Route: English orthography vs phonetic/phonemic transcription

Rudolph C Troike rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU
Mon Jul 1 06:25:20 UTC 2002

I'm afraid, Tom, that somewhere along the line you got the abstract vs
concrete upside down. Of course everything except an actual physical
vocalization occurring at a particular point in time is an abstraction. No
matter how precise I get, as a phonetician if I refer to [p] (an
unaspirated voiceless bilabial stop), I am referring to a class of events
which are all sufficiently similar that anyone with a modicum of training
in any language in the world will recognize the _type_ of sound that is
being referred to. This was part of the motivation for phonetic
transcription before the day of mechanical or electronic recording, and
still serves a purpose well, so we could easily talk about the sound that
occurs in English words like <spin>, or transcribe it as [p], and note
that it is essentially similar to the initial sound in Spanish <pan>
'bread' or Chinese <bei> 'north'. In other words, it provides a very
convenient international way of transcribing sounds, and further provides
the basis for teaching pronunciation in teaching English as a foreign
language, or in teaching foreign languages to English speakers.

        A phonetic transcription will often show differences in sounds
that are NOT cognitively evident to speakers of a language, the most often
cited example being the difference between the initial sound of English
<pin> and the second sound in <spin>. It doesn't take any deep study to
show the huge phonetic difference between them, but simply putting your
hand in front of your mouth when you say the words will demonstrate it.
But English speakers are consciously unaware of this difference, although
unconsciously they are quite aware, since they carefully control the
muscles required to make the difference. This is why linguists came up
with the concept of the "phoneme", which is a more abstract, purely
psychologically significant distinction consciously recognized by native
speakers of a particular language or variety of a language. The "same"
phonetic type can belong to different phonemes in different languages.
Thus Chinese speakers can readily hear the differences between the initial
sound in <pin> and the second sound in <spin>, because these belong to
different phonemes in Chinese. To understand why, or why Spanish speakers
can't easily hear (or produce) the differences between <this> and <these>,
an understanding of the concept of the phoneme is crucial.

        But we have to recognize that it is almost entirely English
speakers, and primarily Americans, who are so trapped in an archaic
spelling system that is growing increasingly out of touch with the actual
pronunciation (and will ultimately become like Chinese characters in
relation to pronunciation), and have been so ill-served by the educational
system and the lexicographical tradition, that they are terrified of
gaining the simplest knowledge about their very own speech, while people
in other countries speaking other languages take this for granted. Thus we
limp along trying to talk about our language in terms that are so
handicapped and crude that they are almost comparable to people trying to
talk about the composition of physical matter in terms of earth, air,
fire, and water, or trying to discuss medical matters in terms of phlegm,
etc. (The problems we have on this list in indicating phonetic qualities
goes back to the provincialism of those who devised the ASCII code, and
those who worked for the company that was ironically known as
International Business Machines. It never occurred to them that we would
ever have to communicate in any other language than English.)

To argue that because we are saddled with such an archaic and preposterously
complex spelling system, that like Chinese characters allows speakers of
even almost mutually unintelligible varieties to communicate in the same
written form, we should therefore limit our comprehension of our own
pronunciation to this archaic orthography (SPE to the contrary
notwithstanding, dInIs), is to condemn ourselves and our posterity to
continued ignorance about our own or other languages. Without a modicum of
understanding of the facts of pronunciation, we can't even understand the
basis for the spelling system itself, to the extent that it is systematic,
and we certainly can't understand how the spelling system came to be as it
is today (or something so simple as why the names of the letters of the
alphabet <a>, <e>, and <i> differ from their pronunciation in all other
European languages).

        In school today, and even as far back in the paleolithic as my own
schooling, we studied -- and were required to study -- such complex
abstract things as geometry, algebra, chemistry, and biology. No one has
ever questioned these, so far as I know, but they are MUCH more abstract
and complex than studying the phonology and grammar of our own language,
which we have the advantage of already knowing. It is one of the great
mysteries of our age as to why educators have kept, and continue to keep,
us and our children and grandchildren in a state of ignorance (and worse,
fear of knowledge) about our own language that would be comparable in
science with still teaching that the earth is the center of the universe,
and that the sun goes around the earth (of course there are a few who
still believe this, but they do not dominate our educational system,
fortunately). And why we continue to tolerate and condone the perpetuation
of this situation is an even greater mystery.


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