Saturday 29 October 2011

The Oxford Advanced American Dictionary online

It’s been advertised as a “new website for learners of American English”. It is the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary (OAAD) website. The site went live about two weeks ago and is available for consultation free of charge. 

The OAAD has many features in common with the OALD, the former coming from the same stable as the latter. 

As far as phonetics is concerned, the OAAD offers learners a “Pronunciation Guide” (very similar to the one we find in OALD) with information regarding the transcription of American vowel and consonant sounds, as well as stress, and strong and weak forms. 

Unlike the OALD, transcriptions in the OAAD also include the symbol for the (usually voiced) alveolar tap, , as in ˈlɪt̬l or ˈsɪt̬i. In the OALD, words like these are transcribed with a plain t, the pronunciation also matching the transcriptions supplied. This is not so, though, for many other words, such as, for instance, parting, pronounced by the same American speaker as ˈpɑrt̬ɪŋ in both dictionaries but transcribed as ˈpɑːrtɪŋ in the OALD and ˈpɑrt̬ɪŋ in the OAAD.  

This is one of the main reasons why some of my EFL students, after starting to use both dictionaries together, began to complain about the OALD. Some of them, noticing the discrepancy between the pronunciations offered and the corresponding transcriptions, simply decided to try and imitate what they could hear on the recordings rather than pay attention to the symbols used. 

Another characteristic of the phonetic transcriptions provided in the OAAD is that the long vowels have no length marks. So, for example, today’s “Word of the Day”, foolhardy, is transcribed ˈfulˌhɑrdi, as one would find in most textbooks by American scholars. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the name of the phonetics editor for the dictionary – not even on the Oxford University Press website. Does anybody know who that is? 

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On a rather different note, what do you think about this video clip entitled “Englishmen going to Italy”, which has been doing the rounds in Italy recently? 

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And finally, a special treat for Halloween for my English Phonetics students at the Università degli Studi della Tuscia:

Friday 21 October 2011

Some more howlers from PONS

I’ve decided to scan some more bits of pages from the PONS phrasebook we looked at last weekend. Here they are for you:

page 82

page 88

page 107

page 144

Not much I can add, really!

Saturday 15 October 2011

Yet another phrase book in IPA!

I was so impressed by the quality of the Italian-Spanish phrase book I talked to you about last weekend that on Monday I went to a famous bookshop in Rome to look for a similar book but with English transcriptions. And I managed to find one! It’s called Travel Kit Inglese: Dizionario di viaggio e di conversazione (2010; Accademia Universa Press). 

The book is divided into 17 chapters, two of which contain a short introduction to English grammar and a small bilingual dictionary. As with the phrase book in Spanish, each word/sentence is transcribed phonemically and there is also an audio CD which contains the whole text of the book.

But unlike the phrase book published by Giunti, Travel Kit Inglese is not as accurate as far as phonetics goes. Each page of the book contains at least three or four transcription errors, some of which are just terrible blunders. Have a look at this:

Noticed anything in particular? Apart from the incorrect transcriptions provided for inch, pint, foot, and ounce, what struck me as unacceptable was the fact that the phonetics editor for the book (whose name is not mentioned in the introduction) mistook the word gallon (pronounced ˈɡælən) for galleon, which is obviously ˈɡæliən. Degrees is dɪˈɡriːs rather than -ˈɡriːz, and for some reason Fahrenheit is fɑːnhaɪt, instead of ˈfɑːrənhaɪt or ˈfær-.
On page 26, which is about organizing a trip abroad, we read this:

How many mistakes can you spot? Here the strong form of am is used rather than its weak form and so it is for the preposition of. In the utterance at the bottom, weə is without its linking r, which is what native speakers would naturally use in this context, and no stresses are provided for some of the content words which come before boating. What is worse is that the transcription furnished here represents exactly what one hears on the CD, as the voice of the speaker used in the recordings is not a real one but a computerized one. And we know what can happen with synthetic speech: it often fails to reproduce weak forms and intonation properly.  
In the section dedicated to the topic “eating out”, I notice the word restaurant is always transcribed as ˈrestərɔ̃ːŋ (p.106). Although this is a possible variant, which Roach et al. (2006) decided to prioritise in CPD, I find it amusingly old-fashioned. Even Jack Windsor Lewis as early as 1972 regards this type of pronunciation as highly unlikely. In his Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English he notes (pp.xv-xvi):

“Now rarely heard, except from the elderly, is the substitution of non-nasal vowel followed by ŋ for a nasal vowel in words borrowed from French: `pɑŋsɪɔŋ for `põsɪõ (pension) is now likely to sound amusingly old-fashioned possibly even incomprehensible to many educated speakers below retirement age. One or two popular words such as meringue and charabanc have settled into such pronunciations firmly but in most words with French nasal vowel origins a nasalized English vowel is heard”. 

The book also sometimes utilises symbols which are not exemplified in the introduction (for example i and u), and some of those symbols which are exemplified in the introduction are simply defined poorly. The schwa, for instance, is described as a “suono vocalico atonico, cortissimo e senza qualità” (p.22) (‘an unstressed vowel sound, very short and without quality’). 

In conclusion, I think the only use I can make of this book now that I’ve bought it is to show students how never to transcribe English speech or describe sounds! What do you think?

UPDATE: Have a look at what John Wells has to say about Travel Kit Inglese here.

Sunday 9 October 2011

An Italian-Spanish phrase book in IPA

I’ve just come back from a one-week trip to the Spanish island of Mallorca. As you know, the island is famous for its breathtaking coastal scenery, which is dominated by fine white sandy beaches, caves, and rocky coves. 

From a linguistic point of view, Majorcans are usually bilingual in both Catalan and Spanish. This is reflected in the way they pronounce the name of their island: in Spanish it’s maˈjorka, -ʎor-, whereas in Catalan it’s generally məˈjɔrkə, -cə. (Notice the type of pre- and post-stressed vowel used in the transcriptions: a schwa in Catalan but a full vowel a in Spanish.) 

Amongst the highlights of our tour were the so-called Cuevas del Drach (in Catalan Coves del Drach), four great caves which extend to a depth of 25 m and which contain an underground lake, called Martel Lake, where classical music concerts are held on a daily basis. On the left you can see a picture of the lake with three little boats on it in which the musicians perform their tunes.

One of our guides also took us to a spectacular beach, Es Trenc, which is really a crystalline turquoise water paradise for divers. Have a look at this picture on the right.

On my way to Mallorca I was considering myself as on summer leave from all things phonetics, but I just couldn’t resist taking a look at an Italian-Spanish phrase book which my friend Rossella kindly showed me on the second day of our trip. You’ll be surprised to hear that her phrase book wasn’t just an ordinary phrase book, but one with IPA transcriptions of both Spanish words in isolation and in connected speech. You can see a picture of pages 12-13 of her book Spagnolo per viaggiare (1999; Giunti) below. 

Notice, for instance, how the phrase hace dos días (‘two days ago’) is transcribed: ˈaθe ðɔs ˈðias. As my readers will know, in Spanish the voiced plosive d has the fricative allophone ð when intervocalic, and this is correctly shown in the transcription. (Ok, the symbol used in the book is not exactly ð, but no one’s perfect!). This process is also visible in antes de final de mes (‘before the end of the month’), in which (most) Italians would simply use a plain dental

On page 7 of the book, phonetics editor Leonardo Lavacchi explains how b d ɡ are pronounced in Spanish:

β, ð, ɣ sono le varianti fricative delle occlusive b, d, ɡ e si pronunciano con minor tensione lasciando che l’aria esca dalla bocca provocando una leggera frizione; [...] χ fricativa velare sorda [sic] si pronuncia con una frizione fra il dorso della lingua e il velo palatale”. 

(‘β, ð, ɣ are the allophonic variants of the plosives b, d, ɡ, and are pronounced with less tension in the oral cavity, causing the air to become turbulent on escaping from the mouth. [...] The voiceless velar fricative χ [sic] is produced by raising the back of the tongue towards the velum, thus causing friction.’)   

Apart from the incorrect use of the symbol for the voiceless velar fricative x (χ represents the  voiceless uvular fricative which is, by the way, also found in Spanish before u as an allophone of x), I find it absolutely amazing that an apparently ‘run-of-the-mill’ phrase book can contain IPA transcriptions for most of the words and utterances it lists. 


Congratulations, Giunti, and thank you very much, Rossella, for sharing the book!