Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Monroy-Casas, Rafael (2011), Systems for the Phonetic Transcription of English

Ch. 1 - Phonetic transcriptions: A brief overview - sketches on two pages the beginnings of transcription from the end of the 19th to the early 20th century, mentioning the IPA besides A.M. Bell's system. Two other names are dropped, namely Otto Jespersen and Henry Sweet. The author of the book under review then opens up a new chapter (= ch. 2, which comprises about 12.5 pages) which is more or less a continuation of the contents of the previous one though focussing on the basic principles and classificatory criteria of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Ch.3 takes a look at transcription systems used on the other side of the pond. On three pages the systems devised by Kenyon&Knott, Trager&Smith, Prator&Robinett (the latter two sources are not mentioned in the bibliography) and by Tiffany&Carrell (called Americanist Phonetic Alphabet (= APA)) are juxtaposed.

Ch. 4 deals with the distinctions between phonetic and phonemic transcriptions.
Section 2 now turns "From theory to practice" (it's the section title). Ch. 5 deals with the letter-sound relation of consonants (plosives, fricatives, liquids, nasals and approximants). The reader is asked to do a few exercises, e.g. the one on page 45:

In paragraph 5.5, which treats "[c]onsonant assimilation", the author distinguishes between "allophonic assimilations" and "phonemic assimilations" (51). If "phonemes do not usually undergo a qualitative change (e.g. palatalisation, velarisation, etc. [sic])" (51), such changes are called allophonic. If, however, "although there may be a change in quality, there is no alteration of the phonemic status of the assimilated element" (51), they are called phonemic. Mmh ... these statements leave me quite puzzled; I wish there'd been at least one example illustrating the two types of assimilation.

Ch. 6, which is titled "Transcribing English Vowels" contains a section with eight tables on strong and weak forms. The weak and strong forms of eight words are transcribed and model sentences are presented in which the respective word is to be found in initial, medial, final or emphatic positions (if applicable). It is to be pitied that the original manuscript was reduced to a format of roughly 5.8" x 8.9", because the reduction makes the text of the tables hard to read. Here's an example (the ruler has a metric scale).

Section 3 - "Corpus of oral texts" - contains 18 texts neither the sources nor the purpose of which are revealed in this section. All the reader is told about the sources is to be found in the prologue to the book, where the author writes on p. 10: "[...] the excerpts used for transcription are oral samples taken randomly from radio and TV broadcasts [...]." The accompanying CD (of good recording quality) contains the texts read by Elizabeth Murphy, Cathy Staveley, Keith Gregor and David Walton, who seem to be staff members of the University of Murcia. Some of the voices exhibit a clearly audible Northern regional tinge.

In section 4 we are presented with various transcription systems. The author chooses six different systems, which he illustrates by transcribing these 18 texts, sometimes with the help of the originators of these systems. As Jack Windsor Lewis in his review rightly states, it would have been much more comfortable for the reader to compare the systems, had a certain text been transcribed by all six methods followed by the next text - again transcribed using all six systems etc.

Another feature - and this makes the transcriptions particularly awkward to appreciate - is the fact that the sample transcriptions are separated not only from the texts in their  ordinary spellings but also from the comments on the transcriptions: The ordinary spelling of text 1 ('the weather forecast') is on p. 63; the transcription following the Jonesian simplified transcription system is on p. 88 and "comments to the sample transcriptions" (88) (but NOT to this type) are to be found on pp. 191ff. A bit confusing!

More confusion on the part of the reader is to be expected as a consequence of the fact that the transcriptions do not reflect the recordings. Here's an example - first the text, then the transcription following the EPD/LPD model:

[...] and I hope you enjoyed the summer yesterday [...] (63)
ən aɪ ˈhəup ju ɪnˈdʒɔɪd ðə ˈsʌmə ˈjestədeɪ

The speaker pronounces the pronoun <I> actually as [a]. Why does the author replace this by the diphthong? I may have overlooked his explanation, but to me such a policy does not make sense. What is transcription about? It's to give a written record of what's been said and not what should or could have been said.

What is the purpose of the whole book? Here's the author: "Our book [...] presents a whole array of transcriptional practices, providing answers to apparently different ways of representing sounds with [sic] English. With this knowledge, students and foreign language teachers alike will be in a position to choose the model that better suits their educational needs [...]" (9-10). Nit-picking, I might reply that it is only questions one can provide answers to and not ways of representing sounds. But apart from this petitesse, I strongly doubt that having read the book a student or a foreign language teacher will be in a position to make a well-founded decision on one of the systems. Moreover, let's not forget that for the last thirty plus years we've managed to arrive at a fairly uniform system and de facto standard of transcription, which is used in many a textbook and dictionary published in Europe. It should not be given up too hastily.

Sections 3 and 4 are a very praiseworthy enterprise. To my knowledge there is no other book illustrating various transcription systems in this unique way. But - the author should have concentrated on this topic and not additionally include an historical survey.


  1. thanks to share very informative post with us...

  2. >thanks to share very informative post with us...

    If that is representative of the English taught at English Courses in London, I would advise prospective students to avoid it like the plague.

  3. Just a note: my "horrible" above wasn't referred to the book that this post is about, but to the comment by "english courses in London".