I've decided to put the whole paper on this website, and you can find it here. It's not a good-quality reproduction, just a photographed copy, but it might be useful to someone.
It's a tradition of the IPA that its journal publishes "specimen" phonetic descriptions of different languages and accents. In 2004 it published my account of "British English: RP". The IPA recently gave permission for me to release the article's recording of an RP speaker for public use, and I put it in the Wikipedia article on Received pronunciation. It appears along with the transcriptions I made for the JIPA publication.
I've decided to put the whole paper on this website, and you can find it here. It's not a good-quality reproduction, just a photographed copy, but it might be useful to someone.
After posting the note here about the 'Conservative RP' article I left a very critical note on the Talk page of the WP article. Looking at it again just now, I find that someone has diligently gone through the offending article in the last few hours and done a thorough job of removing the mistakes. So unless you are prepared to track back through recent changes on WP, you'll have to take my word for it that the previous version was pretty dreadful!
[NOTE: A WIKIPEDIA EDITOR HAS NOW CORRECTED THE MAIN ERRORS NOTED BELOW, SO YOU WON'T NOW FIND THEM IF YOU LOOK AT THE ARTICLE]
I sometimes wonder what people who use the term mean when they talk about "Conservative RP". The word 'conservative' normally refers to an intention to preserve something from earlier times; in this sense, people who speak with an accent typical of an earlier generation rather than one of their own generation would be said to have a conservative accent. The late Brian Sewell was perhaps such a speaker. It’s possible to compare the accent of Jacob Rees-Mogg with that of near-contemporaries David Cameron and George Osborne and come to the conclusion that Rees-Mogg’s RP is more conservative than that of the other two. But when, for example, pronunciations recommended by Daniel Jones in his earlier works are referred to as conservative, all the word means is that he was describing the way RP was pronounced at the time. He himself was probably speaking with an accent that was no more conservative than that of his contemporaries from a similar background.
My reason for wondering about this is my having noticed recently that Wikipedia, as well as having a large article on Received Pronunciation, also has one on Conservative Received Pronunciation. The whole article appears to have been written recently by a single author, and contains no references except a link to the British Library’s page about RP, from which it has been inexpertly cobbled. Although many of the facts it presents as typical of old-fashioned RP are well-known it contains a load of elementary errors about phonemes, allophones and accents.
By way of introduction to the topic of Conservative Received Pronunciation (henceforth CRP) we are told that “Formerly the prestige model of pronunciation, it has declined in favour of other, less-conservative dialects, primarily Contemporary Received Pronunciation”. Speakers of CRP given as examples are members of the Royal Family, Sir Winston Churchill, Dame Vera Lynn and commentators of Pathé News and, prior to the 1960s, the BBC” (apparently the BBC stopped speaking with CRP at the end of the 1950’s). There is no mention of the fact that younger members of the Royal Family speak with an accent that is far from CRP; Dame Vera Lynn is undoubtedly old, but has never struck me as having a conservative RP accent (or, indeed, any sort of RP accent). It seems pretty clear from this list that this article is not really about conservative RP but the RP of earlier generations (now mostly dead). We are only given two examples of speakers of Contemporary RP, and these are David Cameron and Kate Maltby.
The characteristics of CRP are listed as “Phonological features”, but turn out to be almost entirely allophonic. The final vowel of ‘happy’ is said to be /ɪ/ in CRP, but “in Contemporary RP it is /i/, in common with most other accents (though not the accents of much of Northern England, which have /ɛ/ or /a/)”. Square brackets needed there, and I can’t think which Northern English accent has a final [a] in ‘happy’. The BED vowel is said to be /e/ in CRP and /ɛ/ in Contemporary RP. Rather unnecessarily, we are told that “The more open phoneme of Contemporary RP is demonstrated in the different realisation of Leicester and bed by speakers of the respective standards.” Next, the change of TRAP from /æ/ (Conservative) to /a/ (Contemporary) is wrongly described as a phonological change. More allophonic detail comes up in “The quality of the vowel in bird, nurse and curtain is realised as /ɐː/ by the most conservative speakers and /ɜː/ by the remaining speakers of Conservative RP. In Contemporary RP, /ɜː/ is the most common, with /əː/ also heard”.
It would take too long to list all the imperfections of this piece – read it for yourself and see what you think. Note ‘Boar’ being given as an example of CRP /ʊə/, and the strangely-worded observation that “Since the beginning of the 20th century … the /ʍ/ phoneme ceased to be a feature of Conservative RP, except by the most precise speakers who have learnt to differentiate” (my italics).
At the end we get two final bullet points, one of which tells us that Dame Vera has been heard to sing a /t/ in ‘Christmas’, while the other rambles off into some stuff about pronunciation of days of the week and spelling pronunciation.
I have a feeling that whoever penned this regrettable article is probably even now working on a companion piece on Contemporary RP. I do hope I’m wrong.
I complained recently about some of Wikipedia's sound recordings illustrating various IPA vowels and consonants on their IPA Help page. I've made a few new recordings which I'm offering to insert in place of the recordings that I think are inadequate, but I haven't yet published them. You can see them in the right-hand column of the Wikipedia table that I've copied into my "sandbox", along with various observations. The table is still missing the vowel [ɒ]; I have made a recording of it but not yet put it into the table.
The recording quality is not all that good, as I don't have very good equipment at home, and I feel rather rusty on IPA segments. Still, I do think some improvement is needed in the WP recordings. I'd be grateful for any suggestions for improvements, or offers of better recordings.
I got some very helpful comments on my post about the Basis of Articulation article in Wikipedia. I was rather worried that Basis of Articulation and Articulatory Setting might actually be separate concepts, and that they shouldn’t be lumped together in the same article. However, I have now expanded the article, and added a lot of references kindly supplied in the comments. I have also requested a redirect in Wikipedia so that anyone searching for Articulatory Setting is taken automatically to Basis of Articulation.
There’s a neglected little article in Wikipedia’s phonetics area called Basis of Articulation. It gives a very sketchy outline (referring only to a couple of articles written in German) of a topic that’s always struck me as interesting but elusive. For an old-school phonetician like me, the classic article is the one by Beatrice Honikman entitled ‘Articulatory Settings’ in In Honour of Daniel Jones, ed. David Abercrombie et al, 1964. (Honikman was for a long time a member of the Phonetics Department at the University of Leeds). The general idea is one which has a lot to offer the teacher of pronunciation, but is explained in rather difficult terms. The learner must acquire not only the vowels, consonants, stresses and pitches of the target language, but also acquire something much more complex (the articulatory setting) that relates to all the typical positions of lips, tongue, jaw etc that native speakers use. Evidence for the existence of such settings can be seen if you look at video of someone speaking a language that is foreign to you, with the sound turned off. Many English speakers reckon they can spot a French speaker through vision alone. Honikman suggests thinking of it in terms of having a “gear” for English, another for French, and so on depending on which language you are learning; in the classroom, when working on pronunciation, the first thing the learner must do is to think themselves into the right gear before starting on pronunciation exercises. For me, this seems intuitively right, but it’s almost impossible to think of a way in which we could study articulatory settings scientifically, and I feel it will for ever have to remain part of the traditional articulatory-auditory imitation-label phonetics repertoire.
Other people have written on or near this topic. For example, John Laver, in Principles of Phonetics (1994) postulates a neutral articulatory setting (pp 402-3) and goes on to set up a very detailed framework for describing all non-neutral articulatory settings, and on p. 424 acknowledges the relevance of Honikman’s work. Celce-Murcia et al (1996) Teaching Pronunciation have a section (pp 27-8) on Voice Quality which is clearly related, especially in respect of the supralaryngeal settings. In Cruttenden’s Gimson’s Pronunciation of English (2014) there is a short mention: “The articulatory setting of a language or dialect may differ from GB [General British]. So some languages like Spanish may have a tendency to hold the tongue more forward in the mouth, while others like Russian may have a tendency to hold it further back in the mouth. Nasalization may be characteristic of many speakers of American English, while denasal voice … is frequently said to occur in Liverpool" (p. 302). I remember that in the phonetic framework of Chomsky and Halle’s Sound Pattern of English (1968) some features are defined in terms of deviation from a hypothesized neutral position (unfortunately I can’t go into detail on this, as many years ago I lent my copy of this bizarre book to someone who never returned it). A similar account is seen in D. Odden’s Introducing Phonology (2005) “…some features are characterized in terms of the ‘neutral position’ which is a configuration that the vocal tract is assumed to have immediately prior to speaking. The neutral position, approximately that of the vowel [ɛ], defines relative movement of the tongue” (p 136). (Presumably we are to take this, as with Chomsky and Halle, as referring to English rather than to the world’s languages in general).
I would really like to breathe some life into this skeletal WP article, but I would like first to appeal for additional references or quotations that I could use, since I feel I may well be missing some interesting material in the literature. Please help!
Wikipedia encourages editors to use IPA symbols to give pronunciations of relevant words. One of the articles designed to help editors is Help: IPA. In this, a large selection of IPA vowels and consonants are listed in the form of a big table. Each symbol has a loudspeaker icon for you to click to hear a recording of the sound, and the symbol itself links to an appropriate article; you may be surprised to hear that WP has a separate article on just about every possible IPA segment. The layout of the items is a bit unfamiliar to phoneticians – since the page is aimed an non-phoneticians wanting to look up possible symbols, they appear under the letter of the alphabet that they resemble.
I’ve listened to all the items, and found fault with a number of them. Some are just slightly off what I think is the correct pronunciation, others seem a bit weird. I’ve made notes on each item and written them in the right-hand column of the table, then copied this to my personal space on WP (the so-called “sandbox”) which you can find here. If you’re interested, you can listen to the recordings and find if your opinion of the sound agrees with mine.
There is a Wikipedia article called ‘Pronunciation of English <th>’, and as you would expect it’s concerned with the phonemes /θ/ and /ð/. It actually covers much more than simple pronunciation, with quite a lot of information about the historical origins of these phonemes. As some WP editors have noted, the article is rather short of references. Unfortunately it also contains some dubious material that will need correcting.
The opening statement of the section General Description (opening statements are always a tricky moment) says “In standard English, the phonetic realization of the dental fricative phonemes shows less variation than for many other English consonants”. Leaving aside the grammar of this sentence, it makes a practically unverifiable claim – there is no scientific method that I know of for comparing how much variability there is in the realizations of a given consonant phoneme in comparison with those of other phonemes. In WP, if you make a sweeping claim like this, you are supposed to give a reference for it.
The article continues “Both [/θ/ and /ð/] are pronounced either interdentally, with the blade of the tongue resting against the lower part of the back of the upper teeth and the tip protruding slightly or alternatively with the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper teeth. The interdental position might also be described as "apico-" or "lamino-dental". This section has strong echoes of the discussion of /θ/ and /ð/ by Ladefoged and Maddieson in Sounds of the World’s Languages (pp 143-4), but seems to have misunderstood what they wrote. They (L&M) say that /θ/ and /ð/ may be articulated either with the tip of the tongue behind the upper front teeth or with the tongue-tip protruded between the upper and lower front teeth. They say that the latter (interdental) articulation must be laminal, whereas the articulation with the tongue touching the upper front teeth (dental) may be apical or laminal. (See their illustration below)
A bit lower down we get another dubious claim: “…/θ/ is more strongly aspirated than /ð/, as can be demonstrated by holding a hand a few centimeters in front of the mouth and noticing the differing force of the puff of air created by the articulatory process”. This is the old test for detecting aspiration of plosives (traditionally with the aid of a candle flame), and it doesn’t even work for those. There is no aspiration (as normally defined) of /θ/, and its airflow is weak.
In the Wikipedia Help page (Help:IPA for English) which serves to explain how WP uses its version of IPA symbols for representing pronunciations there is a large chart which at its bottom right-hand corner has a rather odd section. Superficially, the use of the dot ‘.’ to mark a syllable division is perfectly normal, and we use it in all polysyllabic words in the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary. WP gives an explanatory note which says
“Syllables are indicated sparingly, where necessary to avoid confusion, for example to break up sequences of vowels (Moai) or consonant clusters which an English speaker might misread as a digraph (Vancouveria, Windhoek).”
In other words, the dot helps the reader interpret the spelling in a way that avoids wrong interpretation of letter-sequences. The transcription of Moai is given a dot to indicate that there is a syllable division after ‘Mo’, and Windhoek has a dot apparently to stop the reader from interpreting ‘dh’ as a single consonant.
But these examples only show a need for a syllable division when the word is seen in its spelling form. As soon as one looks at the IPA symbols, the possibility of confusion disappears. When Moai is transcribed as /məʊaɪ/ the pronunciation (assuming it is being read by an English speaker) is quite predictable without the need for a dot. I can’t see how ‘Windhoek’ and ‘Vancouveria’, which are transcribed /ˈvɪnt.hʊk/ and /væn.kuːˈvɪəriə/ in this work, could be pronounced any differently if the dot were removed. The most puzzling is the example of Mikey/Myki, where the writer transcribes the former as /maɪki/ while the latter is given a syllable-boundary dot thus: /maɪ.kiː/. I can’t see what purpose the dot serves, as the boundary is bound to occur in the same place in both words.
NOTE: I have now changed the box marked 'Syllabification', and hope that this has made it better. I can't decide whether to go through WP now to eradicate redundant syllable-boundary dots where they have been put in.
I remember how difficult it was, when I was writing the IPA Specimen article on RP for publication in JIPA, to find a speaker who could be widely accepted as an authentic and contemporary RP speaker. Wikipedia has its own problems in this area: in WP's Received Pronunciation article, they chose to include a section titled 'Notable Speakers'. The contents of this section reads as follows:
John C. Wells, a notable British phonetician, has identified the following people as RP speakers:
The British Royal Family
David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
Rowan Williams, Former Archbishop of Canterbury
Chris Huhne, former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Notice anything unusual about this list? Yes, they are all male apart from some members of the Royal Family. Some Wikipedian has suggested on the Talk Page that some female names might be added to the list, but as usual it is very hard to come up with the names of speakers who would be recognized by a bona fide phonetician to be RP speakers. The comment on the Talk page reads 'I think the idea of having a list of Notable Speakers of RP is good, and it is essential that every person listed there is referenced. I am unhappy that all those listed are referenced to John Wells, particularly as all seven individuals listed are male. Do any women speak RP apart from members of the British Royal Family?'
A good question. Anyone who believes in RP is bound to answer 'yes'. But I bet you anything you like that nobody from the phonetics community will bother (or dare) to contribute any names, and will be happy to let this silly list stay as it is.
You probably know that I don't use the term RP in my own work, nor subscribe to its existence as a standard, so I am not a suitable person to propose candidates for the list!
A blog that discusses problems in Wikipedia's coverage of Phonetics
Emeritus Professor of Phonetics