Wednesday 11 April 2012

turned v

Something of a cri de coeur today from Simon Gilman, who is about to take up a new post in Voice at a university drama department in the north of England. Forgive me if I quote part of his email at some length.
Phonetics, as taught by Roach et al, still employs symbols for English RP that are at some variance with the sounds used contemporarily when set against the standard IPA vowel chart. It makes no sense to me that, for example, ʌ is used for the STRUT vowel when on the IPA chart the cardinal usage of this symbol is far further back and nearer in pronunciation to American (perhaps South-Western?). I think you previously agreed with me that the vowel that the contemporary RP user employs is far more like ɐ. Why then does Roach place ʌ in his chart more or less where one would find ɐ on the standard chart? I can’t use phonetics with my acting students and explain that ɔ is a rounded open-mid back vowel and show them on the standard IPA chart where the cardinal exists, and then explain that its unrounded equivalent is actually articulated as a near-open central vowel. The problem exists because I want to use contemporary RP as a fundamental phonetic benchmark from which to use phonetics to transcribe other accents, but I can’t fight against existing texts and teaching standards in isolation.

You’re right, Simon. Practical necessity indeed means we all have to use existing textbooks and pronunciation dictionaries. We ought not to deviate from their transcription systems without very good reason.

If you “want to use contemporary RP as a fundamental phonetic benchmark from which to use phonetics to transcribe other accents”, then don’t start by teaching students the symbols for cardinal vowels. Teach them the vowel symbols for RP.

If and when you move on to teaching the cardinal vowels, please bear in mind that they constitute an abstract reference framework and not the vowel system of any particular language or accent. They were intended to reflect the most extreme positions of which the human vocal apparatus is capable. In applying them to real-life situations we always have to compromise, since no known language is spoken exclusively with the cardinal vowels or a subset among them.

Symbols mean what we choose to make them mean. If you want your students to make use of existing textbooks and pronunciation dictionaries, you have got to teach them that the STRUT vowel in standard accents is transcribed with the symbol ʌ. Later, if you want to study the differences between Jonesian RP, contemporary son-of-RP, various kinds of AmE, and assorted north-of-England English STRUT-FOOT fudges, you can decorate ʌ with interesting diacritics, or indeed choose another symbol or symbols instead. But in doing so you will be exploring a great multidimensional vowel space, in which the cardinal vowel system can do no more than help us feel our way.

When I first studied phonetics, under John Trim at Cambridge, we were set transcription exercises, i.e. asked to convert English orthographic texts into phonetic symbols. We had been armed with a list of symbols and keywords. But as well as doing the task in the way he was expecting, I also amused myself (or was showing off) by transcribing it in accordance with various other transcription systems I had come across or invented myself. So I wrote love as lʌv as taught, but also in another version as lə́v, because I had read Gleason’s Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics, and in yet another as lɐv, following the same logic as Simon. I did the same sort of thing for various other vowels. This game is fun for beginners fascinated by phonetic symbols, as I was, but impractical for drama students who just want help with accents and dialects. (For more of my early experimentation, see my blog for 16 March 2007.)

When I grew up, I settled down to writing RP STRUT as ʌ, just like everyone else. The brief answer to Simon’s first and main problem, then, is that if he wants his students to be able to consult existing textbooks and pronunciation dictionaries he should teach them that ʌ stands for the vowel in RP/GenAm strut, love, double, rug etc. (At a rough guess I imagine that would account for over 99% of the use of this phonetic symbol in published materials, with the cardinal ‘open-mid back unrounded’ value accounting for the remaining 1%.) Anyhow, you can see how I coped with your general problem by looking at what I did in my Accents of English (CUP 1982).

Sooner or later I imagine there will be a tectonic shift in the notation of English vowels. As not only STRUT but also GOOSE, THOUGHT-NORTH-FORCE and various other vowels move further away from the cardinal qualities associated with the symbols we currently use, some author will bite the bullet and provide us with an entirely new transcription system. Geoff Lindsey (blog, 12 March 2012) has already had a go.

Until that happens, stick with what we’ve got.


  1. What is the Greek oxia doing above the schwa symbol? I obviously haven't read Gleason's book, but I'd like to know what the symbol represents.

    Sometimes it is entertaining to hear the ‘proper’ ʌ from time to time, as shown here. Which is why actors should learn it.

    1. It's an acute accent, showing primary stress. This is the Trager-Smith notation that was all the rage in post-Bloomfield, pre-Chomsky structuralist linguistics.

    2. I just used a string analyzer to tell me what it was and it said it was a Greek oxia mark. It tends to differentiate between the acute and the oxia. Thank you for the explanation.

  2. Dear Professor Wells, when you wrote "you can decorate ʌ with interesting diacritics",
    did you happen to have in mind the tacks (like ʌ̙ or ʌ̘ ), or are tacks suitable only for depicting a phenomenon of certain African languages, a phenomenon irrelevant to indo-european languages ?
    (I've been wondering about the function of these tacks for quite some time...)

    1. Yes, the four tacks, or the centralization diacritic, or the diacritics for "more rounded", "less rounded", "advanced", "retracted", "mid-centralized" etc. See the IPA Chart.

      Who suggested that ±ATR was "suitable only for ... African languages"? Not me, not anyone I know. This feature is a plausible one to subsume the tense/lax distinction in the vowels of Germanic languages, amongst others.

  3. When you are saying that the cardinal vowels “constitute an abstract reference framework”, I wonder whether this is just one way of telling the story, and whether another way of telling the same story could go like this: The cardinal vowels match the French vowel system. (Vowel signs like [ɪ ʊ æ] that are off the cardinal vowels are alternative transcriptions of [e o ɛ] for some other European neighbour languages like English where the respective sounds are felt not to be associated with the letters ⟨e o e⟩ but with ⟨i u a⟩.)

    1. They may "match" the French vowel system (of 100-odd years ago, not of current French), but they are not the same. E.g. cardinal 6 [ɔ] is noticeably different from the French [ɔ], which is considerably centralized.

  4. I've never quite understood what Clive Upton uses ʌ to represent in his PRICE transcription. His reasoning seems to be based on the fact that RP speakers may use a fronted or backed started point to PRICE without attracting any social comment. However, this doesn't seem to be the appropriate area for the RP STRUT vowel, especially when Upton has said that there's a tendency for it to be raised amongst younger speakers (p.223, HOVE).

    I know that STRUT can tend towards [a], but this is usually by Cockneys, who invariably use [ɑɪ] for PRICE, and would presumably not be relevant to RP transcriptions.

    Any ideas?

    1. Clive must answer for himself. I don't know of any phonetician who thinks his choice of ʌɪ for PRICE was wise.

  5. John, thank you very much for airing this.

    I’m reminded of school days (quite some time ago), where up to a certain age in physics lessons you learnt that light moved in straight lines, only later to be told that while light might act as though it moves in straight lines, we can’t ever empirically prove that it does so, and, anyway, what you think of as a straight line is probably meaningless as well.

    As far as I’m concerned, for my acting students, there isn’t any 'just' about learning accents and dialects: a visual comprehension of how sounds are made is amazing training for the ear. These days they (as do we all) have universally available resources such as the audio-visual representations of cardinals in Wikipedia’s IPA chart; respected accent teachers Jan Haydn-Rowles and Edda Sharpe demonstrate cardinals on the accompanying CD to their book How to do Accents; and, of course, the IPA vowel chart is printed in Roach and similar works, unrounded open-mid back ʌ and all. I accept the truth of a “multidimensional vowel space”, and that there may ultimately be limitations to the IPA chart, but I want my students to be equipped to understand and identify placements for non-RP vowels, such as a Welsh ɵ, and, as they progress, to distinguish between that and French or Scandinavian ø, or œ, or ɶ.

    I contend that in this teaching environment the IPA chart is a better starting point than one that turns ʌ into a near-open central vowel for RP; and to decorate such a creature with accurate diacritics would be, to my mind, a far more difficult task than any context that stretched (or contracted) a point to identify the sounds of accent placements by their nearest cardinal IPA symbol: hence, for RP, i (or ) is used for the FLEECE vowel as it is closest to cardinal i (or ), the same for GOOSE u; and therefore, for STRUT, I would favour ɐ over ʌ.


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