Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Buying spiced pies

See? That's how you do it. Four syllables, one idea, three plosives. (I'm talking about my title.)

It (the title) is a rewritten version of  Buy a pie for the spy – an interesting post that points out some interesting stuff about plosives voiced unvoiced and aspirated but  misses a couple of tricks. The first is in the title, which in contrast to my 4/1/3 count (syllables/idea/plosives) has a count of 6/2/3 and introduces a needless arbitariness (Why should a SPY want a PIE?) and an  irrelevant specificity (Why THE spy?).

I sense, though, that the writer teaches in the Far East, so that six simple monosyllables (avoiding the tricky /st p/ cluster) do the job better. And the very arbitrariness of the spy/pie thing may make it more memorable for a student; I'm not sure. Anyway, I prefer my more elegant version.

We come now to the second missed trick – a more serious one. It is summed up in this sentence:
In IPA, the three words buy, pie and spy are represented as [baɪ], [pʰaɪ] and [spaɪ] respectively.
Let's try a rewrite of that sentence:

In IPAUsing the symbols recognized by the IPA, the three words buy, pie and spy are can be represented as [baɪ], [pʰaɪ] and [spaɪ] respectively.
The notation I (and many other EFL/ESOL teachers) prefer for teaching purposes is phonemic (what I used earlier to refer to 'the /st p/ cluster [where spiced meets pie]'). But this post doesn't begin to introduce the concept of the phoneme; well, it does use the word 'phonological' once, which is in the right ballpark. It suggests that the writer knows so much about phonetics that s/he has made a conscious decision to avoid phoneme.

I think this is a mistake, particularly as every IPA chart that I've ever seen – among those that are likely to be referred to by an EFL/ESOL student – is called something like a phonemic chart of the the sounds of English.

But the post is interesting and illuminating, and well worth a read. I will, however, make up for the lack of phonemes by republishing a passage from my #WVGTbook:

The International Phonetics Association specifies a number of symbols and diacritics that can be used to transcribe any speech sound in any natural language, to a greater or lesser degree of precision. Learning the whole system would be a huge undertaking, and is unnecessary for any practical purpose.  A precise transcription is conventionally presented within square brackets [...]; this could be used to represent how a particular speaker makes a particular utterance. It is phonetic.
Many teachers of English as a Foreign Language need to do something different. They don't need to represent how one speaker speaks; there is no one model speaker. What these teachers want to do is to model how speakers of English distinguish bad from bed, bid, bod, bud, bode, bide, bard, bawd, bead, bayed, bowed, beard... and so on. Between such words ('minimal pairs') there is a phonemic distinction in the vowel. The consonants on either side of the vowel are more or less the same (there are slight differences to do with the neighbouring vowel, but they are phonemically identical): phonemic script is conventionally presented between slashes – /.../ . The /b/ phoneme that begins badbed, bid, bod,.... etc. is distinct from the  /l/ in lad, led, lid, lead, lard,  lewd, load, lied and so on. The fact that the first consonant sound in leek and the last consonant sound in keel are phonetically distinct  does not signify; they are both representatives of the /l/ phoneme. Similarly, the consonant sounds at the onsets of keel and call are phonetically distinct, but they can both be represented by the /k/ phoneme.

Different experts have specified various different characters for a broad transcription of English. For example, I have used /e/ for the vowel in 'led'. Others prefer /ɛ/. But neither is 'right'. The sound that I, and many other teachers,  transcribe as /e/ is more open (that is, the mouth of the speaker is opened more widely) than the IPA's cardinal [e] but more close than [ɛ], and more central than either. The phonemes necessary for an unambiguous transcription of British English are generally agreed to number somewhere in the mid-forties. The system used in the  Macmillan English Dictionary is the one used by the British Council, among many other influential participants in the EFL/ESOL world. It uses as a basis the phonemes encapsulated in Adrian Underhill's phonemic chart. (Some of the examples given in this book use a different selection from the IPA; for example, Collins English Dictionary uses /ɛ/ rather than /e/. 
Neither is right and neither is wrong; they simply choose to use different IPA symbols to represent the same speech sound phonemically.)

When a dictionary gives a phonemic transcription (as all worthwhile modern teaching/learning dictionaries do) it is not implying 'This is how to pronounce this word'. It is implying 'native speakers of standard English typically use these phonemes'. When, as on several occasions in this work, this book says 'the dictionary's transcription doesn't match the audio sample', it is not saying 'They goofed'; an actual speech event rarely matches its phonemic transcription. Indeed, when it seems to, it just means that on this occasion the phonemic characters look the same as the phonetic characters that might be used for a narrower transcription (as is usually the case in, for example, Spanish).
b – signing off for the year. My [ahem] aspiration is that you should ʰave a ... whatever, possibly buying spiced pies before the event.

Update 2013. – Added afterthought in red.
Update 2014.01.01.14:20 – Added afterthought in blue, and this PS
PS: I touched on this issue here (about halfway down).

Update 2014.01.01.16:30 – And another, in brown

Update 2014.01.0216:30 – Added this PPS:
PPS: We were talking about this a while ago at UsingEnglish.com, at which I brought up my accustomed example, Audrey Hepburn:
Quote Originally Posted by yangmuye View Post...
I'm interesting if English speakers are able to tell the difference between aspirated and dis-aspirated p (like in Chinese), or full voiced b and dis-aspirated p (like in Spanish).
I think native English speakers may be aware of it, without giving it much (if any) thought. For example, few people would say 'Audrey Hepburn sounds foreign'. In fact, I'm not sure myself. But her Dutch-speaking background gives her voiced plosives enough aspiration* to make me wonder.

I'm sure the Hollywood executives who first hired her had no idea about her aspiration, but it probably influenced their thinking that 'the kid had something special about her'.


PS You're interested, though it is an interesting question.

pps Her mistake was the reverse - not aspirating initial voiceless consonants

Update 2018.02.08.18:30 – Removed old footer

Update 2018.04.04.15:30 – Added link to When Vowels Get Together ("#WVGTbook"). This book was later released in a slightly different format as Digraphs and Diphthongs (which included a partial "sound-index" – quite a neat addition, but a lot of work). As I am now working on a book that is in effect volume 2 of the When Vowels Get Together family: WVGT...with Sonorants, I have made reference  to the earlier format (which I will, in due course, re-release as WVGT...with Other Vowels.

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