mark o'connor - pro-NOUNCE-it

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Frequently asked questions

Q 1. Who needs another pronunciation guide, and what's wrong with IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet)?

A.       Pro-NOUNCE-it  is not simply a pronunciation guide. Existing pronunciation guides like IPA involve re-spelling words, usually into a different alphabet. Silent letters, for instance, are simply omitted. By contrast, Pro-NOUNCE-it keeps the 26 letters of the alphabet, AND correct spelling.

Q 2. Wouldn't it be quicker just to let the user call up an "audio" demonstration, so they could hear any given word or text pronounced?

A. Well, no it wouldn't. The eye scans at about three times the speed of speech; and it also takes time to call up an audio demonstration. Also, the user doesn't necessarily know they don't know the pronunciation of a word! For instance most people assume they can guess the pronunciation of Islay or Syracuse or Tucson or Wangaratta - and most people (unless they're from nearby) will guess wrong. Also, the quick audio demonstration which is all the native speaker requires, is often too swift for the foreign learner's ear. And of course it is not always enough for the foreign learner to hear a word pronounced. They also need to know what sounds they are meant to be hearing.

Pro-NOUNCE-it will soon offer "audio" demonstrations as an added option, but these will not replace the basic system.

Q 3. I'm highly literate in English, and I despise such aids.

A. Fine. Don't use them; or if a program has been configured to use Pro-NOUNCE-it, just read it at Level 1, the default Level, which is indistinguishable from normal text.

Q 4. I don't like the coloured letters.

A. Turn them off then, with the "black and white" option. (Or you can also, on later versions - not this one - reduce their visual salience, de-emphasizing the colours). The beauty of Pro-NOUNCE-it is that it doesn't try to please everyone at once, which would lead to compromises. Instead there are many options, one of which should suit almost anyone. The system still works in black and white, or when printed on a black-and-white printer.

Q 5. But why use colour at all? It offends me. It's so ugly, like smearing crayons over a text I'm trying to read. I can't let my students use that.

A. What we think "beautiful" is often what we are used to. Perhaps you're a skilled reader who sight-reads words in their familiar black-and-white form, and for you the colours are un-needed distractions. But is that true for your students or co-workers? Remember that people - and tastes - differ! And the colours help produce a wonderfully simple pronunciation key.

Q 6. But it will take forever to learn the whole system.

A. You don't have to learn the whole system. Pro-NOUNCE-it is designed to start working for you the minute you grasp the first rule. It takes only two seconds to grasp that silent letters are shown in grey. That's all you need to read at Level 3.

The rule for another Level is equally simple: unstressed vowels that tend towards the schwa or "murmur" vowel are shown in italics. That's half of the most common problems of matching letters to sounds in English already behind you!

Even at Level 10 (where every phoneme is shown) most of the consonant letters (those that have their most common pronunciations) are unchanged. The trickier vowels are sorted out by just 10 colours, each with a "memory peg" phrase like "Blue Shoe" or "Pink Drink" or "Green Scene". So, for instance, wherever you see the colour green, you use the same vowel as in the word "Green". If that's too hard (!), or if you're the sort of person who hates to look up or memorise even the simplest key, then there's an even simpler way. When you see a colour that puzzles you, just glance over the next two or three lines till you find the same colour in a word whose pronunciation you already know.

This is a system designed to let the user work their way into it. i.e. there is no likely sticking point in the learning process. (Contrast the IPA, whose symbols tend to be counter-intuitive - because of the Great Vowel Shift - for native speakers).

Q 7. Shouldn't Pro-NOUNCE-it recognise two-letter combinations like CH or EA or TH?

A. It does. Otherwise at Level 3 (where silent letters are shown) we'd be marking every third word as having a silent letter - which most English-speakers would find unnecessary and distracting.

Yet two-letter combinations aren't very reliable at indicating pronunciation. Some like GH are extremely erratic. Others like CH can have up to 3 "regular" pronunciations (as in character, champagne, and Charles). Vowel combinations like EA are even trickier (as in seat, great, and spread); and even TH has two quite separate pronunciations (as in thy/thigh and this/thistle). Experiment showed that at Level 10 (full phonemic display) it was better to mark the precise sound by modifying the first letter in such pairs, and ignoring the second.

Q 8. Would not the Pro-NOUNCE-it system, if it became universal, amount to prescribing an official unvarying pronunciation for English, one that would lose the burr and brogue that are part of the charm of dialects?

A. No it wouldn't, because:
(a) The system will never become universal, since not everyone will choose to use it, or to switch on its deeper levels.
(b) The native-speaking child wants a system whereby the letters (as modified by Pro-NOUNCE-it) accurately identify a given spoken word. Once the word is identified, they will then pronounce that word according to their own speech habits. To put this another way, Pro-NOUNCE-it represents only the basic phonemes like /r/, not the regional or personal variations in pronunciation of these phonemes (e.g. the numerous sub-variants of the /r/ phoneme which make such a difference to the burr and brogue of regional accents).
(c) Users will eventually be offered a choice of all the major varieties of English, as options, to choose among. Of course, like all alphabetic systems, Pro-NOUNCE-it shows only the basic phonemes of a given dialect, not the many regional and personal variations within the pronunciation of these phonemes. (Such sub-phonemic phonological details can only be learned by listening to native speakers of a given dialect/variety).

Q 9.  How about cases where there are major alternatives in the way a word is commonly pronounced, either worldwide or within a given regional variety of English: e.g. again/agen, either/either, neither/neither?

A. Pro-NOUNCE-it can show both alternatives (or as many alternatives as the pronunciation-guides of the major dictionaries record). The user is also of course free to switch off this option, and to choose that only the most common pronunciation (for a given dialect/variety of English) be shown.

Q 10. How about an option whereby I can read an E-book or an E-mail at Level 1 (so it looks exactly like standard text) but if I click on an individual word I can see that word (or phrase) displayed in full at Level 10?

A. Just highlight a word and right-click on it. It will be displayed at level 10.

Q 11.  Have any noted linguists looked at the Pro-NOUNCE-it system?
 Yes, Professor Bruce Moore, the leader of the Oxford Dictionary project at the Australian National University, has commented favorably, and would be happy to talk those interested in using Pro-NOUNCE-it. His phone number is + 61 2 6125 0474.  Also Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language and of numerous other works, in a personal communication has commented favorably, concluding:

"You've been very ingenious in approaching the problem, and some of the features (such as the expansions, alternatives, and stress) could be implemented commercially straight away, I would have thought, as an aid to English language teaching. 
The grading of levels is a very nice feature."

Associate Professor Peter Burns from the James Cook University Department of Language has been a mentor during the design and construction of Pro-NOUNCE-it.  His phone is + 61 7 4779 5214.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission ran a program on Pro-NOUNCE-it/ReadRight in its Lingua Franca (language) series on 21 February 2004. See