Listening to some of the vowels recorded for Wikipedia and published in some of the articles referred to in the previous posting brings up a problem. Since I got into the world of practical phonetics in the 1960’s I have usually believed that the trained phonetician has a privileged position in making claims about the quality of speech sounds and in comparing one sound with another. It is striking that the WP article on Cardinal vowels makes no mention of the process by which someone learns, and learns to make use of, these vowels, yet to phoneticians of my generation the intensive training in recognizing and in making these vowels is absolutely essential. Likewise, only intensive practical training in production and recognition has been thought to qualify one to make proper use of the IPA Chart. I have always believed that practical phonetic training is a useful thing to do (if horrendously expensive in terms of teaching hours – it has to be done in small groups or even one-to-one), but when I read material about vowels and consonants written by enthusiastic amateurs who may never have received any sort of practical training I am forced to examine what it is that we trained phoneticians can claim to have which others do not have. There is a mystique surrounding Cardinal Vowels, in particular, which is vaguely redolent of a sacred rite – the only true initiates are those who have been trained by Daniel Jones, or by one of his pupils or colleagues, or (these days) by one of his pupils’ pupils’ pupils. There has to be a laying-on of hands to pass the expertise down from teacher to pupil, preferably not too far from London WC1. I used to believe that the very best practical phoneticians could reliably distinguish and produce hundreds of different vowel qualities, but my faith was put to the test when I read Peter Ladefoged’s experimental work on vowels, published in the 1950’s and 1960’s – and one study in particular. For those who don’t know it, his study of how trained phoneticians coped with the vowels of a dialect of Scots Gaelic seems to me to be crucially important: he asked eighteen phoneticians to listen to a recording of ten words spoken by a native speaker of Gaelic and to place the vowels on a cardinal vowel quadrilateral. He then studied the degree of agreement or disagreement among the phoneticians. Although Ladefoged himself draw attention to the fact that the phoneticians trained in the British tradition were closer to each other in their judgments than were those who had not had this training, what I take from the study is the great divergence of judgments among all the listeners in the case of vowels that were distant from Cardinal values. (The best place to read about this is in PL’s Three Areas of Experimental Phonetics, OUP, 1967, Section 6, pp. 132-142 – see especially Figure 47 on p. 135). My scepticism was added to when I was teaching in the Linguistics and Phonetics Department at Leeds University. We held, for a while, regular meetings of the staff who taught practical phonetics, a good-sized gathering of very experienced phonetics teachers, to check that we were all making consistent sounds and judgments. The lack of agreement among the teachers was, to me at least, disturbing.
The Wikipedia vowel chart in IPA vowel chart with audio implies that we can recognize/produce at least thirty-five distinct vowels. As you can imagine, I feel pretty sceptical about this, and the recordings don’t reassure me. I would like to be able to claim that I can contribute some expertise to this work, but I find it very hard to find evidence that I could use to convince someone who has no previous contact with the world of the IPA. I can’t find anything in the Principles of the IPA that sets out the value of practical phonetic training, and in fact, in trying to write a short article on that subject for WP, I have found it very hard to turn up any published work that addresses the issue. There are practical guides for use in phonetic training, certainly – books such as Wells and Colson’s Practical Phonetics, Catford’s Introduction to Practical Phonetics or Pat Ashby’s Speech Sounds, as well as a lot of free material on the internet, but these do not give much in the way of explanation of the nature of phonetic training and its uses. Am I overlooking some work that does this? Did Jones, or Sweet. or some other influential figure, set out principles for the training of phoneticians?
It would be nice if the IPA would make freely available on the internet an authorized set of Cardinal Vowels and audio demonstrations of all the consonants and tones that appear on the IPA Chart. That would make a great impression on the many people who currently get their phonetic expertise from Wikipedia. Somehow, I don’t see it happening.