January 02, 2008

Why I Don't Love the International Phonetic Alphabet

Don't get me wrong: I love the idea of an international phonetic alphabet, and most of the IPA symbols are the same as the phonetic symbols used by linguists all over the world, including me. But some of them are different, and some of those differences make the IPA non-ideal for me, and I suspect for a lot of other fieldworkers out there too. Some of my reasons are fairly trivial, but one of them is a serious problem. I'll save that one for last.

The IPA doesn't go in for diacritics much, notably hacheks. So, for instance, the "sh" sound is an elongated letter [ʃ], as opposed to an ordinary [s]. For linguists who got A's in penmanship in grade school (if there's anyone still alive who ever got grades in penmanship), this might work just fine when they're transcribing data from speakers or from tape recordings. But I'm not one of those people, and there'd be a real risk that my [ʃ]'s would turn out looking like [s]'s and vice versa, and that's a bad thing when you're trying to figure out a language's phonological system. If you use a hachek for "sh", it's [š], much harder to confuse with [s]. So I use hacheks, and so do most other fieldworkers I know.

For a few sounds, different transcription practices have developed for the use of ordinary roman letters that aren't needed for the sounds they spell in Western alphabets. The most common of these letters is c: we have [s] for transcribing the c in cell and [k] for the c as in cat, so c itself is available for use as a phonetic symbol for another sound. In the IPA, [c] is a voiceless palatal stop. This is actually a pretty common sound in the world's languages, but it's rare as a separate phoneme -- often, where it occurs, it's an allophone of /k/, and it's commonly transcribed with k plus some diacritic indicating palatalization. When I studied Sanskrit in graduate school, the letter c was used to transliterate a "ch" sound, and as a phonemic symbol for the "ch" -- an affricate that many other linguists (including me) transcribe as [č], using the same hachek diacritic as for [š]. No need for a palatal stop in transliterating (or phonemicizing) Sanskrit; lots of need for a [č], and why bother with the diacritic when everyone understands the c as [č]? Years later, when I morphed into a specialist in American Indian languages, I adopted the typical Americanist practice of using c to transcribe a "ts" affricate: lots of need for that in New World languages, little or no need for a palatal stop. (Actually, in the Pacific Northwest, /k/ often represents a prevelar or even a palatal stop, contrasting with /q/, which is a "back k" or uvular stop. But there too c is reserved for the affricate.) In transliterating or transcribing Sanskrit, it's very convenient to have an easy way to represent the common phoneme "ch", and ditto for the common affricate "ts" in American Indian languages. Using the letter c is a handy solution in each case. But strict adherence to the IPA closes off this convenient use of c, which seems a shame, because as long as linguists are always careful to say what symbols stand for what, no confusion can result.

But if the IPA uses c for a palatal stop, how do you transcribe affricates in IPA symbols? Answer: you use digraphs. So [tʃ] represents "ch" and [ts] represents "ts". Because the IPA isn't enthusiastic about diacritics, you don't get any ligature in standard IPA (though the TexTipa phonetic fonts that I use in LaTeX documents do have the t and the fricative symbol sort of smooshed together so that you can tell it's an affricate and not a consonant cluster). When I wrote a paper on Montana Salish phonetics with the late great Peter Ladefoged and Edward Flemming -- a somewhat misleading author listing; Flemming did almost all the analysis and writing, Ladefoged collected the data when I took him to the Flathead Reservation in the mid-1990s, and I was third author -- we had a problem with the IPA system: Montana Salish has a contrast between syllable-initial affricates and syllable-initial stop + fricative clusters. The word for `be soft', for instance, is /čep/ (in Americanist transcription for "ch"), and the word for `bull elk' is /tšec'/ (also using the Americanist transcription for [ts']). There's no doubt about the contrast, because stops in stop + fricative clusters are released before the fricative and are thus clearly differentiated phonetically from a corresponding affricate. So, as we worked on the paper, I kept insisting that using IPA [tʃ] for the affricate was unacceptable, because it concealed the phonetic and phonemic distinction between affricate and cluster. Peter was a dedicated proponent of strict IPA transcription, though, and I won the battle (the distinction had to be made) but lost the war: the paper -- to appear, possibly even fairly soon, in the Journal of Phonetics -- ended up transcribing `be soft' as [tʃep] and `bull elk' as [t.ʃets'].

So the IPA is problematic for people transcribing linguistic data in the field -- where you need to write fast to avoid wasting your consultant's time, so that super-careful writing isn't an option -- and it doesn't allow for variation in symbol choices to facilitate the transcription of sounds that are especially common in different parts of the world. And it also doesn't make it easy to distinguish affricates in the admittedly rare languages where they contrast with stop + fricative clusters. But the worst problem I've come across is in the IPA vowel chart. I only realized this last month, when a student in my historical linguistics class objected to my complaint, in a problem set, that he hadn't generalized enough in stating a certain sound change. I wanted the students to say that the change happened "before all front vowels", but he protested that his "before non-low front vowels" had a necessary constraint because the change did not happen before /a/. I tend to deviate from IPA norms more in vowels than in consonants -- some of the IPA vowel symbols are hard to draw, and life is short, so I use diacritics quite a lot in transcribing vowel distinctions. But I keep forgetting that the IPA insists that the letter "a" represents a low front vowel. Like many other linguists, I use the symbol known as ash, [æ], for the low front unrounded vowel. (In the IPA this symbol represents a not-quite-so-low front unrounded vowel; I won't bore you with the details of how I make that distinction in transcribing.) Also like many other linguists, I use the letter "a" for a low central vowel.

The IPA does of course have a symbol for a low(ish) central vowel: it is an upside-down "a", namely, [ɐ]. And for a low back unrounded vowel, the IPA uses a symbol that looks just like the letter a that I, and a whole lot of other linguists and non-linguists, use in printing by hand. There are two problems here with the IPA system. First, the IPA symbol for the low central vowel is hard to draw, and it's all too easy to draw in a way that makes it very hard to interpret afterward. This vowel sound is so common as to be near-universal in the world's languages, so it's particularly unfortunate that the IPA transcribes it with such a user-unfriendly symbol. The lower-than-æ front vowel, by contrast, is absent from many, many languages. Second, and worse, everyone who hand-prints an a with something that looks like the IPA low back unrounded vowel symbol [a] has a life-long habit of equating that hand-printed vowel with the printed letter "a". The habit is hard to break, which makes confusion all too predictable when (for instance) one is typing up fieldnotes.

Geoff Pullum and Bill Ladusaw, in their wonderful little fat book Phonetic Symbol Guide, observe that `The IPA's effort to establish [a] and [a] as separate symbols "has not met with the success originally hoped for" (Principles, p. 19).' Surprise, surprise. But it's worse than that plaintive comment by the International Phonetic Association suggests. After my student pointed out that my use of the symbol "a" for the low central unrounded vowel is not sanctioned by the IPA, I did a quick check of the language grammars closest to my desk and found an overwhelming majority of authors using the symbol "a" for a low central vowel, not for a low front vowel. This was a rough count of a non-random set of languages, and I omitted grammars whose authors did not describe the language's sounds or show the symbols in a chart or otherwise indicate what sounds the symbols represented (a sign of extreme wickedness in any linguist-author of a grammar of any language). Here are the results. All the authors who clearly indicated the pronunciation of the vowels treated [a] as a low vowel. In the Americas, 28 grammars had [a] as a central (or at least non-front) vowel and not one grammar had it as a front vowel. In Australia, 35 grammars had [a] as non-front and 4 had [a] as front, and in New Guinea, 18 grammars had [a] as non-front and 2 had it as front. A spot-check of a few languages elsewhere in the world turned up seven languages with [a] as non-front (Finnish, Hungarian, Hausa, Gimira, Yemsa, Turkish, and Uighur) and one (Evenki) with [a] as a front vowel. All of these grammars were written by modern linguists, so I think it's reasonable to conclude that on this point it's the IPA, not me, that's out of step with the world.

In any case, being a stubborn type, I'll stick to my Americanist practice of using hacheks and a user-friendly low central vowel symbol, and even the less obviously defensible non-IPA transcriptions that I'm used to and happy with. I do routinely warn my students that there is no sacred phonetic alphabet and that there is a lot of variation among linguists who do phonetic transcription, and I tell them they can use any system they want as long as it's reasonably standard, and as long as they stick to a single symbol for each sound they're transcribing. I freely acknowledge that the IPA may be absolutely ideal for people who do their phonetics in laboratories rather than in the field, and even that there are probably quite a few fieldworkers who don't share my reservations about it. I also realize that no single transcription system is likely to be ideal for all linguists and/or all purposes. So I'm not dogmatic (at least not about this). I hope, though, that the IPA enthusiasts out there won't try too hard to convert us IPA dissidents.

Posted by Sally Thomason at January 2, 2008 10:50 AM