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I was reading a book on rhetoric today and it had the following table of pronounciation:

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The thing I find confusing about this table is that I pronounce the A in "ask" and "at" exactly the same way, so I am confused as to what sounds the author is trying to describe because he is clearly implying that he pronounces the two words differently.

Another related problem I have with this table is the difference between the E with the tilde and the U with the hat in URGE. I pronounce "term" and "turm" exactly the same way, so I do not understand the difference between these two sounds either. So, for example, if I were asked to pronounce "terge" and "turge" I would pronounce them the same way. So, just to continue in the same way, I pronounce "detergent" and "turgid" the same way with respect to the -rg syllable. So how is he giving two different symbols for the same sound?

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    How old is this book?
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 9, 2022 at 18:37
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    Many British English speakers pronounce "ask" with the vowel of "father".
    – TKR
    Apr 9, 2022 at 18:51
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    It’s not clear whether that table is meant to represent phonemes or phones. As @TKR says, ask has the FATHER vowel to many BrE speakers, and there are many BrE dialects where term and urge are separate as well, the former often something like unrounded [ɜː]. Apr 9, 2022 at 19:26
  • I wondered if this was an AmE or BrE publication. No 15 suggests AmE.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 9, 2022 at 20:56
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    @ColinFine The centralization of the first element of the GOAT vowel is quite new—Wells (1982: 237) speculates it supplanted [o~ö] as the prestige variant only after WWII. Daniel Jones used <ou> in EPD throughout his life and only in the 1960s did Gimson introduce <əʊ>.
    – Nardog
    Apr 10, 2022 at 0:31

3 Answers 3

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This is a difficulty with many English-specific transcription systems: they explain the notation using the author's particular dialect, but English dialects vary enormously in pronunciation. Americans tend to pronounce "ask" and "at" with the same vowel, but "palm" with a different one; the Queen's English traditionally pronounces "ask" and "palm" the same but "at" differently. So taking a shot in the dark, I'm guessing you're American and the author of the book is English.

When talking about dialect variations, there's a classical list of "lexical sets" used to make it easier to talk about the different categories of vowels in English. Using Wells' names, we would say "ask" has the BATH vowel, while "at" has the TRAP vowel. For me, as with you, BATH and TRAP are the same. So we'll have to look at a different dialect to figure out what the author actually intended here. (Or maybe he's just using this spelling to indicate how to pronounce unfamiliar words—in which case you can ignore the rest of the answer and read both ȧ and ă as IPA [æ] or something similar depending on your local variety.)

You say this is a book on "rhetoric", a term I associate more with the 1800s than the 1900s and onward, and I'd hazard a guess that the author is English, as distinguishing TRAP and BATH is quite rare in America and Australian dialects are less commonly assumed to be a universal standard. In that case, the author is most likely using Received Pronunication (RP), or "the Queen's English", which was for a long time the most prestigious dialect in England. It seems likely that someone writing a rhetoric book in pre-1900s England, with no mention of dialect variation, would be assuming the audience had learned RP. I'm far from an expert in the English education system but I would not be surprised to hear that students were expected to know how to speak proper RP English before reaching the level of formally studying rhetoric.

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The presence of ask in the pronunciation key in question is either accounting for accents of both Northern and Southern England, where the word has the same vowel as at and arm, respectively, simply copying a relic from when this shift in Southern England was ongoing, or (most likely) giving the reader freedom to interpret it as either vowel (or a whole other one).

The type of notation seen in the excerpt is one devised for the 1757 dictionary Linguæ Britannicæ Vera Pronunciatio and then popularized by Walker, Worcester, and Webster's dictionaries, used until well into the 20th century (and still by American Heritage). Until the late 19th century, the trap–bath split was still ongoing in Southern England, so the separate symbol for ask, bath, dance, etc. emerged.

Like Northern England, North American accents didn't go through the split, except in some parts of New England. However, what we may now call General American didn't emerge as the prestige accent until after World War II, and actors and announcers before then were taught an accent that mimicked non-rhotic Southern British accents, in which the "ask words" were pronounced with an intermediate sound between [æ] (as in at) and [ɑ] (as in arm), as seen here and here (see Penzl 1940 for more discussion).

EDIT: The very book the excerpt appears to be from in fact gives a fairly decent explanation (American IP needed):

The Italian a, numbered 2, is going through a transition in American speech. In British speech it is fixed as a broad sound; the use of a as in father being much more common in England than in America. Italian a as in last, past, fast, grass in this country is hardly heard west of the Hudson. This is neither a defense nor a condemnation of Western speech as against Eastern. Stage conventions and good manners on the platform still demand a liberal broadening of these sounds. Most students will profit by changing in the direction of using a more open Italian a, rather than by drilling themselves in the habit of keeping it flat and thin.


The use of term for illustrating <ẽ> is indeed odd, but this symbol was used to denote the reduced vowel /ə/ before /r/ (see this answer). So murmur was represented as "mûr′mẽr". For most rhotic North American speakers, these sounds are merged (but not for others—to whom hurry and furry do not rhyme and forward and foreword are not homophonous), so that may be the reason the writer chose an inappropriate example.

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  • at not the best comparitor here as it’s normally pronounced with a schwa! Apr 10, 2022 at 11:19
  • @Araucaria I know, but it's the one the source uses (as does Penzl) and the context is pretty clear.
    – Nardog
    Apr 10, 2022 at 23:06
  • Yes, quite. Not a criticism of your post, just an observation about at, really :) Apr 11, 2022 at 4:08
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I suppose when you ask "how", you mean "why". We can't know for sure without knowing the book and the author, but it is likely that either the author is deluded, or the author speaks a different dialect from yours. Transcriptional explanations like those only work for readers who speak the exact same dialect. What you need is actual recordings, but in the olden days we could only hint at pronunciations by reference to how "we" (the individual author) pronounce words. There is always the possibility that an author believes that things are pronounced differently because they are spelled differently.

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