Posts Tagged ‘IPA’


December 2, 2016

I recently wrote about the French roots of most older (pre-Second-World-War) international organizations that have the word international (not world or universal) in their names, and hence I in their initialisms or acronyms. But in none of them is the Frenchness as pronounced as in the IPA.

IPA stands for both the International Phonetic Association and the International Phonetic Alphabet; the former is the body responsible for the latter. (Both are API in French.) It seems strange that an organization would knowingly — and, at least to some, confusingly — use the same abbreviated name for itself and for its product. The Ford Motor Company is, to be sure, known briefly as Ford, and one of its cars (if it comes from the Ford Division) is a Ford; while a specific one may be called the Ford (if, for example, a member of a multi-car family announces “I’m driving the Ford today”). But in French the company would be called la Ford, as would the car if a specific one is meant (both are feminine because both compagnie and voiture are feminine). French-speakers seem to be used to such ambiguities and find various ways to resolve them. For example, la Corse means both ‘Corsica’ and ‘the Corsican woman’; Balzac, in his story La Vendetta, refers to the Corsican woman at its center as l’Italienne.

Here I will  refer to the association (when necessary) as IPAss, and limit the use of IPA to the “alphabet.”  I have often toyed with calling it the FPA, because of its French bias and because it doesn’t really make sense to refer to phonetic characters as international — they have to do with languages, not nations. But it can also be questioned whether it’s really phonetic, or really an alphabet.

Let’s start with the last. To most people, an alphabet is a finite set of characters (called letters) that one learns in a specific order; hence the term alphabetic order. Whether modified letters (like á or ç) or digraphs (like æ or ch) constitute distinct entries is a matter decided by the individual language authorities. The IPA, however, is not finite — phoneticians create new characters as needed — and there is no alphabetic order. If it is anything, it’s a code, not an alphabet.

The IPA was first conceived by a French organization of modern-language teachers (L’Association Phonétique des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) as a way of teaching pronunciation to children, not as a true representation of native pronunciation. This meant giving French approximations to, say, English sounds. Thus the character c (later replaced by ʃ) was proposed for both the French ch in chaud and the English sh in show. These are actually quite different sounds; in the English one the tongue is considerably farther back than in the French one. But when show is used in French as a loanword, it’s pronounced just like chaud; in fact, in IPA the pronunciations of show (as said by a Scot or a West Indian) and chaud would be written the same way: [ʃo], regardless of how different they actually sound.

The real problem with the IPA, for me, has always been the representation of affricates. as, for example, the English sounds represented by ch and j or ge in such words as judge, charge and change. Note that these words all come from  French, and at the time they were borrowed their pronunciation of these consonants in French (Old French, that is) was not that different from what it is in English. But French lost its affricates as it changed from Old to Middle, and when speakers of modern French borrow words from languages that have them, they pronounce these sounds as stop + fricative. That is, a French-speaker would approximate the English phrase ‘catch it’ as ‘cat shit’; one need only  listen to native francophones pronouncing  such words as tchèque, jazz, pizza or tsar. In IPA these are written as [tʃɛk], [dʒaz], [pidza] and [tsar].

But what happened was that the IPAss decided to keep these representations for all languages, even those in which a fricative is a single consonant (in my native language, Polish, there are six such sounds). It was only on the insistence of some non-French linguists that ligatures (such as ʦ, ʧ, ʤ) or over- or under-bows (such as t͡s or t͜s) were allowed “when necessary,” but they are still usually omitted from IPA charts. Many linguists resort to non-IPA symbols, such as č for the ch sound.

So much, then, for “international,” “phonetic” and “alphabet.”

Phonetic alphabets

September 25, 2016

In my post the other day, I wrote that “the Macedonian alphabet is the closest that I know of to a perfectly phonetic one, being both reader-friendly and writer-friendly.” I’d like to elaborate.

By “phonetic alphabet” people usually mean one that represents the sounds of the language faithfully, not like the unruly alphabets of English or French. On Wikipedia, a search for “phonetic alphabet” leads to a disambiguation page that includes a reference to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is not really an alphabet in the usual sense (there is no alphabetic order in it, for one thing) but an open-ended collection of symbols that should actually be called the International Phonetic Code (IPC); this abbreviation would also be helpful in distinguishing the code from the organization responsible for it, also called IPA. The usual meaning of “phonetic alphabet” is discussed on the page titled Phonemic orthography, but that is an unfortunately all-too typical Wikipedia page, representing the often contradictory work of many hands. For example, the Greek digraphs γκ and μπ , representing single sounds, are included as examples in the paragraph discussing the opposite — cases where a single letter may represent a sequence of more than one phoneme. And such important matters as syllabic stress or vowel reduction are not mentioned at all.

Among learners of English, complaints about the non-phoneticity of the English alphabet are often heard from those whose primary language is Italian or Spanish. And indeed, the alphabets that they learned as children can be called phonetic, but only halfway. Specifically, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly but not reader-friendly, while the Spanish one is the opposite.

What I mean by “writer-friendly” is that someone familiar with the rules can, on hearing Italian speech, write it down correctly. The only exception I can think of is the presence of in the strong forms (all persons singular and third person plural) of the verb avere, distingushing ho, hai, ha and hanno from o, ai, a and anno.

On the other hand, when reading written Italian one doesn’t know, first of all, on what syllable the stress falls, unless its the last (in which case the vowel carries an accent mark). Nor does one know whether or is to be pronounced as open or closed, or whether sz or zz is to be read as voiced or unvoiced. Consequently, the Italian alphabet is not reader-friendly.

Spanish is the opposite. Someone trying to write down spoken Spanish but not thoroughly versed in the language will not know when to write a silent h; whether the phoneme /x/ before or i is to be written g or j; whether (outside northern and central Spain) /s/ is written sz or (before e or ic; or whether to write b or v. Many Spanish surnames have changed their spelling on crossing the ocean: Chaves, Cortés and Valdés, for example, became Chávez, Cortez and Valdez, respectively.

But reading Spanish correctly, according to any one regional standard, presents no problem. Syllabic accent follows strict rules, and no letter represents more than one sound, except x in proper names of non-Spanish origin (such as México or Xola or Xàtiva ), which one needs to learn.

So let me get back to Macedonian cyrillic. Macedonian, unlike other South Slavic languages, has fixed syllabic stress — on the penultimate in two-syllable words and the antepenultimate in longer words. It has, unlike Serbocroat, no long and short vowels. Unlike Bulgarian, vowels sound the same whether stressed  or not. It has neither digraphs nor the opposite (that is, single letters representing two sounds, like Bulgarian [or Russian] щ,  ю and я). It seems perfect to me.