I was very sorry to hear of the recent death of Professor Erik Fudge. He was a pleasant and good-natured colleague at Reading University, and in fact I knew him earlier in the days when he was at Hull University and I was at Leeds. I am a great admirer of his work on phonology, particularly “Syllables” in Journal of Linguistics, 5, 1969, and his well-known book English Word Stress. This is a sad loss.
[Note: I have now rewritten the Wikipedia article described below]
Phonetics is traditionally said to have three principal branches: Acoustic, Articulatory and Auditory. Wikipedia has, appropriately, articles on Acoustic phonetics, Articulatory phonetics and Auditory phonetics. I have always felt that of these three, Auditory gets the least attention and may be regarded as something of a Cinderella. If you look at each of the three articles, you will probably find, as I do, some serious weaknesses, but the Auditory one is by far the most unsatisfactory. It consists largely of some sketchy definitions and some rather dubious history.
I think I will spend my remaining lockdown time revising the “Three A’s” articles one by one, starting with Auditory. Any suggestions gratefully received.
A recent edit of the Wikipedia article on Received Pronunciation added in as an alternative name "The Queen's/King's English". This has been removed by another editor on the grounds that no reference was given to establish that this term is really an alternative to "Received Pronunciation". I suspect that this may lead to a lengthy argument, but to me it is beyond question that the "Queen's/King's English" name refers to a set of grammatical, lexical and phonological characteristics of one variety of English, while "Received Pronunciation" is only concerned with phonetic and phonological characteristics of the standard accent.
(Sept 26th) I am not surprised to see that the person who added the term "The Queen!s/King's English" has put it back in, with a reference. Not surprisingly, the reference is to the British Library web article that seems to have become the default reference on the subject of RP (apart from the Wikipdia article) and this is one of a number of ways in which the BL article seems to me unsatisfactory. I still believe that it is incorrect to say that the term "The Queen's/King's English" is an alternative name for RP.
In Wikipedia's article on Received Pronunciation (a topic in which I keep finding things to grumble about) there is a section called Usage. It ends with a sentence that is pretty dubious but which raises an interesting question. The sentence reads "Most British voices in apps like Siri and Google Assistant speak RP, and most TV and radio stations across the UK use this accent." The second part of the sentence is clearly nonsense - across TV and radio broadcasting as a whole, the amount of speaking with an RP accent is extremely small. The first part of the sentence is given with no supporting citation, something which normally isn't approved of in Wikipedia.
I will remove the incorrect statement about TV and radio pronunciation, [NOW DONE} but if anyone knows of any respectable study of the choice of accent built into digital assistants I would be very glad to hear of it. I imagine the choice of voices for car SatNav systems would be a similar case.
[I HAVE NOW MADE THE CHANGES SUGGESTED HERE AND ON THE WIKIPEDIA TALK PAGE, AND HOPE THEY ARE AN IMPROVEMENT]
I last wrote in this blog on the subject of Wikipedia’s presentation of “Conservative RP” way back in 2016, when I was objecting to a poorly-written article dedicated to the subject. You can read what I wrote here. Some of the errors and unsubstantiated claims in that article were modified by an editor, and at some point a slightly reduced version was shoe-horned into the Wikipedia article on Received Pronunciation, and the offending article itself was deleted. You can read the current piece here.
Looking at it again I still feel that this is an unacceptable piece of work, so although I find the subject of RP rather boring, I am reluctantly starting to revise the material. The first objection I have is that the whole idea of “Conservative RP” is muddled. Its description implies that this is a present-day accent used or adopted by some British speakers (principally older and higher-class speakers), alongside other present-day accents of English; much of what is presented, however, is simply an account of the phonetics of RP of fifty to a hundred years ago. If speakers on the BBC used "Conservative RP" up to 1960, that is because they were speaking with the RP accent of sixty years ago, not because they had a distinctively conservative accent at the time. The material mixes up diachronic (historical) with synchronic (present-day) analysis; this article has a section on Historical variation, and it is there that “Conservative RP” belongs.
Section 5 of the Wikipedia piece is almost entirely based on a much-cited but superficial web article on the British Library’s “British Accents and Dialects” site. The examples given in the BL article are based on a single speaker who was born in 1909. The lead in the WP material contrasts Conservative RP with “Contemporary RP”, and claims that the Oxford English Dictionary’s pronunciations were based on Conservative RP for its first two editions, but on Contemporary RP for its third edition. No reference is given for this. We are given two alternative names for Conservative RP: Traditional RP and Upper RP. Section 1.1 of the same WP article goes through half a dozen other names for RP, and Section 1.2 lists sub-varieties. If the terms “Traditional” and “Upper” belong anywhere, it is there (but references for their use are not given).
We are then given an unordered list of “phonological features” of Conservative RP that distinguish it from Contemporary. I have pointed out before that most of the “features” are phonetic, not phonological. The most important point to make here is that there is a great deal of overlap between this list and the list given in Section 4.3 (Historical variation), and this overlap must be confusing to readers.
Finally, Sections 1.1 and 1.2 could be better organized. What I propose to do is to move anything useful from Section 5 into Section 4.3 and then remove Section 5.
I recently posted about the official photograph of all the participants at the 1989 Kiel Convention of the International Phonetic Association. I am glad to say that, with the help of Professor Klaus Kohler, the IPA will now host the picture, together with the names of the people in the picture, on its own website.
[NOTE: I have now made a lot of changes to the sections mentioned below, so you will find the text different from what is referred to in this post.]
I have been re-reading Wikipedia's article on Phonetic transcription. It's a huge subject, and the article does a reasonable job of covering the basics, but I have some problems with the sections “Versus orthography”, “Narrow versus broad transcription” and “Types of notational systems”. I'll be going through these one by one, so here I'll just comment on the first one.
I believe there are a couple of oversimplifications in “Versus orthography”. The statement “Other languages, such as Spanish and Italian have a more consistent (but still imperfect) relationship between orthography and pronunciation (phonemic orthography)” implies that no language has an orthography that is genuinely "phonemic", but the Wikipedia article Phonemic orthography states that “That ideal situation is rare but exists in a few languages”. There is another oversimplification in the statement “phonetic transcription can provide a function that the orthography cannot. It displays a one-to-one relationship between symbols and sounds, unlike traditional writing systems”. But phonetic transcriptions of a single utterance may identify different numbers of sounds: Lodge (2009, pp. 67-8) shows five different phonetic transcriptions of the word ‘cab’, some of which contain a symbol for the aspiration component of the initial /k/ and others a symbol for the final release of /b/. Laver (1994, p. 558) gives an illustration of successive efforts at transcription of a Czech utterance by a transcriber who was an expert in phonetics but not a speaker of Czech. Three transcriptions of the word [prɒstʃi] (“simpler”) have different numbers of symbols. This shows that the principle of one-to-one correspondence between a phonetic symbol and a single sound is not strictly true in practice: what we identify as “a sound” is often arbitrary. The other part of this claim, that orthography is not able to offer a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds, is shown to be incorrect by the statement quoted above from the phonemic orthography article. I hope to modify this section to take account of these points.
I heard recently from a former pupil of the UCL phonetician J D O'Connor (known to all as Doc), and this prompted me to look at what Wikipedia has to say about him in this article. In summary, there is very little. The main sentence is the following: "Joseph Desmond O'Connor (10 December 1919 – 15 July 1998) was a British linguist and Chair of Phonetics at University College London". To me, the phrase "Chair of phonetics" doesn't seem right. His title was "Professor of Phonetics". I imagine the "Chair" term is American. I wonder if I should correct the title, or if this would seem merely picky?
Although such subjective thoughts aren't suitable for Wikipedia, I think it's worth noting here that he was a much-loved and influential figure in the world of twentieth-century British phonetics. It was good that he had a festschrift (edited by Jack Windsor Lewis) dedicated to him. I feel privileged to have been taught by him, and I know I learned a lot from his books and papers. It would be nice if someone would expand this article to say more about him.
[UPDATE: I have now change "Chair" to "Professor"]
This is not really about phonetics, for a change. I have just been doing a bit of editing of the article on F R Palmer, for the sad reason that he died recently at the age of 97. Frank Palmer was a remarkable scholar, and was the founding father of the Linguistic Science Department at the University of Reading. I owe him a great debt of gratitude, as he gave me my first job as a Lecturer in Phonetics in 1968. He even went further and acted as my PhD supervisor! The department was an amazing place to work in the 1960's and 70's; Frank and his colleagues had built up a formidable international reputation, and many famous linguists visited the department.
When I looked up the Wikipedia article on him to check if anyone had noted Frank's death, I discovered that the article was badly written, factually inaccurate in places and generally inadequate as a portrayal of a great scholar. I have corrected the worst of the faults, but I hope that someone better qualified than me to summarize his career will step in and write something better.
UPDATE : Although I amended the Wikipedia article to include Frank Palmer's death, that edit has been deleted by a Wikipedia editor. Apparently it's necessary to quote a published source if you add information of this sort.
The topic of nasality has come up on the Facebook page of Pronunciation Best Practice. A question asked there by Daniel Schulte made me check on what Wikipedia has to say on the topic, and this has raised some other issues concerning the WP material.
Here's the original question:
I've got a question about nasality (not only the m n ing sounds)
as far as I know: The air from the lung can flow through your mouth and nose ok. when the air flows a lot through your nose the voice sounds nasal. but why does a blocked nose (a cold or pressing the nose together with your fingers) lead to a nasal voice when its actually causing that the air is only flowing through your mouth?
also: is the fact that some accents (standard general american compared to standard southern british, or portuguese compared to spanish) sound more nasal, a direct consequence of the exact tongue/lips/jaw configuration within the vowel chart or is that a separate, independent aspect? thanks.
The first response posted to this question was from Anthony Lauder:
Before you can release air through your nose you have to first build up air pressure in the nose. The more "blocked" the nose, the more pressure you can build, and the more "nasal" the sound will be. When you have a cold, then, it blocks the nose and helps create that air pressure leading to nasal sounds.
This was followed by a contribution from Petr Roesel.
When you block your nose, the velum usually hangs down, i.e. the nose as a resonator is added to the oral cavity. This enhances certain frequency bands, which cause the impression of nasality
The comment I added to this Facebook discussion was this:
In answer to Daniel Schulte, it's a fallacy that a blocked nose leads to a "nasal voice". Read the Wikipedia article on Nasalization, and note "Denasalization". See also the WP article on Hypernasal speech. If American or Portuguese speech sounds more nasalised, that must be because the speech contains more nasalised vowels (phonemes or allophones) than the accents you are comparing them with. Nothing to do with tongue/lips/jaw configurations. In answer to Anthony Lauder, I'm afraid you've got it completely wrong. It's nothing to do with pressure, and if anything the more blocked the nose is, the LESS nasalised the sound will be. And Petr Roesel, please can you tell me where you got the evidence that the velum is lowered when the nose is blocked?
So far, nobody else has joined in the discussion. Since I recommended reading relevant bits of Wikipedia on the subject, I thought I ought to check on what there is. There's a good article on Nasal vowel and another on Nasal consonant (though editors have flagged problems with references in this latter article). In addition there is an article on Nasalization, which contains quite a lot of information relevant to the question, and contains a brief section on Denasalization, with a link to a separate article on this topic. The article on Denasalization contains a few questionable points. It states "When one speaks with a cold, the nasal passages still function as a resonant cavity so a denasalized nasal [m͊] does not sound like a voiced oral stop [b], and a denasalized vowel [a͊] does not sound like an oral vowel [a]." It seems to me that the nasal passages are only likely to function as a resonant cavity if the soft palate (velum) is lowered, as would be the case in the two examples given. When the soft palate is raised, it seems to me that the nasal cavity must be effectively sealed off from the vocal tract, hence my query to Petr Roesel.
The other worrying thing in the Denasalization article is the statement that "[Denasalization] ... occurs when the sinuses are blocked from a common cold, when it is called a nasal voice". The article adds the caution that this "is not a linguistic term". It turns out there is a Wikipedia article on Nasal voice, and I must say I don't feel very happy about it from the phonetic point of view. The lead section says "A nasal voice is a type of speaking voice characterized by speech with a 'nasal' quality", and a comment has been added on the Talk page of this article, correctly pointing out that this "definition" is "self-referential and therefore not helpful". A WP editor has added a [clarification needed] note. The lead continues "It can also occur naturally because of genetic variation.", which seems to me meaningless as it stands. The article then states that the term Nasal voice may be used to refer both to hyponasal and to hypernasal speech (i.e. speech with too little nasality or too much), thus referring to two opposite entities. This view would, if correct, support the implication in the original question by Daniel Schulte that a blocked nose (causing hyponasality) would lead to "nasal voice", but there seems little or no justification for using the term "nasal voice" in this way. The article's citations to justify the use of the term are two: one is a brief note in the website of an American speech therapy clinic, which talks about Nasal sounding voice and warns that "Nasal voice is an incorrect term as the voice itself is normal". The other citation is of a short section of a textbook called Basic Clinical Radiobiology , and the article seems to be largely based on this work. I need to do some more reading about this topic in the speech pathology literature, to see how widely used the term nasal voice is there, but my current feeling is that from the phonetic point of view the article is of doubtful value.
A blog that discusses problems in Wikipedia's coverage of Phonetics
Emeritus Professor of Phonetics,