What is the use of phonetics?

by Otto Jespersen, 1910

By phonetics is meant the science of speech sounds, their production by means of lips, tongue, palate, and vocal chords, their acoustic qualities, their combination into syllables and other sound groups, and finally quantity, stress and intonation. Phonetics thus may be called that part of linguistic science which deals with the outward aspect of language as opposed to the inner or psychological side of language, or it may be lookt upon as that part of physics and of physiology which deals specially with sounds as used by human beings to communicate thoughts and feelings to one another. Among those who have contributed to the development of phonetic science we find physicists like Helmholtz, physiologists like Brücke, and philologists like Sievers, Storm and Sweet.

But what is the use of this science of speech sounds? Before attempting to answer this question I must be permitted to say that such a question in itself is not a scientific question. The true man of science pursues his inquiries without asking at every point about the use of examining this or that. A zoologist will not be deterred from examining the habits of ants or the muscular structure of their hindlegs by the cry of the man in the street that it is no use knowing all these things; he will go on patiently observing his animals in exactly the same conscientious and laborious way as if each little step in advance meant so much money saved or gained for mankind, or so much food for the poor. The truly scientific mind does not ask about profit or use, but tries by every accessible means to add to human knowledge and to our intelligent understanding of the wonderful world that surrounds us.

Still, the question about utility is not quite futile; only it should not be urged in the first place, and it should never stand in the way of scientific research, however useless it may seem in the eyes of the uninitiated. Science is useful; but often it is so in a roundabout or indirect way. When my countryman Oersted discovered that an electric current influenced the movements of a magnetic needle, he made a great step forward in science. He immediately saw the immense importance of his discovery for our knowledge of the great mystical powers of electricity and magnetism; he did not stop to ask himself about the practical usefulness of such knowledge; his concern was exclusively with the theoretical side of the question, and joyfully he sent out the message to his brother scientists that here was one important problem solved. But then, your countryman (1) Morse seized upon this theoretical discovery and turned it to practical account: the electric telegraph came into existence, and everybody saw the use of Oersted's discovery. In the same manner purely scientific investigations may unexpectedly lead to some great practical result: the observation of the habits of mosquitoes leads to the diminution of malaria and other diseases, and research work in chemistry may eventually benefit mankind in some way not at all anticipated by the original initiator.

Practical usefulness thus often comes in at the back door, tho it should not be our primary object in scientific pursuits. But on the other hand, if it is possible to point out some practical advantages, this can do no harm, and may even be valuable in inducing people to take up some line of study which has not hitherto been thought necessary to average students. And this applies with especial force to phonetics, which, besides presenting great interest to the inquisitive spirit, offers also no inconsiderable practical advantage to the student.

The teacher of foreign languages will find that a thoro knowledge of the essentials of phonetics will be extremely helpful to him in his classroom. Everybody knows the manner in which corrections of pronunciation were generally made in old-fashioned classes, and how they are still made by too many teachers, even among those who have themselves acquired a good pronunciation of the language they are teaching. The pupil reads some word in some miserably erroneous way, the teacher stops him and pronounces the word in, let us assume, the correct way. The pupil tries to imitate that pronunciation, but fails, and thus we have an endless repetition of the same word by the teacher, followed very often on the part of the pupil by an equally endless repetition of nearly the same bad pronunciation as before, tempered as often as not by mistakes in the opposite direction, the pupil shooting over the mark where before he had shot below the mark. By dint of enormous patience much may no doubt be achieved in this way; but the way is long and laborious, and so tedious that generally all attempts are given up after some time, with no visible result except that of some precious time lost to both parties concerned. How different, if the teacher knows his business, that is to say, knows enough of phonetics to be able to tell the pupil just exactly what is the difference between the sound as he pronounced it and the sound as it should be. Then he is able to strike at the root of the evil, chiefly thru an isolation of both sounds concerned: he pronounces them long and distinct by themselves, without any sounds before or after which are apt to bewilder the ear by diverting the attention from the sounds themselves, and then he shows how the difference of impression which it is now easy to appreciate, is produced by shifting the tongue a little forward or a little backward, or by voicing the sound, or whatever the mistake in question may be. He has here to give a few explanations which are theoretical, to be sure, but of the kind that appeal at the same time to the practical instinct of the pupils and can be made interesting and attractive. A simple drawing on the blackboard, a look into a hand-mirror, a little experimenting with your fingers, and there you are: the sound that appeared so difficult to appreciate is now understood in its mechanism, and the practise needed to possess it for ever is nothing but a kind of play, which is felt to be just as enjoyable as learning how to whistle or to play other tricks with one's mouth is to the average child.

When I began to teach French and English in Copenhagen, it was a kind of dogma there that - as one of the chief school authorities seriously informed me in a public discussion - there were certain sounds, such as the soft s in French and English, which no normal Danish tongue was ever able to pronounce, and that it was therefore necessary for us to confuse seal and zeal, ice and eyes, etc. It was no use at that time for me to tell him that the difficulty in question had nothing whatever to do with the tongue, but depended entirely on the vocal chords, and that as a matter of fact I had succeeded in teaching a whole class to pronounce correctly the sound in question, the voiced [z] as I prefer to call it. But I am glad to say that the same skeptic has since been completely converted, and that now he insists that all the language masters of his school teach their pupils the correct pronunciation and employment of this very important sound.

The sounds of [y] (2) as in French vu or German über and [ö] as in French veut or German höhe present difficulties for English-speaking pupils who are inclined to imitate the two sounds by means of some other diphthong or combination like that found in English view. It is best to practise these two sounds together, and it is easiest to learn them in their long form: on the whole it will be a good thing for the teacher to pronounce any new sound, whether consonant or vowel, as long as possible to the pupils in order to familiarize the ears of the pupils with it. That it is not impossible to learn these sounds of [y] and [ö] was brought home to me some years ago in a striking manner. These sounds are also found in Danish; an English-speaking lady who had been in Denmark for some years had not been able, in spite of unceasing efforts, to learn them by imitation. Then I made a bet that I could teach her to pronounce them in less than ten minutes, and I won the bet thru five minutes' practical exercises. The directions were about as follows: say [u·] as in too very loudly, and hold it as loud as you can without taking breath. Once more: observe in the hand-mirror the position of the lips. Then say tea [ti·] in the same way; draw the vowel until you can hold it no longer; continue all the time to observe the position of the lips in the mirror. Now [u···] again; then [i···] - one dot in my phonetic transciption indicates the usual quantity of a long vowel, and three dots an unusually lengthened vowel. The lips are rounded for some vowels, slit-shaped for others. Try to pout them rather more than you do usually. Pronounce [u···] a couple of times with the lips rounded and as close to each other as possible, and concentrate your attention on the lips. Then say [i···] a few times, paying attention to the position of the tongue; you will feel that the sides of the tongue touch the roof of the mouth or the teeth. Now look in the mirror: say [i···] again, and now suddenly, taking care to keep the tongue in the same position, let your lips take the rounded, pouted position they had before. If the pupil is still unable to pronounce [y] because he involuntarily shifts his tongue-position back again to the familiar [u]-position, the teacher passes on to the second part of the experiment, which is surer, and might therefore have been taken first: place your lips in this pouted [u]-position, without producing any sound, look in the mirror, and be very careful that the position of the lips remains unchanged, and then try to say [i···]. If the tongue is placed in the correct position for [i·] as in tea, the result can not be anything else but a [y·]. This sound is retained and repeated until the pupil is perfectly sure of both the articulation and the acoustic effect. Then the sound [ö] may be taken up. It may be produced with [y] as a starting-point, the jaw being lowered together with both the lower lip and the tongue, while the teacher takes care to stop the downward movement in the right place. The result may be checked by starting from [e] as in French fée or German see, and rounding the lips, that is, by going thru a process corresponding to the transition from [i···] to [y···]. I may add that I was glad a few days ago to meet the same lady again in New York, and to find that in speaking Danish she used perfectly correct [y] and [ö] sounds in spite of having been absent from Denmark for some years.

The teacher who devotes a few hours at the outset to the study of the sounds found in the foreign language he is going to teach (3) will find that it pays, because it saves him very much time later and permits him to give his time later on more exclusively to the higher branches of the study, idiom, literary expression, and so forth. He will find, besides, that the better his pupils' pronunciation is, the better will they be able to appreciate the esthetic side of the language as a whole, the style of various authors, etc. As a matter of fact, whoever does not possess a foreign language well enough to hear it in his mind's ear as the native does, will never be able to appreciate the higher forms of a foreign literature, whether in prose or in poetry.

If, thus, a little phonetics is useful, or shall I say indispensable, to the teacher of foreign languages, it is so, too, to the teacher of the mother tongue. He also has often to contend with imperfect articulations and vices of pronunciation in his pupils; he, too, will find that mistakes which at first he was inclined to attribute to organic defects, or which from other reasons he thought ineradicable, are really due to the fact that the child has never been taught how to make proper use of the organs a bountiful Nature has given to him as well as to the rest of us, and that a few explanations of the same kind as that hinted at above, together with a little systematic practise, will generally do wonders. And then think of those numerous cases in which the "mother tongue" taught at school is really more or less of a foreign language to all or some of the children of a class, because their home language is either some dialect of the same language, or else some other language, as is largely the case in New York and other cities in the United States.

School authorities in various countries are now beginning to see the importance of phonetics, and to require it as part of the ordinary equipment of a teacher. In Denmark familiarity with phonetics (and phonetic writing) is now required from any one who wishes to obtain a teacher's certificate in any of the modern languages, either at or out of the university; but unfortunately it is not yet required of the teachers in elementary schools. But in England and Scotland the necessity of some training in the theory and practise of speech sounds has recently been recognized as part of the normal training of all teachers in primary schools.

Now, there is one class of teachers who have even more need of phonetics than other teachers of language, namely the deaf-and-dumb teachers. Some of the earliest descriptions of the organic positions required for speech sounds are due to the first pioneers in the difficult art of teaching deaf-mutes to speak in the same way as hearing persons do, and now it is everywhere considered as a matter of course that the teacher of articulation and of lip-reading (or, better, mouth-reading) in schools for the deaf-and-dumb must be thoroly familiar with theoretical and practical phonetics. There is no necessity for enlarging upon that subject.

I therefore pass on to another field where advantages are likely to accrue from a more extended knowledge of phonetics. The question of spelling reform is a burning one in all civilized countries. Not only in English, but also in French, in German, in Danish, in Swedish, in Russian, and to a much lesser degree in Italian and Spanish, do we find numerous instances of words spelt otherwise than pronounced, of mute and superfluous or ambiguous letters. Everywhere the educated classes have more or less systematically for the last few centuries been doing everything in their power to prevent that readjustment of spellings to sound that is indispensable if the written language is to remain, or is again to become, what it was everywhere to begin with, a tolerably faithful picture of the spoken language. The present situation is one of a clumsy and difficult system of spelling that causes a miserable loss of time in all schools (and out of schools, too); much valuable time which might be used profitably in many other ways, is spent upon learning that this word has to be spelt in this absurd manner, and that word in another equally absurd way, and why? For no other apparent reason than that such has been the custom of a couple of centuries or more (4). Each new generation keeps up faithfully nearly all the absurdities of the preceding one, and as each new generation is bound to change the pronunciation of some sound and of some words, the gulf between the spoken and the written word is constantly widening, and the difficulty of learning how to spell is ever growing greater and greater. Now I know very well that it is not every phonetician who is a spelling reformer tho a great many are; but what I do maintain is, in the first place, that only a good phonetician can show what is to be reformed and what is to be the direction of change, because he alone knows what sounds to represent and how best to represent them. Sweden had an excellent reform of some points of their spelling a couple of years ago because in that country a great many prominent phoneticians, such as Lundell, Noreen, Tegnér, Wulff, had some years previously in a series of valuable books and papers threshed out all the problems connected with spelling from the philological, historical, and pedagogical points of view. And it would be well if other countries were soon to follow the example set by that small nation. With regard to English, a great deal of extremely valuable theoretical work and practical experimenting was done in the eighties of the last century by excellent scholars and phoneticians, Ellis, Sweet, Evans, Skeat, and others, most of it to be found in the Transactions of the Philological Society of London, and I am glad to see that now the Simplified Spelling Board in this country and the Simplified Spelling Society in England are beginning to spread useful information with regard to spelling. I wish them every possible success for the benefit of the English-writing world and of mankind at large.

But in the second place I maintain that a thoro reform of the spelling of any civilized nation does not only presuppose a small set of energetic phoneticians who have investigated all the odds and ends of the subject, but will not be possible till the day when the general public have given up what I should call their all-pervading superstition in these matters, their irrational belief that the spelling of words had been settled once for all, as if by some divine command, and that any deviation from the traditional spelling is either ridiculous or else an infallible symptom of low breeding. Much of that superstition will break down when people get accustomed to seeing old authors spelt in the orthography of their own times; I think it is a great pity that Shakspere is now nearly always reprinted in and read in the spelling of the nineteenth century instead of in that of the old editions. Much would also be achieved if scholars of renown, philologists, students of literature, and writers of books in general, would indulge in some individual spellings, one in this class of words, and another in some other class. These individual spellings need not be very numerous, nor should they be necessarily consistent, and the author need not give any other reason for his special heterodoxies than that they just suit his fancy. This would educate readers by showing them that different spellings need not always be marks of illiteracy, and that there may exist difference of opinions in this as well as in other respects without any fear of human society falling at once to pieces on that account.

But still more will result when some elementary understanding of what language is, and especially of the relation between sounds and letters has spread much more universally than is now the case. Some little knowledge of the nature of heat and the construction of a thermometer is presupposed in every man and woman of any but the lowest standard of education, but in spite of the fact that many, perhaps most, lessons in all schools are really language lessons, very little has been done hitherto to make school children understand the mechanism of speech, tho we possess really in our vocal organs an apparatus much more wonderful and much more interesting than the most ingenious steam engine ever devised.

I am, however, inclined to think that the radical spelling reform I am hoping for, will be brought about not so much thru a diffusion of phonetic science proper as by one of its accessories, namely phonetic symbolization. Any science needs some more or less conventional symbols; the mathematician has his +, and -, and √, the chemist has his letters and formulas, etc., and similarly the phonetician must have his signs and symbols to denote sounds and their relations. The ordinary Roman alphabet may certainly be used, but on one condition only, namely that the same letter has to stand everywhere for the same sound. To teach phonetics, or indeed to speak of language at all, would be completely impossible were we to use nothing but the ordinary spelling (cat, car, care, cent etc. etc.). This has been compared to teaching arithmetic by means of Roman numerals; but the comparison is false, for it would obviously be possible to carry on even complicated calculations by means of Roman numerals, because they have everywhere the same value. But dealing intelligibly with sounds as represented in the ordinary spelling is manifestly as impossible as it would be to teach arithmetic by means of a system in which one numeral were to stand sometimes for the value nine, sometimes for thirteen, sometimes for two, and sometimes for nothing at all. Or what would you say about a musical notation in which the same note at different positions in different bars had quite different values without anything to show its value at each place. We must evidently in phonetics have some kinds of consistent notation, even if we might perhaps limit ourselves to exacting consistency only in the same book or in the same transcribed text. Many different systems have been advocated and employed, partly owing to the different purposes for which phonetic transcription has been used, but tho complete unity of notation has not yet been arrived at among phoneticians, it is fair to say that there is now much less diversity in this respect than in previous decades. The system of the international Association Phonétique, as developed in the monthly Le maître phonétique, on the basis of the work of Sweet and others, is evidently gaining ground in most countries, and tho many scholars do not accept it in all minute details, the general principles and the great majority of special characters are now practically adopted by most of those who are entitled to a vote in the matter. Without entering into a detailed argument on this very difficult subject, I shall here only say that there are, roughly speaking, three degrees of exactitude in phonetic writing: one for the highest scientific use, requiring a great many special symbols; another for ordinary work in describing and teaching a foreign language, in which some new letters, tho not very many, are needed; and finally, a very simple phonetic system with few if any new letters, suitable for easy transcription for natives who are already familiar with the sounds represented. It is the last system only which can serve as a basis for the spelling reform of the future, and it will probably do so thru being used for a totally different purpose, namely that of teaching small children to read their own mother tongue.

I may at some future time have an opportunity of reverting to the method of teaching children to read by first having them read some kind of simple, easy, phonetic writing. Here I shall only say that experiments made in various countries, in England fifty years ago by Alexander J. Ellis and later by Miss L. Soames, in Norway by August Western, in Alsace by J. Spieser, in France by Paul Passy, and in Denmark by myself, have shown that a child who does not begin by being introduced to all the bewildering entanglements of the ordinary spelling, but who learns first to read and to write words spelt consistently without regard to orthodox orthography, will learn both this simplified writing, and after that the usual spelling much more rapidly and much more securely than if he had begun at once with the usual spelling. This is a result which astonishes most educators, altho the psychological reasons for the success of this seemingly round-about method are not far to seek; but instead of trying to give a short and therefore necessarily inadequate description of the method to be employed, I will rather break off here for the present, summing up my arguments by saying that to every and any teacher concerned with language in one form or another, whether the pupils' own or a foreign tongue, phonetic science is desirable, nay indispensable, and that the language teacher of the future must know something about the production of the speech sounds, such knowledge being as necessary to him as it is to the teacher of geography to understand what longitude and latitude means.

If I have not said a word about theoretical philologists, students of the history of languages, or those who try to reduce unwritten languages or dialects to writing, the reason is that here everybody can see at once the fundamental value of the study of phonetics; what I wanted to emphasize in this paper was only the enormous practical usefulness of the science of speech sounds and its bearing on education in general.

Educational Review, February, 1910.

(1) This lecture was given in September, 1909, at Columbia University as the first of a series on practical and theoretical phonetics.

(2) Phonetic transcriptions should always be given within brackets.

(3) See for the method of such initial elementary instruction in phonetics my book How to Teach a Foreign Language, p. 145 ff. (Sonnenschein, Macmillan Company).

(4) Of course, there are historical reasons for the caprices of spelling, but they make them no more reasonable from the point of view of the present-day speller; I have studied them in detail in my Modern English Grammar, vol. 1. Sounds and Spellings (Winter, Heidelberg, 1909; in New York at Stechert's).

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