Sunday, September 28, 2008

Favorite tools: The I.P.A.

When I studied linguistics in college, I had to take courses in phonology and phonetics. And I learned that despite having the sound "fun" in its name, phonetics was pretty darned dull. Though I did learn that any healthy human is capable of making the exact sounds of any language, and that was encouraging. (It's not that you can't make those sounds, you just don't make them on purpose yet.) Phonology was somewhat better, because it went into how sounds are used in a given language, and that was a welcome departure from the pure mechanics of speech production.

Although I was ambivalent about these subjects, they did give me one excellent tool that has stood me in good stead ever since: the International Phonetic Alphabet IPA), used for phonetic transcription.

Just as you can use musical notation to record a melody on staff paper, IPA lets you transcribe the exact sounds of any language. Once you have a good command of it, you can accurately record anything you hear on paper. Very low-tech, and very handy.
I've used it for transcribing songs before I understood all the words. I've used it to improve my accent in French. I've used it to get a handle on how people from different dialects of Irish pronounce the same word.

The lack of it in my first Irish textbook ((See if you can) Teach Yourself Irish by Myles Dillon and Donncha ó Cróinín, 1961) convinced me that I could not learn the language from a book because I would never be sure how to pronounce anything. (The book did have a pronunciation guide, but it described the symbols it used in terms of sounds in common English words, probably in an Irish English or British English accent, which was useless to me. I come from a place where we actually say our r's, and I make no distinction between the vowels in the pairs tool/tune, do/duty, noon/new, loose/lure. And if you give me weird words, it's as good as no help at all: good/gules(??) Another odd thing about that book: it used IPA in the glossary, but this other odd system throughout the chapters.)

Once you have a way to describe what you are hearing, it improves your ability to hear the fine distinctions, and it's a great help toward actually producing the sounds intentionally yourself. Once you have a target to aim for...


stwidgie said...

This is the first in an imaginary series (imaginary 'cos this is still only the first installment, so it's not a series yet) about the tools I appreciate most. If a bad workman blames his tools, does a good workman praise his?

Anonymous said...

If a tool is useful, plug it shamelessly. It educates apprentice workmen and master craftsmen alike.