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Sociolinguistics at the Università degli Studi di Napoli, Naples, and co-author of the excellent, though now a little out-of-date, Manuale di fonetica (3rd edition, 2002; Carocci).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.