Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Ask Professor Wells

The CD-ROM accompanying the third edition of my Longman Pronunciation Dictionary comes with a button for emailing questions to me. There’s also one on my home page. I do my best to reply helpfully. But sometimes what a reader sends is not a question but a complaint.
Dear Professor Wells:
I expected the dictionary to show the actual pronunciation of the entries. However, on checking a few examples, the dictionary did not live up to my expectations.
For example, I expected the word train begin with an affricated t and similarly, the word drain to begin with affricated d. There are many other aspects that do not reflect real English (American or British) pronunciation. EFL users of the dictionary do not have authentic pronunciation guide.
Regards.
Professor XYZ (from an address in Jordan)

[I do find it a bit surprising that a professor, presumably of English, can send me a message with several grammatical errors:
• a dangling participle “on checking”;
• missing “to” before “begin”;
• the countable noun “guide” treated as a mass noun (cf. “guidance”).
If I were writing to a professor, a native speaker of a language I was teaching at university, particularly if I were writing to criticize his work, I would have my letter checked by a native speaker beforehand if there were any doubt at all in my mind. Personally, when I write even a short informal message in French, German, or Welsh, I check everything very carefully in dictionaries and grammars (and am mortified if I do nevertheless make a mistake). Why can’t EFL learners/experts do the same? In spoken communication the odd slip can be tolerated, but anything you write ought to be as far as possible error-free.]
Anyhow, here’s what I replied.
Dear Prof. XYZ,
I am sorry that you are disappointed. On page 465 of LPD (third edition) there is a clear statement that "in a consonant cluster after t or d, r is made FRICATIVE instead of approximant. The result is that tr and dr form AFFRICATES..."
In my view it is better to make general statements such as this rather than to clutter the transcription at each entry with allophonic diacritics to show frication, aspiration, clipping, etc.
Yours
John Wells
—a sentiment with which I hope you, my readers, agree.

14 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. And yes, we have Chinese spam. OT, I am suprised as well that someone calling himself professor is complaining in this manner (even regardless of the (in)correctness of his English). It seems to me that, especially when talking professor to professor, a little more courtesy is called for.

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  3. It seems to me that, especially when talking professor to professor, a little more courtesy is called for.

    Or indeed professor to lexicographer, since there are plenty of learned people who have no concept about what goes on between the pages of a dictionary, but will still complain vociferously about what they don't understand.

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  4. In my view it is better to make general statements such as this rather than to clutter the transcription at each entry with allophonic diacritics to show frication, aspiration, clipping, etc.

    I suppose another way of putting this might be to say simply that the transcriptions are phonemic (and lexical) rather than phonetic. They're not intended to analyse the fine phonetic detail in each and every example of regular and thus predictable phenomena.

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  5. Yes, sorry about the Chinese porn spam. I've tried to bring it to Google's attention (not an easy task).

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  6. I am an EFL speaker (Italian) who has lived in the U.K. for over 10 years. I have found the LPD, as well as Accents of English and Intonation, invaluable tools to help me overcome the frustration of still having a bad foreign pronunciation.
    I have no doubt that the priority of a dictionary which is meant to be read by people who are not experts in phonetics is to keep the trascription as simple as possibile and overlook the smallest details. In this case the detail is not even overlooked, because it is explained in an appropriate section.
    I hope I haven't made any mistakes in this message.

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  7. In dubio pro reo!

    on [sc. my] checking,(…) the dictionary did
    He might be progressive and consciously accept dangling participles, claiming they have been normal in good written English for a century or longer.

    I expected the word train begin
    The professor is using a subjunctive. :-)

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  9. Dear Professor Wells,
    I'm actually working very comfortably with the way you have organized your dictionary. I teach my students how to work on phonemic transcriptions before going into phonetic ones. If you had included all the diacritics in the entries, you would have made my work much more difficult.
    By the way, my students love the self-study section you have included in the CD that accompanies the last edition of your dictionary.
    María Alicia Maldonado

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  10. hi prof
    i am student in englih lg and I faced difficulties in learning english vowels
    can u help me?
    regards

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  11. @ asmaa:
    I cannot help you directly. You must listen to live speakers of English and listen to recordings. Watch English-language television. Use YouTube. Get a teacher, get a voice coach (Amy!), get some individual tuition. Study phonetics. Read books.

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  12. Geoff Pullum has pointed out several times on Language Log that dangling participles are way too common even in edited prose to be an actual syntactic error: he classifies them as impolite (because they can confuse the reader) rather than strictly erroneous.

    I suspect that XYZ simply dropped an before effective pronunciation guide rather than writing guide incorrectly for guidance.

    I am not sure how to take either XYZ's complaint or your reply on the subject of tr, dr. I think he is saying that he has heard [tSr], [dZr], or something very like them, and believes that to be standard.

    The best way to deal with spam of any sort is just to delete it; part of the tidying up one must do after letting guests into one's house, particularly when one of the guests turns out to be ill-behaved.

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