LINGUIST List 29.945

Wed Feb 28 2018

Review: Phonetics: McKinney, McKinney (2017)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 24-Oct-2017
From: Samson Lotven <>
Subject: An Introduction to Field Phonetics
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AUTHOR: Norris P. McKinney
AUTHOR: Carol V. McKinney
TITLE: An Introduction to Field Phonetics
PUBLISHER: SIL International Publications
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Samson Alexander Lotven, Indiana University Bloomington

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


In “An Introduction to Field Phonetics,” authors Norris P. McKinney and Carol B. McKinney offer a textbook on articulatory phonetics, aimed at preparing researchers to describe in detail the articulatory variation encountered in the field. The primary audience for this introduction is the novice phonetician planning to work with speakers of an undescribed language or dialect. In addition, the authors further intend to present an overview that would be useful to anyone looking to understand a broad range of topics in articulatory phonetics. In pursuing this concern, the authors present stand-alone sections on natural classes of speech sounds (or groups of like phenomena) and their diverse phonetic realizations, as well as sections on field methodology, including one section on palatography and one on acoustic phonetics.

The first three chapters lay the groundwork for the book, introducing its purpose and then presenting the basics of speech anatomy and the feature system used to describe speech sounds. Chapters 4-19 offer the basics of phonetic description including sections divided largely by manner of articulation (e.g. 4. Fricatives; 5. Stops; 11.Nasals), a couple on characteristics of certain places of articulation (14. Palatal, Velar, and Uvular Consonants; 18. Voiced and Voiceless Glottal Consonants), some suprasegmental phenomena (9. Pitch and Intonation; 10. Tone; 16. Length), and one longer section devoted to vowels (Chapter 6). Chapters 20-30 then discuss more advanced topics in articulatory phonetics such as multiple articulations (20. Double Stop and Double Nasal Articulations; 21. Secondary Articulations), non-pulmonic speech sounds (24. Ejectives and Implosives; 29. Clicks), more nuanced descriptions of previous topics (26. Fronted and Retroflexed Consonants: Comprehensive Framework for Places of Articulation), as well as other stand-alone topics. The last four chapters deal with expectations and best practices for fieldwork (31. Speech Variants, Accents, Dialects, and Sociophonetics; 34. Phonetic Fieldwork), palatography (Chapter 32), and acoustic phonetics (Chapter 33). Each chapter features summary tables and illustrations, a list of terms, and exercises for student practice. All illustrations are adapted or reprinted from Wikipedia and all terms can be found in a glossary in the back of the book. The majority of the exercise sets ask the reader to pronounce challenging real or fake words to develop intuition and sensitivity. Some questions also ask the reader to restate information found in the chapter, draw sagittal diagrams, or write the names of speech sounds. Supplementary review questions for Chapters 1-30 are provided in Appendix C.


This textbook has the most to offer to courses in Articulatory Phonetics or Field Phonetics where students are trained by transcribing audio recordings or by working with a native speaker assistant to describe the sound system of a language. The simple, modular presentation of this book also makes it suitable as a reference or as supplemental reading for an Introductory Phonetics or Field Methods course. In addition, it would also be useful for individual study since it is presented straightforwardly and works to actively engage the reader. The charts and tables offered in this book, those from Wikipedia and those created by the authors, are generally clearly printed and helpful, and the book takes care to offer sagittal diagrams in every section. The attention paid to accurate and descriptive sagittal diagrams reinforces the book’s emphasis on articulatory introspection. Students using this book as a reference in drawing their own sagittal diagrams will find clear instructions and plenty of illustrative examples. Chapters often contain summary tables, which are filled with useful information for reference, but often require some deciphering and could use some shading or other formatting to manage the amount of material condensed within. Chapter topics get gradually more advanced, but are loosely ordered, offering the instructor or individual reader the flexibility to select relevant topics and to use the text as a reference when eliciting data on specific types of phonetic phenomena from a language assistant. A linguist or anthropologist preparing for fieldwork by working through this text will become familiar with the myriad phonetic variation found in the world’s languages and will be offered advice on research, preparation, and data collection techniques. This book’s authors make the most of their conversations with other phoneticians—particularly the anecdotes of Dr. Kenneth Pike and Dr. Peter Ladefoged, to whom the book is dedicated—and their experience in the field, offering anecdotes and tips throughout. Chapter 15 (Laterals), for example, notes Norris McKinney’s discovery that he only made velar laterals, helping to make sure that if the reader does not relate to a specific illustrative English pronunciation, it is at least clear that such variation is expected.

Each chapter offers general information on its topic as well as clarification of confusable concepts and useful conventions, but the authors also speak directly to the reader, asking for active reading, practice, and introspection. Most such engagement is designed to make English-speaking readers more conscious of their own biases and more careful in their own productions of non-native sounds. In some cases, chapters include additional ‘Experiments,’ which ask readers to observe themselves using their vocal apparatuses in unfamiliar ways, such as watching their velum rise and fall in a hand mirror while alternating productions of nasalized and non-nasalized vowels (Chapter 12, Experiment 12.1). The articulatory challenges highlighted in a chapter are reinforced in that chapter’s pronunciation exercises that immediately follow. Furthermore, previously discussed sounds are incorporated into later pronunciation exercises, which increase in complexity and specificity throughout the book. Exercises are tailored to accustom the English-speaking reader to unfamiliar sounds such as labial-velars in Chapter 20 and unfamiliar phonotactics such as initial velar nasals in Chapter 11. These pronunciation activities are potentially useful to students trying consciously to overcome their own struggles to produce unfamiliar sounds, but with no accompanying audio tracks, it would be difficult for the reader to check whether an attempted production is successful. A course taught by a trained phonetician could get around this shortcoming with instructor-produced utterances in class or in audio recordings, but the reader engaged in individual study will have a difficult time verifying pronunciations, particularly in data sets exemplifying typologically odd distinctions such as the 3-way laryngeal contrast in Korean voiceless stops (Chapter 30). As confirmed by the publisher, no recordings of the book’s pronunciation exercises exist, but there is some hint that such an audio companion was at one time expected to accompany this textbook as Chapter 26 asks the reader to practice pronunciations “on the CD” (p.155). Audio tracks would certainly be a boon to readers of future editions and would greatly improve the audience engagement that is so central to this textbook’s pedagogical ethos. In some cases, chapters work around the lack of an audio companion by grounding the reader in English sounds. For example, after describing the basic mechanism of click production in Chapter 29 the authors devote some time to mentioning clicks present but not incorporated into the sound system of English and other languages, such as the English kissing sound and the “tsk, tsk” sound. This method is directed at the reader, encouraging establishment of the intuition and awareness required to recognize and transcribe variation in the field. Convention and variation in transcription is also discussed, such as the choice of [pp] or [p:] in the treatment of geminate consonants in Chapter 25. Having accurate phonetic transcriptions for the sake of phonological analysis is the major concern of this textbook, so such discussions are useful in teasing phonetics from phonology for the reader new to this distinction.

The last several chapters of this text are devoted to methodology. Chapter 31 (Speech Variants, Accents, Dialects, and Sociophonetics) serves to prepare the reader’s expectations about inter- and intra-speaker variation. Next, Chapter 32 offers a useful discussion on when and how to use palatography, impressing on the reader the ease and usefulness of the practice, especially in the field. Chapter 33 is a brief look at acoustic phonetics. This section covers a lot of material very quickly and the printing of some of the acoustic diagram images is blurry, which is especially problematic during the discussion of spectrograms, which are printed with no markings save horizontal lines marking intervals of 1000Hz. This section does serve to reinforce one general message of the book, that “a consonant is just one way to end (or begin) a vowel” (p.204), however the pace is likely too rapid for individual study or an introductory course, so supplemental materials on acoustic phonetic are necessary. The final chapter (34) is devoted to best practices, expectations, and adaptation in the field. It offers advice drawn from experience on practical preparation, doing preliminary research, forming research questions, interacting with local language assistants, and purchasing audio equipment.

This textbook delivers on its goal of introducing students to articulation through introspection and practice. Instructors of phonetic field methods courses using this textbook as the central resource will need to supplement it with other materials on acoustic phonetics. Other courses, particularly those on general linguistic field methods or introductory phonetics, could profitably use this book as a supplement. A linguist or anthropologist preparing for a trip to the field or even an actor or dialect coach looking to dive deeper into articulation will find this book useful for either self-study or reference. In all cases, the lack of an audio companion will need to be overcome before many of the exercises in this book will be useful to the reader. Many of the “experiments” in this book are designed to work around this limitation, and in some cases may do more than audio recordings to coax the reader into unfamiliar tongue positions. Norris P. and Carol V. McKinney do well to pass on their knowledge of field phonetic work onto the next generation of linguists; it is unfortunate that the first author passed prior to its printing.


Samson Lotven is a PhD candidate at Indiana University-Bloomington, specializing in the phonetics and phonology of understudied languages.

Page Updated: 28-Feb-2018