Edwardian phonetics.

Un documentaire de la BBC fascinant, même si le ton du personnage principal peut ennuyer, sur les dialectes de l’Angleterre du début du 20ème siècle : conservés par les chercheurs allemand étudiant des prisonniers de guerre.

Disponnible sur one Google Video ou (en meilleur qualité) Guba.com.

The BBC documentary How The Edwardians Spoke presents audio recordings of English speakers from various dialect areas, made in 1917: German dialectologists and sound recording specialists of the time travelled around the German prisoner-of-war camps to record samples of foreign dialects. These are unusual and quite stunning documents, preserved on hundreds of shellac records.

I won’t embed the video this time — the one on Google Video is of rather poor quality, and I’m not sure how long the much better version on Guba.com will stick around. Both are downloadable — get it while it’s hot if you’re interested in this sort of thing, or watch on the web-page.

Proto-IPA Germany 1917

In addition to simply hearing these 100-year-old voices, and comparing them to what we know about the speech of these regions, dialect-shift, etc., there was one small bit that stood out to me in particular: The hand-written transcriptions of the German researchers, most likely produced by the Austrian-German professor of language and literature Alois Brandel, noted down in an early version of what was to become the International Phonetic Alphabet (click on the image for a larger version — it’s perfectly readable). I certainly should read up on the history of the IPA — there’s not much online, it seems. What appears to be the case, though, is that when their countries weren’t at war with each others, these German researchers and their British and other counterparts were part of the same intellectual environment.

I found the film via Crooked Timber, where Kieran Healy calls it “ponderous”. Indeed, I find it is even worse — Joan Washington, the personality who guides the viewer through the entire documentary, is a voice coach for actors and a “specialist in English accents” only in this particular, very practical sense. I find her overbearing manner and judgmental attitude to pronunciation features (monophthongs “lazier” than diphthongs and the like) rather hard to swallow, and her systematic linking-up of landscape and dialect features is rather quaint. But then, as an accent coach she will have to have developed some ad-hoc methods of getting her material across to students who, most likely, have no formal training in phonetics. Interesting to see that she is indeed using IPA to note down pronunciations she gleans in an new place — this is of course what you’d naively expect, but I’ve become wary of assuming IPA knowledge, which in places like Germany or France is successfully and routinely taught, in rudimentary form, to children aged 10 or 11, in the English-speaking world at any level.

Hein? Hunh? Hey? Hrm?

Ou l’on constate que l’anglais possède le mot hein.

In my pursuit of acquiring at least some of the trappings of British geek and pop culture, getting a basic grasp on Doctor Who I came across a word that I hadn’t been aware the English language possessed.

This is from last Staturday’s episode (”Utopia”), about 7 or 8 minutes in. The protagonists have just arrived in an unknown location and are walking through a dark rocky landscape. While the Doctor is rather pensive and monosyllabic, his companions, Captain Jack Harkness and Martha Jones, are chattering away. There is an undercurrent of jealousy, and at one point Martha gets a bit snippy. Here’s how the Doctor calls them to order:

To me, the interjection after “end of the universe” sounds pretty much like the French word hein. Moreover, it has here exactly the meaning of hein: something like a rather aggressive question tag, which could be glossed as “right?” or “isn’t it?”

But here’s the problem. If I transcribe this passage as:

  • You two — we’re at the end of the universe, hein? Right at the edge of knowledge itself, and you’re busy … blogging! Come on.

… then it looks to the reader as if the speaker was speaking with a French accent, which would be misleading.

I asked some irquaintances for other, more English-looking spellings. The suggestion that might fit best was hunh.

(That this was one of the funniest TV quotes I’ve encountered in a while may have contributed to my noticing this.)

Some time ago, Kevin Marks told me about a strange little OS X application that comes with Apple Macs. It is called “Speak After Me”, and takes a bit of text, records the user speaking the text, cuts it up (the speech, not the user) into phonemes — at least that’s what the program calls them — and then maps a pitch contour to the transcription.

Here is a screenshot of Kevin saying “Coco is the queen of the space monkeys” (click on the image to enlarge). Highlighted in yellow is the transcription it generates, using a very odd phonemic (phonetic?) notation:

Mac OS X: Speak After Me

Not having a Mac, I don’t know if the program works for other languages than English. But even in English, it is clear that its phoneme inventory must be a weak point of the system: Written language to phoneme mapping just doesn’t work across all varieties of English. On the other hand, you apparently can edit the speech recording/transcription/pitch contour set, and the program also lets you export the data as a plain text file. It might be nice to play around with for a class of advanced ESL learners, or even in native-language education at the high school or post-secondary level.

According to Kevin, this is mainly a OS X demo application and part of the “developers’ install”, which is accessible to all Mac OS X users. Does anyone know more about it?

Who are you callin’ ungrammatical? — a good article by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe. The topic is, you guessed it, whom. American Accent Undergoing Great Vowel Shift — an interview with the linguist William Labov by Robert Siegel on (US) National Public Radio. Via Mark Liberman at Language Log; he also reports on the […]

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Via Bridget Samuels at ilani ilani: The IPA council has adopted the first new phonetic symbol in twelve years. SIL explains that the “right hook v” will symbolise a labiodental flap, and how to produce this sound. It is a phoneme in several African languages, among which Mono. The latest beta versions of the Doulos SIL […]

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Show me your vowels!

L’accent écossais, ou : comment analyser les voyelles quand on a du mal à bien les distinguer à l’oreille nue.

This is a bit of a side-piece to the investigation into the pronunciation of the and a — reduced or unreduced? in which context does which form occur? My previous posts are here and here, Mark Liberman’s principal ones here, here, here and here, and David Beaver chipped in here and here. Looking into when a […]

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No word too small

Comment les articles de l’anglais tissent des liens entre êtres humains, pourvu qu’ils bloguent [hé, c’est un subjonctif, ça !].

  • 2005-07-26
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You know, a little over a year ago, I was wondering whether blogging was an activity I should take up. I was hesitant for a while because it seemed you had to be either your own journalist, which I am not, or to spend a considerable amount of time gazing at your own navel. I was, […]

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Thy “thee”s, Ed Felten…

Quelques observations concernant la prononciation, réduite ou pleine, des articles a et the devant consonne dans un échantillon d’anglais américain parlé.

Some of Mark Liberman’s recent Language Log posts were dealing with dealing with reduced vs. unreduced vowels in the pronunciation of the articles a and the. (Reduced: [ə] and [ðə]; unreduced: [ɛɪ] (or [ɛj]) and [ði:]). In his latest post, he examined a G. W. Bush speech and found that, as other readers had claimed, […]

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An interesting site: Les Accents des Français: We — the authors of this site — are two students at the École des Mines [a prestigious civil engineering school — C.W.] in Paris and victims of the speech “standardisation” that these pages are concerned with… since we speak “accent-free” French. We recognise that a heritage […]

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Branding: IPA and exotism

L’API et les langues étrangères, ça sert a rendre les produits plus intéressants car exotiques. Un example particulièrement frappant est l’abus d’accents et autres signes diacritiques dans la pub sur le marché anglophone. On pourrait dire la même chose du pseudo-anglais dans la pub en France et ailleurs en Europe continentale.

My brain and mind, as I have mentioned before, feel these days like something that stayed too long in a hot frying pan. So I have quite a number of planned or partially written posts on language topics, and just can’t seem to be able to finish them. The question is: should I first […]

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