to both, at least according to Luciano Canepari in his phonosynthesis of French - he attests it in cases such as "une autre fois" and "le peuple d'Italie". Just watch out for his innovative symbols and terminology.

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    1. but that's sloppy speech in French, isn't it? autr-schwa-fwah, lur-purpl-schwa-d'italy would be 'careful' speech, would it not? That at least I remember from my French lessons ('Le francais est facil', as we were told).

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    2. You can hear all different versions:
      autrEfois ; autr'fois ; even aut'fois

      As for peuple, in a final position, one common realisation is peupl' with an unvoiced l.

      I cannot imagine peup' in that instance, only in compounds such as that mentioned by Lazar Taxon.

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  9. This discussion reminds me of a curiosity I've noticed in some OED pronunciations, for instance one of their recent Word of the Day choices, 'signal', for which the pronunciation given is:

    Brit. /ˈsɪgnl/, U.S. /ˈsɪgn(ə)l/

    Why would they mark an optional schwa in US English but not in British?

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    1. PS - they have the same phenomenon for 'people':

      Brit. /ˈpiːpl/ , U.S. /ˈpip(ə)l/

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    2. The current OED transcriptions are taken from the ODP. The basic reason for these inconsistencies is that the BrE transcriptions were done by Clive Upton, the AmE ones by Bill Kretzschmar. Each had his own set of transcription principles. (I'm not sure what the third author, Rafal Konopka, did.) And they do not acknowledge the phonological point, that syllabic sonorant and schwa plus sonorant are phonologically identical even though phonetically distinct.

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  10. Something of a tangent, but I've been reading Russell Hoban's book Riddley Walker, which is written in an original dialect set in future Britain, and the word trouble is written as trubba — often in the recurring phrase "Trubba not".

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