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Mistakes in American transcriptions in the Cambridge EPD (17th edition)

In my review of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (17th edition), I wrote:

I had hoped the EPD would be the perfect pronunciation resource. It is not. Some American pronunciations are not fully consistent with the “Network English” model. A few are quite strange (e.g. “insh”). The pronunciations of people’s names are occasionally off the mark.

It turns out that calling the EPD “not perfect” was much too generous, at least when it comes to its treatment of American pronunciation.

As I mentioned in my review, the EPD uses a special symbol (a t with a small “v” underneath) to represent the American “flap t” sound, which replaces “regular” [t] in many words, such as better, dirty and beetle. In itself, this additional phonetic symbol is a good thing, as the flapping (or non-flapping) of /t/ in American English cannot be reduced to any simple system of rules.

Unfortunately, the EPD uses the flap t symbol incorrectly in a significant number of transcriptions. Most glaringly, it identifies the following words as containing the flap t:

  • alter
  • guilty
  • filter
  • difficulty
  • cruelty
  • shelter
  • Walter

Pronouncing a flap t in these words is not just careless — it’s simply incorrect. Even the recordings on the EPD CD-ROM (which otherwise follow the transcriptions very closely) contain a regular t. It is clear to me that the speakers hired by Cambridge to record the audio pronunciations could not bring themselves to say guilty with a flap t.

In addition, the EPD often prescribes a flapped pronunciation where such a pronunciation sounds careless. A flap t after /l/ (e.g. insulted, faculty, penalty, multiply, delta), while occasionally heard, is not part of any pronunciation model which learners should aspire to — and certainly not of the Network English model (American English as spoken on national TV), which the EPD claims to follow.

These would be serious shortcomings in any dictionary. In a pronunciation dictionary, they are cardinal sins which disqualify the 17th edition of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary as a tool for learners interested in American pronunciation.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Tom

    Merriam-Webster Advanced Learner’s Dictionary does not bother with a flap t at all, after all, it’s just an allophone, so you can always pronounce it as a simple [t] as many Americans (occasionally or emphatically) do.

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