What is the Value of Broad Transcription?

This blog post is an open inquiry: what is the value of teaching broad transcription to actors these days?

phonemeEvery fall, I teach phonetics to my first-year acting students at Rutgers. Every fall, we go through the empty consonant chart, attempting to make each possible physical action – both voiced and unvoiced – in each individual cell. This physical exploration usually goes smoothly – sorting through the resulting consonant sounds as either familiar or unfamiliar depending on whether it’s a sound that actually occurs in some human language and on what languages my students speak – until we get to the unvoiced alveolar fricative. My students dutifully curl their tongue tips/blades up towards their alveolar ridges to try to create some unvoiced fricative flow between those two surfaces, and the resultant consonant sound is deemed unfamiliar. A similar consensus is reached when we get to the unvoiced post-alveolar fricative, as well.

When we look at the symbols together later and when I identify English consonant phonemes, shock and consternation fills the room as I identify these as <s> and <sh> sounds, respectively.

“That’s not how I make my <s> sound,” cries the student.

“How do you make it?” I ask, delighted that the student has developed the physical awareness to identify how s/he is shaping sound.

This inquiry becomes valuable for a number of reasons. The student then gets to articulate out loud what’s happening inside his/her vocal tract. The rest of us get to try on that student’s allophone of /s/. Other students get to articulate out loud how they are doing it differently. The rest of us get to try on lots of different allophones of /s/. The students begin to understand that each one of us has our own individualized speech patterns. The students realize that, despite the differences in the room, we can all understand each other’s /s/s. I get to introduce some diacritics that will help phonetically describe the different /s/s in the room. I get to introduce the concepts of “phoneme” – a meaningful sound – and “allophone” – a particular realization of a meaningful sound.
I get to descrprice vs priceibe the differences between broad transcription and narrow transcription.

I rely heavily on broad transcription when it comes to identifying English vowels, particularly diphthongs. After some proper time phthonging, including moving tongue mountains and rolling grapes from front to back to front, my students and I look at the vowel quadrilateral. Cue cognitive dissonance again.

“This symbol [u] signifies that the back of your dorsum is arched highly towards the area around your soft palate, and your lips are rounded,” I proclaim.

“This symbol is identified with the lexical set word GOOSE.”choice vs choice

“That’s not how I make the vowel in that word.”

Fair enough.

Even more dissonant is the broad transcription of the PRICE and CHOICE diphthongs (/aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/, respectively). Many students feel that they close the PRICE diphthong towards [i], and they are not wrong. Many students feel that they start the CHOICE diphthong with the back of their tongues arched, rather than cupped, and so more in the vicinity of [o]. They are not wrong. And the discrepancies between their allophones of those phonemes and the broad transcriptions of those phonemes make it hard for them to remember the broad transcriptions.

The inevitable question that comes next, every fall, is what’s the point of learning the somewhat idealized broad transcriptions of phonemes? I can think of some reasons, but I want to know what yours are, readers.

Ok, I can’t resist listing the reasons I use to justify for myself the teaching and assessing of broad transcription:

  • when the students go out into the world as professional actors, they may encounter dialect coaches who only use broad phonemic transcription
  • it will be useful when looking at various pronouncing dictionaries
  • it may be useful as shorthand
  • it is useful for the students to have learned broad transcriptions of phonemes when they are asked to realize phonemes in those ways for certain pronunciation patterns like “General American,” “Standard American,” “Neutral American,” or “Non-Regional American”

Really, though, readers, what are your thoughts?

what is the value

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7 thoughts on “What is the Value of Broad Transcription?

  1. 1. I agree that when the students go out into the world as professional actors, they *may* encounter dialect coaches who only use broad phonemic transcription. This, of course, will not prevent the actors from narrowing the transcription themselves, so I’m not sure it’s a reason to promote broad transcription in the classroom. On the other hand, in the bulk of my practice as a professional dialect designer/coach, of the actors I work with who have any knowledge of IPA, most are likely to use broad transcription – often of the Skinner variety – regardless of how detailed we actually get in the coaching. Broad transcription is easier to remember and faster to use, and global adjustment notes (including oral posture) can often take care of the rest.

    IPA is a useful notation system, and KTS is, I think, a superb way (the best way I know) of investigating the elements of speech. But I think it’s important not to confuse IPA with speech. There are terrific accent-and-dialect actors who wouldn’t know an IPA symbol if it punched them in the nose. Nobody would claim Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder were poor musicians because they couldn’t read the notes on the staff. So I don’t actually care if my clients use IPA or faux-netics or color-coding. Kinesthetic and ear training are more important than the notation system.

    2. I agree it can be useful when looking at various pronouncing dictionaries, but it’s important to remember that English pronouncing dictionaries use *phonemic* transcription, not phonetic, so narrow transcription doesn’t come into it. Also, most of these dictionaries introduce conventions of their own, or perpetuate transcription traditions that we ourselves may not use. So one still has to read the front matter in order to get the full value of the dictionary.

    3. It may be useful as shorthand? Yes, indeed. See my final remarks on (1), above. I think it’s very helpful to understand as much as one can about phonetics and can be valuable to be able to use narrow transcription, but when the clock is ticking, it takes too long. If I’m taking rehearsal or performance notes, personally I may well use combinations of broad transcription and faux-netics. Anything to get the job done. I can always clean it up later.

    I’m afraid I can’t make any sense out of (4).

    I use broad transcription all the time; even my narrow transcription is seldom *very* narrow. I prefer global notes because I have visual limitations that make extremely narrow transcription very difficult to process.

  2. [Well, I wrote a really long response to this, and then my computer crashed and I lost it all. Argh.
    I think I will write comments in a text editor, and then paste them in the comments section in future…]

    I use broad, phonemic, transcription quite a lot. I like it. I see value in narrow phonetic transcription, of course. But sometime a broad transcription is faster, and conveys what I need. It represents something gestural to me, like this image: https://goo.gl/arQMc5 , rather than the remarkable detail in this one: goo.gl/N7ZygS . Don’t get me wrong: they’re both lovely images, but they serve completely different purposes. I’ve often used the “Incomplete Figures of Leeper” that I got from an old phonetics textbook (title and author sadly long forgotten) to make this point before— https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/268359/Figures-of-Leeper.pdf (the images force you to fill in the blanks to try to discover the picture within).

    Einstein said something sort of like this: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”* A lot of the time, I think that Broad Phonemic Transcription can be like that.

    Most of the time, my transcriptions are just for me. There is no phonetic police coming to check my work! Don’t get me wrong: I love a “Christmas Tree” symbol, adorned with diacritic ornaments, as much as the next guy (or maybe that other Erik guy). [ʌ̈ʊ̞ ˈjɛ̞s̻]

    But sometimes I can capture the gist of what I’m hearing in something that only hints at the direction I’m pointing myself toward. Perhaps [o̜ʊ jæs] would be close enough, especially if I’m reading at speed.

    Other times, I think of Freud’s *Narcissism of Small Differences*. That I’m tricking myself into a sense of importance with the vanity of just how narrow my transcription is, and that my accent breakdown must be better than some other coach—(ahem) accent designer— because it is more detailed. Who does that serve? Not the actor who can’t read it! Sometimes, when I return to a document I’ve created like that after days, weeks, months, or YEARS have passed, I have no idea what I was getting at when I wrote it.

    I’m becoming more inclined to focus on the ideas, the gestures, the articulatory focus, the resonance placement, the oral posture, the fronter-backer-opener-closer-ness of what I’m going for, and words and audio files tend to convey those better than those microscopic diacritics that my aging eyes struggle to see, and my crap handwriting struggles to print carefully enough.

    Perhaps Paul Meier’s transcription system, where he numbers the sound changes he’s described (also in IPA, btw), makes a certain amount of sense?

    To some degree, isn’t the International Phonetic Association’s advice that you make a commentary that describes what you mean by broad phonemic symbols, and then apply those change on the fly? So that if /r/ = [ɹ], /aɪ̯/= [əi̯], and /t/ = [ʔ͜t], then all you need to write it /raɪt/, right?

    If the bulk of the way a student/client of mine is learning is based on the *sound* I’m modeling or have made available as a sample for them to listen to, then the symbolic representation of it is merely a reminder. Most of the time, the IPA is there for ME, not for them.

    IPA is merely a tool, a means to an end, and not the end itself. Sure I enjoy its use and its study, but the point is getting people do speak differently. That’s something I have to remind myself every day (and frankly, it’s something I fail to remember far too often.)

    * Apparently what Einstein said was probably more like this: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”
    — From “On the Method of Theoretical Physics,” the Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford, June 10, 1933. This is the Oxford University’ Press version. The words “simple,” “simplest,” and “simplicity” recur throughout the lecture. The version reprinted in 1954 in Ideas and Opinions, 272, is a bit different. This sentence may be the origin of the much-quoted sentence that “everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler,” and its variants.”

  3. Eric, you raise many very interesting and important questions. I may take them up in a separate post, rather than reply extensively here, but one quick response: Julie’s post, and its question about the value of teaching broad transcription, implicitly comes out of a KTS teaching framework, i.e. one in which classroom speech training in an acting program begins with anatomy and the physicality of speech actions, and moves on to narrow transcription only after those skills and awarenesses are very solid and specific. Julie’s question (as I understand it), is not about the value of broad transcription for accent coaches, accent breakdowns, accent teaching, etc., let alone for dictionary writers, phoneticians, phonologists, and the like.

  4. Erik, I understand that Julie teaches within a KTS framework, and that may have prompted her question, but if she/you only want answers within that framework, then hasn’t she answered her own question? KTS starts with physicality and its relationship to sound, assigns fundamental (broad) IPA symbols to the gestures/sounds explored, and if/as/when these are determined to be inadequate/inaccurate, refines with diacritics. So teaching broad transcription is a good in itself, and teaching how to narrow the transcription is the next good in the sequence of teaching.

    But if the work is to prepare the student for a life *outside* the classroom, then I think what Eric and I have written are good answers to the question from our individual perspectives as teachers, designers, and coaches. (I think we’ve written pretty much the same thing, actually, though Eric has provided more detail and more scholarly stuff. 🙂 )

    The value of broad transcription depends on what one uses it for, and we have discussed those uses. The value of *teaching* broad transcription is as a means to an end. I certainly don’t think as teachers we should stop at broad transcription, because of its limitations, but I do think that we should recognize that we and our students or clients are likely to rely more heavily on broad than on narrow transcription in most practical situations, and use other means, such as I hinted at and Eric went into in detail, to complete the picture.

  5. Eric and Amy, thank you for your responses. I also, when working with a professional actor/client, don’t care what sort of notation system that person uses to help them remember what sound is what.

    I am indeed asking this question from the perspective of teaching KTS in a classroom setting, though before I taught KTS – when I was really teaching a version of Skinner without fully realizing it – I still encountered cognitive dissonance from students when, say, transcribing the diphthong sound in the word CHOICE as /ɔɪ/. I would inevitably see that students had memorized that diphthong as /oɪ/ because that’s what they perceived the diphthong to be in their mouths. It made more sense to them. In instances like that, I’m wondering now what’s the point of me correcting that transcription back to /ɔɪ/ – especially if they become a professional actor who uses his/her own notation system when working on an accent for a project.

    This inquiry is me trying to get inside the heads of my acting students and wondering what will serve them best – not what will serve me best as a professional accent coach.

    Eric, I love that quote from Einstein. That applies to so much of life!

    Amy, let me expand on my reason #4. I do teach a version of Skinner’s Mid-Atlantic as an accent. That accent requires my students to realize phonemes as they are transcribed broadly – to turn broad transcription into narrow transcription. And so the CHOICE diphthong must start with a back cupped vowel with rounding, rather than a back arched vowel with rounding. If they’re already seen that transcription of the diphthong, it may be easier for them to make the physical realization of it. Does that help?

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