Saturday 19 November 2011

On phonetics and elocution

Imagine you’re a non-native speaker of Italian at quite an advanced level of the language and want to learn more about Italian pronunciation. What do you do? What book can you consult? 

I’m afraid, there’s no easy answer to these questions. This is essentially because, as you already know, in Italy there is NO REAL book about Italian phonetics! OK, there are many manuals on elocution, some on general phonetic matters, and some which DO contain information about Italian pronunciation, but they are all written from a prescriptive point of view. Basically, there is NO book which presents an objective account of what native speakers of (“standard”) Italian really say.

These thoughts of mine are triggered by the recent release of a book published by HOEPLI entitled Manuale professionale di dizione e pronuncia (2011; Milano: HOEPLI). The authors are Giancarlo Carboni, a professional actor, and Patrizia Sorianello, Professor of General Linguistics at the Università degli Studi di Bari.

Their book is not just a speech training manual but also a volume on general phonetics and on aspects of Italian pronunciation. In it, one can also find a chapter on phonetic transcription and the principles of the IPA, plus a page (p.28) showing the 2005 IPA chart in full.

The book, which also comes with an audio CD, is not only aimed at managers, actors, singers, lawyers, TV and radio presenters, journalists and politicians – the authors stress in the introduction (p.viii) – but at teachers and students as well. In Italy, they point out, all schools and universities should teach the “correct” pronunciation: it is only by doing this – they conclude – that we can accomplish the task of unifying Italy.

How patriotic!

In several chapters the authors furnish lists of “rules” for “correctly” pronouncing words containing e, o, s, and z in their spelling. They also stress, though, that in reality the situation is much more complicated, especially as far as e and o are concerned. As you know, Italians vary a lot between e and ɛ and between o and ɔ, even in the same word. To give you just an example, collega is traditionally kolˈlɛɡa when it means ‘colleague’ and kolˈleɡa when it means ‘(it) links/connects’. I say kolˈlɛɡa for both, and like me many other native speakers of Italian! So why do Mr Carboni and Ms Sorianello insist that kolˈlɛɡa  for both meanings is wrong (p.135)? What’s the point of having  to differentiate the meanings of these two words on the basis of the pronunciation of the e when most native speakers just don’t do it?! – and we all understand each other perfectly well! The answer the authors provide in the book is: clarity. But, believe me, NO native speaker of Italian would get confused between the noun and the verb I’ve just mentioned! In this particular case, clarity seems to be just an excuse for keeping the Tuscan tradition alive. 

As far as s and z go, Carboni and Sorianello rightly say that z is now more common in intervocalic position, as is dz in initial position. So, for example, they correctly transcribe words like zio (‘uncle’) and zucchero (‘sugar’) dzio and ˈdzukkero (p.170) respectively. But why not allow tsio and ˈtsukkero (or indeed ˈtsukkɛro) as well? After all, these variants are still to be heard from native speakers across the length and breadth of the country and they do not bring about any difference in meaning or misunderstanding whatsoever!

And what’s wrong with ts instead of traditional s before n, r, l? After all, epenthetic t has now become increasingly widespread among native speakers and can frequently also be heard on all television channels. Why is, for instance, ˈpɛntso (penso, ‘I think’) not acceptable? Is it again because of clarity?   

Maybe Mr Carboni and Ms Sorianello just don’t know what ‘clarity’ means... To help them, here’s a quote by Daniel Jones (The Pronunciation of English; 1956, p.4-5) on the difference between “good” and “bad” speech:

“’Good’ speech may be defined as a way of speaking which is clearly intelligible to all ordinary people. ‘Bad’ speech is a way of talking which is difficult for most people to understand. [...] A person may speak with sounds very different from those of his hearers and yet be clearly intelligible to all of them, as for instance when a Scotsman or an American addresses an English audience with clear articulation. Their speech cannot be described as other than ‘good’”.    

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There’ll be no post next week. Next posting in December.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Il figlio

I’m reading Patricia Ashby’s new book Understanding Phonetics (2011, Hodder Education). Marc Swerts (Tilburg University, The Netherlands) describes it as being “an excellent introduction into the field of phonetics” and “an impressive account of the articulatory, acoustic and perceptual aspects of human speech sounds” (back cover).

I quite agree. The book is just fantastic, and I’m already using it with my undergraduates at the Università degli Studi della Tuscia. 

Petr Rösel recently discussed some of the features of Dr. Ashby’s Understanding Phonetics on his blog, Kraut’s English phonetic blog. You can read his article here, if you’re interested. 

As is almost inevitable with textbooks containing phonetic symbols, sometimes typos are made which might be a bit embarrassing for the author(s). In Understanding Phonetics, for example, we find this on page 44:

“Use of the subscript box diacritic as in [s̻] indicates laminal, and use of the subscript inverted bridge diacritic as in [s̻] [sic] indicates apical”.   
And this on page 57:

“The voiced alveolar trill [...] is used in Spanish [...] as in parro [sic] ‘grapevine’ [para]”. 

But on pages 63-64 we read:

“English has three central approximants [...] and one lateral approximant [...]. Dutch, French and German also have just one lateral approximant. Spanish and Italian, however, each have two. In addition to alveolar [l], as in Spanish la, el [la, el] ‘the’ and Italian [lo, li] ‘the’ [sic], they also have the voiced palatal lateral, [ʎ], as in Spanish calle [ˈkaʎe] ‘street’ or Italian figlio [ˈfiʎo] [sic] ‘son’”.

I wonder if these are mere typos or real mistakes on the part of the author. The Italian articles are il, lo, la (for singular) and i, gli, le (for plural). Li as an article is not to be found in Standard Italian today, although some people still sometimes use it in dates, as in Roma, li 12/11/2011. It is, though, very common in the broad accents of the area in and around Rome, where a phrase like, for instance, i romani (‘the Romans’) can be heard as li ɾoˈmani.  

As my readers will also know, the palatal sounds ʎ, ɲ, ʃ, and the alveolar affricates ts and dz are, in Standard Italian pronunciation, always pronounced double when in intervocalic position. This means that figlio is ˈfiʎʎo and not *ˈfiʎo.

Patricia ends the section on approximants noting that “in a large number of Italian accents, there is considerable friction involved in the pronunciation of [ʎ], creating a voiced palatal lateral fricative (for which there is no established IPA symbol)” (p.64). Quite right! That’s how I sometimes find myself pronouncing words like foglie (‘leaves’, n.) or parlagli (‘talk to him/her’). This type of pronunciation is also extremely common in and around Naples.   

Saturday 5 November 2011


nəʊ taɪm fər ə rɪəl blɒɡ pəʊs ðəs wiːk, səʊ hɪəz ə lɪŋk tu ən ɑːtɪkl̩ baɪ deɪvɪd krɪstl̩ ɒm blendz (ɔː pɔːʔmæntəʊ wɜːdz) ɪn ɪŋɡlɪʃ. ði ɑːtɪkl̩z rɪleɪtɪd tə ðə riːsn̩ʔ njuːz stɔːri əv ði ʌnsiːznəbl̩ snəʊ wɪtʃ hɪʔ ði əmerɪkən iːs kəʊst ɔːlməʊst ə wiːk əɡəʊ naʊ.

ən fə ðəʊz əv ju ɪntrəstɪd ɪn ðə hɪstri əv ði ɪŋɡlɪʃ læŋɡwɪdʒ, hɪəz ə lɪŋk tu ənʌðər ɑːtɪkl̩ baɪ ðə seɪm ɔːθə.

hæv ə veri naɪs ɡaɪ fɔːks deɪ, evrɪbɒdi.