The Phonetics Police

In the world of written English, everybody knows about the grammar police. 

They pick at a piece of writing, not because of its language (the main element) but because of its punctuation.

Well, in the world of English pronunciation, there’s a similar group:

The Phonetics Police. 

Phonetics police officers on duty in London 2023. © /ˈgɛti ˈɪmɪdʒɪz/

They will always find something wrong with a transcription of speech.

And they have a pretty easy job. Let’s imagine you are transcribing the word CRETE:

Depending on the focus, you might use one of the above transcriptions.

But they are all “wrong” in their own way. And the last one doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the original word.

Even if you stick to the phonemic version /kriːt/ found in dictionaries, you’re not on safe ground because the Phonetics Police will tell you the phonemic alphabet is, you guessed it: 

SOURCE: A phonetics policeman’s Oxford English Dictionary

Just last week I saw a phonetician get into a lather on Youtube about a couple of English teachers doing exactly this – using the standard vowel symbols that nearly all dictionaries and ESL publishers use in their publications. 😱

So are language  teachers supposed to come up with their own perfectly crafted set of symbols? Let’s just think this through:

SOURCE: An English teacher’s personal diary. 

It’s unlikely that a language teacher will take 5 years out to master phonetics and create their own perfectly crafted phonemic alphabet.

And let’s face it, most teachers don’t want to confuse their students. So they’ll be going with the first option – the symbols used in dictionaries.

The problem is: transcription is always inaccurate.

You simply can’t describe what a human is saying with a small set of symbols without generalising, compromising, or writing something so complicated that it becomes confusing. 

I’m not suggesting that accuracy isn’t important. I’m saying that an unrealistic pursuit of accuracy puts teachers and learners off phonetics. 

SOURCE: Pronunciation.Studio Instagram poll 08/23 

And this may actually please some in the same way some people love semicolons. But it won’t help learners or language learning overall.

If more students learn phonetics, and more teachers teach phonetics, and more people discuss phonetics, this can only be a good thing. Students, teachers and ultimately phonetics will benefit.

You have to start somewhere.

Language teachers are the victims, not the perpetrators.

If you’re a phonetics police all of this may seem hard to stomach. It must feel difficult maintaining law and order in such a confused place. It probably feels like most people don’t even know what the laws are!

So, I have a suggestion. Imagine this is a war on drugs. Direct your energies not at the street level dealers (ESL learners and teachers) – but at the suppliers (ESL publishers and dictionaries). It’s your best chance of cleaning up this rotten mess once and for all!

And in the meantime, if you’re anybody else:

I’ll see you in jail, I’m currently serving 10 years in cell block [ʰ].

It’ll be a life sentence when they read this…