POOT-yin/POOCH-in (prons in dicts)

Frank Abate fabate at BLR.COM
Wed Aug 9 16:04:41 UTC 2000

Steve K said:

My main problem with some of the eye-spelling approach to pronunciations
is that single characters are used to represent more than one
sound. Whereas you can use an i-macron and an i-breve to distinguish
between the i of like and the i of pit, in most eye-spelling systems you
have to rely on some type of convention -- usually a 'silent' e after a
consonant that follows a long vowel, or a doubling the consonant that
follows the short vowel.

What's worse, if a syllable is itself a word, sometimes you'll see 'nut'
represented as NUT but a syllable that's 'dut', since dut is not not a
word, you'll see represented as DUTT. There are certain words that become
incomprehensible when using some type of new system spelling. I've seen
'ice' represented as EYESS, for example.

What's worse, for the ESL market, representing vowel length by means of
following doubled consonants or silent e is not a wise choice when in so
many languages, final e is pronunced.

In one analysis I did of children's dictionaries, some use the same
pronunciation symbol in 2, sometimes 3 different ways. o-breve is
o-breve. Using 'o' to cover both o-breve and o-macron isn't helpful when
you're requiring other clues (doubled consonants, silent e) to be the item
that determines its length.

People may say they want keyless pronunciations, but people also told
McDonalds that they wanted lower-fat, vegetarian options, and when those
were trotted out, they failed miserably.

The phonemic systems employed by the American Big 4 work well for native
speakers of English. I agree that other systems are necessary for ESL
speakers, but the above concerns with regard to silent e and consonant
doubling should be taken into account. As far as general American
dictionaries are concerned, if it ain't broke, dont' fix it. It's simple
to grasp that i-breve is the i sound of pit, and once you've got that
down, you don't have to try to second guess the conventions of an eye-pron

While I don't dispute the truth in some of Steve's points and criticisms, I must add that, in informal surveys of non-specialist, non-linguist, non-editor users, we have found that many just ignore the prons in the general dictionaries, largely because they can't make out what the prons are trying to say/show.  There are many, esp. older dict users, who are totally put off by schwa.  Many schools are now teaching schwa, so the problem may be lessening among younger users.

In my own immediate family the dict-style prons I have shown them as a test are regularly misinterpreted.  The problem is in ignoring the pron key.  No one wants to look at a pron key, anymore than normal users of dicts EVER read the introductory matter to see what the lexicographers were intending to do.  I don't know if you can attribute all this to general human laziness or what, but the point is that users DON'T do it, and you can't make them, and one certainly shouldn't assume that they do or will.

So I take issue, in this instance, with Steve's "if it ain't broke . . ." statement.  I believe that most dict users just ignore the prons.  Moreover, I believe that most users rarely go to a dict to look up a pron.  The great, great majority of "look-ups" are to check spelling and meaning.

I for one would love to see a keyless SYSTEM implemented in any major American dict.  I think it would be a step toward better understanding, and wider use of the prons.  Tom Paikeday has developed a pretty good one in his "User's Webster Dictionary", and it deserves serious consideration by pronunciation editors and linguists.

btw, I am ardently part of the anti-IPA school when it comes to general dicts.  It's OK for ESL dicts, totally useless, if not damaging, in general dicts.

Frank Abate

Dictionary & Reference Specialists (DRS)
Consulting & Lexicographic Services
phone: (860) 510-0100, ext 2311
email:   abatefr at earthlink.net

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