Saturday, 25 February 2012

A shocking revelation from one of my students

John Wells, on Friday 17 February 2012, had an article on Daniel Jones’s Cardinal Vowels accompanied by a very nice picture of an eagle owl. This got me thinking about English stress patterns again. How do you pronounce the expression eagle owl? Where does the stress fall here: on eagle or on owl

This may sound like a ridiculous question to most of you but it wasn’t so for one of my students, who noticed that in the Hazon Garzanti Dictionary of English this compound is given late stress: ˌiːɡlˈaʊl (p.381). Is this a misprint or another howler on the part of the authors? Are there native speakers of English who have main stress on owl here? 

I have to admit that I have only ever heard eagle owl pronounced front-stressed, thus ˈiːɡl̩ aʊl, and this is also confirmed by the entry we find in CEPD 18 (see p.155) and by the OALD online (listen here).

Surprisingly, for barn owl Hazon Garzanti has the correct ˈbɑːn aʊl (p.92). So where does ˌiːɡlˈaʊl come from? (And why do we find ˈblækaɪs rather than the correct ˌblæk ˈaɪs?)

Leafing through the dictionary it isn’t hard to find other baffling phonetic transcriptions. Just take a look at the following:

according as əˈkɔːdɪŋæz (p.9 – Please note that the length mark I use here is not what you find in the dictionary: the authors use round dots (:) rather than the IPA ‘triangles’, [ː].)

according to əˈkɔːdɪŋtuː (p.9)

after ˈɑːftə* AmE ˈæftə* (p.23 – “The asterisk at the end of the phonetic transcription of a headword indicates that the final “r” is only pronounced when followed by a vowel sound” (p.XVII).)

afternoon (AmE) ˌæftəˈnuːn (p.24)

afterward ˈɑːftəwɔːd AmE ˈæftəwɔːd (p.24)

afterwards ˈɑːftəwədz AmE ˈæftəwɔːdz (p.24)

allegedly əˈledʒdlɪ (p.33)

amniotic ˈæmnjˈɒtɪk (p.39)

answer (AmE) ˈænsə* (p.47)

anywhere (AmE) ˈenɪhweə* (p.52)

apple pie ˈæplˌpaɪ (p.55)

belly-dancer (AmE) ˈbelɪdænsə* (p.105)

century ˈsentjʊrɪ (p.190)

chop tʃɔp (p.206)

colourfast (AmE) ˈkʌləfæst (p.232)

comprehensive school ˌkɒmprɪhensɪv ˈskuːl (p.243)

Why is classlessness transcribed as ˈklɑːsləsnəs (p.214) but completeness kəmˈpliːtnɪs (p.241)?

And, as far as semantics goes, can someone please tell me why fatuous is translated as will-o’-the-wisp (p.447) when it actually means “silly” or “pointless”, as in a fatuous comment?


Saturday, 18 February 2012

Can pronunciation be taught?

On 1st August 2010, Scott Thornbury posted a provocative article on his blog about the usefulness/uselessness of teaching pronunciation in the EFL classroom. Here’s what he had to say:

“As a teacher, I have to confess that I can’t recall any enduring effects for teaching pronunciation in class – but then, I very seldom addressed it in any kind of segregated, pre-emptive fashion. Most of my ‘teaching’ of pronunciation was reactive – a case of responding to learners’ mispronunciations with either real or feigned incomprehension. There are only two pron-focused lessons that I can remember feeling good about: one was where I used an inductive approach to guide a group of fairly advanced learners to work out the rules (or, better, tendencies) of word stress in polysyllabic words (the students seemed generally impressed that the system was not as arbitrary as it had appeared), and another where I used a banal dialogue that happened to be in the students’ workbook to highlight the different spellings of the /ay/ phoneme – a lesson that was more about spelling than pronunciation, really – but, again, one that helped dispel the myth that there are zero sound-spelling relationships in English”.

He continued:

“As a second language learner, any attempts to improve my pronunciation have fallen (almost literally) on deaf ears. I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. ... and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish. Nor was it something I would be able to focus my attention on, when my attention was so totally absorbed with simply getting the right words out in the right order. And nor, at the end of the day, would I ever be able to rid myself of my wretched English accent, however hard I tried (assuming, of course, I wanted to)”.   

He then concluded:

“Hence, I’m fairly sceptical about the value of teaching pronunciation, and I suspect that most of the exercises and activities that belong to the canonical pron-teaching repertoire probably have only incidental learning benefits. A minimal pairs exercise (of the ship vs sheep type) might teach some useful vocabulary; a jazz chant might reinforce a frequently used chunk. But neither is likely to improve a learner’s pronunciation. Certain learners (a small minority, I suspect) with good ears and a real motivation to “sound like a native speaker” might just squeeze some benefit out of a pron lesson, but for the majority it will probably just wash right over them”.  

This is an interesting conclusion. Pronunciation teaching in EFL is a total waste of time, according to Mr Thornbury.

In a follow-up comment he also added:

“[R]andom, segregated activities that focus on the three pronunciations of the past simple inflection (-ed) – well, I’m not so sure. Teachers may teach these “pronunciation macnuggets”, but what evidence do we have that learners learn them?”. 

When the article was published I didn’t feel like providing a proper answer to these to me exaggerated claims, so I simply posted a comment saying

“I think teaching phonetics and phonology is absolutely essential in EFL. I believe it’s a matter of making your students aware of certain features which they may not find in their L1 and which may help them understand native speakers better”. 

I was obviously referring to exercises which can draw the students’ attention to problems they might encounter of both perception and comprehension, such as when the standard citation forms of words found in dictionaries are modified when they occur in natural English speech. 

I find that EFL teachers are often reluctant to mention processes such as reductions, assimilations, elisions, resyllabification, or cliticization, preferring, instead, to invest all their efforts in activities like teaching the correct articulation of individual sounds or doing boring minimal pair games, which – I agree – may produce few beneficial results.

I feel that what classroom teachers should be doing more of is promoting their students’ perception, telling them how to ‘listen better’ and what to listen out for. And that’s where pronunciation teaching comes in. 

Some students may find it 'easy'; others may find it more difficult, but for everybody it's a chance to find out more about how English really works and what it really sounds like.

Pronunciation CAN and MUST be taught!

Saturday, 11 February 2012

t-epenthesis in Standard Italian: a cartload of rubbish?

In reply to my blog post of the 14th January 2012 on the subject of t epenthesis in Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP), an anonymous reader recently commented:

“I’m sorry, but politicians and TV presenters can no longer be considered valid examples of Italian “standards”. I assure you that in theater and voice acting is still considered a serious defect. Moreover, in all the north (and in Tuscany and Emilia) is practically absent”.

In a subsequent comment written in Italian s/he then added the following (I provide here a rough translation in English):

“I’m not so much into phonetics as I am into elocution (...). I might be considered as too conservative but I cannot accept what you’re saying. t epenthesis in SIP would be like having to accept incorrect spellings in writing simply because too many people use them (...). I also don’t think this phenomenon is as widespread as you claim. My observations are based on personal experience as well as on not so recent recordings I have analysed”.   

First of all, I think we need to clarify an extremely important point here: phonetics has for the most part nothing to do with elocution or acting. Patricia Ashby, in her recently released book Understanding Phonetics (2011; Hodder Education), defines the role of phonetics in the following manner:

“The crucial point here (...) is that unless we are using phonetics as a means to an end in a study of phonaesthetic judgements, for example, phonetics is not about evaluating accents or making any kind of judgement about them. It is not the job of phonetics to say how a language should be spoken; phonetics is in no way prescriptive. Phonetics is a descriptive discipline. The role of phonetics is simply to describe what is pronounced, nothing more and nothing less” (p.12).

Second point: t epenthesis is NOT a speech defect! If this were so, then millions of Italians (including me) would all presumably be “abnormal” in the way they speak and should be advised to see a speech therapist right away. This phenomenon, which, by the way, is also to be found in current RP English in phonetic contexts similar to Italian, is simply due to the fact that

“the speech organs instead of moving immediately from the first type of articulation to the second, anticipate the second in one or more ways so that a third type of consonant is produced on the way. For [ns] → [nts] the soft palate is raised closing the passage to the nose and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [ls] → [lts] the sides of the tongue are raised to form a complete closure and the vocal cords cease to vibrate, again before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [rs] → [rts] the tip of the tongue ceases to vibrate and forms a complete closure with the teeth-ridge and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the organs separate to form [s]” (Chapallaz, M., 1979, The Pronunciation of Italian, p.149; London: Bell & Hyman).   

Third point: t epenthesis is not at all absent in the north of Italy, and it is also to be found in both Tuscany and Emilia. Just listen out more! Canepari, too, in his Manuale di Pronuncia Italiana (2004; Zanichelli), which in many respects is more like a book for elocutionists than for phoneticians, claims that this phenomenon is extremely common “al Centro (compresa la Toscana, tranne Firenze e Prato)” (p.88) [in the centre of Italy, including Tuscany, but not Florence or Prato]. He then adds:

“Pure alla RAI le cose non cambiano. Anche in Lombardia orientale e settentrionale e nella Svizzera italiana e al Sud (tranne la Sardegna) c’è la stessa caratteristica, ma con diffusione meno sistematica” (p.88). [This feature is to be heard on all RAI channels and is also typical of northern and eastern Lombardy (= the region around Milan). In addition, it can be found in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland and in the south of Italy (except in Sardinia), although here it tends to be more variable.] 

I agree with Canepari as far as the geographical diffusion of t epenthesis is concerned, but I just can’t accept the fact that he views it merely as a characteristic of regional speech, which it isn’t (any longer)!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Concordia, Giglio, Stefano & Co.

[This week’s post was kindly written by Jack Windsor Lewis: many thanks, Jack!] 

Alex, you commented
 January 14, 2012 at 10:39 am

I’ve been watching BBC World News for a couple of hours now and they’re talking about the Italian cruise ship, Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the coast of Tuscany yesterday evening.

In this report by Andy Moore we hear that the island near to which the ship sank is called [ˈʒiːliəʊ], but no! Italians call it /ˈdʒiʎʎo/, with an AFFRICATE in the first syllable. …

And another newsreader, talking about the little town of Santo Stefano (...), called it [ˈsæntəʊ steˈfɑːnəʊ]. Italians always stress the first syllable in ‘Stefano’! 

I wasnt in the least surprised to hear such pronunciations. Despite the entries in LPD and CEPD, you're at least as likely to hear from even careful music presenters like BBC Radio 3's Rob Cowan the pronunciation /ʒiːli/ for the name of the great tenor Beniamino Gigli. I noticed that the BBC on-the-spot reporter Bethany Bell was saying /ʒiːliəʊ/ for the island even a day or so later. My article at §3.7.I.5 on my website ( pointed out some years ago how GB speakers are getting more and more vague about whether to use /ʤ/ or /ʒ/ except that for forren words they tend to prefer the latter.

As to Stefano, I pointed out in my Blog 107 on "Amphibrachising", if English speakers have the impression that words come from Romance languages, since in most such languages there is the much more frequent alternative in polysyllables of the amphibrach with the stress pattern [– `— –], they go for that. This is extremely familiar especially in large numbers of diminutives from albino and casino to mosquito and zucchini. Compare also items like bravado, desperado, libido, querido, tornado and torpedo. The tendency can be seen in eg the placename Cordova where, although all the various places so called throughout the Spanish-speaking world are accented Córdoba, all the half-dozen places so called in North America are given amphibrachic accentuation.

Many Italian, Spanish and other words and names are either often or regularly amphibrachicised by English-speakers including angora (now replaced as a city name by Ankara which is not so treated), Brindisi, Cagliari, Cyrano, Desdemona, Genoa, incognito, Lepanto, Lipari, Maritimo, mascara, Medici (tho the singular medico is usually okay), Modena, Monaco, Otranto, paprika, rococo, stigmata, Stromboli, Taranto, tombola, Trafalgar etc. The word oregano is amphibrachicised in Britain but not in America where Spanish is better known. More on this topic may be found on my website at 'Italian Words in Spoken English' Item 9 §4.