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Query Details

Query Subject:   American pronunciation
Author:   Larry Trask
Submitter Email:  click here to access email

Query:   This is a question about the transcription of American English

I am currently serving as a consultant to the next (third) edition of
the Oxford English Dictionary (OED 3). Pronunciation is not part of
my brief, but an issue has arisen in the representation of American

Unlike its predecessors, OED 3 plans to provide both standard British
pronunciation (RP) and General American pronunciation, where these
differ. Fine. Now, even though both transcriptions are to be
presented within phoneme slashes, the transcriptions given are no
meant to be phonemic, but rather some kind of compromise between
phonemic and phonetic transcription. Fine up to a point, I guess.

But now comes the problem. The editors have decided to represent the
familiar American "tapped /t/" (US "flapped /t/") by the symbol /d/.
So, for example, the word 'atom' will be transcribed /'aed@m/ ('@' =
schwa), just like 'Adam'. This surprises me.

I have queried the decision, but I have been told that the
dictionary's policy is to keep diacritics and special symbols to a
minimum, and so, in order to represent the tapped /t/, the dictionary
will use /d/, instead of the phonetically accurate IPA fishhook
symbol, or instead of /t/ plus a voicing diacritic, as found for
example in John Wells's pronouncing dictionary. The thinking behind
this is that the voicing of the /t/ in this position is more salien
than its tapped nature.

Now, I am unhappy with this. I'm American myself, and, like probably
all Americans, I pronounce 'atom' and all other such words neither
with phonemic /d/ nor with phonetic [d]. As far as I'm concerned,
'atom' has phonemic /t/, and its phonetic nature as a (typically
voiced) tap is merely a predictable allophonic fact about /t/.
Accordingly, transcribing 'atom' as /'aed@m/ is unacceptable to me --
in spite of the fact that 'atom' is phonetically homophonous with
'Adam' in my casual speech (though certainly not in my careful
speech). However, the editors assure me that "most American readers
will feel the essential rightness of such a phonetic transcription".

Are the editors right? Given the admitted limitations of the
transcription system available to the dictionary, is it true tha
Americans will generally prefer /d/ to /t/ to represent the tapped /t/
in words like 'atom'?

One final point. I have a version of Canadian Raising, and, in my
accent, 'writer' and 'rider' are not homophonous at all, even though I
pronounce both with taps, because the two diphthongs are very
different in quality. But I haven't yet seen any relevant entries,
and so I don't know what the dictionary's policy will be with these.

If you have a view on this, please reply privately to me, and I'll
post a summary of responses to the list.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

Tel: (01273)-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad)
Fax: (01273)-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)

LL Issue: 12.2166
Date posted: 05-Sep-2001


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