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Review of  Sounds Interesting

Reviewer: Cory Holland
Book Title: Sounds Interesting
Book Author: J. C. Wells
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Subject Language(s): Czech
Issue Number: 26.1828

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and General Phonetics” by J.C. Wells is a collection of astute observations on a wide range of topics relating to English pronunciation (Ch. 1), general phonetics (Ch. 2), the teaching of phonetics and phonetics in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) contexts (Ch. 3), English intonation patterns (Ch. 4), details of usage of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and spelling oddities (Ch. 5), accents across varieties of English (Ch. 6), and the phonetics of languages other than English (Ch. 7). Each chapter contains 20-50 separate short entries relating to the main theme.

Chapter 1: “How do you say...?” addresses the titular question, covering a variety of pronunciation dilemmas. Themes include different stress placement possibilities in less commonly used words (e.g. ‘plethora‘, ‘apostate‘, ‘hypernymy‘), the pronunciation of place names (e.g. ‘Burgh‘, ‘Heath‘, ‘Salida‘, ‘Rosersthorpe‘), foreign names and loan words (e.g. ‘Madejski‘, ‘Sarkozy‘, ‘ylang-ylang‘), and the difficulties of pronouncing Welsh names in English (e.g. ‘Llwynywormwood‘). Other entries discuss words which are often confused, such as 'interment' and 'internment', as well as 'proceed' and 'precede', which are becoming homonyms because of vowel weakening in the two previously distinct suffixes. Also covered are neologisms such as the slang term 'pwn'.

Chapter 2: “English phonetics: theory and practice” is the longest chapter, with many examples of phonetic processes, such as compression, reduction, assimilation and stress placement, in action. This chapter is particularly challenging to summarize, as it covers so much ground. One entry discusses variable compression in hymns, for example four syllable ‘victorious’ /vɪk’tɔ:riəs/ can be sung with three syllables /vɪk’tɔ:rjəs/ to fit the meter of the hymn. Another gives an example of de-compression: football fans chanting /ɪŋ.gə.lənd/ rather than the expected two syllable /ɪŋ.glənd/. Several entries addressed the behavior of the happY vowel, which in British English can be expressed more like the KIT vowel (in RP) or more like the FLEECE vowel (in less conservative dialects), but, for some people, can be KIT or FLEECE depending on the phonetic context. Other entries stretch from descriptions of use, and mis-use, of the historical second and third person singular present tense (thou givest, he giveth), to the the debate surrounding the origin and pronunciation of the new, primarily American, ‘imma’. This emerging variant of ‘I'm going to’ is pronounced /aim:ə/ and may stem from “pseudo-aspectual a-prefixing” (ie. ‘I’m a-going to…’) or further reduction of ‘I’m gonna…’; as a user of this variant, I lean toward the second explanation.

Chapter 3: “Teaching and examining” has a dual focus on teaching phonetics and the utility of teaching phonetic concepts in EFL contexts. Many of the entries discuss what is covered, and what is no longer covered, in advanced courses in Phonetics at University College London (UCL). Examples of practical exams given to students, along with common mistakes and pitfalls are provided. One entry argues for the benefits of including phonetics in voice and accent training for actors, and includes a response as to why phonetics are not generally taught in acting classes (phonetic symbols look too much like math!). Entries on mispronunciations (a volcano researcher with [æ] rather than [eɪ] in ‘volcano’) and minimal pair confusion (a waiter bringing a 'torte' rather than a 'tart' as requested for desert) argue for the utility of phonetic training for language teachers and learners.

Chapter 4: “Intonation” covers “the three Ts” of intonation: tonality, tone and tonicity, frequently returning to the larger question of universality of the three Ts across languages. Tonality is the process of 'chunking' the speech stream into separate intonation phrases (IPs), tone is the rising and/or falling of voice pitch that occurs in each IP and tonicity refers to the placement of nuclear (word) stress in an utterance. Wells argues that while the principles of tonality are relatively universal, tone and tonicity vary across languages, and sometimes between dialects of a language, much more than people expect. Considerable focus is given to the unexpected tonicity in counter-presuppositionals of the type:

A: Have you /EATen?
B: \NO, | there was 'nothing \TO eat.

In B's utterance the placement of primary stress on the preposition 'to' is odd because typically the main stress falls on new information with high semantic load, however, this intonation pattern is very common in English.

Chapter 5: “Symbols, shapes, fonts and spelling” focuses mainly on proposed and discontinued IPA symbols, IPA symbols easily confused or often misused, and proposals to reform the English spelling system. The section on IPA symbols which are often confused (e.g. 'I' for /ɪ/ and 'Ɵ' for /θ/) is very helpful, and should be read by all beginning phonetics students. The entries on the history of various IPA symbols and controversy about which should be used is interesting history as well as a useful reference. The several entries on English spelling cover ways in which spelling could be made more consistent (e.g. regularize consonant doubling, eliminate silent letters that don't add information on vowel length), and how spelling to sound correspondences are represented and how they affect pronunciation.

Chapter 6: “English accents” primarily discusses regional and social variation in British English and Caribbean creoles, with some additional mention of American English and Maori pronunciations in New Zealand. Several entries cover changes observed in RP over time, and one details a newspaper's horror that they are unable to find people who “speak middle class accents” for casting in a period drama. Other entries discuss possible r-fulness in Antigua, the use of English intonation patterns in Monserrat creole in England, and vowels in Grand Turk. A lengthy entry details how Maori place names are partially anglicized in New Zealand English.

Chapter 7: “Phonetics around the world” focuses on sounds and pronunciations found in languages other than English as well as how foreign sounds are pronounced by English speakers. Many entries focus on Welsh, which is a language commonly encountered in the names of people and places in Great Britain, and whose spellings can be difficult to decipher for English speakers. Also included are examples of the spelling to sound correspondences for the letters 'j' and 'c' across languages such as Czeck, Polish, Turkish, Spanish and Italian. Other entries covered the history of symbols for less common sounds (clicks), and impossible sounds (the velar click /ʞ/), which is no longer included in the IPA.


“Sounds Interesting” is a compilation of postings from Wells' blog, which he began after retiring in 2006 in order to, in his words, “replace the daily dialogue with colleagues and students [he] enjoyed while employed as a professor at UCL.” The stated goal of collecting the blog posts in a book was to reach a wider audience. This book is written clearly, in a style that should be approachable to both specialists and non-specialists, although a comfortable familiarity with IPA is necessary to fully appreciate much of the discussion. This book would be relevant and interesting to almost any “language dork”, but may be of particular interest to ESL/EFL instructors, graduate students, and anyone with a more than passing interest in English history and pronunciation. Some of the entries, particularly in the pronunciation chapter (Ch. 1), might be less relevant to someone not familiar with British English. As a speaker of American English I often had to 'translate' across dialects. However, the many sections addressing rhotic vs. non-rhotic pronunciations have seriously aided my ability to do a cross-dialect translation. Overall “Sounds Interesting” is fun to read, with page after page of language facts either that you'd always wanted to know, or that you can't believe you hadn't wondered about. Throughout the book I found myself marking sections to share with my ESL teaching colleagues as well as students, both ESL and TESOL, in the future. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for clear and engaging discussion regarding English pronunciation, linguistics, phonetics, spelling, intonation and a wide variety of other topics.
Cory Holland has a PhD in linguistics from UC Davis and is currently teaching ESL in the Academic English program at Colorado State University. Areas of interest include phonetics, language variation and change – particularly in vowel systems in the American west, second language acquisition and teaching and the acquisition of socio-phonetic features by learners of a new language and/or dialect.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781107427105
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