International Phonetic Ignorance

The point of the IPA is to have an international standard for phonetic transcription, regardless of the narrowness of that transcription. Individual authors can choose to specify or underspecify in their narrowness, for various purposes. Although this flexibility has not been codified, it’s not hard to figure out what works for you.

In light of this, I don’t understand why some authors continue to use APA or their own archaic, made-up phonetic alphabet that blatantly snubs the meaning of some IPA symbols. The point of the IPA is to be a standard. If you don’t need all the symbols, don’t use all of them. (Read: If you are a phonologist and only believe in one central vowel phoneme, then just use the schwa for all of them.) You can use IPA and do this. If you’re complaining about the difficulty in entering the characters, then blame the years of pre-Windows-7 PC usage, stop whining, and make yourself a custom keyboard. It’s actually easier on PC now than it is on Mac. Two things: 1. There are lots of ways out there to make phonetic character entry easier than Word’s Insert > Symbol. 2. If you are a professional that does this everyday for your job, push for your field to get its 21st century act together and develop a symbol entry tool that is designed for linguists. It might involve 5 keyboards. It might involve speech-to-text. It might involve a rubber band, a gumball, and a paperclip. There’s a solution out there. Needless to say, this is not an insurmountable problem that justifies continued use of arcane phonetic transcriptions.

For example, my historical linguistics text book (Hock and Joseph 2009) is still using a bastardized APA. The last update to the book was in 2009. The last revision of the IPA was in 2005. Hock is ancient, but I don’t know why a prominent linguist like Joseph would feel comfortable with Hock’s treatment of phonetics/phonology. Maybe he couldn’t convince him to use something else… Maybe the convention is encrusted onto historical linguistics. Regardless, my classmates – and even the teacher – are having trouble dealing with Hock’s now-rogue transcription.

People really need to get on board with the IPA. It’s the international standard. Use it. If you have critiques, change it from the inside. If you don’t need the plethora of symbols, just use the ones you do need. Moving forward is the answer. Looking backward and whining about change is not.

A Hidden World

Language is all around us. We’re constantly bathed in it yet we rarely notice it. When we do, it’s because something’s gone wrong, and even then it’s very brief. And we don’t really see it for what it is, not naturally. It really makes you wonder how linguistics even happened at all. Or you could say language is like a window so well cleaned we walk right into it. It’s like your face if you never had a mirror: you might occasionally see a distorted reflection on water, but you don’t know the complete physical reality of it and you really don’t care. Though we feel this way about the way we as an individual talk, that’s not the verdict on just about everyone else. We’ve steeped in language so long we’ve grown bitter. People have accents. People talk funny. Some people sound stupid. People with an accent are less intelligent. People can’t say in their language what we can say in ours. People over there can’t convey complex thought. The list goes on—the tea is more than bitter, there are far worse things that are starting to grow in it.

The tragedy of human history past and present is that we keep drinking it. Like bleu cheese, we’re told that it’s supposed to have mold in it. Now it’s a teacup that has been left out on the counter for years. What would it look like? What would be in it? More importantly, why is it still there!?

We have to notice it. This is how linguistics is conceived in your mind, a rebirth of what you think language is. Be interested in the speakers—they’re just people. Be fascinated by the sounds—it’s music. Get close enough to the glass for it to fog up. Step to the side and notice how the angle catches the light. Wash that damn teacup.

You don’t have to be a practicing linguist to know linguistics. Linguistics is just knowing about language, like math is knowing about numbers. You can add and subtract, so you can know about the stuff that’s pouring out of your mouth everyday. This is linguistics. Welcome.