Tuesday 29 June 2010


On Monday 21st June I was watching Sky News HD. One of the newsreaders was reporting on the events organised at Stonehenge by druids, pagans, and hippies on the longest day of the year: the summer solstice. As I was listening, I noticed that the newscaster pronounced the word solstice as ˈsɔːlstɪs and I said to myself: isn't it ˈsɒlstɪs in RP? I looked it up in all the pronunciation dictionaries I have at home (LPD3, CPD, ODP, and OGP) but could find no trace of the variant ˈsɔːlstɪs. So I thought the journalist got confused with words like salt or fault, words that is which have a vowel followed by l plus a voiceless consonant and which can have both ɔː and ɒ in RP (although younger speakers today tend to use the variant with ɒ).
As John Wells argued in his blog of the 16th February 2010, "there are certainly varieties of English English in which there is great confusion among back vowels before dark l". Some people, for example, say bolster with əʊ, others with ɒʊ, and others still with ɒ.
But what about solstice? Is there anyone out there who pronounces it with the THOUGHT vowel instead of the usual LOT?

Saturday 19 June 2010


I was wondering how Italians pronounce the term zoo: is it ˈdzɔo or dzɔ? If you look this word up in a dictionary such as Lo Zingarelli (2007) or Il Devoto-Oli (2011), the only pronunciation they give is ˈdzɔo. I assume this is because they are rather prescriptive dictionaries. But I don't say ˈdzɔo. I say dzɔ. And I'm not the only one: my parents, brothers, grandmother, aunt all say dzɔ. Are we all wrong then?
The only dictionary I have been able to find which also provides the variant I use is the Dizionario di Pronuncia Italiana (DiPl, 2009) by Luciano Canepàri. The author considers ˈdzɔo as the main pronunciation (by which he means that that is the correct one) and regards dzɔ as frequent but slipshod, highlighting that it should be avoided as it may indicate that the speaker is not well educated.
I don't regard myself as uneducated at all! My parents and my brothers aren't either! So which form do you think you mostly use? Which form do you prefer? Would you consider a speaker uneducated if they used the variant I do?

NB: To see the IPA phonetic symbols in the text, please ensure that you have installed a Unicode font that includes them all, for example LUCIDA SANS UNICODE or Charis SIL. (Click here for free download.)

Thursday 17 June 2010

Shame on you!

Last May I was walking down the lovely streets of the town I live in and I was given a leaflet in English advertising guided tours of the Etruscan tombs scattered in the neighbouring area. As soon as I started reading it I noticed that the level of the translation was absolutely appalling. That is why I have decided to post and comment on parts of it here. At first I thought they were just typing errors, but I was wrong. See for yourself:

  • "The colours of the etruscans": do you know that nationality words in English are ALWAYS written with a capital letter?
  • "Extraordinary opening of the tomb of the Bulls": do you mean "exceptional opening"?
  • "october", "friday", "saturday": the days of the week and the months of the year, too, are ALWAYS written with a capital letter!

  • "Friday and Saturday h. 15:30": it should be "Friday and Saturday at 3.30 pm (or 15.30, or 15:30). You can only use 'h.' ['hour(s)'] when you say for example '15 hundred (hours)'.
  • Notice again that the months of the year are written with a small letter.
  • "Start to Sala Grande Biblioteca Comunale Barriera di San Giusto": is this going to be a race or are they just taking you on a guided tour? It is obvious that it should be something like "We leave/are leaving from Barriera di San Giusto". Why didn't you translate "Sala Grande Biblioteca Comunale"? Was it too difficult?
  • "with yours cars": everyone knows that adjectives used attributively in English NEVER take any plural ending! 'Yours' is a pronoun, NOT an adjective!
  • "For informations call to": apart from the fact that when you want to contact someone in English you call them, NEVER call to them, here what really gets me is the 's' on the end of the term 'information'. Everyone should know that 'information' is one of those UNcountable nouns that NEVER take a plural ending (except when it means 'a charge lodged with a magistrates' court).
  • What kind of office is the "I.A.T. Office"? I don't even know in Italian!
  • "Municipal Library": is it the mayor's own library or just the local one?
  • "Mob.: 331-8785257": is this the mobile number of a mob of protesters? By the way, mobile numbers in English are normally written into groups of two or three digits and are not usually separated by hyphens!
  • "From 9 to 18:00": I think it'd be much better to say "from 9 am to 6 pm".

  • "To reach Tarquinia": maybe you mean "How to reach/get to Tarquinia"?
  • "highway until Civitavecchia and then Aurelia way": it should be "Take the highway as far as (NOT until, as you use this preposition with time expressions!) Civitavecchia and then the Via Aurelia. Is the Aurelia way a new lifestyle?
  • "Aurelia way to the south direction": "Take the Via Aurelia (out) towards the south".
  • "in both cases there are about 45 km": where?
  • "Tarquinia is on the railway Roma-Ventimiglia": I thought Tarquinia was located upon a hill, not on a set of tracks!
  • "train station is 3 km far from the town": it should be "the train station is...".

I think my little cat can speak better english than whoever did this translation! Oops, sorry! It should be 'better English', shouldn't it?

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Why should we teach English phonetics and phonology?

Unlike most European languages, English is not a phonetic language: words can have identical vowel letters and be pronounced in different ways, e.g. great, treat, and threat; viceversa, words with phonologically identical vowels may have different spellings, as in sea, seize, precede. Hence the importance of teaching both pronunciation and spelling.
If we go down to the phonetic level, English appears to be idiosyncratic too, since it includes various features that are unusual from the point of view of universals:
  1. a large and elaborate vowel system including complex processes of length alternation and weakening (think of compete, competitive and competition). Maddieson (1984) has estimated that only 4.1% of the world's languages have over 17 vowel sounds. RP, for instance, has about 20, which makes its system one of the less common and more complex types.
  2. a consonant system that includes dental fricatives - not very common sounds in the world's languages (see John Wells's blog here) - and voiced sibilants, which tend to be problematic for many learners.
  3. word stress placement that is free, i.e. arbitrary and frequently unpredictable.
  4. an intonation system that seems to be more complex and to have a much higher functional load than that of most other languages.
It is because of such considerations that some have argued that for international purposes we ought to use Esperanto rather than English. For reasons that I'm not going to discuss here, this has never worked and English has become the language we use internationally.
Nowadays, everyone is expected to speak a bit of English, but trying to find someone in Italy who can speak it 'clearly' - intelligibly -, without mangling it, is no easy task at all. That is where phonetics and phonology comes in. Phonetics and phonology is a subject which is generally not taught in schools or universities in Italy, and if it is, it is taught badly. I think EFL students and teachers should both have a thorough knowledge of the phonetics and phonology of English so that they can understand native speakers better and can make themselves understood, thus avoiding misapprehensions. As Peter Roach (2009, p.6) has highlighted in his book English Phonetics and Phonology: A Practical Course (4th edition),
Pronunciation exercises can be difficult, of course, but if we eliminate everything difficult from language teaching and learning, we may end up doing very little beyond getting students to play simple communication games.
As far as native speakers of English working in ELT are concerned, they too should have a knowledge of English phonetics and phonology (most don't!). This would help them understand their students' problems much better. It's like medical diagnosis, Peter Roach has said in one of his interviews with Anne Linthe from Cambridge University Press: "if somebody came to you and asked for advice because they were getting headaches, or they were getting persistent pains in their knees or something, you could think of some homely advice that you would give them and it might well result in them improving. But it's not the same as knowing how the body works, and the nature of human illnesses and that kind of thing".
None of my past teachers ever taught me phonetics and I started to get interested in the subject only at university. It was not until then that I realized how fascinating this subject was and how essential it is for any student wanting to learn (and understand!) a foreign language - especially English!