Saturday, 26 November 2011

Ashby, Patricia (2011), Understanding Phonetics - part 2

I'd like to come back, if I may, to Patricia Ashby's book Understanding Phonetics (see my blog entry of the 1st of November) and continue my observations.

Section 5 of it deals with "Airstream mechanisms". The majority of sounds produced as allophones of phonemes are pulmonic egressive ones, i.e. the air flows from the lungs to the oral and/or nasal cavity. As this stream of air passes through the larynx it can either be modified to produce voice or "it may flow without interruption through the open glottis and remain voiceless (for sounds such as [p s ʧ]" (p. 69). What about the glottal stop?

And then we are informed  of some instances of pulmonic ingressive airstream events, e.g. in a dialect of an Austronesian language. What fascinated me much more, however, was a fact, hitherto completely unknown to me, yet existing in the not so distant neighbourhood - namely that there exists a "Fensterle region" (p. 69) in Switzerland. Wow! I was aware of the habit of 'fensterln', a verb which describes an old-fashioned courting custom (old-fashioned because we now have mobiles, smartphones, internet) of young men who tried to climb into the chambers of their girlfriends through the window (= 'Fenster'). What sense does it make to disguise your voice while you're courting a girl? She won't recognise you later on. This custom was not restricted to the Alpine region but could be found throughout Central and Northern Europe. But I was not aware of the fact that those young men talked while breathing in to disguise their voices. I wouldn't have termed the area 'Fensterle region' because the '-le' as a diminutive suffix rather denotes a tiny window (probably too small for the young man to climb through). Maybe, 'Fensterln region' would have been more appropriate (or 'Kiltgang region' to use a term taken from the Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (see headword Kiltgang)).

Section 6 is devoted to the description of vowels. Mentioning and explaining the Cardinal Vowel System is a must here, and the author does explain them in detail. In ch. 6.2.5 P. Ashby tries to introduce the phonetic novice to the acoustic fundamentals of voiced sounds by explaining concepts such as periodic and aperiodic waveforms, simple and complex ones, superimposition of sinusoidals, amplitude, spectrogram - all this on roughly six pages. As I wrote in my previous blog entry: "I strongly doubt that a beginner will be able to appreciate all this." Less would have been more.

How does one learn and remember the sounds of the CVs? Either a teacher provides the models or some recorded material. It's indeed helpful, as the author writes on p. 99, to have some real language vowels available which are close to the sound qualities of the CVs. But who is the rare bird to be able to know the differences between 'near French' and 'near Conservative Parisian French'? And, of course, we all know how the first vowel in the word Fuji is pronounced by older speakers of Japanese, don't we? P. Ashby writes: "Obviously, not everyone knows all of these languages [sic], but sometimes such mnemonics are useful" (99).Yes - obviously! Nit-picking, I might point to the fact that  "Conservative Parisian French" is not a language but a regional variety of a language.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

two souls - alas - are dwelling in my breast!

Every now and then a student of one of my courses in English phonetics comes to see me to have their pronunciation assessed. A few days ago, it was a young lady speaking German with a slight French accent (at least that's what I thought) who came to my office. As part of the usual procedure I asked her for how long she had been learning English at school. "Eleven", was her reply. She then told me she was an Erasmus student from Glasgow. "How come you have a French accent in German", I asked her. She looked at me unconprehendingly, then said: "I'm from Estonia". Aaah! Of course - stupid me! Next I wanted to know which reference accent she preferred - General British or General American. "American English". Aaah! Of course - stupid me! Staying in Glasgow quite naturally means that General American is one's preferred accent. But her wish was my command. She then read the test words and sentences and I must say her pronunciation of (American) English was 'Estoningly' good.

Friday, 4 November 2011

slightly off-topic

Cannibalism in Germany?
Less off-topic now:
Can this ambiguous phrase be disambiguated purely by phonetic means?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

listening to relaxed English
If you are an EFL user/learner, you may have gained the experience that, when you overheard two native speakers (= NSs) talking to each other (in an English accent you're basically accustomed to),  you did not understand a single word (or fragments only) because the NSs were seemingly speaking much too fast. What you perceived as hasty or hurried speech was, in fact, the result of the employment of words pronounced by the native speaker with very little articulatory effort and less precision than would be needed to enunciate such words in their citation forms. Due to this low effort the words were pronounced more rapidly. The native speaker did so because he could be fairly certain that his communication partner would not fail to understand him. There are, however, persons who speak very fast in almost any situation (e.g. Robert Peston).

Why do (even advanced) EFL learners fail in these situations and what can EFL teachers do against it?

Richard Cauldwell, author of the Streaming Speech course-ware and maintainer of a blog with the same title, recently announced the publication of an application (a so-called 'App') for the iPod. The App will be called Cool Speech - a 'cool name'! What's it going to be about? Here's what the creator writes on it in one of his blog entries:

A Hotspot is a moment in a recording that contains familiar words which are difficult to hear because they are spoken so fast. You learn to understand the words in these Hotspots by touching them on-screen. There are three kinds of touch:
You can hear the whole speech unit,
You can tap on the Hotspots, and hear them as they were originally spoken,
You can tap twice on the Hotspots and hear them spoken slowly and carefully.
The purpose is to teach you the relationship between fast unclear speech and slow clear speech, so that you will understand fast speech in everyday life.
In another blog entry Richard Cauldwell explains the term 'hotspots' thus:

[Hotspots] are moments in spontaneous speech where familiar, frequent words (including weak forms) are mushed out of shape and combined in such a way that are difficult to perceive. This happens in fast stretches of speech: typically those which precede, and lie in between, prominent syllables. Using the multi-touch capabilities of tablets, users will be able to do intensive listening, and improve their ability to perceive such words.
So, let's assume that, when, for example, I hear [əŋənəbəˈleɪt] (this sample sentence is taken from Ashby, (2011), Understanding Phonetics, p. 7), I understand <late>, but not the preceding mélange of sounds. If I tap on the hotspot I hear [əŋənəbə]. If I tap on it twice, I probably hear [aɪm ɡəʊɪŋ tə bi] or even [aɪ æm ɡəʊɪŋ tuː biː] - we don't know yet. As of this moment I know that what the person had said should have been understood by me as: "I'm going to be late". 

From what I've read about this application so far I don't quite see how learning in some systematic way will take place. Having been told that [əŋənəbə] pronounced as part of a particular longer stretch of speech by a particular speaker means <I'm going to be> does not ensure that I will able to decode another instance of [əŋənəbə] said by a different speaker at a different point in time as the same sequence of words, nor does it increase the probability that I will be able to decipher other 'hotspots'. Thus the question remains open how learning in the sense of the stable change of the skill of decoding relaxed speech is going to be achieved. To me it seems more like a light bulb moment. But, maybe, I'm wrong and there's more behind it than we've been told so far. 

One should not forget that the number and types of reductions NSs have at their disposal are almost infinite and that in many a case it is only the cotext and/or the context which allows understanding a sequence of sounds "mushed out of their shape".

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

a tap in a penny

This is an open call to my friendly followers who are native speakers of American English. Those of you who say [beɾi] for Betty, [beɾɪŋ] for bedding, or [leɾɚ] for letter, do you also say [pẽɾ̃i] for penny? In other words: Do you tap the /n/?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Ashby, Patricia (2011), Understanding Phonetics

Patricia Ashby is Emeritus Fellow to the University of Westminster and has been a permanent staff member of said university since 1982. Many of my followers will be familiar with her book Speech Sounds, the second edition of which came out in 2005. Understanding Phonetics is her latest monograph. The contents of the book are supplemented by resources which are available at the publisher's webpages. You will need to register with Hodder Education to be able to access these digital resources.

It was with some disconcertment that I read this in the introduction: "[...] my thanks also to my daughter, Christabel Ashby, [...] who kindly agree [sic] to let me use her head in a very literal way (in X-ray form in Figure 3.2) [...]" (p. x). It would never ever have occurred to me to do such a thing and I would never ever consent to having my daughter's head X-rayed for the sole purpose of a publication. Tsk, tsk! Besides: Figure 3.2 is of such a small size  - 1.7" x 1.5" or 4.3 x 3.7 cm - so that you can't see much anyway. The line drawing in Figure 3.3 is much clearer and fully serves its purpose.

Next, the reader is presented with a list of transcription symbols based on the system used in LPD3 (p. xiii). The symbols /w/ and /ð/ are missing.

Section 1 looks at the relationship between speaking and spelling, and it briefly characterises concepts such as accent, phonetics (with its usual tripartite division) and phonology.

Section 2 is devoted to the function of the larynx. Important anatomical structures are described including the larynx as a voice source, a place of articulation and as a pitch modulator.

Sections 3 and 4 describe places and manners of articulation. On page 43 one finds this exercise: "Listen carefully to yourself as you say the following sentence aloud. Try to decide whether you have an h-pronouncing or an h-dropping accent: Harriet hit Henry hard over the head with her handbag."
This exercise automatically excludes most readers who are non-native speakers of English. A similar exercise is offered to assess t-glottaling. This 'Anglocentric' perspective seems to be intentional because the author writes in her preface: "Examples are drawn from a range of languages from across the world and are compared and contrasted with our shared language of English [highlightings are mine]" (p. x). (HUMOR ALERT: Is a non-native speaker of English entitled to file an action in the Court of International Justice against the author and the publishers because of linguistic debarment?)

Can you recognise what is being described here: "A xxxx, on the other hand, is a function of the active articulator being drawn out of its inherent alignment with a passive articulator and then being allowed to spring back to its original rest position, striking once against the relevant passive articulator as it does so" ? Does this describe a tap or a flap? (The answer is to be found at the very bottom of this entry).

Section 5 concentrates on pulmonic, glottalic and velaric airstream mechanisms.

Section 6 turns to the description of vowels.The Jonesian Cardinal Vowels are introduced. For readers who are interested in the acoustic representations of vowels Ashby tries to cram some basic terms of acoustic phonetics and physics (sinewave, amplitude, complex wave, spectrum etc.) into six pages. I strongly doubt that a beginner will be able to appreciate all this.

Section 7 then extends the description of vowels by introducing the concept of vowel quantity and the distinction between mono-, di- and triphthongs. The reader is informed about pre-fortis clipping and rhythmic clipping. There are additional paragraphs such as the ones on smoothing (e.g. /aʊə/ becoming /ɑː/) or diphthongisation (e.g. /iː/ becoming /ɪï̞ / as in tea).

Section 8 takes up the topic of consonants again and explores ways in which consonant articulations can be varied by changing the behaviour of individual articulators involved in their production, e.g.:
  • variations caused by the vocal folds (fortis-lenis, VOT, glottal stop, glottalisation),
  • variations affecting the manner of articulation (affrication, incomplete plosion, etc.).
Section 9 looks at connected speech. The focus is on acoustic cues (in chapter 9.1) and on coarticulation (ch. 9.2).

The final section 10 is devoted to prosodic features (stress, accent, tone, intonation).

All in all: The book is a pleasant read; novices in phonetics are introduced to important concepts in small doses; there are hardly any typos. I also like (most of) the exercises that accompany each section although accessing the webpages of the publisher to do the ear-training exercises is a bit clumsy. I would have preferred to have a CD-ROM accompany the book, but I must concede that this would in all probability have increased the price.

Answer: The author describes a flap.