Pronunciation in Dictionaries (2)


The addition of a comprehensive pronunciation history to all the entries in a dictionary would be wonderful – and comments to my last post confirm my opinion. However, there are just a few slight problems.

Jack Windsor Lewis has pointed out that the OED gives a full list of spelling variants through the ages for each word in the etymology section, and implies that we can learn a lot about the word’s pronunciation from that, but while spelling several hundred years ago was at the whim of the writer, and so was likely to reflect that writer’s pronunciation, the fact that several spellings were often used contemporaneously with each other probably means that the pronunciation also varied at the same time.

Johnson, in the exchange with Boswell that I quoted last time, says “whose pronuncation should we follow?” Does a historical (or an historical – thank you Martin) pronouncing dictionary restrict itself to one dialect/accent, and if so, which one? or does it cover the range of dialects/accents at each period?

As if this was not a thorny enough problem, the next is even harder. How do you represent the pronunciations? All the current pronouncing dictionaries use a phonological transcription, and have done since Daniel Jones’ first edition of the EPD in 1917. The OED, in its original form, used a transcription that was much more complicated. There is a very good explanation of the history of this transcription, and also its interpretation, by Professor Mike MacMahon in the Transactions of the Philological Society, 1985, pages 72-112.

A phonological transcription is all very well, but the symbols used in the EPD, for instance, have barely changed since 1917. A.C Gimson, in his 1967 edition (the 13th), changed /ou/ to /əu/, and in the 14th edition, further amended /əu/ and /au/ to /əʊ/ and /aʊ/. He also updated the vowel charts in the introduction to reflect changing qualities. This helps to cover a single changing dialect/accent, but without a large number of explanatory notes, it could not explain the full variety of English pronunciations, whether diachronically or synchronically. A truly phonetic transcription would need to be used, which might result in entries looking something like this (which I hope is approximately accurate):

ˈhlaːvwɛərd > ˈlaːvərd > ˈlɔːvərd > ˈlɔːərd > ˈlɔːrd >ˈlɔːəd > ˈlɔəd > ˈlɔːd

(hlafweard > lord).

And this needs to be repeated for every word, from its first appearance in the language. As Martin Ball has asked, are there any takers for the job?

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.