Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Understanding and speaking un-English in 21 days

The book you see here to the left is called Inglese per viaggiare in 21 giorni (Improve your English on the move in 21 days.). It has just been published by Sperling & Kupfer (ISBN 978-88-200-5978-1, 228 pp.) and costs 12,90 euros. The authors, Massimo De Donno, Giacomo Navone and Luca Lorenzoni, are not linguists or phoneticians but public speaking experts. 

The book, aimed at Italians intending to understand and communicate clearly and successfully with native English speakers, is divided into 21 chapters which deal mainly with how English is spoken in the UK and around the world. The authors describe the pronunciation of RP – as they still call it –, Scottish and Irish English, American English, South African, Australian and New Zealand English. They do so by providing transcriptions in IPA (as well as in a kind of simplified 'phonetic' spelling system) of all the words and expressions that they present. Symbols and their use are discussed at pp. 38-48. The book also has a companion website which, at the time of writing, contains no resources related to it. 

The three authors must have written the book in a hurry because the whole work is riddled with inaccuracies and false statements. It is not just a question of possible typing errors or misprints such as jeləu (yellow) instead of (ˈ)jeləʊ (p. 59) or teik advais (take advice) instead of teɪk əd(ˈ)vaɪs (p. 66). What we have here is serious mistakes about the 'phonemic spelling' of English words as well as phonetics in general. There isn't a single page which doesn't contain at least one error.  

On page 40, for example, we find this: 

The pronunciations they give are for RP (= General British (GB)), which they claim is only spoken by 2-3% of the British population (p. 3). This is totally untrue. Please read here. As you can see, the transcriptions for learn, see and blue are wrong: in GB learn is always lɜːn not lɜːrn; see is siː or sɪi, not sɪː; and blue is never blʊː but bluː or blʊu. (On page 98, though, crew is given as kruː, not krʊː, and tree is both trɪː and tʃriː on page 44, which clearly indicates that the authors are blissfully unaware of the difference between the sounds and ʊ(ː), and between and ɪ(ː).)

On page 41, nose is transcribed nɒʊz, and on page 42 gnome is both nəʊm and nɒʊm. As you know, nose is nəʊz and gnome is nəʊm: the ɒʊ diphthong is used in GB only before dark l, as in cold: kɒʊɫd. See here

And what do we make of the pronunciations of dad, feet, bag, horse, universe, piano, serpent, tree, cheese, teeth, and rose on pp. 42-43? 

 They're all completely wrong and never to be heard in GB. 

Other examples of incorrect transcriptions in the book include the following: pence (p. 60) is penz instead of pen(t)s (penz = pens); to get the gist on p. 86 is transcribed as tʊ ɡet ðə ɡɪst rather than tə ɡet ðə ʤɪst; Blood Alcohol Content (p. 109) is blʌd ælkəhɒl kəntent instead of blʌd ælkəhɒl kɒntent (kənˈtent = happy); comprehensive (p. 123) is given as kəmprəhensɪv rather than (GB) ˌkɒmprəˈhen(t)sɪv ~ ˌkɒmprɪˈhen(t)sɪv; natural gas (p. 158) is transcribed nætʊrəl ɡæs instead of næʧərəl ɡæs; preservative on page 188 is given as prɪsə(r)vətɪv rather than (GB) priˈzɜːvətɪv ~ prəˈzɜːvətɪv; dauntless (p. 202) is transcribed dɒn(t)les, but you know that in GB this is ˈdɔːntləs; to follow suit is given as tʊ fɒlɒʊ sʊt rather than tə fɒləʊ suːt (sʊt = soot)… I could go on.

On page 43, the phrase that thing is transcribed as ðæ(t) θɪŋ and hot day is hɒ(t) deɪ. The t is in brackets because – the authors stress – in these cases it may not be sounded. Of course that's false. In that thing and hot day, t can never be omitted, but it can be replaced by a glottal stop, ʔ.

On page 45, ŋ is described as a sound produced with your tongue low in the mouth. Please see this picture from Cruttenden's Gimson's Pronunciation of English (Routledge, 2014, p. 216) which clearly shows that the back of the tongue is raised towards the velum when you articulate ŋ.

According to the authors, GB /r/ is typically realized as ʋ or ɰ (pp. 44-45) not ɹ, and /æ/ = or ɛə (p. 40) rather than a; American English has got vowels which are more open than BrE (p. 103); and Australian and New Zealand English father contains a vowel more open than GB ɑː, so in these accents it can be pronounced both fʌðə(r) and fɑðə(r) (p. 224). 

Connected speech and stress are also extremely problematic: p. 128 has aɪ kʊd hæv kʌm bʌt aɪ dɪdnt fɪːl laɪk draɪvɪŋ (I could have come but I didn't feel like driving), instead of, for example, aɪ kəd əv kʌm bət aɪ dɪdn fiːl laɪk draɪvɪŋ; Does she attend your school? (p. 52) is transcribed as dʌs ʃɪː ətend jɔː(r) skʊːl rather than, for instance, ˈdʌz ʃi ətend jɔː ˈskuːl; the modal going to is given as ɡɔɪŋ tʊ on page 95; and on p. 79 police is pɒlɪs in IPA and pòlis in the authors' 'phonetic' spelling system. This clearly indicates that de Donno, Navone and Lorenzoni pronounce police wrongly in GB as ˈpɒlɪs (or possibly ˈpɒliːs) rather than p(ə)ˈliːs. The 'phonetic' spelling system they use is also hopelessly inaccurate. In their previous book, for instance, the authors give lady as 'ledi' (p. 42) and bus as 'bas' (p. 47): a monophthongal in lady is not GB but a feature of many regional accents spoken in the UK; bus is bʌs or bɐs in GB, not bas, as this latter pronunciation corresponds to bass, a sea or freshwater fish that is used for food.  

And what do we make of p. 82?

The pronunciations given are in Irish (English), the authors say once again, most of the transcriptions are entirely wrong.  

What about this from p. 92?

I don't know where De Donno et al. took this from – the book contains no references. 

The information provided about English grammar is also at some points fairly inaccurate, as when, on p. 192, we read this:

As you know, in Standard English hope is always followed by to + infinitive, never by to + verb + ing.    

The book also describes some technical phonetic terms such as, for instance, intrusive r (pp. 55-56), non-rhotic (p. 193), up-talk [sic] (p. 117) and yod-dropping (p. 207). For the latter, the authors provide a chart showing the 'loss' of j in Australian English:

All of the pronunciations indicated are wrong. 

It's the first time I've come across a book with so many howlers. I'm deeply shocked.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Health Care Professionals Speaking

My new book is finally out! (If you wish to look inside it, click on 'sfoglia' on this link.)

Here's what famous authors from the world of phonetics and medicine think about it: 

"I heartily welcome this excellent practical grammatical, lexical and phonetic analysis that Alessandro Rotatori has written for Italians intending to work in the health care professions with English-speaking patients."

John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics, University College London, UK

"This excellently written book will be a valuable resource for Italian-speaking members of the clinical professions. The coverage and organisation of the book is exceptionally good. The author provides some guidance not only on pronunciation, but also on grammar and vocabulary, and points out many of the potential traps for Italian speakers. 
The material is organised around a number of realistic dialogues in clinical settings: admission to hospital, pain, discussion of treatment, patient discharge and the like. The language is up-to-date, colloquial and lively. Both General British and General American varieties of English are used. A thorough survey of the sounds of the two varieties is provided and the audio clips (available on the website linked to the book) are a great bonus. 
The author is to be congratulated on producing an innovative and well-conceived text book. Any Italian native speaker engaged in the health and allied professions who needs to communicate with patients in English would be well-advised to use this book." 

John Maidment, formerly Lecturer in Phonetics, University College London, UK and Chair of the Phonetics Teaching and Learning Conference (PTLC)

"I'm absolutely delighted to be able to introduce this brilliant new book by Alessandro Rotatori. It's exactly what I should have recommended any Italian-speaking member of any of the health care professions to search for if they wanted a truly authentic and up-to-date guide to the kinds of expressions that English-speaking doctors and nurses etc use every day in the practice of their profession. Not only do the dialogues ring completely true as examples of the way such professionals express themselves in terms of choice of words and grammatical usages but the author has supplied his realistic spoken texts with invaluable accompanying versions in modern simple phonetic spellings which are colloquial in style so that he shows clearly examples of the variations and adjustments to context that he prepares his readers to find that words may undergo in ordinary daily speech. He even includes, for those who may be interested to observe them, simple indications of the kinds of rhythms and intonations that typically accompany the use of the idiomatic speech that he represents. It seems very difficult to imagine any medical situations that his wide range of excellent typical texts do not supply models for.
And of course I heartily endorse the words of my two famous colleagues John Wells and John Maidment."

Jack Windsor Lewis, formerly Lecturer in Phonetics, University of Leeds, UK

"Questo testo, destinato ai professionisti sanitari e agli studenti sanitari di tutti gli ordini e gradi di studio che si avvicinano o già si sono avvicinati alla lingua inglese, esplora in maniera dettagliata, con acribia sintattica e fonetica, alcuni temi sanitari fondamentali per erogare un'assistenza di qualità sia in contesti franchi che propriamente anglofoni. Il testo, scritto secondo una logica conversazionale, è arricchito da clip sonore scaricabili gratuitamente dal sito dell'editore. Ogni conversazione è trascritta foneticamente utilizzando i simboli dell'Alfabeto Fonetico Internazionale (IPA). Tale arricchimento fonetico rende il testo unico nel panorama mondiale di settore e dimostra la cura e la dovizia di particolari riguardo l'elaborazione fonetica e sintattica dello stesso. In ogni analisi conversazionale presentata nel testo, inoltre, i termini tecnici e le espressioni particolari sono sottolineati ed evidenziati per una loro migliore comprensione.
Questo è un testo di fondamentale utilità per chi vuole assistere l'altro, sempre più cittadino globale, attraverso scambi conversazionali in lingua inglese, e che permette di avere sempre più competenze e, quindi, opportunità di affermazione professionale nell'arena planetaria." 

"Il testo di Alessandro Rotatori rappresenta una innovazione rispetto ai libri 'tradizionali' rivolti agli studenti e professionisti sanitari che si avvicinano alla lingua inglese. Le brillanti capacità didattiche dell'Autore si ritrovano in un testo agile e facilmente fruibile, dove la fonetica gioca un ruolo fondamentale. Rivolta ai discenti di oggi con lo spirito moderno che un docente dovrebbe sempre avere, sono certo che la lettura di questo libro sarà di grande utilità pratica e ricca di stimoli non soltanto per gli studenti."

Prof. Orazio Schillaci, Preside della Facoltà di Medicina e Chirurgia, Università degli Studi di Roma "Tor Vergata"

Monday, 24 November 2014

The sounds of languages

The phonetics book you can see here to the left, I suoni delle lingue, i suoni dell'italiano (3rd edition), was published less than a month ago by Il Mulino. The author is Italian linguist Pietro Maturi, Lecturer in Sociolinguistics at the Università degli Studi di Napoli, Naples, and co-author of the excellent, though now a little out-of-date, Manuale di fonetica (3rd edition, 2002; Carocci). 

The book is a brief introduction to the phonetics of Italian (and its many regional accents) as well as the phonetics of other languages, including Spanish, English, French and German. 

It contains interesting information concerning (Standard) Italian connected speech, as when, for example, at its page 64, the word cioè (that is (to say)) is given both one of its citation forms ʧɔˈɛ and its extremely common 'reduced' forms ʧɛ, ʃɛ. Also, on pages 96-97, the author discusses the often neglected phenomenon of stress shift in expressions like lunedì scorso (last Monday), for which, in addition to luneˈdi ˈskor(t)so, Italians can be heard to produce ˈlunedi ˈskor(t)so, even though this latter stress-shifted variant is perhaps to be regarded as not so common as the former.  

Unfortunately, the book also contains some – to me – shocking comments regarding the outlines of (the sound systems of) some languages. One of them is to be found on page 77 and it's about what Collins, Mees and I in Practical Phonetics and Phonology, pp. 229-233 (3rd edition, 2013; Routledge), simply call Standard Italian. Mr Maturi says:

"È importante, preliminarmente, osservare che per italiano standard intendiamo un livello di lingua fissato in termini normativi e astratti che, in quanto tale, non corrisponde all'uso effettivo dell'una o dell'altra regione italiana, né all'uso individuale di persone reali".   

['It is important to bear in mind that by standard Italian we mean an abstract and prescriptive system that can neither be ascribed to any particular region in Italy nor can it be said to be the language of any existing individual.'] 

On p. 135, current (British) English pronunciation is appallingly described as being characterized by the 5 primary Cardinal Vowels i, ɛ, ɑ, ɔ, u and by the secondary Cardinal Vowel ʌ. Of course, this is absolutely untrue. A linguist ought to know that the Cardinal Vowels are not the vowels of a particular language. They're "an abstract measuring system – nothing more and nothing less", underlines phonetician Patricia Ashby in her first-class book Understanding Phonetics (2011, p. 85; Hodder Education):

"Coincidentally, though, languages are found that have one or more vowels that are a pretty close match to an absolute cardinal value. But this is simply coincidence and that must not be forgotten".   

That said, contemporary General British (GB) i(ː) doesn't sound at all like Cardinal Vowel i, nor does GB u(ː) sound like Cardinal Vowel 8. The same goes for ʌ, of course. See here.

['It's also necessary to point out that some English vowels are always long [iː, uː, ɑː], while others are always short [ɛ æ ɪ ʊ ʌ]. Others still can be short or long [ə/əː, ɔ/ɔː].']

Again that is totally incorrect. I wonder if Mr Maturi has ever heard of pre-fortis clipping, the effect by which all English vowels are shortened preceding a fortis consonant. See, for example, this post of mine here. Also, the phonemic symbols ɔ and ɔː that our author uses are completely misleading and wrong: the vowels in GB cord and cod are not just distinguished by their length but also by their quality. They're two different sounds (normally transcribed respectively as ɔː and ɒ), so they can't be allotted the same place in the vowel diagram (p. 135): 

['One of the main differences between British English and American English is the absence in the latter variety of the phoneme ʌ, which is replaced by ə. So but in British English pronunciation is [bʌt] whereas in American English it's [bət].']

Not entirely true. General American (GA) ʌ and ə are normally regarded as allophones of the same phoneme, and for some speakers are more or less identical phonetically too (Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edition, 2008, p. xxi). That doesn't mean that GA doesn’t have ʌ. Listen, for example, to conundrum as pronounced here by this speaker on the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary. The stressed vowel in this recording is clearly ʌ, not ə as in the unstressed syllables.  

['The English diphthongs are [aɪ], [eɪ], [ɔɪ], [aʊ], [əʊ], [ɪə], [ɛə], [ʊə]. As you can see, the diphthongs include the sounds [a] and [e]. These are only found in diphthongs and never occur on their own.']

I'm afraid Pietro Maturi here is confusing phonemes with allophones: the symbols and that he uses are just phonemic. They can't be taken to be phonetically made up of a + ɪ and e + ɪ. Also, what he says about a in particular is incorrect: this sound has been part of GB for a long time now. It corresponds to what is usually (still) transcribed as æ. See the new edition of Cruttenden's Gimson's Pronunciation of English (2014; Routledge). 

On page 136, we find a footnote stating that in GB ə is only used in unstressed syllables whereas əː (=ɜː) is only to be found in stressed ones. Not true again. What do we make of pronunciations like, for instance, ˈðə for the, biˈkəz ~ bəˈkəz for because, ˈʤəst for just, ˈwə for we're, ˈən(n)i for only, ˈməz ~ ˈməs for Ms, ˈkəʊvɜːt for covert, ˈkɒnsɜːt for concert (= agreement), or ˈhɒtspɜː for (Tottenham) Hotspur?

On page 139 some words are transcribed in an extremely old-fashioned way: 

Notice the ɪ in happy and the pronunciation ˈdɛfɪnətli, now normally ˈdɛfənətli ~ ˈdɛfn̩ətli  ~ ˈdɛfnətli. What strikes me most is the (not always correct/necessary) use of the 'reversed apostrophe' to indicate (weak) aspiration in place of the diacritic [ ʰ ], which Mr Maturi says, on page 61, is less often used than [ ʿ ]. Please note that the reversed apostrophe was withdrawn by the IPA back in 1979 (see the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association, CUP, 1999, p. 173).

The description offered for French is at some points old-fashioned too: the author still uses a in papa and ɑ in pâte, and ɛ̃ in vin and œ̃ in un. I'm afraid neither of the contrasts a-ɑ and ɛ̃-œ̃ are nowadays heard in the French of younger speakers of the standard language (see Collins & Mees, 2013, pp. 226-227).   

I hope that all these oversights and errors will be sorted out by the author, as they seriously compromise the value of this phonetics book, which, among other things, contains no sound clips at all.