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11th International Symposium on Lexicography, Copenhagen 2-4 May 2002. Lexicographic phonetics or phonetic lexicography?. Włodzimierz Sobkowiak School of English, Adam Mickiewicz University Poznań, Poland. Abstract.

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lexicographic phonetics or phonetic lexicography

11th International Symposium on Lexicography, Copenhagen 2-4 May 2002

Lexicographic phonetics or phonetic lexicography?

Włodzimierz Sobkowiak

School of English, Adam Mickiewicz University

Poznań, Poland


Lexicographic phonetics is phonetics applied to the process of dictionary-making. While it has not been labeled as such, it has traditionally been concerned with issues such as: the choice of accent and transcription to represent in dictionaries, the extent of dialectal, phonostylistic and idiosyncratic variation of pronunciation covered, the representation of stress and weak forms, etc. Authors have included Abercrombie, Gimson and Wells, among others.

Phonetic lexicography is what dictionary makers and critics do when they ponder sound representation from the lexicographic perspective. Issues of relevance include: the questions of consistency, the place and role of pronunciation in the microstructure of the dictionary, the treatment of pronunciation in learners' dictionaries, sound recording, playback and synthesis in electronic multimedia dictionaries, and others. Few (meta)lexicographers have ever done substantial work in this area.

Ultimately, the two pursuits cannot be clearly delimited, of course. They both cover, each from its own perspective, the little-explored ground of sound representation in dictionaries. Both the traditionally tackled issues and the new vistas are discussed in the paper.


Is there the discipline of lexicographic phonetics (lexphon) and phonetic lexicography (phonlex)?

  • Science?
  • "Of no importance"
  • Language is primarily spoken
  • Phonetic lexicographers (?)

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

  • Rules vs. lists
  • Consistency
  • Respelling
  • Pronunciation preference polls



Lexicographic phonetics (lexphon) vs. phonetic lexicography (phonlex)


A discipline must have its specific: "(a) subject matter, (b) perspectives, (c) methods, (d) body of knowledge, (e) modes of discourse" (Wiegand 1998; as quoted in Hartmann 2001:120).

"Lexicography is not yet a science. It may never be. It is an intricate and subtle […] art, requiring subjective analysis, arbitrary decisions, and intuitive reasoning" (Gove 1967:7).

"Unfortunately, the theory underlying the pronunciation component in a dictionary is too frequently difficult to discern" (Gimson 1973:115).

"Pronunciation has too long been treated as a lexicographic art … It is high time that it became a science" (Secrist 1978:54).

of no importance

Lexicographic phonetics (lexphon) vs. phonetic lexicography (phonlex)

"Of no importance"

"Some reputable scholars have considered the makeup of the pronunciation key to be 'of no importance whatsoever'" (Secrist 1978:45, quoting Hausholder & Saporta 1975:174).

"I do not think it should be taken for granted that indication of pronunciation is a necessary part of an entry in a work of reference" (Abercrombie 1978:119).

"Zeichen sich die einsprachigen Wörterbücher des Deutschen dadurch aus, dass dort die Aussprache relativ unsystematisch, nicht selten nachlässig und gedankenlos, bisweilen sogar inkompetent behandelt wird" (Klein 1999).

language is primarily spoken

Lexicographic phonetics (lexphon) vs. phonetic lexicography (phonlex)

"Language is primarily spoken"

"Today, when we no longer regard speech as a degraded form of writing, the pronunciation entry in dictionaries […] should be accorded much greater importance" (Gimson 1973:115).

But the phon  (trans)  graph perspective still only appears in NLP-MRDs (e.g. Roach & Arnfield 1998). Entry order: "Selbst Aussprache-wörterbücher sind in der Regel orthographisch angeordnet" (Ternes 1989:509; same in Muthmann 1998:229). So, phonetic access (Sobkowiak 1994, 1998, 1999) is still impossible.

phonetic lexicographers

Lexicographic phonetics (lexphon) vs. phonetic lexicography (phonlex)

Phonetic lexicographers (?)

Syrinx is hiring a phonetic lexicographer: "Duties will include overseeing the phonemic transcriptions of the lexical entries, as well as liaising with other linguists to insure uniformity in the syntactic and semantic information of the lexemes; writing conversion rules to other varieties of English; […] reviewing the phonemic symbols used presently at Syrinx and in other dictionaries; writing conversion rules to go from one set of phonemic symbols to another". [http://english.uq.edu.au/linguistics/jobs.html; posted: March 28th, 2001; last accessed: April 18, 2002]

rules vs l ists 1

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

Rules vs. lists (1)

"Dictionaries are such language resources which are seldom perceived or categorized as rule-based or rule-fostering. To be sure, they are orderly presentations of language material […] but dictionary contents are popularly regarded as little more than a listing of items with no overall linguistic structure beyond alphabetic ordering […] But the rules are inevitably there, and the learner is bound to assimilate them inductively in direct proportion to his/her use of the dictionary " (Sobkowiak 1997:95-6).

"It cannot realistically be seen as part of the dictionary's function to teach the sound system" (Brazil 1987:161).

"It is possible, therefore, for the dictionary to provide the information about a word that a speaker needs to arrive at its pronunciation by rule" (Brazil 1987:166).

rules vs l ists 2

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

Rules vs. lists (2)

"The foreign learner will expect his information on pronunciation to be given clearly at the point of entry […] not to rely on general rules" (Gimson 1981:251).

"The typographic complexity [with stacked //-// in LDOCE – WS] could have been avoided by giving, for instance, only // with a simple conversion rule stated in the introduction" (Gimson 1981:258).

Rules are hidden: "Die Transkription erscheint nur für das Leitwort, nicht für Ableitungen und Zusammensetzungen, z.B. Micro Robert traskribiert citron aber nicht citronnier. Dies hat den Nachteil, daß gerade die schwierigeren Wörter nicht transkribiert werden" (Ternes 1989:514). Piotrowski (1987:40) gives the example of say-says.

rules vs l ists 3

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

Rules vs. lists (3)

"In ELT one is faced with the choice between teaching the rule (so that again variants need no mention) and listing the variants at each entry (leaving the rule to be inferred or ignored)" (Wells 1985:47; examples: linking/intrusive /r/; syllabic sonorants). "The purpose served by pronunciation indication [in dictionaries] is [...] to advise the user who is unsure of the spoken form of a word by recommending a suitable pronunciation for it" (Wells 1985:45; my emphasis -- WS).

"The phonological behaviour of words in context and its representation deserves equal attention" (Magay 1979:103). "An adequate stress shift notation is probably of far greater importance for the advanced foreign speaker than for the native speaker" (Broeders & Hyams 1984:171). Similarly: Cowie (1999:86-7, 98, 107), Ternes: "Satzphonetik" (1989:515).

"I believe that the user of an EFL dictionary has the right to expect advice not only on the pronunciation of a given word, but also sublexical units on the one hand, such as common letter/phoneme clusters (e.g. word-final syllabic sonorants) or morphemes, and supralexical units on the other, such as idioms (Broeders 1987), collocations, and possibly even larger linguistically salient entities" (Sobkowiak, in press). Related: vocalizing whole phrases and sentences in learner MRDs, now feasible through Text-to-Speech Synthesis).

rules vs l ists 4

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

Rules vs. lists (4)

Phon/trans sensitive to frequency? "The first pronunciation given is believed to be the most usual one […] with some alternant forms rivalling the first-given in perceived frequency" (Roach & Hartman 1997:vi).

"Vowels in frequently-used words reduce more often than in relatively rarely-used words" (Fidelholtz 1975:208).

consistency 1

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

Consistency (1)

Intra- and inter-dictionary: "Perhaps lexicographers should take a cue from political leaders, and organize a summit conference of dictionary editors, to attempt to agree at least on some common principles or procedures for indicating pronunciation" (Secrist 1982:38).

"Transcriptions […] are not thought of as one whole […] but […] are provided word after word" (Piotrowski 1987:45).

"It goes without saying that, whatever method of indicating pronunciation is adopted, it should be consistently and correctly used in the body of the work" (Abercrombie 1978:124).

consistency 2

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

Consistency (2)

"To the familiar appeals for transcriptional and stylistic consistency of dictionary phonetic representations I would like to add mine — for what, in need of a better term, I call phonological consistency. This consistency will normally result from conformity of representations with the established phonological rules of the language" (Sobkowiak 1997:98).

Transcriptional bi-uniqueness: "konsequente eins-zu-eins Entsprechung Laut-Zeichen und Zeichen-Laut" (Ternes 1989:512).

"If, however, one's goals are clarity, ease of recognition and speed of perception, then some compromise with strict phonemicity seems in order" (Secrist 1982:35).

Related: consistency between transcription and recorded or synthesized audio in MRDs.


Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic


Secrist (1978 and 1981) is against (automatic) respelling in ENL dictionaries. Paikeday (1993) is for, and against IPA.

Magay (1979:103): "The international (and interlingual) character of the IPA system ought to be more generally recognised".

Broeders & Hyams (1984:166): "Re-spelling would obviously only be at all helpful if it were done in terms of the spelling conventions of the native language".

Gimson (1973:120): "I would strongly recommend that […] we undertake research to discover the relative ease with which dictionary users […] can identify sounds by means of, say, IPA symbols as against respelling methods".

pronunciation preference polls

Lexphon is nomological but phonlex is idiographic

Pronunciation preference polls

"Unfortunately, I now regard the procedure which I employed to be suspect […] For one thing, I asked my British colleagues to record and order what they considered to be the current standard alternatives. For some this meant that they recorded variants possible in their own speech; but for others it was a question of noting their impression of what others did" (Gimson 1973:118).

"Such questionnaires seem to me unlikely to elicit from nonlinguist, nonphonetician questionees very much in the way of unguarded pronunciations, or very accurate symbolizations" (Artin 1973:126).

"At first sight it may seem absurd to try to carry out a pronunciation survey by using a written questionnaire. It would certainly be unwise to ask people to report on their own pronunciation performance: speakers are notoriously unreliable in reporting on their own speech. However this method is acceptable in a survey of pronunciation preferences" (Wells 1999:10; 1932 phonetically naïve subjects).


Many issues (activities, methods, hypotheses, analyses) in lexicography and metalexicography are crucially contingent on the choice of perspective (vide Wiegand 1998): lexiphonetic or phonolexicographic. The methodological character of the former is primarily nomological, that of the latter – mainly idiographic. The tension between the two methodological perspectives is clearly visible in the dictionary treatment of pronunciation. There appears to be a growing bias towards rule-based approaches in this area. Dictionaries should benefit from this trend by avoiding (some of the) wild idiosyncrasies of earlier editions.

thank you

11th International Symposium on Lexicography, Copenhagen 2-4 May 2002

Thank you

Włodzimierz Sobkowiak

School of English, Adam Mickiewicz University

e-mail: sobkow@amu.edu.pl

office web page: http://elex.amu.edu.pl/ifa/staff/sobkowiak.html

private web page: http://elex.amu.edu.pl/~sobkow