LINGUIST List 12.2315

Wed Sep 19 2001

Review: Handbook of the IPA (2nd review)

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  1. Elgar-Paul MAGRO, Review: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association

Message 1: Review: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association

Date: Wed, 19 Sep 2001 11:18:44 -0700 (PDT)
From: Elgar-Paul MAGRO <>
Subject: Review: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association

Handbook of the International Phonetic Association : A
Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (1999)
Cambridge University Press, ix+204pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-65236-7,
$49.95; paperback ISBN 0-521-63571-1.

Elgar-Paul Magro, Paris III--Sorbonne Nouvelle University.

[A previous review of this book was posted at: --Eds.]

a. Purpose of the book
 As the title of the book suggests, this publication
of the International Phonetic Association is meant to be a
handbook and a guide, a readily available "user's manual"
for the International Phonetic Alphabet (henceforth IPA),
in world-wide use for more than a century for the
transcription of the sounds of languages.
 This publication is aimed at a very vast audience:
"The new 'Handbook' is intended to be a reference work not
only for language teachers and phoneticians interested in
the sounds of different languages, but also for speech
technologists, speech pathologists, theoretical
phonologists, and others" (p.vii). Moreover the breadth of
readership aimed at is not only horizontal, but also
vertical, ranging "from those who are experienced
phoneticians to those who know nothing about phonetics"
 However, one is to be careful in that this
"practically-oriented" 'Handbook', although the theory it
presents on phonetics is more thorough than that of the old
'Principles', does not self-allegedly attempt to do the job
of a phonetics textbook or a critique of the IPA. The
reader is otherwise warned to consult numerous phonetics
textbooks readily available on the market.
 Ultimately the purpose of the 'Handbook' is "not to
provide a comprehensive or balanced education in phonetics,
but to provide a concise summary of information needed for
getting to grips with the IPA" (p.viii).

b. Book's contents
 The 'Handbook' is divided into three parts. After a
foreword establishing and briefly discussing the
affiliation of the 'Handbook' to the old 'Principles',
comes a chart with the IPA symbols.
 Part I contains a forty-page-long introduction to the
IPA and to the phonetic principles underlying the alphabet.
It is subdivided into ten subsections which start with a
brief definition and statement of the aims of the IPA. The
second section, entitled 'Phonetic description and the IPA
chart', is a most interesting one as it presents, in the
light of phonetic principles, the different categories of
symbols used in the IPA chart, based mainly on the
consonant-vowel distinction and taking also into account
diacritics, suprasegmentals and other symbols. The
following subsection proceeds to exemplify the different
symbols with words taken from 51 different languages
belonging to some fifteen different language families.
Subsequent sections present the phonemic principle,
inherent to the IPA, the difference between broad and
narrow transcriptions, the possibility of the co-existence
of different transcriptions of the phonemes for any
particular language. Sections 7 and 8 hint at different
ways of working with the IPA (in handwriting, in print, on
computers, with Braille) and even going beyond it
(especially for the description of paralinguistic phenomena
linked to fields such as speech pathology and language
acquisition among others). Section 9 raises some
problematic issues, namely the difficulties encountered in
segmentation and transcription. Finally Section 10 insists
on the link between the IPA and the phonological theory and
serves as a conclusion to this very theoretical Part 1.
 Then follows a much longer (116 pages), more
practical Part 2 containing twenty-nine illustrations of
the International Phonetic Alphabet. These illustrations
have already been published by the International Phonetic
Association in its Journal from 1989 to 1997. Each contains
a phonetic and phonological description of the sounds of
the language it illustrates and is based on the
transcription of the fable 'The North Wind and the Sun',
with the exception of the illustration of Taba which uses a
different text.
 Part 3, forty-eight pages long, is a rather
heterogeneous section made up of a series of five
appendices. Whereas the first appendix presents the current
formulation of the principles of the International Phonetic
Association as approved at the 1989 Convention of the
Association held at Kiel, Appendices 2 and 3 deal with the
computer coding of IPA symbols and with extensions to the
IPA respectively. The fourth appendix gives general
information about the Association, ranging from an outline
of its history to links how to find more about its
activities. The book closes with a final appendix
consisting of larger-scale versions of the IPA chart.

 This book is the long-awaited sequel to the
'Principles' of the International Phonetic Association,
which contained the theoretical background underlying the
IPA. First published in 1900, the 'Principles' have been
out of print for a very long time, thus becoming very hard
to lay one's hands on. Not only are they out of stock but
few libraries have them in their collection. For instance,
a personal research indicated that in the Parisian region
only one University library, that of Paris XIII University
at Villetanneuse, contains an old copy of them. Moreover,
having last been revised way back in 1949, the 'Principles'
inevitably needed a modern, updated version taking into
consideration the evolution of the principles of the
International Phonetic Association themselves as well as
the current symbols and uses of the IPA.

Part One
 As previously mentioned, the first Part of the
'Handbook' contains the phonetic theory underlying the IPA
as well as a first exemplification of the use of the
phonetic symbols. True to the Handbook's objectives as
stated in the Foreword, a manual in phonetics would be a
very good companion to this introduction to phonetic
description included in this first part of the Handbook.
Indeed, the authors here limit themselves to describing the
phonetic theory necessary to justify and explain the
choices behind the IPA symbols and to throw enough light to
the understanding of their use.
 Indeed, section 2 of this Part is a very successful,
though concise, introduction to the basic distinction
between the different symbols presented earlier in the IPA
chart, namely distinction between consonants and vowels,
then between pulmonic and non-pulmonic consonants, finally
between segmentals and suprasegmentals. The other
fundamental distinction between sound and phoneme, the
phonemic principle, very close to the heart of the
International Phonetic Association, is explained soon
later, in section 4. Here the reader is made to understand
that the IPA is the perfect tool for handling both
transcriptions (phonetic and phonemic), and the difference
between broad phonemic and narrow phonetic transcriptions
is further explained in a later section. Very useful is
section 3 for it exemplifies the different IPA symbols
through words taken from a wide variety of languages.
 Also useful is the way the author proceeds to
initiate the readers to different problems they might
encounter while using the IPA, namely meeting different IPA
symbols in the transcription of certain language sounds as
well as problems of segmentation. Likewise, the reader is
made aware of the extensions of the use of IPA, going from
usage in handwriting to print and computers, as well as
adaptation to Braille. Links to the Appendices containing
the computer symbols are timely included here. All this is
done in a very clear pedagogical style, fit for both the
learned and the inexperienced reader.
 A couple of improvements could be suggested,
especially on the typographical level. For instance, in
section 3.1 ('Exemplification of the symbols'), the
classification of the different symbols would have been
more striking if there were bold headings for the large
categories (consonants; vowels; other symbols;
suprasegmentals; diacritics) and typologically different
subheadings for each, where appropriate. No main heading
for consonants exists, no subheading for pulmonic
consonants either; all headings, main or secondary, look
the same so that there is no distinction between let's say
the category of plosives (itself a sub-category of pulmonic
consonants) and the category of vowels. Moreover, in the
category of suprasegmentals, some subdivision would only
have made the explanation clearer (stress and length,
boundaries, tone). Finally whereas it is clearly pointed
out that the two alternative systems of tone transcriptions
in IPA "are usually used in two different ways" (p.23), the
difference in use is not made sufficiently clear through
the examples provided, at least to the inexperienced
reader. Explanation of prosodic features such as
fundamental frequency are a bit scarce.

Part Two
 The language families represented here are less
diverse than those represented in Section 3 of Part One.
The most represented one is, understandably, that of Indo-
European languages (16 out of 29), then comes the Afro-
Asiatic one (with 4 languages illustrated), followed by two
Austronesian languages (Taba and Tukang Besi). Sino-
Tibetan, Niger-Congo, Japanese, Altaic, Tai-Kadai, Korean
and Uralic are the other language families represented,
each illustrated by just one language. One cannot fail to
regret the limited number of languages illustrated as
compared to the 'Principles' that contain around fifty
illustrations or specimens. Languages like Italian and
Spanish are unfortunately lacking among the Indo-European
languages and more language families could have been
illustrated, including Amerindian, Australian Aborigene,
and Caucasian. Yet one has to appreciate the fact that in
the 'Handbook' the illustrations are not just limited to
the IPA transcription of a common text, but each presents
the chart of IPA symbols representing the phonemes of the
respective language as well as several phonetic and
phonological comments on these sounds.
 Here again the style is more or less constant in
spite of the different linguists who have authored the
different illustrations. Each illustration is divided into
basically the main subsections, namely an introduction, the
IPA chart presenting the phonemes of the language
described, a section on consonants, another one on vowels,
another one still on stress and prosody, then a section on
conventions, followed by an IPA transcription and an
orthographic version of the recorded passage.
 However one can regret the lack of further co-
ordination between the authors. Let's take a closer look at
the different subsections of each illustration. The
introduction does not always contain the same kind of
information. Very few contain details about all of the
following: a) the language itself (language family, number
of speakers, geographical distribution, position of the
language in the linguistic background of the country where
applicable, etc.); b) the dialect situation (dialect
chosen, other dialects and their geographical / social
status, main differences between dialects); c) the speaker
(or speakers) on whose recordings the illustration is based
(age, sex, geographical and social context); d) the style
of speech, almost always a standard colloquial one. Many
of the above details are often scattered in other
subsections and sometimes even omitted. Indeed, for some
languages such as German, French, Igbo and Farsi two or
three lines of introduction is all the information the
reader gets. Others however including Dutch, Irish and
Hebrew tend to be more exhaustive. Moreover, some choose
different speakers, others only choose one; most choose
young educated speakers, some base their analysis on much
older representatives of the language.
 A constant in the consonant and vowel sections is the
presentation of an IPA chart together with a list of key-
words exemplifying the different phonemes, including
versions of the key-words transcribed in IPA,
orthographically and then translated into English. The
orthographic version of the words, though, is often
omitted. Moreover, one notices that, however trivial this
might seem, a minority of illustrations prefer starting
their presentation of phonemes with the vowel section
rather than the consonant section. Some illustrations
present a couple of extra sections, entitled for instance
Vowel Length or Geminates, which could have easily been
regrouped under the more general sections of Vowels and
Consonants instead of being presented as sections in their
own right.
 Then follows a section entitled in many different
ways depending on the author(s) of the illustrations. The
most common name used for this section is 'Stress' for it
contains general information about the stress and accent of
the language. Some illustrations give more ample details
about the prosodic properties of the language, describing
the different intonational patterns of the language. The
illustration of Portuguese is particularly detailed in this
section which it entitles 'Prosody', subdividing it into
three parts namely 'Lexical stress', 'Rhythm, vowel
reduction and devoicing' and 'Intonation'. However other
illustrations, such as that of French, entitle this section
'Prosody' even if they only give a very short, one-sentence
description about lexical stress. Further homogeneity
between the different illustrations would have been
desirable in this respect.
 The following section on conventions, which is
supposed to give the manual user information about the
phonetic realisation of the phonemes of a language, is not
presented in the same rigorous way throughout the whole of
Part 2. If many illustrations, such as those of American
English and Japanese, make a clear-cut distinction between
the phonological sections (on consonants and vowels) and
the phonetic one (conventions), others tend to present
overlapping sections. Sometimes information about
conventions is included in the previous sections such that
quite a handful of illustrations, including those of
French, Dutch, Irish, Hausa and Slovene, omit completely
the Conventions section. Moreover the illustrations differ
in the amount of detail given about the phonetic
realisations of the sounds of the language presented,
ranging from a couple of lines to a whole page in length.
One obviously has to make concessions wherever this happens
to be due to insufficient linguistic exploration to date.
 As regards the IPA transcription, the first
illustration, that of American English, contains a very
full, thus promising section, presenting two different
transcriptions, one broad phonemic and the other narrow
phonetic, thus illustrating very clearly the theoretical
part on transcriptions of Part 1 of the Handbook.
Unluckily, all the other illustrations, with the sole
exception of Korean, present only one IPA transcription,
often without even specifying whether it is a broad or a
narrow one. A word of praise goes for the languages which
present other transcriptions besides the one in IPA, thus
giving a truthful account of their own linguistic
traditions. The same holds for languages not using the
Roman alphabet and presenting more than one orthographic
version of the recorded passage, one in the alphabet
currently used, the other transliterated in the Roman
alphabet. Finally, references are appreciated whenever they
are provided at the end of the illustration, and the reader
would have surely wished to find references systematically
for all the languages or varieties of languages illustrated
in this Part.
 One finds it hard to understand the omission of the
electronic addresses of the different authors, especially
considering the otherwise modern, multimedia-oriented
nature of this handbook.
 All in all, the illustrations do keep to the same
model in a wide, loose sense but it is a pity that that
they do not conform to it to a further extent. Even though
one might object that this helps prevent the reader from a
certain monotonous rigour of style whilst leaving the
authors in partial liberty, further co-ordination between
the authors of the different illustrations would have
ensured a smoother, neater, more coherent and better
structured result, suitable for a handbook of this calibre.
Nonetheless, considering the number of languages
illustrated and the number of authors involved, one can
understand if not justify this unfortunate lack of symmetry
which, one must admit, does not interfere with the ultimate
scope of this part about illustrations.

Part Three
 Very pleasantly useful and modern is the third and
last part of the Handbook, with its five appendices
described above.
 The computer coding of IPA symbols found in Appendix
2 is something which will surely help out numerous users of
the IPA. Besides, the listing of symbols used in phonetics
is pretty exhaustive as it includes not only symbols of the
IPA but also others not recommended by the International
Phonetic Association but still possible to encounter.
Moreover, the listing clearly points out which of the
symbols are not, or no longer, in IPA usage. Furthermore,
each symbol is accompanied by a convenient and systematic
name, something which any user of the IPA will find handy.
 The ExtIPA chart included in Appendix 3, likewise
including the symbol name, the phonetic symbol, phonetic
description and IPA number, is sure to be of interest to
all those dealing with the transcription of disordered
 Appendix 4 is of deep interest to a very wide range
of readers. It goes from a brief history of the
International Phonetic Association, way back to 1886 when
it was founded in Paris under the name of "Dhi Fon�tik
T�cerz' As�ci�con", to the most recent developments of its
Alphabet. It includes the statutes and by-laws of the
Association. Particularly useful and intelligent of all is
the last section presenting Internet links how to find out
more about the Association. I include in this review two links
which may yet be unknown to some of LinguistList's readers:
 a) the official IPA website:
The site is really worth paying a visit. It includes recordings
of the sounds of the IPA, downloadable audio files
complementing the Handbook reviewed here, sample papers
of the IPA Certificate Examination in English Phonetics
as well as a direct link to join the Association.
 b) the monthly foNETiks Electronic Newsletter which can be
easily joined by sending an e-mail to:

Pedagogical clarity
 One of this handbook's achievements is undoubtedly
its clarity of style and the attention that has been made
on a pedagogical base. This surely reflects the traditional
pedagogical orientation of the Association which initially
devised a phonetic alphabet in order to simplify the
teaching of foreign languages. Indeed, the breadth of the
audience the manual is aimed at demanded a style not easy
to find let alone maintain: one that would be neither too
basic for the learned nor too obscure for the beginner.
This is constant throughout the book, with the exception of
a couple of instances when specialised terms are used
without explanation or previous introduction.
 Another way the authors show their preoccupation with
pedagogy and with making their publication a true handbook,
is the presentation of the IPA charts. In fact, the book
opens and closes with reference IPA charts. The larger-
scale versions of the IPA chart placed at the end of the
Handbook, including the corresponding IPA computer numbers,
are "divided into sections for ease of reference (p.200)".
The authors point out that these charts "may be copied and
used while consulting parts 1 and 2 of the Handbook, or
enlarged for teaching purposes" (ibid.), thus renewing the
original teaching orientation of the Association while
making out of their handbook an indispensable reference for
all users of the IPA.

Concluding remarks
 All in all, one can conclude by saying that the
'Handbook' achieves its aims to be an indispensable
reference in the use of IPA, a very good manual for speech
clinicians, language teachers, phoneticians and researchers
in phonetics and linguistics alike. Though it does not
replace the use of phonetic manuals, it comes in very handy
for users of the IPA. Finally, in spite of certain lacunae
in the putting together of the 29 illustrations, this
remains a highly structured, clear and coherent Handbook it
is in the interest of all linguistic libraries, private or
public, to have.

Elgar-Paul Magro is a second-year Ph.D. student in
linguistics at the University of the Sorbonne Nouvelle,
Paris. His subject of research is the syntax of the oral
language and he has been carrying out experimental studies
on the intonational and gestural properties of connected
spontaneous speech in French and Maltese. Besides his
doctoral research, he has been tutoring first-year BA
students in linguistics at the Sorbonne, and is also
currently working as a visiting lecturer at different
universities (Paris, Le Mans and Malta), where he will be
giving a number of credits in French linguistics. His aim,
upon achievement of his doctorate, is to become a
proficient devoted lecturer of French but above all he
seeks to become a fully-fledged linguist involved in
research on the international scene.
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