Wednesday 29 December 2010

1949 revisited

The December 2010 issue of JIPA (Journal of the International Phonetic Association) celebrates its own forty years of publication and the 125th anniversary of the publishing of a journal by the IPA. Prior to 1970, the journal was known successively as Dhi Fonètik Tîtcer, dhə fənetik tîtcər, ðə fonetik tîtcər, lə mɛːtr fɔnetik and, for the seventy-five years from 1895, lə mɛːtrə fɔnetik.

To celebrate this anniversary, the current issue includes a complete scanned reproduction, with original cover pages and pagination, of the 1949 booklet Principles of the IPA. This booklet comprised (i) a theoretical introduction explaining the association’s alphabet and the principles for its use, and (ii) exemplification by phonetically transcribed texts in some fifty different languages. It is now accompanied by a short introduction written by Mike MacMahon, the IPA’s historian and archivist.

MacMahon mentions two misprints in the 1949 text, commenting that their appearance is not surprising “given the complexity of setting phonetic texts in a pre-computer age”. One is a missing diacritic. The other is the ‘problematic’ placing of a raising diacritic next to [u] (thus ) in the Afrikaans specimen. (Since cardinal u is by definition as close/high as is possible without crossing the vowel limit line into friction, it can hardly be raised further.)

What makes the latter more mysterious is that the same problematic combination is to be found in the specimens of Tswana and of Scottish Enɡlish — which MacMahon does not mention. Yet we know that Daniel Jones, the editor of the 1949 booklet, was careful to the point of obsessiveness about the exact typographical form of the phonetic symbols he used.

There are other misprints. In the specimen of Finnish we find riːsiu for riːsui, in that of “Roumanian” dz for , in the Welsh emlaen for əmlaen. There are doubtless others. Among factual deficits, the Japanese specimen lacks all mention of pitch accent.

Although it is not a misprint, it is shocking to find that as recently as half a century ago the name of the language Xhosa is supplemented by the now grossly offensive gloss “(Kaffir)”.

The English (“one variety of Southern British”) text of The north wind and the sun is transcribed, for illustrative purposes, in three different forms, one “broad”, one “slightly narrowed” and the third “still narrower”. This third transcription, reproduced below, contains two striking inconsistencies. One of the narrowings involves the explicit symbolization of schwa as opener (ɐ) in final position than elsewhere (ə). But if stronger is ˈstrɒŋɡɐ in the first line, why is it ˈstrɒŋɡə in the fourth? If that is a subtle observation of the effect of a close-knit following than, why, given ˈstrɒŋɡɐ and ˈtrævlɐ, is other in final position not ˈʌðɐ (line 4)? And why is the MOUTH vowel written in əˈraɷnd (line 6) but au in ˈaut (line 7)? Like Homer, DJ evidently sometimes nodded.


  1. The use of final [ɐ] makes me wonder, John: it's quite right that /ə/ before a pause often has the same realization as STRUT -- at least today, but this transcription and you suggest they had distinct realizations back then: [ˈʌðɐ]. Was it so, and is their merger as [ˈɐðɐ] or [ˈʌðʌ] a more recent development?

  2. The two vowels of prepausal other are different for me, the final one being much less open than the initial one. How to transcribe them is a separate issue.

  3. I thought that "kaffir" was a word Muslims used for non-Muslims.

    I've just done a Google search for it and discovered that it was also used by Europeans to refer to Black Africans. I've never heard it used in this sense, but I have heard it used in the Islamic sense occasionally.

    It makes you wonder how accurate the transcriptions of Xhosa were if the speakers were looked down upon.

  4. If you were to transcribe your own speech, how would you transcribe your prepausal other?

  5. @Ed: I do not think this charge can be levelled against DJ, who did pioneering work in London with the phonetics of Tswana and later had Jomo Kenyatta (no less) as a research assistant.

    @painter: I suppose ˈʌðə, or more narrowly ˈʌðə˕; but as always you have to define what you mean by particular symbols. It would be pretty pointless to try and transcribe these qualities with cardinal symbols plus an array of diacritics.

  6. I see it this way. The indigenous peoples of the Cape at the time of Dutch colonisation and the British take-over were called Hottentot, Bushmen and Kaffirs. The terms could not be offensive as long as they were the only terms used. It needed a division in white society between those who held the indigenous people in contempt and the minority who took the trouble to learn their own names for themselves — Khoikhoi, San, and the various Bantu 'tribes', of whom the Xhosa were the ones around at the Cape.

    The early military clashes were known as the Kaffir Wars — now renamed the Xhosa Wars.

    As White Europeans met other 'tribes' to the North, they had the option of distinguishing Zulus from Ndebeles etc from Xhosas. The less prejudiced opted for the 'tribal' names and dropped 'Kaffir' — while the more prejudiced did the opposite, using 'Kaffir' to refer to all the Bantu (i.e. Black African but not Khoikhoi or San).

    There was recently a fuss when Xhosa artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford were found to have their original labels containing the word Kaffir.

    An old use of "Kaffir' for 'Xhosa' is simply antiquated and not necessarily pejorative. The use of 'Kaffir' for all South African Blacks is another matter.

    I actually encountered South African Blacks who objected to the term 'Bantu Languages' — because they mistakenly believed that it was an Afrikaner invention, not used outside South africa.

  7. Sorry, didn't realise that Jones did such work.

    Some of the words that are commonly used now for ethnic groups have nasty origins. "Slav" has the same root as "slave", and "Berber" has the same root as "barbarian".

  8. I understand the slavic meaning of SLAV has nothing to do with "slave".

  9. According to M-W, at least, slave comes from Slav, not the other way around. That seems to be a fairly common pattern as well, where the cultural feelings toward a group glom onto a previously neutral term, eventually co-opting it.


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