JASSEM, WIKTOR: The Phonology of Modern English.

Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe (1983, 1987). (pp 776). ISBN 83-01-00162-3.

(This is a slight reduction, redaction, correction and revision of the review that appeared in Volume 22 Numbers 1 & 2 of the Journal of the International Phonetic Association in December 1992)

This prodigious volume, five centimeters thick, which must contain well over 200,000 words is "primarily addressed to university students of English" and attempts to give them a "reasonably broad view of the phonology of Modern English, especially present-day English". The author said he had tried to combine in it the "high regard for phonetic detail and pragmatism of the London schoool of phonetics with the severe theoretical rigour of post-Bloomfieldian structuralism".

The work is in two parts. The first, of about 500 pages, begins by "outlining the fundamental concepts and then gives a very full description of the kind of British English pronunciation which has come to be regarded as the present-day 'standard', plus some basic facts of British regional variants and the American 'standard' as well as a sketchy diachronic description of the sounds of Modern English" (p.19). Part II, of about 250 pages, deals with "the crucial points of disagreement".

Matters of acoustic phonetics are given much fuller and clearer treatment than is usually the case in comparable works: there are over 80 photographs of spectrograms etc. Chapter 1 discusses in 37 pages the theory of communication. Chapter 2 has 107 pages on the fundamentals of general phonetics employing some unusual terminology including reference to constriction types as progressively occlusive, fricative, non-frictional and unstable, the last pair no doubt equivalent to vocoidal and approximant.

Chapter 3 begins with articulatory descriptions of the phones and phonemes. Its sixty or so pages contain some very interesting diagrams (using the quadrilateral that was the International Phonetic Association's little-used official version of 1933 to 1989) in which the ranges of free variation of the principal allophones of the vocalic phonemes are shown not as the microdots appropriate only for the cardinal vowels but as what one might call "fingerprints", except in the cases of /i, ə/ and /u/. As those who remember Jassem's individual thinking as far back as his 1950 article "funijmik trɑnskripʃn əv ðə vawlz av edʒukejtid sʌðən iŋgliʃ" in Le Maître Phonétique will know, stricter adherence to the IPA's principles than most of us have been at pains to maintain has seen him using down the years a set of phoneme symbols that are very much his own. Unfortunately for him, the direction in which General British pronunciation has moved over the last forty years or so has made his choice of /ɛ/ for the hat vowel and /a/ for the hut vowel less and less acceptable, a fact which he has recognised in conforming to the Gimson symbol choices for at least the former in his Exercises in English Pronunciation (1995).

Incidentally, at page 105 he remarks that the English phones /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ do not distinguish a single minimal pair. I suppose that with the latter-day predominance of the more fashionable term "blusher", the pair ruche and rouge are perhaps now somewat recherché, but leash and liege can be brought in to replace them now that the latter is rightly recognised as commonly having /ʒ/in the LPD (even if still ignored by the EPD even in 2006). And one might also offer ovation and evasion.

The suggestion at page 131 that a long [a] in quiet, riot etc should be treated as disyllabic is a startling one. This chapter offers probably the most complete and clear account of the allophonic variations of the General British phonemes in existence, even if one cannot quite corroborate all its observations. It is outstandingly detailed in specifying matters like the occurrence, as it puts it, of "bisegmental" allophones such as lenis obstruents which change from voiced to voiceless and vice versa.

The text offers generally only one phonemic form for each lexical item and that not always the most usual one for the word in question. In Chapter 4, where two or more forms are fairly often given, it is unfortunately often not made clear which is the more usual. Rather large numbers of unusual and/or old-fashioned versions are listed – and even it must be admitted not a few non-existent ones. Items which to the book's great advantage could be replaced by far more commonplace expressions include aphasy, colorature, exsiccate, furiosity, fyke, induline, staniel, stithy, transilient, twangle (none of which Wells considered worth including in the LPD) and the either virtually or totally non-existent dreff, glown, hypochondrial, individuous, tobine etc. More familiar words for which unsuitably unusual or misinforming phonetic versions are given include anaesthesia, autumnal, avalanche, bayonet, bewilderedly, concert, controversial, coupon, crusade, cucumber, declension, disarm, etiquette, exhaust (noun), heaths, humanitarian, item, lancet, luxurious, malinger, mayonnaise, monocle, necessity, pencil, poignant, porpoise, precarious, problem, profuse, quadrangle, raisin, spook, tortoise, urine and violin.

The Bloomfieldian roster of only ten vowel phonemes with diphthongs taken to end consonantally makes for concise statements such as that r-linking occurs only after the four phonemes /ɑ, o, ɜ/and /ə/. An interesting feature of the symbolization of the phonemes is provision for different representations of the stressable and unstressable vocalic items shown in words like cocoa and solo as /kɜukəu/ and /sɜuləu/. But a comparable distinction is not extended to eg the final syllables of survey and outlay (which Murray's now rightly enough discarded OED notation did nevertheless accommodate).

Within the space he allows himself, the author gives accounts of American and regional British accents in illuminating and refreshingly underivative ways. He is refreshingly independent in the way he refers to the General American /t/ of better etc as a voiced sound intermediate between a flap and a short stop. He even has a dozen pages on the development of the Middle English phonemes into the present-day ones and half a dozen on present-century changes.

After the 105 pages on The English phones and phonemes of section 3, we come to the longest section of all viz 137 pages headed From phoneme to grapheme. This in itself is a good deal more substantial than many an independent book on the topic. It attempts to include the main regularities of English spelling and to enumerate the most important exceptions. Its originality is impressive but the way its rules for the interpretation of English orthography are arranged according to phonemes (and some typical phoneme sequences) is not particularly easy to handle. Also the usefulness of much of it is doubtful for students who are not even mothertongue users of the language in respect of its inclusion of many words not to be found in even the largest pronouncing dictionaries. Even the many useful words are given on some occasions with variants and on others without. And when variants are given there is again no apparent attempt to give them in order of suitability for adoption – eg at profile (p. 356) – though occasionally some are labelled rare or old-fashioned etc. Sociological comments on variants seem never to be made, though they might be appropriate at eg some of the forms of café and garage given.

The remaining sections of Part I of this massive volume are Temporal organization of English speech, Intonation, and Accent and stress. His very original and stimulating treatment of English rhythm in terms of what he refers to as broad and narrow rhythm units will be remembered by those who have read his seminal 1949 article on the "indikeiʃn əv spi:tʃ riðm in ðə tra:nskripfn av edjukeitid sʌðən ingliʃ". The treatment of intonation is admirably effective and concise. The treatment of stress deals with various matters including Accentual rules and tendencies which has a long list of "Unstressed terminations" with transcriptions of words which embody them.

Part II is in effect a substantial separate book between the same covers. It has four main sections Generative phonology, Phonemics, Pitch, and Stress and accent.

Jassem finds generative phonology a brilliant and often an appealing combination of scientific thinking and artistic imagination, being full of admiration for the intellectual effort he finds in most of the pertinent literature. However, he ultimately rejects it on methodological and philosophical grounds (p.18) carrying his careful account of it and arguments against it over 75 pages in which he extensively quotes its proponents as well as its critics. A major problem for him is that although, as it is usually assumed, ... linguistics provides descriptions ... that make it possible to teach a language systematically, generative phonology does not seem to have stood that practical test (p.43). This must not be mistaken for simply the frustrated outburst of the practical teacher who finds his arduous mastering of the theory of generative phonology yields him little in the way of practical help. He certainly takes it very seriously, including, as one might well guess, a detailed discussion of Distinctive Feature theory. On p. 552 he comments: "The essential difference between the directly unobservable objects of physics ... on the one hand and the putative objects and models of [transformational generative grammar] on the other is, that when the former are applied they lead to observable, objective results whereas some at least of the latter are either inapplicable ... or if applied, lead to results that are incompatible with objective evidence. Despite his wholehearted acknowledgment that Chomsky and Halle (1968) was "the product of truly phenomenal intellectual work" (p. 525) he remains among its severest critics, concluding (p. 555) that the "weakness of TGG in general, and GPh in particular, consists in the scarcity of positive evidence and, as pointed out by Ladefoged, by the impossibility of falsifying its tenets".

He follows this discussion with almost as full an account (70 pages) of the history and controversies concerning the nature of the phoneme – with very interesting detail on the origins of the psychological basis of the definition of the term in the work of his compatriot Jan Baudouin de Courtenay. He speaks very highly of Bloomfield, Bloch, Jones and Pike in the more theoretical earlier sections and concludes with an attempt to elucidate the differences in the transcriptional systems used by different authors in conveying General British pronunciation, favouring himself a Bloomfieldian "bi-phonemic" resolution of the problem of representing the diphthongs postulating ... that a non-syllabic vocoid belongs to the /j/ phoneme or the /w/ phoneme whether it precedes or follows the syllabic (p 655).

The penultimate section of 44 pages is on 'Pitch', with much discussion on its representation, on experimental procedures and on attempts to interpret the function of pitch patterns (in non-tone languages) which, as he says, have baffled the best specialists. Only in the last 15 pages of this section does he get onto English intonation. He shows a keener appreciation of Kingdon's contribution to the topic than is generally to be found: "The most extensive and detailed description of British English intonation is still R. Kingdon's Groundwork which contains the greatest diversity of material ever published in a single volume devoted to that subject" (p. 693). The proportion of description to discussion strikes one as somewhat lesser than in the rest of the book. A lot of space is devoted to describing the two largely trivially different versions of O'Connor and Arnold's Intonation of Colloquial English (whose title curiously matches Jassem's own earlier book in what one suspects to have been a rather unidiomatic omission of an initial definite article unconsciously influenced by Jassem's title) but practically nothing is said in evaluation of it. On Halliday's work he says only that the pretonic patterns are not well explained. There is more on Crystal 1969, "the most profound treatment of the theoretical problems of intonation and related questions to date", but he is not satisfied with its account of the boundaries of tone units on which he finds the definitions, or descriptions, are not illustrated (p 701) and finds "the description of Pre-heads and Heads and their classification is very perfunctory". ( Others might have said over complex).

The last 20 pages of the book are on Stress and Accent. These again show a very proper appreciation of the work of Kingdon who he says "has probably done more than anybody else to show relations between intonation and stress". Gimson's 1956 article is also praised as "probably even now the clearest critical discussion of English stress". However, they are very largely devoted to summarizing accounts of experimental work reported by Ladefoged (along with Draper and Whitteridge), Bolinger, Fry and Jassem himself (in collaboration with Morton) and one or two others, finding emphatically "against the dynamic character of English stress" and decidedly favouring "first, fundamental frequency (pitch, intonation) and second, temporal organization as its exponents".

The bibliography contains over 270 references (with perhaps a dozen accidental omissions).

It is very difficult indeed to attempt to sum up this vast book and even more so to do it justice. It is only too easy to point to its many obvious trivial blemishes. It has more misprints than one has ever seen in a book of such undeniable worth. No doubt most of these are to be attributed to the struggles of its Polish printers with a very complex and difficult text in an unfamiliar language. The rest must be put down to the daunting task for the busy author presented by the magnitude of the undertaking of correction of nearly 800 pages of text. The first edition had an appendix of eight pages of errata which were nearly all simple mis-spellings. This book certainly deserves a worldwide audience: it is by no means merely Polish-centred. It would be good if some publisher in the English-speaking world could recognise its value and that the author could be persuaded to undertake the revisions that it needs before having it presented to the wide public that it deserves.


CHOMSKY, N. & HALLE, M. (1968). The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row.

JASSEM, Wiktor (1949). Indication of speech rhythm in the transcription of educated Southern English. Le Maître Phonetique, 22-24.

JASSEM, Wiktor (1950). Phonemic transcription of the vowels of educated Southern English. Le Maître Phonetique 10-12.

JASSEM, Wiktor (1995) Exercises in English Pronunciation. Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe.

LADEFOGED, P., DRAPER, M. H., & WHITTERIDGE, E. P. (1958). Syllables and stress. Miscellanea Phonetica 3, 1-14.

MORTON, J. & JASSEM, W. (1965). Acoustic correlates of stress. Language and Speech 8, 148-158. London.

MURRAY, Sir J.A.H. et al. (1884, 1989). The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford:Clarendon Press.

O'CONNOR, J. D. & ARNOLD, G. F. (1961, 1973). Intonation of Colloquial English. London: Longman.

WELLS, J. C. (1990, 2000). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. London: Longman Group UK Limited.