Monday, 17 October 2011

degreasing the galleon

I refer you to a horror story reported in Alex Rotatori’s blog. The above is part of a page in an English phrasebook published in Italy by a respectable publisher.

It’s not just a question of possible typing errors or misprints such as [intʃ] instead of [ɪntʃ] inch. What we have here is gross ignorance on the part of the author about the ‘phonemic spelling’ of English words.
• Leaving aside the Scots and Ulstermen who have no GOOSE-FOOT contrast, every native speaker of English pronounces foot as fʊt, not fuːt. Indeed, I chose FOOT as my keyword for the lexical set that includes put, push, and good.
• Every NS of English pronounces pint as paɪnt (i.e. with the PRICE vowel), not pɪnt.
• Every NS pronounces gallon with -lən, not -lɪən.
• No NS of English pronounces ounce as oːnts. We all use the MOUTH vowel, which may range depending on our accent from [æə] through the customary [aʊ] and [ɑʊ] to [ɔʊ], but is never .
• As far as I know, no NS pronounces Fahrenheit as ˈfɑːnhaɪt. Most of us say ˈfærənhaɪt.
• The citation form of the plural of degree ends in z. OK, there may be some contextual devoicing, but the appropriate entry in a list such as this is -ˈɡriːz.
• Because of the operation of the ‘stress shift’ or rhythm rule, for a NS the stress pattern of eighty-six in the expression 86 degrees is normally TUM-ti-tum rather than the citation tum-ti-TUM given here.

Of the thirty transcribed forms in this tiny fragment of the phrasebook, fifteen are wrong.

The Pons Travel Kit Inglese, according to the cover, comes con Audio Trainer. I do hope they got a native speaker to make the recordings. If they did, and listened to what the NS said, they would have been able to avoid these howlers.

As I say, Pons is a respectable publisher, based in Germany. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

I think teachers of English pronunciation need to give a lot of attention to establishing the correct target for the pronunciation of each word in the student’s English vocabulary. Knowing the spelling is not enough. We’re all aware that the relationship between spelling and pronunciation is less than perfect. But we often don’t realize how insidious the misleading effect of the orthography can be. Wild guesses are not the route to follow.

Presumably the author of the phrasebook knows English fairly well. He or she may even have a degree in the subject. But clearly this relates to the written language rather than the spoken.

It’s not just a matter of learning to make the sounds of English in an acceptable way. It’s also a matter of knowing which sounds ought to be used in which words. And that’s what often gets neglected.

10 comments:

  1. « I do hope they got a native speaker to make the recordings. If they did, and listened to what the NS said, they would have been able to avoid these howlers.»

    I regret to point out that it seems they didn't and therefore couldn't do the listening and avoiding either. Alex goes on to say:

    «What is worse is that the transcription furnished here represents exactly what one hears on the CD, as the voice of the speaker used in the recordings is not a real one but a computerized one. And we know what can happen with synthetic speech: it often fails to reproduce weak forms and intonation properly.»

    This is about another page, but I guess it must apply to the whole CD. Alex?

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  2. Perhaps it's just me, or maybe it's my Scottish accent and therefore doesn't "count", but I think that stress rhythm on "86 degrees" sounds natural. When I say the 'shifted' one that you say, it sounds unnatural...

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  3. It seems that the travel kit is the result of a cooperation between PONS and the Academia Universa Press (see here: http://www.edizioniplan.it/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=121). PONS can't evade its responsibilities though.

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  4. @ reuog: I agree with you. I don't think that this would be out-of-the-question in an American accent. Any comments from our American friends?

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  5. But Ed, American phonologists even have their own name for the phenomenon: "iambic reversal".

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  6. My own accent leans American. Though I do get the impression that number words are somewhat more resistant to stress shift in the American accent, to me the most natural American pronunciation of eighty-six in the phrase 86 degrees has the primary stress in the beginning, especially in fluent speech. The version without the stress shift doesn't sound wrong, but hints at a slight pause or maybe emphasis on the six (as in 86 degrees instead of 85 or 87).

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  7. Yes, that's what I thought. Of course the version without the stress shift doesn't sound wrong, IF there's emphasis on the six (as in 86 degrees instead of 85 or 87), as the contrasted sequences have to retain their stress. But that would mean 'degrees' would lose its stress, and none of this would be appropriate in a list of models for the *normal* pronunciation in isolation.

    As John says, for a NS the stress pattern of eighty-six in the expression 86 degrees is *normally* TUM-ti-tum rather than the citation tum-ti-TUM given here.

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  8. @ mallamb:

    "I regret to point out that it seems they didn't and therefore couldn't do the listening and avoiding either. Alex goes on to say:

    «What is worse is that the transcription furnished here represents exactly what one hears on the CD, as the voice of the speaker used in the recordings is not a real one but a computerized one. And we know what can happen with synthetic speech: it often fails to reproduce weak forms and intonation properly.»

    This is about another page, but I guess it must apply to the whole CD. Alex?"

    Yes, it does apply to the whole of the CD, unfortunately!

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  9. Eighty-six degrees has initial phrasal stress in my AmE, but I have certainly heard it with stress on six.

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  10. First of all, the transcriptions are all in a non-rhotic accent, which is definitely not standard American. This is extremely interesting considering they're all transcriptions of imperial measurements, which, presumably, are used mostly only in the States.

    Secondly, perhaps proof of the stress in "eighty-six" could come from the flapping rule? I (a native Canadian English speaker), do flap the /t/ in "eighty." I believe the rule applies after a stressed syllable?

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