Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The owl vowels

Some days I step into the cyber office and the flurry of activity is obvious. Footprints from all over the world are leading up to my doorstep.

One of the nice things about putting up a blog is the freedom to be responsive to readers. One of the nice thing about good statistics software is the insight it gives us into what readers/visitors are wanting to know. Several months ago I put up a list of the ADS Word of the Year finalists. Web searches for "plutoed" and "Cambodian accessory" had all sorts of strangers standing in my foyer.

Another spike was in response to the mousetrap stunt that still baffles me.

The latest spike has to do with the IPA transcription of the owl diphthong.

Here's an answer: I transcribe owl as either [aʊl] or [awl].

Here's a question: Why is this such a popular search term right now? Are students around the world all cheating on the same final exam? Did the Democratic debate pose this as one of its questions? Did Alex Trebek ask this during Teen Week?

Here's some more information: the one we should ask about diphthongs is John Wells. He has written about them before and even in response to some of my questions. A while back I asked him why he prefers the two vowel transcription rather than /ow/ or /oʷ/. He wrote on his blog

I use the two-vowel-symbol notation for English diphthongs because the diphthongs behave as single indivisible units. A vowel-plus-glide notation would imply the identification of the first part of the diphthong with one of the simple (non-diphthong) vowels. If the nucleus of English goat is taken as /Vw/, what is the /V/? It could be (BrE) /ɜː/, the vowel of bird, or /ɔː/ the vowel of thought, or /ɒ/ the vowel of lot, or /ʌ/ the vowel of strut, or /ə/ a schwa. In this context there is no phonemic contrast between these vowels, and no strong reason to choose one solution over the other. By treating the diphthong as indivisible we avoid facing this false choice. (This concerns its phonological analysis. We still have to choose a notation for it in transcription.)

He further explains that the superscript W is not a possible notation of the /o/ because it indicates labialization and the vowel is already labialized.

Although I saw the superscript notation used by my phonology II professor, I like Mr Wells' correction enough to discard the convention.

It's also worth noting that the symbol is a tool. Symbols are not facts and in phonology sometimes they don't even represent facts. They represent analyses of the facts. It's a fine line but an important one.


  1. Why doesn't anyone think that Kansas is in the Midwest????????? Sorry just had to vent... :)

  2. OH and how do you do those poll things...I want to do one!


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