Pronunciation (pronounced /prer’NUnsi’EIsh-n/)

Mark Liberman’s learned Language Log post on Italian pronunciation and how The New York Times journalists get it wrong inadvertently draws attention to a real enough communication problem: how can we use media to tell others how to pronounce words?

Liberman imagines a parallel universe in which NYT journalists would come to know the International Phonetic Alphabet, with its large repertoire of unique symbols for unique phones that cover the sound elements of any human language. Some hope. Closer to reality is the Merriam-Webster online dictionary(for English, natürlich) approach which offers a non-technical but still awkward pronunciation guide (e.g. ‘gId where the identifies the stress onset and the rest, of the symbols may have to be looked up in another click-intensive operation) for each word in the language. For a fee, M-W also offers an audio version, which presumably allows you to hear that the word conundrum is pronounced /ker’NUndr-m/ and not /‘KOn-n’DRUm/, which is how I used to pronounce it to myself as a readerly kid. But whether the audio service uses a male or female voice or allows age and geography variation in the speaker, I cannot say, being too mean to pay.

One obvious problem with existing dictionary multimedia aids like this is that they inevitably miss a vast range of real needs about how to pronounce proper names, nonce words, technical terminology and evolving symbols in our everyday encounters with written language. As an example, here’s a googled selection of how web writers try to help readers with pronunciation :

· “Balluchillish Pronounced “ball-a-hoollish”

· “Jonathan Laughlin pronounced lock-lin”

· “Logic may dictate the “g” in GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) is pronounced hard, like gift or gefilte fish, but it’s “Jiff” and I Don’t Want to Hear Another Word

· “C# (pronounced See Sharp ) is scheduled to be included with the next release of Microsoft’s Visual Studio .NET programming environment”

· “VLDCMCaR (pronounced vldcmcar) Very Large Database for Concatenative Music Composition and Recontextualization”

· “HAOLE presents (pronounced HOWL-ee)”

· or this on how to pronounce the @ sign in French (the people voted for arobase pronounced /’ARro’bahz/ whereas the French government terminology commissions says “arrobe” or /arr’Ob/.

Presumably text-to-speech technology (TTS) will come to the rescue in the long run, but it will be an expensive business to speechify all words in all languages. Instead of linking to a pronunciation site, you should be able to find an on-the-fly TTS service embedded, as it were, beneath the word on the screen, rather like the various clickionaries that pop up a definition. (indeed, I imagine that web users/citizens will have this sort of access to any amount of automated linguistic and encyclopedic knowledge in the coming years). For on-the-move pronunciation angst, we should be thinking about a mobile phone service you can ring up to get a pronunciation prompt for a hard-to-say name from your directory, just before a meeting, or for the name of a town from a list. But memory can betray us, and literates tend to write pronounciations down in their own way. Which brings us back to reading. When you are reading text – newspapers, maps, address books, name lists at a conference – there should still be some plausible method (language specific obviously – no universal values assigned to Latin alphabet symbols, please) for sketching an audio image into the reader’s brain using familiar symbols, not phonetic science.

The oddest thing about pronunciation aids in a connected world is that the written ‘pronunciations’ will all have to be localized: Hungarian names will have to be inscribed in some appropriate local form for Spanish, English et al. speakers, just as Spanish will have to be for Han, Wolof et al. speakers. This way madness lies. Maybe we ought to just barcode the whole language and as the reader is passed across those pesky words we don’t know, a neutral pronunciation will go straight into our earphones…


Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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