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Things you should know about phonetic transcription

It is natural to assume that phonetic transcriptions are precise instructions on how to pronounce English words. I remember a time when I thought so, too. Over the years, I have realized that they are more like statistics: they can lie, and when they don’t lie, they don’t tell the whole truth.

In my new article (complete with audio recordings), I explain why phonetic transcriptions don’t give you the whole picture and can even be harmful if you take them too literally.

Read more in: “Things you should know about phonetic transcription


3 Comments so far ↓

  • M.F. Islam

    Sir, Tom. Actually I wonder that if these little things are so confusing then what to do? To be sure, sometimes it happens that we hear a totally different sound of a word which is very familiar to us,–I mean to say some native speakers, even some of the anchors, pronounce some words according to their own ways. For example the word “Jake” is sometimes pronounced as [dZei:k] and sometimes as [dZ@k]. What a fuss! So, after due consideration I think these problems mainly remain in the pronouncing styles of the native and very little in phonetic transcriptions. To be honest, I have also noticed that the pronunciations and stresses of some words vary from dictionary to dictionary, e.g. the stress of the word “postpone” is [p..u’sp..un] in OALD8th and [p..s’p..un] in LDOCE5th. –So, I just want to say the dictionary publishers that “Have mercy on us”.

    Mr. Tom, please tell us what we should do in these regards.

    • Tom

      No, no, no. “Jake” is always pronounced /dʒeɪk/. “Jack” is pronounced /dʒæk/.

      I believe /pəʊˈspəʊn/ is incorrect. The first syllable should be /pəʊs(t)/ because the /əʊ/ vowel is shortened as a result of being followed by a voiceless consonant (s).

      In addition, “post” is a common prefix and it is unlikely that speakers would split off part of it and place it in the next syllable. I’m quite surprised at the pronunciation in OALD – LDOCE, LPD, CALD, CEPD and M-W all place /s/ in the first syllable.
      Maybe the transcriptions in OALD aren’t quite reliable?

  • MCMski

    I think, as a native American speaker, that you are completely correct. There are many nuances to the way we pronounce our words based on what part of the US we live in. In my opinion, I would learn the tevhnical pronunciation as given in whatever primary dictionary you’ve chosen as your source. Then, you can adjust as you feel you need if you listen to native speakers should you discover it seems awkward. Know, though, that someone from Massachusetts may sound awkward to someone in California who will dound awkward to someone in Texas who will sound awkward to someone in Wisconsin! You just can’t win. Good luck!

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