Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Phonics, Phonetics, and Variation

Posted by Neal on August 3, 2008

Wow, August. Why, it’s just about time for back to school. I finally got around to sorting through all Adam’s schoolwork from last year, throwing out the boring stuff that didn’t highlight his creativity or personality. One of the items that survived the culling was an illustration with the caption “When I am 100 years old…” He had completed the sentence with “I will be dead”, and drawn a tombstone. Another one was his personal timeline, with six milestones of his life illustrated on a big laminated piece of construction paper. Starting first grade is the last item; in the middle are a couple of family vacations and cat acquisitions; and at the beginning is “I was born”, illustrated with the story his mom tells him about the day he was born. Specifically, about how he peed on the doctor when he was lifted up. All the caption says is “I was born”; the rest is told in the full-color pencil-and-crayon picture. I can see from the fading on parts of the construction paper that this one must have been up on the wall on display for a while.

I poured a whole boxful of Adam’s less memorable schoolwork into the recycle bin yesterday, but I’m still hanging on to his spelling worksheets for a little while, because I’ve been curious about how a number of phonetic issues are handled in phonics-based instruction. One unit is called “Words with /ɘ/”, and it lists these words:


together, calendar, automobile, dinosaur, Canada, address, animal, simple, wrinkle, special, whistle, purple, tickle, blizzard, winter, summer, chapter, whether, wander, United States of America

I’m not sure I like the syllabic [l] and [r] sounds (as in tickle and whether) taught as a schwa. To me, lumping them with the unstressed vowels in dinosaur and Canada isn’t going to help kids get a fix on this vowel sound. (And in fact, I’ll have more to say about “r-colored vowels” in whether, are, and or on September 19.) However, I’m glad that the schwa at least has a unit to itself. I don’t remember learning about it until fourth grade, myself.

I was a bit surprised to see that there was a schwa unit, though, because some earlier units sometimes showed a lack of schwa-awareness. For example, the unit “Words with short I” lists village as having the short I sound ([ɪ] in IPA). Well of course it does, right? Village has a short I in its first syllable. Unfortunately, that’s not the short I they’re looking for. After Adam wrote it down in the section where he was supposed to write words that had the short I sound spelled with an I, he found he had too many words there. When I came over to help, I realized that they wanted him to write village in the section for words whose short I sound was spelled with an a, along with package. (Now that I recall, Doug fell into the same trap when he did this worksheet two years ago.) Who wrote this lesson, anyway? I tried to hear this person’s accent in my head, saying villidge and packidge. The kids who don’t share this accent have proabably had a hard time with this unit.

Then there’s the unit on “Words with Short U” ([ʌ] in IPA), which includes until in the list. In slow and careful speech, yes, this word starts with a short U, but in normal speech, it’s a schwa.

I had a problem with another unit on short U. This one focused on words with the short U sound spelled with an o, such as monkey, cover, and won. Wait a minute — won? I pronounce that one with a short O sound: [wan]. Sure, I realize that a lot of people pronounce it [wʌn], with a short U, but is my pronunciation so deviant that it would never occur to the lesson writer? Let me look it up and see…

OK, I guess it is; [wʌn] is the only pronunciation listed in my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. But to continue with the subject of short O, I’ve also wondered about how phonics texts handled the cot/caught merger. For many speakers in the United States, these words are homophones, each containing the short O sound [a]. But for many other speakers, the vowel in caught is /ɔ/, which doesn’t have a “short” or “long” name in the phonics system, but is written as /ô/. It’s hard to choose a word that will illustrate this vowel for speakers who don’t have it, but I’m probably pretty safe in choosing awww (or even awwa). I think even people with this merger in place distinguish between Aww, how cute and Ahh, how relaxing. I personally have different vowels in cot and caught, as well as in Don and Dawn, but I’d begun to wonder how much I really preserved the distinction between these vowels. Certainly, I could distinguish them when there was a minimal pair of words like cot/caught and Don/Dawn, but for a word like dog, I just didn’t know what I say in ordinary conversation, or if I did, I still didn’t know which pronunciation a 100% [a/ɔ] distinguisher would use. After looking at the spelling lists for both vowels, I think my pronunciation matches what the sheets have. Here’s their list for short O:

hobby, wash, model, forgot, doctor, contest, object, o’clock, wallet, cotton, dollar, solve, watch, knock, problem, bottom, swallow, beyond, knot, hospital

And here’s the combined list of /ô/ words from two units:

pause, already, brought, strong, taught, caught, cause, because, wrong, coffee, bought, thought, author, applaud, autumn, daughter, gone, offer, often, office

All well and good for me, but what are kids with the cot/caught merger going to make of these spelling units? Never is there a hint on these pages that the reader might have a different pronunciation for a whole list of words.

Are any elementary school teachers reading this? How do you handle phonetic variation in a phonics curriculum?

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20 Responses to “Phonics, Phonetics, and Variation”

  1. Glen said

    Interesting. I, too, pronounced “won” with a short O, and I thought it strange when one/won showed up in lists of homophone pairs. But at some point, around 5th grade I think, some other kid made fun of my pronunciation of “won.” (“Oh, you WAAAAHN the game, huh?”) So I went to the dictionary and discovered that my pronunciation was indeed unusual. Wonder if Mom and Dad pronounce it that way?

    I also recall, about the same time, being teased for my pronunciation of “lawyer.” I pronounced it with the A-umlaut sound that appears in “father”: lawww-yer. But all my classmates pronounced it more like “loyer.” I eventually succumbed, and now the latter pronunciation is natural for me. But I just looked it up, and Merriam-Webster lists both pronunciations as correct.

  2. Glen said

    I have no idea why that winky smile showed up in my last post. It was supposed to be a right parenthesis, and there were no other punctuation marks nearby except for the close quote.

  3. Ellen K. said

    There’s a couple words on the first list (short o) that for me would be on the 2nd. Wash, and Wallet. And o’clock puzzles me. For me the first vowel is either long o or schwa. And if they mean the 2nd vowel, why not just put clock?

    The only one on the 2nd list that I pronounce differently is because.

  4. Kip said

    The “one” thing is strange. I never would have called that a short u, and it shocked me to see it listed that way. But after listening to the pronunciation samples on dictionary.com, I think that is how I pronounce it.

    Actually I’m not even sure now. I keep repeating it the same way and I can hear it as “u” or “a”. I have noticed that “won”, “wun”, and the second syllable of “Obi-Wan Kenobi” are all pronounced differently for me.

    I do know with 100% confidence that I pronounce “caught” as “cawt” though. :)

  5. Kip said

    I thought about this more: Isn’t /ʌ/ the same sound made in “fun”? Because I’ve never noticed anyone pronounce “won” to rhyme with “fun”. But it also doesn’t have the “ah” sound from “father”.

    I’ve thought about it for a while and the only words I can think of which have the same vowel sound as won/one are woman and once. None of those are like “fun” in my pronunciation. I can’t figure out which IPA symbol represents this sound, though.

  6. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    The only times I’ve ever heard won pronounced [wan], it was the first syllable of wonton (the Chinese dumpling). Won as the past tense of win has always been [wʌn], for me and for the hundreds of English-speakers I’ve heard in my life.

    As for the [a] versus [ɔ] distinction, my pronunciation lines up pretty closely with Neil’s; I’d add my usual version of on to the list of [ɔ] words, by the way.

    Finally, I’m so adamant about Ahhh! [a:] versus Awww! [ɔ:] that some blog entries almost hurt my eyes to read. “Ahhh, she’s so CUTE!” looks to me as if the writer meant: “I get it now; her cuteness is important!”

  7. Ellen K. said

    Won and one definitely rhyme with fun for me. And I don’t have any sense of any alternate pronunciation for won and one. (Are one and won universally pronounced alike?)

  8. Uly said

    *I* pronounce the -age in village as a, well, idge.

    Reading what various people say in books and online and in dictionaries about schwas always annoys me, because they seem to schwaify syllables that I don’t. Dinosaur definitely doesn’t have one, no matter how I slice it, not for me.

  9. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Uly: I agree with you about the “not-quite-schwa” in a lot of English words; my own pronunciation of unstressed -age also has a vowel closer to [I]. Dinosaur definitely has a schwa for the second vowel when I pronounce the word, though. There’s s lot more variation among speakers, it seems, than dictionary writers are willing to admit!

  10. The Ridger said

    One rhymes with fun for me, definitely. Dinosaur has no schwa. Ahhh and awww are different, but caught and cot are not, both rhyming with not, and also Don and Dawn (rhyming with Sean and John, for that matter)… Lists like this are so tricky to draw up.

  11. David W. Green said

    Wow. They’ve really upgraded phonics instruction since I had it roughly twenty years ago. From what I understand, my kindergarten class wasn’t meant to receive phonics instruction, but it was our teacher’s last year, so they let her do what she wanted rather than force her to learn a new system for so short a time… What that new system was is beyond me, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have it.

    I’m still shocked they’re teaching the schwa now, though. I hadn’t any idea what it was ’til college.

  12. Uly said

    Oh, yes, one and fun rhyme for me, and I’m flabbergasted that they *don’t* rhyme for some people.

    Although I suppose I should mention that I have a weird accent. People from outside NYC generally say I have a NYC accent (as I should, I grew up here, and my mother as well), but not always – and people *inside* the city almost universally seem to think I have some strange, foreign accent. I’ve been asked if I was Canadian, English (this is popular), Australian, New Zealand, South African… all sorts of far flung locations. At least everybody pegs me as a native speaker, though!

    Some of my friends jokingly call this “Autistic Accent Syndrome”, I’m told it’s not *that* uncommon among autistics, especially those with auditory processing issues.

    (Yes, that’s random. Sorry.)

  13. Tom said

    I’d never been aware that “won” could be pronounced so it didn’t rhyme with fun and one.

    Regarding instruction, I think you may overestimate the degree to which most speakers are aware of their own pronunciation. I think that most literate speakers likely believe they make all kinds of distinctions in speech that they don’t in fact make (because they assume their speech is more like correct spelling than it is — or because they change their speech to sound more like the spelling when being careful, which is the only time they pay attention to the sounds). For example, I probably say “dinosaur” usually with an “I” (like “village”) and sometimes with a schwa, but if you asked me to pronounce it one syllable at a time, I’d say DIE-NO-SOAR. I wouldn’t be surprised if, walking into a room of literate adults and asked about “dinosaur”, you found some number who, knowing the spelling, insisted that they in fact pronounce the “o” “oh”, or should.

    Given this, students might not be particularly confused by the contrasts presented that don’t exist in their dialect — they would just assume that they are making those contrasts even though they are not. Since they’re never taught to carefully analyze their own speech, it’s not such a problem to misanalyze it.

  14. viola said

    @Uly: I practice “autistic accent syndrome” every day! My husband would like to put that label on it because he swears I slip an extra syllable in here and there. I prefer to call it enunciating your words. Around these parts (Heartland) people tend to chop off parts of words.

    @Tom: It’s about simple awareness, isn’t it? I find it refreshing you would use the word dinosaur. A couple of years ago, we used that word in particular as an example in a spelling discussion with our boys, because it’s usually pronounced with a short i sound–without thinking about it. It’s amazing how our brains can trick us at times. In the end, we humans always like to make things right as we are aware of our flaws and differences.

  15. viola said

    Us humans? We humans? Oops….Neal, can you help me out on that one?!

  16. Uly said

    We humans, Viola.

    Because if you take out the humans, we get “In the end, we always like to make things right….” and that makes sense. Otherwise you get “In the end, us always like to make things right….” and that just grates on the ears.

  17. Viola said

    @Uly
    Thanks! I’ll refrain from the grating on the ears. Although, given enough time–and second-guessing my grammar, I’m sure I have enough grating material to make an ear salad for the lot of you.

  18. [...] by Neal on September 2, 2008 You may remember that a few weeks ago, I was sorting through Adam’s spelling worksheets from the past school year, looking at how [...]

  19. [...] by Neal on September 19, 2008 Last month, I said I’ll have more to say about “r-colored vowels” … on September [...]

  20. Julie said

    I have a cot/caught merger. I struggled through two semesters of college linguistics before a friendly instructor explained to me that the only place I would ever use /ô/ is in front of an r or l. Since then I’ve learned a few diphthong exceptions, but it clarified for me what the symbol referred to.

    I pronounce all the /ô/ words except one with a short o. The lone exception: “because” is pronounced with a /ʌ/, not like “cause.” Could be spelled “becuz.”

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