Phonetic twaddle


I’ve just come across this, entitled “Learning Pronunciation with Dictionary IPA” and was appalled. Macquarie University is quite rightly acclaimed as the home of the standard Dictionary for Australian English, which you would think would entitle users of the language pages of its website to expect a high standard of scholarship. Yet this document appears to have been put together by non-native speakers of English, who have not had their English proof-read by a native speaker, and who also have a very defective knowledge of phonetics and what we might call the “phonetics world”.

At the head of the document we read “The Dictionary International Phonetics Alphabets (IPA) is a set of phonetic transcriptions …” Since when has “Alphabet” been plural in this context?

Then we come to “The Basics”:

“Syllable is … a unit of spoken language and consists of one or more vowel sounds alone or of a syllabic consonant alone, e.g. the word sy/lla/bles/ consists of three units of sound.” So how do the consonants fit into this, and is the final syllable ( in the terms of the document) the ‘l’ or the ‘e’?

The final sentence defining “Vowel” states: “Sometimes vowels are referred as ‘voiced’ sounds.” This could simply be a typo, with ‘to’ (between ‘referred’ and ‘as’) omitted by mistake, but under “Consonant” we have “Sometimes consonant is referred as ‘unvoiced’ sounds.” Poor English, and just plain phonetically wrong.

So, is a syllable one sound, or is it made up of more than one sound? The writer does not tell us, and continues to confuse us to the end (see below as well).

The next paragraph answers the question “What is the International Phonetic Alphabets?” So, once again, an unexpected plural. This is beginning to sound like the meerkats in the British TV advert for a price comparison website (for readers outside Britain, change ‘meerkat’ into ‘market’ for an explanation of this).

“How does IPA work? The tables below show how each symbol sounds like …” Shouldn’t that be ‘what’, not ‘how’?

“Put the sounds together … For example, you have the word ‘examine’. First, divide the word up into syllables (single sound), e.g. the word, e/xa/mine, (so three syllables). Try to pronounce the word. Next, Look up the word in the dictionary and you will find the IPA of the word /examine/, the IPA is /ɪ g ˈz æ m ɪ n/ (British pronunciation). Then, check where the stress is. Is the primary stress in /e/ or /xa/ or /mine/? It’s /ˈxa/. So you sound louder, longer and done in a higher pitch of voice on the sound /ˈzæ/”.

There is total confusion between spelling and transcription, where both are enclosed in /…/. How are learners to understand that the orthographic <x> is split between two syllables when they are being told that the spelling has <xa> as the second syllable, but the transcription has /z æ/, and what is one to make of the statement “you sound louder, longer and done on a higher pitch”?

I know the Internet is full of rubbish, but for this to appear under the ‘imprint’ of a respected university in a country where the principal first language is English beggars belief.

Rant over.


  1. I hope you’ve contacted them about it?

  2. It is, in two words, /ɡɑː bɪdʒ/.

  3. The description of the vowels is hilariously wrong too.

  4. Garicgymro – If I contacted every website I visited with corrections, I should be unable to do anything else, include sleep!

  5. I’ve contacted them – let’s see if they do anything about it!

  6. The page is now withdrawn with “under review” in its place! (Though I can still get a cached version by clicking on the link in the original post.)
    I contacted both the study skill department and the chair of linguistics and that did the trick!!

  7. Well done, Martin !

  8. Thank you so much Martin for taking the time to contact us at Macquarie Linguistics about this. I have only just received your forwarded email.

    I can’t for the life of me understand how such rubbish managed to see the light of day on an official university page. I don’t know who is responsible for “study skills” at MQ (certainly not anyone in my department) but on behalf of my fellow phoneticians I will certainly be making a very serious complaint.

    Thanks again

    All the best


  9. I suspect you’re not supposed to call the perpetrators “non-native speakers of English”, Graham. This looks to me like a would-be orthoepic tract by native Hinglish speakers for native Hinglish speakers, and are they not native speakers of “an English”? They clearly do not want or need their English proof-read by a native speaker of some other English, even the target British one. For example “alphabets” in “International Phonetic Alphabets” is as in “He is not knowing the alphabets” (he doesn’t know the alphabet, an “alphabet” being a letter).

    The ignorance of phonetics is of course the last straw. I regret to say the offending pdf is back up on the site – Martin may as well now accept your melancholy view of the futility of pursuing these things – and now I see things like “In American pronunciation, cot /kɒt/ and calm /kɑɪm/ , ɒ and ɑɪ have the same vowel.” They do have a colon for ː in rɔ: for BrE ‘roar’, but obviously ɪ is near enough for them. However they don’t have “International Phonetics Alphabets” as you quote it. Don’t exaggerate!

    I don’t suspect MQ of complicity in this, though there’s apparently not much monitoring of what is being posted, but even a competent phonetician who imagined that for example they could improve communication on outsourced helplines based on the Indian subcontinent would be delusional.

  10. Of course even with ɪ corrected to ː or zero, the statement I have quoted about American pronunciation is not a possible generalization.

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