On Watson's Critique of Truespel Book One

Tom Zurinskas truespel at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Apr 16 02:09:10 UTC 2009

Kevin Watson’s critique of Truespel Book One “Analysis of the Sounds (Phonemes) of USA English” 2004 can be read at http://tinyurl.com/cmea5m . Unfortunately, he fails to say what the book is really about.  He has some valid critiques on the references and the need for more explanation of various things.  What he didn’t discuss was the salient most interesting parts of the book.  Here is what could have been said about the first truespel book (there are now four).

1.  The front matter speaks of the National Reading Panel results which say that teaching English reading should include “phonemic awareness”.  To this end truespel is offered to standardize phoneme spelling in an English friendly way that is also computer friendly.  In fact truespel notation makes it possible to analyze English because of spreadsheet friendliness.  No other notation can do what truespel does.  Kevin does not mention this.

2.  A large part book’s analysis is a list of about 59k words consisting of about 17k root words with prefixes and suffixes.  The frequency ranking of phonemes is shown along with a count of the ways each phoneme is spelled.  This analysis is unique because there are no schwas in the phoneme inventory.  All schwas are spelled out in the truespel database as to various phonemes they are spoken in “talking” dictionaries used as the references to validate truespel phonetics.

3.  An analysis of the 40 phoneme count from the 59k list is given in percent and compared to two other phoneme counts.  One of them is a count of the phonemes in 10k most popular words of English and the other is a count of the phonemes of 60 popular words/phrases in 13 popular languages.  The differences show how word popularity can make a big difference in phoneme frequency.  Also a unique “leengwuprint” shows the difference between the frequency of English phonemes as compared to the combined frequency of the phonemes of 13 other languages.  The percentage difference of each language to English was measured.  Phonetic spelling of sounds foreign to English are shown.

4.  The spreadsheet accessibility of truespel allowed an analysis showing which phonemes are never juxtaposed next to other phonemes in spoken English.  A list is provided.

5.  A comparison between traditional spelling versus truespel or SAMPA is given showing that truespel is much more English friendly than SAMPA.

6.  The truespel database was used to count and rank what sounds are associated with various letter strings.  These letter strings were: “ai”, “c”, “gh”, “ei”, “ey”, “oa”, “ou”, “ph”, “rh”, “s”, “tch”, “ph”, “wh”, “x”, “eu”, and “ion.”

7.  A ranking is done of ending vowel sounds for words ending in vowels.

8.  A vowel proximity chart is made showing nearness of vowels to other vowels.

9.  A truespel training guide is in the appendix.

Some points.  Kevin defends the IPA as a phonetic notation.  I did not discuss the IPA.  It’s my assumption, given the fact that European nations convened to draw up SAMPA as a more computer friendly replacement of IPA, that IPA is now superceded by SAMPA.   If it’s not computer friendly, it’s useless.

The basic critique by Kevin of the book is this.  “It seems clear that although Truespel is based on a basically sound ‘ear for phonetics’, its lack of engagement with the disciplines of phonetics and phonology is a fundamental flaw.”  To me this shows academic bias.  The analyses in the book avoids going into any academic-type discussions.  It just analyzes of the 40 sounds of English.

Finally, Kevin says: “This lack of academic rigour means that the book is unlikely to be useful as a text in university phonetics and phonology courses. That said, I have had interesting and pedagogically beneficial discussions with my students about the points Zurinskas makes, in particular by asking them to engage with the material and make observations corroborated by phonetic and phonological theory. This was a surprisingly fruitful use of a book which otherwise falls short of achieving its aims.”

I am glad that there is “fruitful use” of my book.  It is a book that is outside academic presuppositions about English based on “theory”.  There is original data here possibly presented by type for the first time anywhere.  It is a serious reference book documenting the sounds of USA English today as it is spoken by talking dictionaries.  To criticize it based on compliance to “phonological theory” when the book does not address “phonological theory” is not right.

As far as I’m concerned, if someone should want a definitive count of the frequency of USA English phonemes for a large common data set of words including prefixes and suffixes, this document is not to be ignored.  And anyone who thinks that SAMPA or IPA is a better phonetic spelling of USA English than truespel is very mistaken.

Tom Zurinskas, USA - CT20, TN3, NJ33, FL5+
see truespel.com
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