26.1828, Review: Phonetics; Phonology: Wells (2014)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-26-1828. Mon Apr 06 2015. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 26.1828, Review: Phonetics; Phonology: Wells (2014)

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Date: Mon, 06 Apr 2015 15:11:24
From: Cory Holland [Cory.Holland at colostate.edu]
Subject: Sounds Interesting

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-3845.html

AUTHOR: J. C.  Wells
TITLE: Sounds Interesting
SUBTITLE: Observations on English and General Phonetics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Cory Holland, Colorado State University

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and General Phonetics” by J.C.
Wells is a collection of astute observations on a wide range of topics
relating to English pronunciation (Ch. 1), general phonetics (Ch. 2), the
teaching of phonetics and phonetics in English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
contexts (Ch. 3),  English intonation patterns (Ch. 4), details of usage of
the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and spelling oddities (Ch. 5),
accents across varieties of English (Ch. 6), and the phonetics of languages
other than English (Ch. 7).  Each chapter contains 20-50 separate short
entries relating to the main theme.  

Chapter 1: “How do you say...?” addresses the titular question, covering a
variety of pronunciation dilemmas. Themes include different stress placement
possibilities in less commonly used words (e.g. ‘plethora‘, ‘apostate‘,
‘hypernymy‘), the pronunciation of place names (e.g. ‘Burgh‘, ‘Heath‘,
‘Salida‘, ‘Rosersthorpe‘), foreign names and loan words (e.g. ‘Madejski‘,
‘Sarkozy‘, ‘ylang-ylang‘), and the difficulties of pronouncing Welsh names in
English (e.g. ‘Llwynywormwood‘). Other entries discuss words which are often
confused, such as 'interment' and 'internment', as well as 'proceed' and
'precede', which are becoming homonyms because of vowel weakening in the two
previously distinct suffixes. Also covered are neologisms such as the slang
term 'pwn'. 

Chapter 2: “English phonetics: theory and practice” is the longest chapter,
with many examples of phonetic processes, such as compression, reduction,
assimilation and stress placement, in action. This chapter is particularly
challenging to summarize, as it covers so much ground. One entry discusses
variable compression in hymns, for example four syllable ‘victorious’
/vɪk’tɔ:riəs/ can be sung with three syllables /vɪk’tɔ:rjəs/ to fit the meter
of the hymn. Another gives an example of de-compression: football fans
chanting /ɪŋ.gə.lənd/ rather than the expected two syllable /ɪŋ.glənd/.
Several entries addressed the behavior of the happY vowel, which in British
English can be expressed more like the KIT vowel (in RP) or more like the
FLEECE vowel (in less conservative dialects), but, for some people, can be KIT
or FLEECE depending on the phonetic context. Other entries stretch from
descriptions of use, and mis-use, of the historical second and third person
singular present tense (thou givest, he giveth), to the the debate surrounding
the origin and pronunciation of the new, primarily American, ‘imma’. This
emerging variant of  ‘I'm going to’ is pronounced /aim:ə/ and may stem from
“pseudo-aspectual a-prefixing” (ie. ‘I’m a-going to…’) or further reduction of
‘I’m gonna…’; as a user of this variant, I lean toward the second explanation.

Chapter 3: “Teaching and examining” has a dual focus on teaching phonetics and
the utility of teaching phonetic concepts in EFL contexts. Many of the entries
discuss what is covered, and what is no longer covered, in advanced courses in
Phonetics at University College London (UCL). Examples of practical exams
given to students, along with common mistakes and pitfalls are provided. One
entry argues for the benefits of including phonetics in voice and accent
training for actors, and includes a response as to why phonetics are not
generally taught in acting classes (phonetic symbols look too much like
math!). Entries on mispronunciations (a volcano researcher with [æ] rather
than [eɪ] in ‘volcano’) and minimal pair confusion (a waiter bringing a
'torte' rather than a 'tart' as requested for desert) argue for the utility of
phonetic training for language teachers and learners. 

Chapter 4: “Intonation” covers “the three Ts” of intonation: tonality, tone
and tonicity, frequently returning to the larger question of universality of
the three Ts across languages. Tonality is the process of 'chunking' the
speech stream into separate intonation phrases (IPs), tone is the rising
and/or falling of voice pitch that occurs in each IP and tonicity refers to
the placement of nuclear (word) stress in an utterance. Wells argues that
while the principles of tonality are relatively universal, tone and tonicity
vary across languages, and sometimes between dialects of a language, much more
than people expect. Considerable focus is given to the unexpected tonicity in
counter-presuppositionals of the type: 

A: Have you /EATen?
B: \NO, | there was 'nothing \TO eat. 

In B's utterance the placement of primary stress on the preposition 'to' is
odd because typically the main stress falls on new information with high
semantic load, however, this intonation pattern is very common in English. 

Chapter 5: “Symbols, shapes, fonts and spelling” focuses mainly on proposed
and discontinued IPA symbols, IPA symbols easily confused or often misused,
and proposals to reform the English spelling system. The section on IPA
symbols which are often confused (e.g. 'I' for /ɪ/  and 'Ɵ' for /θ/) is very
helpful, and should be read by all beginning phonetics students. The entries
on the history of various IPA symbols and controversy about which should be
used is interesting history as well as a useful reference. The several entries
on English spelling cover ways in which spelling could be made more consistent
(e.g. regularize consonant doubling, eliminate silent letters that don't add
information on vowel length), and how spelling to sound correspondences are
represented and how they affect pronunciation. 

Chapter 6: “English accents” primarily discusses regional and social variation
in British English and Caribbean creoles, with some additional mention of
American English and Maori pronunciations in New Zealand. Several entries
cover changes observed in RP over time, and one details a newspaper's horror
that they are unable to find people who “speak middle class accents” for
casting in a period drama. Other entries discuss possible r-fulness in
Antigua, the use of English intonation patterns in Monserrat creole in
England, and vowels in Grand Turk.  A lengthy entry details how Maori place
names are partially anglicized in New Zealand English. 

Chapter 7: “Phonetics around the world” focuses on sounds and pronunciations
found in languages other than English as well as how foreign sounds are
pronounced by English speakers. Many entries focus on Welsh, which is a
language commonly encountered in the names of people and places in Great
Britain, and whose spellings can be difficult to decipher for English
speakers. Also included are examples of the spelling to sound correspondences
for the letters 'j' and 'c' across languages such as Czeck, Polish, Turkish,
Spanish and Italian. Other entries covered the history of symbols for less
common sounds (clicks), and impossible sounds (the velar click /ʞ/), which is
no longer included in the IPA. 


“Sounds Interesting” is a compilation of postings from Wells' blog, which he
began after retiring in 2006 in order to, in his words, “replace the daily
dialogue with colleagues and students [he] enjoyed while employed as a
professor at UCL.” The stated goal of collecting the blog posts in a book was
to reach a wider audience. This book is written clearly, in a style that
should be approachable to both specialists and non-specialists, although a
comfortable familiarity with IPA is necessary to fully appreciate much of the
discussion. This book would be relevant and interesting to almost any
“language dork”, but may be of particular interest to ESL/EFL instructors,
graduate students, and anyone with a more than passing interest in English
history and pronunciation. Some of the entries, particularly in the
pronunciation chapter (Ch. 1), might be less relevant to someone not familiar
with British English. As a speaker of American English I often had to
'translate' across dialects. However, the many sections addressing rhotic vs.
non-rhotic pronunciations have seriously aided my ability to do a
cross-dialect translation. Overall “Sounds Interesting” is fun to read, with
page after page of language facts  either that you'd always wanted to know, or
that you can't believe you hadn't wondered about. Throughout the book I found
myself marking sections to share with my ESL teaching colleagues as well as
students, both ESL and TESOL, in the future. I would recommend this book to
anyone looking for clear and engaging discussion regarding English
pronunciation, linguistics, phonetics, spelling, intonation and a wide variety
of other topics.


Cory Holland has a PhD in linguistics from UC Davis and is currently teaching
ESL in the Academic English program at Colorado State University. Areas of
interest include phonetics, language variation and change – particularly in
vowel systems in the American west, second language acquisition and teaching
and the acquisition of socio-phonetic features by learners of a new language
and/or dialect.

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