Thanks to Stephen Bullon for drawing my attention to the BBC TV programme University Challenge, which this week had a question requiring the identification of Shakespearean plays from IPA transcriptions of quotations from them. (If you are in the UK you can still, for the next day or two, access this episode on the iPlayer. From about 8:00 in.) It started off well enough, except perhaps that Jeremy Paxman, the questionmaster, characterized this starter question test as “rendered into phonetic English”. (As opposed, we might ask, to what other kind of English? Better, “transcribed into phonetic symbols”.) A member of the Balliol team correctly recognized “Beware the Ides of March” as coming from Julius Caesar.
But the follow-up “picture questions” were rather shocking. What do you make of this? OK, it’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…”. But what kind of accent is this? Is it some kind of American or Irish English, with ɑ rather than ɒ for the LOT vowel in oxlips and nodding? Well, no, because it’s non-rhotic. Why is it so oddly transcribed? Why is the TRAP vowel rendered as æ in bank and and but as a in over-canopied? You can make a case for writing the PRICE diphthong as aj, but not for writing it indifferently as aj, ai and ɑj in just four lines. It gets worse. OK, here line 1 is still non-rhotic, but then we go rhotic. No problem. But what on earth is waːnd itsɛlf? Turns out it’s meant to be wound itself. Strangely, the last transcript offered was fine (though we might quibble about inconsistent stress marking, not to mention prevocalic tə alongside preconsonantal tu).
How could it happen that the BBC, in this prestigious programme aimed at a highly literate demographic, could make such a mess of simple phonetic transcription? The second and third screens were worse than average beginners, doing their very first transcription exercise, would come up with.
Yet the BBC, in its Pronunciation Unit, employs three highly qualified phoneticians, any one of whom could in ten minutes have supplied accurate transcriptions for the programme.
I think that using ignorant amateurs to set questions for a university-level quiz on national television is nothing short of scandalous.
[Since writing this, I have just noticed that John Maidment has said much the same thing in his blog, too.]