Symbols for the General British English vowel sounds

Adapted from Vol.2 of the journal Zielsprache Englisch (1975)
This is the paper referred to in Collins & Mees 1999 The Real Professor Higgins
as unpublished MS of 1974

It was no surprise to me that an issue of Zielsprache Englisch should contain a cry of distress that the new 1974 edition of the Oxford Advanced Learners' Dictionary of Current English. The Daniel Jones English Pronouncing Dictionary (EPD), so deservedly held in universal high repute, first appeared in 1917 but the transcription it embodied was not invented by Jones. For about thirty years it had already existed in one or other of several very slightly different forms. It had been born in effect in 1888 when the principles adopted for their new international alphabet were agreed on by the International Phonetic Association. Their alphabet was essentially the British scholar Henry Sweet's "Broad Romic" alphabet with the addition of a new letter [ʌ] proposed by Otto Jespersen, the Danish scholar at whose suggestion the alphabet was drawn up, and the convention of employing a colon placed after any symbol to suggest that its sound was a long variety. Sweet himself had doubled the symbol for the vowels which he wished to indicate as long. These were only the arm and fur vowels – still those for which some length suggestion is most appropriate.

The precise set of symbols of the famous "EPD" transcription were used by Jones in new books only in the five years from 1912 (Phonetic Readings in English) to 1917 (EPD) in the earlier part of which he wrote his Outline of English Phonetics, whose delayed publication took place in 1918. Before these, in his two other phonetic readers Phonetic Transcriptions of English Prose (1907) and Intonation Curves (1909) and in his Pronunciation of English (1909) he used transcriptions with by no means exactly the same vowel symbols. Afterwards, in his book The Phoneme (1950) and his complete re-writing of the long-out-of-print Pronunciation of English in 1950 and in various of his contributions to Le Maître Phonétique (the precursor of the Journal of the International Phonetic Association) he used yet other sets of symbols for the English vowels. It was the remarkable success of the three books in EPD transcription which probably largely prevented his changing the transcription in them. He regretted having used it in them but he was, one guesses, too busy meeting the demand for new editions and reprints of them to do anything about it.

From about 1916 he used a type of transcription which appeared in print first – under his auspices – in L. E. Armstrong's English Phonetic Reader (1923) and subsequently in much the same form in the two most important descriptions of British English pronunciation since Jones, namely The Phonetics of English (1929) by Ida Ward and A. C. Gimson's Introduction to the Pronunciation of English (1962). It appeared also in D. Abercrombie's English Phonetic Texts (1964). In the Gimson book alone of these, the colon is employed as a "blanket" length mark – a fact deplored by Daniel Jones.

Jones's ultimate preference for a transcription to be used in the teaching of English as a non-native language was for the set of symbols he referred to as the "Simplified Transcription" of English. He devised it about 1930 and encouraged its use in phonetic readers by N. C. Scott (English Conversations 1942) and E. L. Tibbitts (A Phonetic Reader 1946). It was used in certain works by A. S. Hornby including the Oxford University Press English-Reader's Dictionary (1952) from which it was abandoned in its second edition. It was the "house" transcription of the journal English Language Teaching from 1946 but for some years only. Certainly a far better transcription than the EPD, it was admirable from the purely typographical point of view, but it is now little used. Its form hinged on a decision which Jones knew to be controversial and would probably ultimately not have defended. Up to the time when his health still permitted him to deal with such matters, in the mid-Fifties, although fully recognising that the "tendency to lengthen 'short' vowels" appeared to be "on the increase" he still retained the impression he had had when he first referred to this phenomenon in 1932 that the "normal educated speech" of Britain, unlike that of America, did not as he put it lengthen the "traditionally short" vowels even in situations such as when yet or this is uttered with a wide falling-rising tone. He recognised the possibility that a new development of the language was "beginning to take place, by which the ... distinctions of quantity combined with quality" would "eventually give place to distinctions of quality only".

I know of no phonetician today who would uphold the view he took, even of his own Victorian English, that the length can be said to constitute the fundamental difference. And most would probably agree that the lengthenings he mentioned as, according to his impressions, still minority usages were now at least as characteristic of the most general types of British English as the older shorter usages. The distinguished authority on the rhythm of British English, Professor David Abercrombie, in a private conversation with the writer, expressed the view that the type Jones regarded as minority usage had become clearly the usage of the majority. It is noteworthy that Jones's opinion was that "If such a new system of vowel-length were to become the regular usage in educated Southern English, it would become necessary to modify the method of vowel representation in practical phonetic transcription by introducing special letters to distinguish the pairs of sounds now sufficiently well distinguished by length-marks" (Outline of English Phonetics 1956).

I now turn to my position when planning my own Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English and the pronunciations for the 1974 edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English. The old EPD transcription had been rejected by Gimson in his admirable Introduction to the Pronunciation of English and he had made one modification of the EPD transcription already in his interim EPD revision of 1967. He had told me that he would quite definitely bring the EPD much more in line with his Introduction in the next fuller revision which appeared in 1977. Exactly what form his transcription would then take he was at the time still deliberating. The 1967 EPD "Editor's Preface" had said "it seems probable that the first pronunciation of such words as fire and power will have, in an early edition, to be shown with a diphthong or monophthong rather than with a sequence of three vowels". For the specialized phonetics-orientated public of his Introduction such a change would have been quite unexceptionable: for the non-technical general public whose convenience I had chiefly in mind it would have been pedagogically less easy to justify.

Professor Gimson retained the length marks of his Introduction. As a theoretical choice, I was quite inclined regret their redundancy and even more so their frequent inappropriateness. Pedagogically-speaking to retain them would risk diverting attention from the all-important quality contrasts to the very uncertain length contrasts of General British English pronunciation. Gimson decided to retain the typographically very unfamiliar "sawn-off-b" shape "ɒ" for the got vowel in the interests of the specialist student of phonetics. However that might be, in terms of pedagogical effectiveness and legibility I could not reconcile myself to using a transcription which entirely eliminated one of the only five vowel letters of the normal English alphabet in favour of a letter I knew to be very unfamiliar and imagined likely to be off-putting to the general EFL public.

As I had done (though perhaps with a happier choice of letter), he generalised in the EPD one kind of "a" letter to the beginnings of the five and now diphthongs and avoided also his (and the then EPD's) doubtfully necessary Greek e "ɛ" in the hair diphthong. But, in the interests of his specialist public again, he maintained a different "a" for the arm vowel from the ones he used for those diphthongs and the ash vowel /æ/. I certainly went out of my way to follow his Introduction – the best, most up-to-date description of British English at the time – as far one possibly could without disadvantage to the general reader who merely wants information on how words are usually typically uttered. To say that my CPD/ALD symbols were harder to learn than the old EPD set was hardly true. I used three new symbols but at the same time discarded two EPD symbols that could be dispensed with. The total was one extra vowel symbol to learn. The tremendous advantage was, as I saw it, that the user was forced to give up the extremely false idea, responsible, I felt, for many poor pronunciations from many nationalities, that some vowels are always long and others always short in English. The traditional habit of referring to some English vowels (ie vowel phonemes) as long and others as short is liable to be grossly misleading. There is indeed a complicated set of length relationships operating in the English system of vowels but at its most powerful, when vowels precede the "sharp" consonants [p t k tʃ f θ s ʃ], it serves to identify the consonants themselves which follow those vowels rather than the vowels themselves. I can recall cases of total misunderstanding where a non-native speaker of English failed to shorten a so-called "long" vowel such as when an intended beat is produced in a form one hears as bead. I once, for example, thought a whole conversation was about a Spanish-speaking person called Cuba when it was meant to refer to an Englishman called Cooper. For more detailed discussion of the above topics, see the writer's article "The Notation of the General British English segments" in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association Vol. 2 No. 2 of December, 1972.)

Finally the new Kingdon-style "tonetic" type of stress notation of the CPD and ALD was, I felt, much more realistically simple than the old EPD system in that it had three symbols instead of two. What is more, the vitally important principal stress stood out better by being preceded by an angled stress mark which took up more space laterally than the less important upright mark for subordinate stresses. (A similar reduction in the number of stress patterns to represent word types proved to be a feature of the 1977 EPD.)

By the end of the twentieth century the freedom to use a wide range of phonetic symbols without excessive embarrassment to a numerous printers brought about by the availability of computer typesetting led to the matter of such debates being seen in a very different set of contexts. In any case such developments as occurred from the late seventies onwards were led by the commercial requirements of publishers rather than the opinions of phonetics specialists. Since then at least as far as phonemic representations of British English are concerned we have had for the most part for an unprecedented sequence of decades a beneficial consensus in such matters.