"Murray must have come to the conviction that the basis of phonetics of that time was solid enough to embark on the undertaking of marking the pronunciation of each headword. Of course, there had to be provided a key to the symbols."
"The problem still to be solved and the question to be answered was which accent of English to represent."
Murray's decision to include phonetic notations seems to have been reinforced by a paper with the title "Sound notation" by Henry Sweet presented to the Philological Society in 1880.
As far as the key to the symbol is concerned Murray provided a list of such symbols on page xxv of volume 1.
As far as the question is concerned which accent of English to represent MacMahon writes: "There can be no doubt [...] that he [= Murray] never considered indicating anything other than educated pronunciations of English." (77) MacMahon rightly believes that this had to do with the social class structure of Victorian England and with the scholarly nature and claim of the dictionary.
But it remains vague which accents were represented by the transcriptions. In a letter of 1882 to Thomas Hallam Murray states that the transcriptions represented "the general outline of recognised pronunciation", a statement which MacMahon qualifies as being ambiguous:
- is 'recognised' a slip for 'received' (in an Ellisonian sense?) or
- does the statement refer to all educated accents of English?
|credit: National Portrait Gallery|
|Thomas Herbert Warren|
Here are the bibliographical details of this - for me fascinating - article:
MacMahon, M. K. C. (1985): "James Murray and the phonetic notation in the New English Dictionary", Transactions of the Philological Society 83: 72-112.
If you're interested in the dawn of modern phonetics and (meta-)lexicography you're invited to read this article.