Simplifying Our Phonetic Transcription

(This appeared at pp 13 & 14 in Zielsprache Englisch No. 3 of 1979 Max Hueber Verlag Germany)

I felt great sympathy with the views expressed by Mr Roy Mepham in his article "Why not simplify our phonetic transcription" (Zielsprache Englisch No. 4 of 1978). As a teacher of German-mother-tongue adult learners of English for practical purposes he was in my view justified in complaining that It is now quite clear that EPD [the Jones pronouncing dictionary] and our elementary textbooks are aimed at different classes of reader.

In fact I agreed with everything he said except for two points. Although, I wasn't quite sure what he meant by saying that successive editions ... have introduced slight modifications of the systems of the pre-1977 EPD. There have only been three changes which were truly relevant to textbook representations and the latter two of these seem to me not at all to have been taken over religiously by text-book writers. Be that as it may, let me explain my very slight disagreements.

He is absolutely right to complain about the Greek ɛ now reluctantly dropped from / eə / by Professor Gimson and at the use of the broken / ɔː / when o is not used at all. How much more dismayed must he have been to find yet another even more unfamiliar letter used for the got vowel in the new EPD, besides the retained distinction between roman a and (straightened) italic ɑː. One agrees completely that not only for German-speaking Volkshochschule adults but for all the vast numbers of learners of English as a foreign language throughout the world these niceties are merely a pointless nuisance if they are not also (as they very rarely are) students of general phonetics. It is absurd for all these general users of English to be bothered with these things to suit the convenience of specialist students of phonetics who in any case should as part of their studies learn the intellectual self-discipline required to move between simplified and more complex transcriptions.

On one of these symbols, however, I must disagree with Mr Mepham. He quotes the Principles of the International Phonetic Association (1949) against the continued use of the Old English 'ash' letter æ for the hat vowel. If one turns on to page 19 of that Booklet a very relevant admission occurs:

The Association's treatment of a and ɑ as different letters denoting different sounds has not met with the success originally hoped for. In practice it is found that authors and printers still generally regard the two forms as variants of the same letter.

The text goes on to indicate that there is no such difficulty in distinguishing either a or ɑ from æ. Hence the answer to Mr Mepham's question do we really need this symbol must be a clear affirmative.

Mr Mepham's proposal is that EFL teachers should take up Daniel Jones's so-called "simplified" transcription of 1931, with the modernisation of its / ou / diphthong as /əu /. Only one major writer (Roger Kingdon) has employed this transcription in the last 30 years or more in a new book. The main reason for this is I believe the one indicated by the title of my article in the December 1975 issue of the Journal of the International Phonetic Association "The undesirability of length marks in EFL phonemic transcription" in which the objections are given in some detail. In brief such indispensable use of length marks is now generally felt to rest on a misjudgment and seems to foster unfortunate misconceptions. It will be noted that the 1977 EPD length marks are no longer indispensable. Many theoreticians moreover, as Jones himself would certainly have done, will deplore their redundancy. This is the only important issue on which I find myself unable to concur with Mr Mepham: moreover I would point out that in the article mentioned I remarked that I considered the type of transcription he proposes in every other respect an entirely admirable transcription and, what is more, definitely superior as an EFL lexical transcription to the Gimson (1962) set of symbols.

I hope that Mr Mepham will consider the case the article makes against colons and agree that they are undesirable. At the publisher's instance I included most of the content of that article in my phonetic reader People Speaking (Cornelsen and OUP 1977) at pages 4-7. A count of the incidences attributed in that book to any of the five phonemes given colons in the EPD in the nine pieces (uttered by seven different speakers) which were unscripted yielded 280 occurrences of which only 24 were shown as long in the Section Three actual ("allophonic") length markings; 137 occurrences had been considered short and 119 of intermediate length. Long vowel as a term for the unchecked English simple vowels can be very misleading, as Mr Mepham shows he knows well in his review of the new EPD in the same ZE issue.

If he does accept the suggestion that colons are best avoided, all the other points he has so excellently made will surely lead him along the same path of reasoning which took me to the set of symbols I employed first in 1972 in my Concise Pronouncing Dictionary and in 1974 in my contributions to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

I'm afraid the pressure has already begun to bring the ALD back into line with EPD in its transcriptions. There are obvious commercial advantages for the publishers in complying with such demands but like Mr Mepham I don't see why the general public should be conned into accepting spurious "learned" complexities because a clamorous minority of specialists wish to have their prejudices indulged.