Phonemic Transcriptions in dictionaries.

Jim   Wednesday, November 10, 2004, 02:40 GMT
"Most ESL students will never go near Australia," you say. I take your point but, on the other hand, many do. Many go to New Zealand too. What of them? You continue "... so whether or not they talk like Australians is irrelevant." I wonder where you might have got the impression that either Mick or I are suggesting that ESL students be taught to speak like Australians.

"Throughout most of the rest of the world, they can pronounce gate as [get] and they will be understood without any problem," you tell us. I have my doubts about this. Too often, Mxsmanic, do you make these claims without a great deal to support them. What study have you done to show this to be the case? I've lived in Canada for a few years, I'm sure I said a couple of words with an /e/ in them I don't recall ever being misunderstood as having said /ei/. Of course context helps and so it might with the ESL students' saying [get].

So you say that [get] would be recognised as "gate" not "get" and I assume you'll say [wed] would be recognised as "wade" not "wed". I'm unconvinced. I'd certainly hear "get" and "wed" ... unless, perhaps, it was [ge:t] and [we:d]*. Even an irrelevant Aussie like me could perhaps recognise [e:] to be /ei/; as long as other factors told me that it wouldn't be /e../. But vowel length is completely "unimportant", ay, Mxsmanic? It should be noted that [ge(j)t] and [we(j)d] would easily be understood.

You go on "... particularly if they also pronounce get as [gEt]." sure, assuming that the listener is familiar with how the student pronounces "get". This is more than you could assume for most of the people the student will be likely to encounter.

"For most native English speakers," you tell us "there's a huge different between [e] and [E]," Of course there is. These are two different phones. Were there no noticible distinction then we'd be unaware of the difference in accent between the pronunciation of "get" in GAE and in NZE.

The question is "How is the phoneme /e/ pronounced?" It varies between [e] and [E]. Maybe AusE is a little extreme with the closeness of its /e/; NZE is a little more so. However you need not go to such extremes. Indeed in RP (one of your "standard" accents and one which your students ask about) /e/ is somewhere in between, according to the graph at the following address.

Take a good look at the graph. It should give you cause for some concern regarding your claims. [E] and [e] are distinct phonetically, there's no doubt about that, but either one and anything in between could easily be heard as /e/. Or are you going to continue to write as if you know better than the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University?

Moreover, would we not be asking a little much of students to have them distinguish between five front monophthongs? Surely it would be simplier to use [i:, I, e] and [æ] (or [i:, I, E] and [æ]) than to use [i:, I, e, E] and [æ]. Four distinct front monophthongs are more than enough for many ESL students to handle. Where would the logic be in suggesting that they add another to the list?

Also, you write as if AusE and NZE can be completely disregarded as irrelavant and unimportant. Okay, assume this is true. We'll forget about mentioning that /ei/ can be pronounced as [æI]. How about the accents in which /ei/ can be pronounced [e] albeit actually [e:] or [e(j)]. Are they "important"? Are they "relevant"? Are they "standard"? In GAE and RP /ei/ is pronounced [eI], it's a diphthong.

As far as I'm aware. The only dialect in which /ei/ becomes a monophthong is the Californian one. It many indeed be more wide-spread than I'm aware of but, for all I know, so might [æI] be. Didn't we get our [æI] from the Cockneys in the first place? When it comes down to it though, to call Californian English "standard" but to refuse the label for AusE and NZE is just silly.

If you tell the students that /ei/ can be pronounced [e], why not mention that it can be pronounced [æI]? The problem is that [æI] could be mistaken for /ai/ but similarly [e] could be mistaken for /e/ so ... what to do? What to do? Why not go for something in between, like the [eI] of GAE and RP?

Whatever you do, though, teaching ESL students to pronounce /ei/ as [e] seems a very bad idea. Most ESL students will never go near California, so whether or not they talk like Californians is irrelevant. If it's intelligiblity that your students want, and well it should be, then it would be best to teach them that /ei/ is a diphthong.

* Note: between slashes I'm using Tom's phonemic alphabet and in brackets is a crude ASCII approximation to the IPA. So [we:d] is "wade" pronounced with a long [e] whereas /we:d/ would be "word", i.e. [w3:d]. Note also that [e(j)] is a palatised [e], i.e. "e" with a superscript "j" in the IPA.
Paul Waters   Wednesday, November 10, 2004, 03:08 GMT
Jim, the ''e'' sound in ''bed'' is should be represented as [E].Representing it as /e/ can confuse it with the [e:] sound in ''made''.

I'd suggest that it's best for ESL students to learn [E] for the pronunciation of the the short ''e'' sound in ''bed''.

Also, [e:], [æI] and [eI] are not the same phoneme. [e:] is the sound of the ''a'' in ''vane'', [æI] is the sound of the ''ai'' in ''vain'' and [eI] is the sound of the ''ei'' in ''vein''.

''As far as I'm aware. The only dialect in which /ei/ becomes a monophthong is the Californian one. ''

So, does that mean that in California ''vein'' is pronounced like ''vane''? In Wales that's not the case.
Paul Waters   Wednesday, November 10, 2004, 03:21 GMT
Interesting, I just looked in Merriam-websters dictionary and it says that ''vane'', ''vain'' and ''vein'' are all pronounced the same way. That's interesting, because in Wales they're all pronounced differently.
Mi5 Mick   Wednesday, November 10, 2004, 05:24 GMT
You can hear this American speaker use [e] and [E] as allophones of the same phoneme /e/

"Monitoring quotas again [agen]" ...... (very closed [e])

"As big as a partition as you can get [get]"

"Let's [lEts] go ahead [ahEd]" .......... (open [E])
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 01:58 GMT
Regarding the above recordings:

[get] is clearly ~ "get", not "gate". Either [gEt] or [get] are "get".

And so there is no effective difference between [e] and [E] in English.
Mxsmanic   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 09:30 GMT
Tom, if I hear [wed], I understand "wade." This is true whether the vowel is [e] or [eI], as they are both allophones of the phoneme /e/.

If an Australian or any other native speaker says [wed], I also understand "wade." If a peculiarity of the speaker's regional pronunciation causes him to say [wed] for [wEd] as in "wed," then I will not understand the word correctly unless he uses it in a context that makes the intended word unambiguously clear ("The couple was planning to wed on June 25.").

I teach students to make the critical distinction between /e/ and /E/. They can use any allophones of these phonemes that they wish, but they must learn to distinguish them. For students who speak languages without diphthongs, I explain to them that all vowel phonemes can be pronounced as monophthongs in English except for /AI/, /OI/, and /AU/, which _must_ be pronounced as diphthongs. In all other cases, there are no minimal pairs that distinguish, say, [e] from [eI], so if the vowel is left pure, it doesn't affect comprehension.

The misconception I'm seeing here is in the idea that Anglophones around the world make no distinction between /E/ and /e/. That's simply not true. You can prove it very easily by saying isolated words to them that use these phonemes: if you fail to distinguish between the phonemes, the words will not be understood. In connected speech, the words are still not understood, but listeners will often infer the correct words from the surrounding context, which can give the impression that they don't care about the essential phonemic distinction. But they do.

I have an Australian colleague who pronounces "sick" as /sik/. Fortunately, sick and seek are sufficiently different in meaning that one can usually guess which one she has in mind from context, but if she pronounces them in isolation, her "sick" sounds just like "seek."

These types of regional ambiguities are very dangerous to teach to ESL students. It's hard enough for them to be understood without learning all sorts of bad habits. It's good to learn to recognize English spoken with a number of regional pronunciations, but it's not good to learn most of these as standard pronunciations. Even native speakers often depend on context for understanding of some of the more extreme regional departures from standard pronunciation. The fact that they are able to make these inferences does not prove that they don't care about the phonemic distinctions that are being confused or lost in the regional pronunciation.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 09:41 GMT
You are very confused and mistaken Mxsmanic; this is probably due to your "Anglophonic" ears and monolingual upbringing. The above recording of "get" [get] undeniably confirms that the monophthongs [e] and [E] are allophones. Compare "ahead" [ahEd].

Any English native speaker, including Tom and Jim, can infer "get" from the above recording, not "gate". And I don't believe you hear "gate" for this recording. It is clearly "get".
Mxsmanic   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 09:42 GMT
Vein, vane, and vain are all pronounced the same in GAE and RP. All of them are pronounced with the /e/ vowel, and this vowel never has the value /E/. However, the three pronunciations given by Paul Waters for vain, vein, and vane are all perfectly acceptable allophones of the /e/ phoneme, and will be understood around the world, even by those who don't make the distinctions themselves.

I've already pointed out that only three diphthongs are phonemic in standard English; ESL students must learn these. All other diphthongs are optional, and so they vary widely by regional pronunciation. Americans may not bother to pronounce /e/ as a diphthong at all.

Most of my students are Francophone. French has no diphthongs, and so mastering [eI] is difficult for them. I teach them that they must at least pronounce [e] for the /e/ phoneme; this is a widely-used allophone for /e/ that is easily understood. I teach them that most native speakers use [eI], and that this is the allophone that they should pronounce, if they can. But I don't dwell on this as some teachers do, because I know that [e] is fine, and there are other, real phonemes that make better targets for corrective phonetics. If a student masters all the phonemes completely, and still wants to suppress an accent, then I'll place a lot more emphasis on [eI]. I don't mention other allophones at all, in general, because the student need never use them, and he will learn to recognize them very readily once he is exposed to them.

One can ask if the distinction reported by Paul is phonemic. If the differences occur consistently in his pronunciation and form large numbers of minimal pairs, they are phonemic. However, since these distinctions are not made in standard English, there is nothing to be gained by students in learning them, unless they wish to learn only the pronunciation used by Paul, and no other. They waste time if they learn them as part of a study of general, standard English, because these distinctions are useless everywhere else in the English-speaking world.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 10:23 GMT
In American English the monophthong [e] is an allophone of [E]. This has been clearly demonstrated by the above recording of "get", pronounced [get] by the American native speaker. Native English speakers can easily recognise this and differentiate it from the word "gate". It is illogical and misleading to claim that [get] or [gEt] represents "gate".

There is no basis for the rash and outlandish claim that the monophthong [e] is an allophone of a diphthong [eI]. This is in direct contradiction to what is known and understood by linguistics. These matters have been carefully and painstakingly studied and documented by linguists and academics alike over millennia.

Please refrain from misinforming the public, "mxsmanic".
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 10:28 GMT
Re: Francophones and "é" as a substitute or allophone of "ay" in English:

Francophones typically pronounce "paper" as "pépper" and this is a major cause for confusion. This is why it is misleading to claim and to teach that [e] is an allophone of [eI].
Tom   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 13:55 GMT

Could you please tell me which IPA symbol you would use to describe the "e" sound in the following Polish words? Thanks.

lek, meta, mleko!s.mp3
Mxsmanic   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 21:02 GMT
GAE uses [e] for /e/ in many cases, particularly in California. I've seen many examples. I've never seen it confused with /E/, although I suppose there will always be regional pronunciations that do so. The most common allophone is [EI], but since there are no minimal pairs or sets in standard English that contrast [EI] with [e], there is no reason why the latter cannot be used for /e/.
Mxsmanic   Thursday, November 11, 2004, 21:16 GMT
Tom, they sound like /E/ to me, as in English "bed" or French "bête." What symbol do you use?
Mi5 Mick   Friday, November 12, 2004, 02:17 GMT
It's true that "lek, meta, mleko" represent [E]. But in the following words spoken by the same Polish guy, a very closed [e] is utilised:!s.mp3

bet, beck, peza ~ b[e]t, b[e]k, p[e]za.

Even though this is a very closed "e", how is this so different to b[E]t, b[E]k, p[E]za in English? I hear no diphthongisation.
Tom   Friday, November 12, 2004, 02:38 GMT

If the sound you heard was [E], then I confess I simply don't know what sound corresponds to [e]. I thought the Polish "e" was [e], since it is more closed (less like [@]) than the English [E].

After reading your message, I'm not sure I have ever heard the [e] in the languages I have some knowledge of (Polish, English, German, Russian). I would be immensely grateful if you would help me out of my ignorance and provide (references to) audio examples of the [e] sound.

By the way, would you transcribe "fair" as [fe..] or [fE..]?

Mi5 Mick,

I'm not really sure about anything related to the IPA anymore, but I would suggest the sound in "byk", "byt" and "pyza" is close to the English [i] (as in "bick"). I don't know if [i] would be the most appropriate symbol, but it's close.