Mark Hancock’s Review

If you teach English pronunciation, you will know that most text books present a model which claims to be either standard American or standard British. The latter is often referred to as RP (Received Pronunciation), and is usually represented by a set of phonetic symbols chosen over half a century ago by A. C. Gimson. Geoff Lindsey makes the point that if a person speaks in exactly the way that these symbols indicate, they will sound comically old-fashioned. His new book English after RP sets out to describe they ways in which standard British has evolved away from RP. He suggests alternative phonetic symbols which would be more appropriate for modern Standard Southern British English, but he also recognises that the traditional set will not be changed overnight, given the number of text books still using them. If we are to stick with the symbols currently in use, we will need to avoid taking them at phonetic face value – the symbols no longer accurately describe the facts.

Dharmendra Sheth’s response

Thank you, Mark, for posting this thought provoking review of Lindsey’s book. Let me put in my two cents worth but with the caveat that I have not got hold of the book yet. In fact, after reading your review, I am more than eager to read the book.

Well, according to Lindsay, “pronunciation is moving in the direction of spelling.” He has also given an example of “hurricane, where the second syllable is increasingly likely to rhyme with cane, rather than having the vowel reduced to schwa.” But I feel that speaking-as-spelled might happen for a tiny percent of words in English. Why? Because even a non-native speaker of English like me learn right from the outset that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the letter and the sound. I distinctly remember my school teacher asking us to repeat after him the letters in isolation and the words containing them; for instance, a – apple, a – ask, a – ability, a – all, etc.

He also suggests an alternative set of phonetic symbols. I will have to read the book to make informed comments. However, let me just present our situation here in India. For the last decade or so, most teachers and learners of English have easy access to the Internet, and via that, to online dictionaries from international publishers such as Cambridge and Oxford. Most Indian learners of English today (intermediate and above), for instance, do not ask their teachers how a word is pronounced. They find it out on their own. It’s a click away. And the current IPA symbols are deeply ingrained in learners’ psyche. I believe the same is the case where English is not the first language. That means that for majority of speakers of English in the world today, the model pronunciation is what such dictionaries suggest. Introducing a new set of symbols will create an extremely difficult situation since the IPA symbols are so widely used in all fields of knowledge.

Marks suggests (is that Lindsay’s view also?) that “we don’t necessarily need to aim for any standard model.” Well, that argument is untenable at least in ESL/EFL situations. If we don’t aim at a model, it may affect mutual intelligibility. The importance of a uniform model cannot be stressed enough for a multi-lingual country like India where people in every state have a distinctly different style of speaking EnglishNo-model for language learners (and teachers) may end up in utter chaos.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Mark Hancock’s response

Hi Dharmendra
Thanks for your very interesting observations.
You may be right that only a few words will drift in the direction of spelling-pronunciation – only time will tell. I definitely do sense however that there is a trend away from reducing every unstressed vowel to schwa, as Lindsey claims. As regards English as a Lingua Franca, many words may, over time, drift in the direction of the spelt form. I try to stop my students saying ‘pear’ to rhyme with ‘ear’, but who knows, in the end that trend may prevail just from the sheer weight of numbers of people using the English they’ve already got, instead of always being in the position of learners of the languag.
I agree with you that changing the set of IPA symbols we use for teaching purposes would be a difficult upheaval. It may also be pointless, given that we don’t necessarily require the precision of phonetic symbols – phonemic symbols are quite sufficient. We only need precision if we are teaching a very specific accent – training actors, for example – or spies!
Your last point about models: I think there is probably a default model in every classroom, namely the teacher. This has long been the case, and I don’t think is necessarily a problem – I don’t think mutual intelligibility depends on everybody having the same accent (This is my opinion by the way, not Lindsey’s). However, I have no knowledge or experience of the situation in India; there may well be good reasons to aspire to conformity there which I know nothing about. I am aware, for example, that there is a pressure for accent conformity within the United States, leading to the existence of many schools and tutors that advertise so called ‘accent reduction’ courses. Perhaps this amounts to the difference between ‘English as a Second Language’ (which tends to stress accent conformity) and ‘English as a Foreign Language’ or ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, where accent diversity is a fact of life.