Wednesday, 15 June 2011

JCW - Festschrift articles #1

John A Maidment
I've read the first of a few articles dealing with English: "Transcription and the Changing Vowel System of English" by J A Maidment (= JAM)  (pp. 31-35).

The gist of this article is an attempt at answering the question whether one should adapt the transcription symbols used for practical purposes by most textbooks and pronunciation dictionaries to the changing pronunciation habits of speakers of General British English (aka RP). This is, in principle, a laudable enterprise if we do not sacrifice the unanimity that we have achieved among textbooks and dictionaries since the last 30 or so years. If we slacken the reins we are likely to get a situation which is emerging with OUP and its pronunciation adviser
Clive Upton

Clive Upton, Professor of Modern English Language at Leeds University, who acts as pronunciation consultant for the OED and seems to be grimly determined to adapt all new dictionaries published by OUP to his new transcription scheme.

JAM reflects on the quality of the TRAP vowel. He states that the representation of this vowel by /æ/ is "inappropriate for many GBE speakers" (32). Being close to C4 [a] JAM suggests to replace /æ/ by /a/. He quotes Cruttenden's 7th ed. of GPE where the latter writes:
The quality of the vowel /æ/ becoming more open, i.e. it is close to C. [a]. (81)
This vowel [= /æ/] has become more open recently, previously being nearer to C. [ε] where now it is now close to C. [a]. Only tradition justifies the continuing use of the symbol 'æ' for this phoneme. (112)
 In the 2nd edition of the IPE Gimson stated that the "quality is nearer to C [ε] than to C [a]" (p. 105). As a variant a "more relaxed /æ/ - in the region of C [a] -" (106) is attested, which is heard among "children of the south of England who otherwise have an RP system and who, in later life, adopt the tenser and closer variety of /æ/" (106). That was in 1970. In the 3rd and 4th eds. of 1980 and 1989 this statement is echoed. In the 5th ed. of 1994 we read:
[...] many young speakers of RP use a more open realization of this vowel around C [a]. (103)
In the 6th ed. of 2001 we find this statement:
This vowel has become more open recently, previously being nearer to C [ε] where now it is now [sic!] close to C [a]. (111)
These impressionistic observations of the change were corroborated by F1/F2 measurements carried out by S. Hawkins and J. Midgley and described in an article in JIPA 35/2: 183-199.

From an educational point of view I sympathise with JAM's proposal to replace /æ/ by /a/ because EFL speakers who tend to replace the /æ/ by an L1 sound in between C [e] and C [ε] may get the wrong visual cue when they see an 'æ'-symbol. On the other hand, giving EFL learners the right instructions how to produce the sound, presenting them from the very beginning with the right model and correcting them consistently and obstinately whenever they articulate the wrong sound will be of much greater value.

The other two areas encompass the centring vowels of NEAR, SQUARE and CURE and the GOOSE and FOOT vowels. JAM describes the ongoing changes and asks how widespread these changes are and if they are part of mainstream GBE. Roughly a year ago Jack Windsor Lewis
dealt with centring diphthongs at some length in his PhonetiBlog entries no. 249, 250 and 251; there is no need to replicate what he wrote there.

The quandary we are in is if and how these changes should by symbolised. As far as the monophthongisation of NEAR is concerned I should say that the use of a monophthong symbol is too early because too many speakers still use a diphthong. In the case of the SQUARE vowel, transcription conventions are divided, e.g.:
  • LPD 3 transcribes <square> with a diphthong:
  • EPD17 likewise offers a diphthongal transcription only.
  • Collins & Mees (20082) in their Practical Phonetics and Phonology follow Upton and transcribe it as /skwε:/ explaining their decision as follows: "In most phonetics books, the symbol for this vowel is - but this certainly does not reflect the typical pronunciation of the twenty-first century" (100).
  • Cruttenden describes [ε:] as "a completely acceptable alternative in General RP" (151).
  • OALD 8th ed. has a diphthong for <square>, but the speaker on the CD-ROM pronounces a monophthong
  • J. Windsor Lewis (1969) writes on /εə/: "Generally realised as a long simple vowel (a) before consonants, (b) when unstressed, (c) when stressed but in a structural word" (21).
So the time seems to have come to indicate the monophthong as an alternative to a diphthongal transcription.

As far as the CURE diphthong is concerned there is no question that a few words originally pronounced with this diphthong are now predominantly pronounced with /ɔː/ (poor, sure, your, etc.). However, there is a larger number of words that have resisted this trend: duration, furious, jury, urine, bureaucrat, plural, jury, manure, liqueur - to name but a few. Their principal pronunciation is with a diphthong, though a pronunciation with /ɔː/ may also be heard. A probably much smaller list contains words such as acciaccatura, amateur, amour, heuristic, velour, couture for which the sole pronunciation is with /ʊə/. A much longer though inexhaustive list with /ʊə/-words is to be found here

The centralisation (and diphthongal character) of the GOOSE vowel is a well-established fact. But at present I would not want my EFL students to pronounce the sentence "It's no good choosing now" as [ɪts nəɨ̞ ɡɨ̞d ʧɨ̞zɪŋ naɨ̞].

All in all, I agree with JAM's closing stement: "[...] it is probably wise to leave the standard symbols as they are" (34).


  1. liqueur - I'd say the pronunciation with the French vowel or an approximation isn't dead by far, but I might be wrong there, and I'm less sure about couture.

  2. @Lipman: Of course, you're very welcome to pronounce them in a way closer to the French original. :)

  3. >A probably much smaller list contains words such as acciaccatura, amateur, amour, heuristic, velour, couture for which the sole pronunciation is with /ʊə/.

    I think "sole pronunciation" is putting it too strongly. At least for 'amateur' and 'heuristic' my hunch is that /ɜː/ is winning.

  4. @John M.: You may prove right in presaging that some of the words will be pronounced predominantly with an /ɜː/ in the future. What I was actually comparing in the section on the CURE diphthong were the alternatives /ʊə/ and /ɔː/. Sorry, if that didn't come out clearly enough!

  5. Kraut, I notice you've changed the expression "slacken the reigns" to "slacken the reins", a choice which prescriptivists will certainly welcome. Nevertheless, I can tell you I've checked in my Oxford Dictionary of English (2006), and under "rein" (p.1485) you read:

    "The idiomatic phrase 'a free rein', which derives from the literal meaning of using reins to control a horse, is sometimes misinterpreted and written as 'a free reign'. Around half of the citations for the phrase in the Oxford English Corpus use 'reign' instead of 'rein'.

    This statement is also backed up by examples in the COCA.

    Just thought you might want to know.

  6. @alex

    Come to Cornwall at the moment and you can have quite a lot of free rain. Hohoho!