Sunday, 4 September 2011

Paul Tench's transcription workbook - some observations, #1

I'd like to share with you some impressions of mine while going through the book.

The book is intended for both native and non-native speakers to be used as a training course in developing students' skills in transcribing features of English pronunciation. All the words and discourses are available online. 

The first 3 chapters are intended as a detailed introduction to broad transcription with lots of examples (maybe too many for most of my students, but I will test this). The accent which the examples are based on is termed Southern England Standard Pronunciation (or SESP for short), "a type of accent that used to be known as Received Pronunciation. But this term is no longer transparent in meaning [...]" (4). Most of you know, of course, that the accent so identified is neither restricted to Southern England nor is it a standard in the sense that other accents are non- or sub-standards. Calling it a standard is based on the author's observation "that it is recognized as a form of pronunciation that is typically used by those who professionally engage in public speech, people like newsreaders" (4). Well ... I've heard a lot of professionals in Southern England speaking publicly with an accent which is not very close to RP. But let's not split terminological hairs. We have quite a lot of terms available substituting (or offering to substitute) Received Pronunciation - PSP, NRP, GB ... - so that we actually are in no need at all of yet another one. But as the right to freedom of speech still holds within the realm of the United Kingdom, "suffer it to be so now".

Chapter 4 goes into narrow transcription, most of which I shall skip in my phonetics classes. Due to lack of time I shall also ignore chapter 5: it deals with various accents. Much more important for my clientele are chapters 6 and 7 dealing with assimilation, elision, rhythm etc. I'm afraid I can't go into chapters 8-12 because a single semester is simply too short.

Chapter 1 introduces the IPA symbols for vowels, first the short vowels /ɪ, ɛ, æ/a, ɒ, ʊ, ʌ/, next the long ones (mono- and diphthongs are treated together) and then the weak vowels /i, u, ə/.  Here they are again in chart form:

credit: Cambridge University Press
The DRESS vowel is transcribed as /ɛ/. The reason for using the epsilon rather than the Roman letter <e> is explained thus:
Some dictionaries use the ordinary Roman letter <e>, because it has a more familiar look; however, in IPA, <e> represents the sound in the German word [...] Tee and the French word thé, Italian , Welsh ; or in many an English accent a word like lake. That vowel sound is distinctly different from the vowel in leg. [...] So, for comparative purposes [...] we need to keep the ordinary Roman letter <e> as the IPA symbol for the /e/ sound, and rely on the Greek letter epsilon, <ε>, as the IPA symbol for the /ε/ sound. (10)
We are also informed how to draw the 'ash' or the printed 'a' symbol - students will like it:

credit: CUP
As the author introduces each vowel, he points out peculiarities in the pronunciation of individual words, e.g.
  • the short vowel /ɒ/ is not used in most American accents;
  • the past tense form of eat "in a British accent is usually /εt/" (10);
This is not fully corroborated by the results of the opinion polls published in LPD3 as this graph shows:
credit: Pearson-Longman
Chapter 2 presents the 24 consonants - again pointing to individual words with a pronunciation that may come as a surprise to some learners, e.g.
  • silent letters as in tomb, sandwich, gnome, debris;
  • homographs such as freeze-frees
Chapter 3 deals with word stress. It's a tiny one - just 3 pages and an additional 9 lines. A distinction is made between primary, secondary and non-stress and the IPA symbols for the first two stress types are introduced. A special section is devoted to compound words such as blackbird or railway station.

Chapter 4 deals with allophonic variations first among consonants and second among vowels. Aspiration, glottal reinforcement, flapping, devoicing, fronting, backing and rounding of consonants are explained and exemplified. As regards vowels the reader is familiarised with the processes of nasalisation, clipping, breaking, smoothing and diphthongisation.

Skipping chapter 5 I now turn to chapter 6 which is entitled 'phrases'. Topics such as assimilation, elision, epenthesis and liaison are covered. Most of these processes are employed by native speakers of English when they engage in informal, colloquial conversation. My advice is: If non-native speakers of English want to sound less 'bookish', they should incorporate several of these processes into their ordinary, colloquial, non-formal speech. Employing these processes is an option, however, not a must.

Paul Tench
credit: Cardiff University
Chapter 7 is titled 'rhythm'. Oh yes! Very important if you want to avoid the impression of using 'machine-gun English'! The chapter is about weak forms and about syllable elision in lexical items such as February, family, police, or in phrases like for instance, for example.

I highly recommend this book to my students and anyone else interested in developing her/his transcription skills.
But mind you: Reading this book or doing its exercises does not turn you into a native speaker of English. But it helps you become aware of things that so far may have escaped your attention.


  1. Petr, I bought the book about a couple of weeks ago and have almost finished reading it.
    I'm thinking of writing a post on it as there are quite a lot of things I don't agree with.
    So, if you're interested, watch my space!

    1. I'm trying to find the audio files for the examples in this book. Could you share the files somehow? I can't buy the book in my country. Thanks a lot.

  2. Looking forward to your comments.

  3. Can you please elucidate his "a/ӕ"?

  4. I can clear up the whole RP definition problem quite neatly.

    Just as the famous definition of intelligence is "intelligence is what intelligence tests measure", so the definition of RP should be "RP is what is taught in English phonetics books". Easy peasy!

  5. @Paul Carley: A very handy 'definition'

  6. I once read about the definition of basic words in dictionaries and the author (was it Jespersen?) mentioned seeing 'dog' defined as 'an animal which is recognised as a dog by other dogs'.

    Abercrombie used the same method to define the RP speaker - one recognised as such by other RP speakers.

    They don't work as traditional definitions, but they do very efficiently make the point that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. That is, who needs basic words defined for them in their own language, and why can't phoneticians agree on what to call or how to define their reference accent?

    Answers on a postcard.