LINGUIST List 6.462

Tue 28 Mar 1995

Disc: IPA

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  1. A. Stenzel, Re: 6.421 IPA
  2. , IPA

Message 1: Re: 6.421 IPA

Date: Fri, 24 Mar 1995 10:46:33 Re: 6.421 IPA
From: A. Stenzel <>
Subject: Re: 6.421 IPA

In his posting, David P. Branner asks:
) I asked in an earlier egram (Vol-6-199) why it would benefit me, as an
) active fieldworker, to have a completely revamped phonetic alphabet. I am
) still waiting for a plausible answer. I am happy with IPA most of the
) time, and when I'm not I innovate as necessary. A complete overhaul would
) be wrenching for me and probably leave me feeling extremely alientated.
) More likely, I would just go on using the IPA and Chinese IPA symbols I
) already use, and the dubious goal of a new, unified standard phonetic
) system would fail.
It springs to my mind that there are coding systems that somehow parallel the
development of phonetic alphabets: writing systems. In Western Europe, we are
used to use the same Latin alphabet, but on close inspection there is a lot
of variation: various languages are written with the help of quite
a few diacritics (Scandinavian lgs, Slavic lgs, German, Turkish, Spanish etc).
To my knowledge, a Latin-based alphabet has been developd for Japanese, but
it is not in widespread use. And Russians, Arabs, Iranians and many others
stick to their writing systems. This lets one ask: Why? And the answer is
quite close to Branner's stance concerning IPA: People are used to it, they
have (at least partially) adapted it to their specific needs, and it forms
a part of their culture.

Of course, IPA is a tool for the study and description of the sounds of human
languages, but the quest for the ideal writing systems appears to be endless.
So it appears quite natural that students of e.g. Chinese have their own codes,
people working on Amerindian languages another, and so on. As long as they com-
municate with each other, this is OK, and if they want to communicate to other
people, well: they just explain their set of symbols. Wouldn't a Grand Unified
Aplhabet be either clumsy or impoverished?

Just consider these thoughts as an outsiders, i.e. non-phoneticist,

Achim Stenzel
Universitaet Hamburg
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Message 2: IPA

Date: Sun, 26 Mar 1995 12:13:54 IPA
From: <>
Subject: IPA

Content-Length: 2512

I haven't been following this discussion as closely as I would like --
I have saved a number of the entries for 'later' reading (and of course,
later will come some summer evening after the academic year is over ...)

So, forgive me if I rehash old points ... the current problem I am
having with IPA is in teaching intro linguistics to novices. It
seems that no two books use exactly the same system. This is
messy for the teacher, who has to move between systems when she moves
between classrooms, but that is a minor problem compared to the
frustration the students experience when their history of the English
language class demands one system while their baby ling. class requires
another, and their Structure of English class yet another. Sometimes
the 'tense' vowels are diphthongs, sometimes not; sometimes sxhwa
 --schwa, that is -- appears only in unstressed syllables, sometimes not.
And all this after they are introduced to IPA as a system devised to
straightforwardly and consistently transcribe any language in the world!!

Most of these students are not ling. majors, so I don't see the point
in forcing them to come to understand the vagaries of the history of
transcription traditions in the USA and abroad, and of forcing them
to become competent in moving between the different systems.

It is difficult enough for them to learn a new spelling system for
English and to master this along with the many other new and complex
ideas that ling. courses present.

Maybe I seem soft on the students (the world is a messy place, after
all), but this variation in transcription really seems incidental to the
point of the courses I teach.

On another topic, I also find some of the transcription traditions just
plain inaccurate. Is there any standard dialect of English in which the
'tense' vowels are in fact pronounced as cardinal vowels plus glides??
My impression is that, for example, /i/ is something more like [I] with
[i] following, in numerous dialects, and what's more, my students usually
agree with me. Yet when test time comes, they have to follow the tradition
of transcribing the vowel of 'seed' as [iy] or [ij] or whatever, so that
we stick with the way that the book does it.

Does anyone share these concerns? Have you been proposing, among ideas
to reform the IPA, some attempt to arrive at a uniform system for use
in intro texts, especially where English is concerned?

Johanna Rubba
Assistant Professor
Department of English
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521-8299
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