The delivery company DHL turned up on my doorstep a few days ago with an unsolicited and unexpected package addressed to me. A massive 5kg in weight, it proved to contain two volumes of a pronunciation dictionary from RAI, Radiotelevisione Italiana, entitled Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d’Ortografia e di Pronunzia, or DOP for short.
I imagine I owe this honour to the fact that in the Foreword to LPD I acknowledged the help I had gained from an earlier (and much smaller) edition of this work.
With 133 pages of introduction and 1253 pages of dictionary proper — large pages, almost as big as A4 — it’s an enormous work. And this is only the part devoted to Italian: there’s also a promised third volume, not yet available, to be devoted to words belonging to other languages.
The two volumes already published are claimed to cover 92,000 voci di lessico e nomi propri della lingua italiana [Italian lexical words and proper names]; the third will cover 37,000 nomi propri e altre voci d’una sessantina di lingue diverse [proper names and other words from some sixty different languages].
All this despite the fact that the pronunciation of Italian words is mostly pretty predictable from the spelling. The chief uncertainties are the placement of the stress in longer words and one or two other things that I discuss below.
In the face of the publisher’s generosity in sending me a complimentary copy, it may seem churlish to look a gift horse in the mouth: but nevertheless here goes.
Why oh why don’t they use IPA? Instead, they use an idiosyncratic mishmash of a transcription system, of which I reproduce a small part here. At the very least, this makes the dictionary difficult for non-Italian phoneticians to use. Instead of seeing the familiar IPA symbols that we use for the tens or hundreds of other languages in whose pronunciation we may be interested, we have to contend with this set of strange symbols found nowhere else. Not only does DOP not use IPA, it applies familiar IPA symbols in unusual meanings. Thus for example ʃ is used for the voiced alveolar fricative (IPA z). The sound represented in IPA by ɕ, the voiceless alveolopalatal fricative, is shown in DOP as s’, which in IPA would be an ejective alveolar fricative. And so on.
You can sort of see the logic behind this. In Italian orthography the letter z stands for an affricate, either ts or dz. So Italians without phonetic training might be confused if a word such as caso ‘case’ were transcribed as IPA ˈkazo. Writing it as [kàʃo] draws the attention of the naïve reader to the fact that there’s something special about this s (compare casa ‘house’, where the fricative is voiceless). However, the millions of Italians who study or have studied English will be familiar with the use of IPA transcription for English, with ʃɪp standing for ship, busy transcribed ˈbɪzi and so on. And precisely the same arguments would apply in Germany, which hasn’t inhibited the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch and other German pronunciation dictionaries from using IPA. Then there’s Wikipedia, which insists that its authors use IPA rather than other possible phonetic alphabets or ad-hoc solutions.
The caso example also reveals the strongly normative nature of DOP. Although I am no expert on Italian, I am pretty sure that there are millions of Italians who don’t consistently make the distinction between s and z in the prescribed way. The same applies to the mid vowels, as venti ‘twenty’ ˈventi (DOP “vénti”) vs. venti ‘winds’ ˈvɛnti (DOP “vènti”), not to mention the complexities of the doubling of consonants. (DOP quite sensibly marks those words which are supposed to trigger gemination of the first consonant of a following word by a final raised + sign, thus appiè “appi̯è+”, making appiè della croce “[appi̯è ddella króče]”, or in IPA apˈpjɛddellaˈkroːtʃe.)
The phonetic terminology is flaky, too. You can see from the above sample that ‘voiceless’ is rendered as aspro [harsh, sharp], while ‘voiced’ is rendered dolce [sweet]. The standard Italian terms are added in brackets.
I wonder what it means to say that English/Spanish θ, symbolized by DOP’s special barred th symbol, is found in varie sfumature [in various shades].
At the end of the symbol list (not shown above), Arabic ‘ayn, IPA ʕ, is defined as faringale, ossia profondamente gutturale [pharyngeal, or rather deeply guttural]. And that’s it. Would it be voiceless or voiced? a plosive, a fricative, or an approximant? Or perhaps it’s a nasal or a lateral? OK, we can leave it to the specialists to argue whether it’s best described as epiglottal rather than pharyngeal, a pharyngealized plosive rather than a fricative or an approximant; but I wouldn’t let even an undergraduate get away with no attempt at all at a full VPM label, let alone the author of a work for publication.