Monday, 10 September 2012

false alarm

Some issues never go away. An email arrives via the LPD “Ask Professor Wells” address given on Longman's LPD page and on the CD-ROM bundled with the dictionary.
Is there a recent change in the depiction of English r sound from [r] to [ɹ]; if I understand it, now the regular English character [r] (the lowercase of the eighteenth letter of the Latin alphabet) is used for depiction of Spanish r sound (a trill), and the upside down [ɹ] is assigned to represent the English r sound.
In case I failed to express myself here is what I mean: For the word solarium IPA pronunciation was [səˈlɛərɪəm], now should we write it as [səˈlɛəɹɪəm]?
If my assumption is correct does your book's latest edition reflect that change?

No need to panic. It's a false alarm.

Needless to say, there has been no such change in the IPA, recent or otherwise. I have not changed the transcription of this consonant in LPD, nor do I plan to. The writer’s assumption is NOT correct. Oh, and by the way, solarium is not transcribed as səˈlɛərɪəm in any edition of LPD. (For BrE I write səˈleəriəm.)

I haven’t bothered to track down exactly when the symbols r and ɹ received their current definitions, but it was certainly more than a century ago.

(I’ve just inspected the 1902 edition of the IPA Chart to confirm this — see fragment below. As usual, click to enlarge. Note that r is listed as (consonne) roulée, ‘trill’, and ɹ as fricative. By the way, the inverted g and inverted ʒ at the end of the fricatives linguales in this chart are glossed in the accompanying explanation as des sons Tcherkesses ‘Circassian sounds’ — possibly they are retroflex, i.e. the sounds we would nowadays write ʂ, ʐ.)

IPA symbols have always had to be interpreted in accordance with conventions implicitly or explicitly defined by the transcriber who uses the symbols.

In the words of the IPA Handbook (CUP 1999; p. 29),

Any transcription is connected to a speech event by a set of conventions. In the case of an impressionistic (‘general phonetic’) transcription, the conventions are precisely those lying behind the IPA Chart, indicating for instance that the phonetic value of [ʔ͡k] is a simultaneous velar and glottal closure. In the case of a phonemic transcription, the conventions also include the ’phonological rules’ of the particular language which determine the realization of its phonemes, such as the fact that for some varieties of English the lateral phoneme /l/ is realized with an accompanying secondary articulation ([ɫ]) when not followed directly by a vowel or /j/ in the same word. Likewise, the realizational information which is not explicit in a particular allophonic transcription is, in principle, provided by conventions.

It is convenient (= practical and sensible) for us to use the same phonemic symbol t for the unaspirated dental plosive of French, the aspirated dental plosive of Swedish, the unaspirated alveolar plosive of Czech, and the aspirated alveolar plosive of English.

In general, phonemic symbols should be as simple as possible. That means letters of the ordinary lower-case Roman alphabet in preference to special letters such as ɛ ɹ ɫ, and the avoidance of diacritics as far as possible. For detailed discussion of the issues involved, see for example Appendix A (Types of Phonetic Transcription) of Daniel Jones’s classic An Outline of English Phonetics, or Part I (Introduction) of David Abercrombie’s English Phonetic Texts (London: Faber and Faber, 1964, or of course the IPA Handbook or its predecessor, the 1949 Principles of the IPA booklet.

So the English consonant at the beginning of red can be written phonemically as r or allophonically ~ impressionistically ~ general-phonetically as ɹ. Both ways of writing it are ‘IPA’; both are equally ‘scientific’; both convey the same information.

The problem is how to convey this point clearly to non-specialists such as my correspondent.

Just to confirm, in the transcribed texts of the 1902 Maître Phonétique the symbol r is used for all the various r-sounds of both English and French, even though at that date the notion of ‘phoneme’ in the modern sense had not yet been developed.

11 comments:

  1. I think the problem is that most people don't know that dictionaries use phonemic transcriptions (and they don't even know what a phoneme is), and the symbols used do not represent actual speech sounds. If they look up what sound r stands for in the IPA chart, they'll find it's a trill. No wonder they're confused.
    On the other hand, decades ago it was more difficult to use such special symbols in typing, but today it no longer is an issue. It may be time for dictionary makers to reconsider using phonemic symbols that resemble actual speech sounds more accurately to avoid misleading less trained readers.

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  2. "phonemic symbols that resemble actual speech sounds more accurately to avoid misleading less trained readers."
    Let's think what you might mean. OK, we could write ɹ passim for r. But what other PHONEMIC symbol(s) might replace t? Or l? Or h? Or any other consonants of English?
    We could also change some of the vowel symbols, perhaps along the lines Geoff Lindsey has advocated. But I can't see that any such change would genuinely "avoid misleading less trained readers".
    To interpret symbols in a dictionary or textbook, consult the book's list of symbols and keywords, not the IPA Chart.

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    1. I just don't understand why dictionaries don't adhere to the standardized notation system of IPA and why they keep using a symbol defined as a trill by IPA to transcribe an approximant that actually has its own dedicated IPA symbol.

      I didn't mean that dictionaries should give a narrow phonetic transcription, phonemic is just fine. Writing ɹɛd instead of red may be less convenient for the author, but more informative and less misleading for the reader, such as the actual correspondent, and I think a dictionary should aim to be as informative as possible without being too informative. You know, the golden mean.

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    2. To interpret symbols in a dictionary or textbook, consult the book's list of symbols and keywords, not the IPA Chart.

      Is there not the danger that it might become akin to re-spelling, except using symbols that are unfamiliar to those who have not mastered phonetics? Graham Pointon has argued in this post that "IPA transcriptions tend to become as fixed as any traditional orthography, even when the phonetic detail changes".

      The case that he mentions of Danish is very different from that of [British] English, but still I think that the principle is sound. IPA symbols lose some of their advantage over re-spelling if they don't correspond to the IPA chart.

      Ed Aveyard

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    3. I didn't mean that dictionaries should give a narrow phonetic transcription, phonemic is just fine. Writing ɹɛd instead of red (...)

      The thing is though, that when describing phonemes (as opposed to phones, narrow transcription or otherwise), one can use any odd symbol to represent a certain sound. I recall the case of a language whose phonemic description was composed of non-IPA, as it used extensive allophony and the authors wanted to avoid favouring a specific allophone (as it wasn't possible to assign any of the allophones as the default one).

      So in that light it's perfectly acceptable to use the more familiar symbols, especially as students that are actually checking pronunciation information and knowing anything about IPA are very likely already aware of these conventions, and the allophony present in the language. I know I am, when looking up pronunciation information in an English dictionary, and I prefer the current conventions above the more phonetic approach.

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    4. Peter kingston

      Writing ɹɛd instead of red may be less convenient for the author, but more informative and less misleading for the reader

      For approximately 1% of readers, maybe. For the 99% who constitute the market for pronouncing dictionaries, it's a complete turn-off.

      EFL students, the majority of the market, would certainly reject it as not worth the trouble. And the majority of EFL teachers would follow suit. Few of my younger colleagues had much training or interest in Phonetics, but I believe most could be persuaded of the value of LPD and the like.

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  3. I think the confusion between the two symbols might arise from looking at the long-running discussion on Wikipedia pages concerned with English transcription (e.g. IPA for English), where a number of contributors have obviously been unaware of the difference between phonetic and phonemic symbols.

    Peter Roach

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  4. Peter Kingston

    It may be time for dictionary makers to reconsider using phonemic symbols that resemble actual speech sounds more accurately to avoid misleading less trained readers.

    That would make the dictionaries useless for people who have not studied Phonetics.

    I myself have studied a bit, and maintained my interest. But I would never buy or consult a dictionary that chose its symbols in the way you propose.

    UNFAMILIARITY is an asset in symbols for narrow transcription. It's a perverse and unnecessary barrier for those who've learnt a set of symbols for English and just want to check some pronunciations.

    The main market for pronouncing dictionaries — foreign learners — learn the pronunciation of English sounds from their teachers, the recordings they listen to and the native speakers they hear. What they want to learn from pronouncing dictionaries is how those sounds combine in individual words.

    Frankly, it was always a very low priority for me as a teacher whether my students produced r or ɹ. For them, it was of no priority at all.

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    1. "Frankly, it was always a very low priority for me as a teacher whether my students produced r or ɹ. For them, it was of no priority at all."

      I recall from school French lessons that [ɹ] versus [ʁ] was about the one pronunciation issue that wasn't important phonemically but which the teacher still made an issue about. By comparison, such things as [tʰ] versus [t̪] virtually never got a mention. (Mispronunciations that obliterated phonemic differences were of course treated seriously, and there were various minimal pairs that we were made to practise ad nauseam.)

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  5. Dictionary prounciations are, or should be, tailored to the expected readership. A very explicit transcription reflects a specific pronunciation, useful for anyone who speaks that variety or for second language learners targetng that variety. For a population at large, an abstract method would allow anyone to interpret it in their own regional or social idiom.

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