Ambiguous AHD/AmE pronunciation guides

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue Dec 18 18:32:23 UTC 2007

On Dec 18, 2007, at 3:19 AM, dInIs wrote:

> And imagine how us standard English speakers feel when we encounter
> in Fromkin, Rodman, and Hyams that the key word provided for open-o
> is "bore." This assumes the conflation of "hoarse" and "horse," a
> shameful loss! (But see DNAE for evidence of the small and shrinking
> zone where this distinction persists.) Too much pandering to "caught"
> - "cot" conflaters!

yes, it's awful.  why, the distinction between "mad" (with higher and
tenser vowel) and "glad" is disregarded as well, when au courant
speakers scrupously distinguish them.

i suppose there's no real point in saying what most of us here already
know only too well, but:

1.  any pronunciation guide that uses key words ("as in X") will be
inadequate for a great many speakers.  the only adequate system would
use phonetic descriptors, but of course that requires that the readers
understand these descriptors, and anyway:

2.  the amount of variation in pronunciation -- even if we just stick
to distinctions that are phonemic for some speakers in some words --
is so enormous and so complexly related to geography, social group,
speaker's age, speech style, etc. that no dictionary could possibly
list all the variants, much less stipulate who uses them.  a fully
adequate indication of pronunciations is simply impossible.  the best
dictionaries can do is list some frequent variants (so that declining
distinctions and advancing ones will probably both be disregarded).
this is especially troublesome when a distinction is made by many
speakers but systematically neutralized by many others (as with
"cot"/"caught"), or when speakers with a distinction neutralize it in
certain speech styles (as with /hw/ vs. /w/).  but even sporadic
alternatives (affecting only certain words) present problems.  (i see
that AHD4 recognizes two pronunciations for "apricot", but only one
for "radiator" -- no doubt a reflection of a judgment that the /&/
variant is much more common for "apricot" than for "radiator".)


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list