Friday, 23 September 2011

Luciano Canepari’s reply

My followers might be interested in reading Mr Canepari’s reply to my post of 16th September 2011, entitled English pronunciation for Italians. You’ll find it on his website under the heading “Beware of the web! – September 2011”. 

Personally, I don’t feel like answering back. 

Actions speak louder than words! My students, colleagues, friends, and family, all know what I’m talking about!

UPDATE: See what Graham Pointon, a phonetician and former Head of the BBC's Pronunciation Unit, has to say about Mr Canepari in this post of his

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Wrong tonicity (and much more) at Italian train stations

Sometimes I hear people claim that Italians are not particularly good at English. This (perhaps sweeping) statement is supported not only by the plethora of articles one often finds in prestigious Italian newspapers such as Il Corriere della Sera or Il Messaggero, lamenting Italians’ poor performance in English and in other languages as well, but also by the results you can obtain – I think – if you get the chance to carry out very simple ‘tests’ at Italian train stations. – No, I haven’t gone mad! Let me explain.

I regularly travel to and from Rome and often go by train. So I also get to hear a lot of recorded announcements at several train stations scattered between the town of Tarquinia, where I live, and Roma Termini, the main train and bus station in Rome. 

Here is one announcement in English I get to hear very frequently:

It is ˈstrictly for\/bidden | to ˈcross the ˈrailway \lines

This utterance is wrong on two counts. 

First, it just doesn’t sound idiomatically correct. English native speakers do not normally use the expression it is strictly forbidden to do something, but something is strictly forbidden, as in Entrance is strictly forbidden. Also, I would use tracks in place of railway lines here. So I would say something like Never cross the tracks or Do not cross the tracks

Second, the intonation pattern used by the Italian lady making the recording is also unnatural. Pretending the sentence above were natural in English, native speakers would probably utter it using the following accentuation:

It is ˈstrictly forˈbidden to ˈcross the \railway lines.

or, I think, 

It is ˈstrictly for\/bidden | to ˈcross the \railway lines.

So it’s ˈrailway lines, not railway ˈlines, unless, of course, you’re contrasting this phrase with something else, as in It’s the railway ˈtunnels I’m talking about, not the railway ˈlines

Another interesting thing I notice while travelling on Italian trains is that the names of stations are not usually anglicised in announcements in English. So, for instance, when American and English tourists disembark and leave their cruise ships in Civitavecchia, one of the biggest ports in Italy, situated near Rome, they never understand where they’ve ended up. ˌtʃivitaˈvɛkkja is what Italians call it, but tourists often refer to it as ˌʃɪvətəˈvetʃiə or indeed ˌkɪvətəˈvetʃiə. The station announcements spoken in English do not use either of these pronunciations, so some of the tourists coming from the Eternal City on the train sometimes get lost and miss their ship because they fail to understand the name of the station where they have to get off. (Why don't they pay attention to the signs, I wonder?)


Next post in two weeks’ time.

Friday, 16 September 2011

English pronunciation for Italians

I’ve finally got round to reading Luciano Canepari’s book on English pronunciation, Pronuncia inglese per italiani (2009, 2nd edition; Aracne). The book is aimed at Italian students of EFL and claims to contain

tutto ciò che serve sapere sulla pronuncia dell’inglese d’oggi, per ottenere buoni risultati nel capire i nativi e farsi capire da loro”.

(‘all the information you need to know about contemporary English pronunciation. After reading this book, Italians will be able to understand native speakers and make themselves understood’.)

H’m. What an ambitious goal! 

IMHO, the book is a very feeble attempt at describing the pronunciation of current English. First of all, the author doesn’t focus on any particular variety but illustrates the features of a type of English he calls “pronuncia internazionale” (‘international pronunciation’) (p.14), that is

una parziale semplificazione, che fonde assieme le caratteristiche americane e britanniche, liberandole dalle peculiarità più strane. Quindi, non è nulla di artificiale, né senza un solido fondamento; anzi, è la sublimazione del meglio”. 

(‘a partial simplification and a mixture of British and American English pronunciations but without their strange or unusual characteristics. This is no artificial model. On the contrary, it is the sublimation of the best’.)

I just wonder how this kind of ‘model’ can help students of EFL understand native speakers if it is a variety nowhere to be heard on this planet! But anyway...

Another characteristic of this book is the use of phonetic symbols which are not approved by the IPA and which Canepari has invented himself. (As my readers will know, Canepari has developed a phonetic transcription system called canIPA, an extended version of the IPA consisting of 500 basic, 300 complementary, and 200 supplementary symbols. This is because, in his view, the IPA is defective as it doesn’t permit a detailed transcription of the sounds of the world’s languages.) Look, for instance, at the following transcription of The North Wind and the Sun (p.76). Notice how ridiculously complicated and cumbersome it looks:

 I very much doubt this kind of phonetic transcription will make things easier for non-native speakers of English!

On pages 141-144, Canepari deals with another variety of English pronunciation which he terms “pronuncia mediatica” (‘the pronunciation used on British and American television and radio’). This type of accent is only briefly sketched and, in the author’s opinion, is all too complicated to be taught. 

In the same section, for the first time, Canepari uses expressions like “preglottalizzazione” (‘pre-glottalization’) and “vocalizzazione” (‘vocalization’), but he refuses to mention glottalling probably because he regards it as a ‘negative’ phenomenon which doesn’t deserve to be reported on.

It is also curious to note that, on page 187, he criticises John Wells’s LPD 3 for providing a kind of General American pronunciation which “sconfina nel mediatico” (‘is too typical of American television and radio’). Too typical? What does that mean? I just cannot imagine what other type of pronunciation Professor Wells ought to have included in his dictionary! Also, what is the boundary between General American and the pronunciation one hears on television and radio in the US?

(If you want to know more about Canepari and his ‘phonetic method’, take a look at his website here.)

UPDATE: The famous phonetician Peter Roach has written a blog post on this. Read it here.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Transcribing the sound of English

Last month, a new book on phonetic transcription was published by Cambridge University Press. The book is called Transcribing the Sound of English: A Phonetics Workbook for Words and Discourse. Its author, Paul Tench, is former senior lecturer in phonetics and applied linguistics at the Centre for Language and Communication Research, Cardiff University.

The workbook 

“is not so much a coursebook in phonetics nor a textbook on English phonology, but a training course in developing students’ powers of observation on features of English pronunciation and their skills in recording them in writing. It begins in a very elementary way but it is thorough, and eventually leads to the most comprehensive coverage of the sounds of English from words to full discourse that is available anywhere.” (p.1)

Petr Rösel has already discussed some of the characteristics of this book on his blog, and has come to the conclusion that he can recommend it to his students, “but with some accompanying comments”. 

I finished reading it two days ago and I can say that it is not bad. The book is fun to read and coverage is also quite comprehensive and clear, especially as far as English intonation is concerned. But there are, unfortunately, also some inaccuracies which I’d like to point out on here. (I find myself in complete agreement with Petr Rösel’s comments, so I’m not going to reiterate them here.)

For some reason, the workbook is riddled with transcription errors. Just to give you some examples: lovesick (p.64) is narrowly transcribed as ˈlʌʌ̥ˌsɪʔkʰ; soon (p.66) as ʃuːn; the verb (to) converse (p.68) is transcribed kənˈʌɜːs, kʰəɱˈʌɜːs; sunk (p.70) is transcribed as sʌɲk, sʌ̃ɲkʰ; (he’ll) meet you (p.93) as ˈmiːʔ u; of is ɒʌ on page 107 and əʌ on pages 108 and 123; he mightn’t care (p.119) is transcribed as hi ˈmɑitŋ ˈk kɛə; and (pleasant) places is ˈpleɪʃəz on page 120. 

There is then the word principles (p.57) which is ˈprɪnsipəlz according to the author, rather than the usual RP ˈprɪn(t)səpl̩z, -ɪp-. Here, apart from the symbol ɪ mistaken for i, it’s the non-syllabicity of the l which strikes me as unusual. I know that some speakers today tend to replace syllabic l and n in words like garden, little, bottle with schwa plus non-syllabic consonant, but this is to be regarded as a change on the verge of RP. That’s why I’m not 100% happy with transcriptions like ˈæpəl (p.52) for ˈæpl̩, ˈlaɪəbəl (p.71) for ˈla(ɪ)əbl̩, ˈɪzənt (p.119) for ˈɪzn̩t, ˈriːznəbəl (p.122) for ˈriːznəbl̩, or indeed ˈkʌmftəbəl (p.122) for ˈkʌmftəbl̩. The transcriptions proposed by Paul Tench are obviously not wrong in themselves, but the author doesn’t mention any other alternative, nor does he point out that these pronunciations are less usual in mainstream RP and are sometimes considered as “baby-like” or “childish”.

On page 98 we read:

“Notice that /t/ does not readily get elided if it would otherwise bring two /s/s together at the end of a word: ghosts /ˈɡəʊsts/”.

This is not true! I would say that pronunciations like ɡəʊsː for ɡəʊsts or ˈsa(ɪ)əntɪsː for ˈsa(ɪ)əntɪsts are quite common in rapid, colloquial RP speech. Here the t gets elided and thus disappears, but it leaves some trace of its former presence behind: the s is lengthened to compensate for its absence.  

Finally, on pages 9-10, we read that in IPA the symbol e “represents the sound in the German word Tee and the French word thé, Italian , Welsh ”. Now, the Italian word for tea is NOT : it’s . And it ISN’T pronounced te but ! The spelling for is regarded as sub-standard or non-standard and, for this reason, it’s not included in any dictionary – apart from Canepàri’s DiPI. On top of that, people who misspell and write are, for some reason, still likely to pronounce it . This is probably because this word is so common in speaking that its pronunciation is quite clear. When it comes to writing it, though, Italians may get confused, as they sometimes think that this is “not an Italian word” but an English one! Also, accent marks on Italian headwords are for some native speakers quite difficult to master, especially on monosyllabic words. 

The pronunciation te is used in Standard Italian for the pronoun te (without any accent) in expressions like Te lo dico (‘I’m going to tell you’) or in, for instance, Te vieni al cinema? (‘Are you coming to the cinema?’), where the te is a subject pronoun meaning tu (‘you’).

I very much hope all these inaccuracies will promptly be corrected by Mr Tench before the second edition of Transcribing the Sound of English comes out!