Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Do you 'look' or 'lick'?

Hello there!
The thoughts that I am sharing with you today are related to how we pronounce words like "look" nowadays and whether it is portrayed faithfully in books and the typical vocal tract representations.
  This question occured to me a couple of years ago when I was carrying an investigation on a different topic and I acoustically analysed the vowels from the speech of some British English speakers that kindly allowed me to record them - if you have an american accent you may not relate with this post but if you do, please let us know!-
So let's start from the beginning. In case you are not familiar with phonetics, presumably, we pronounce the vowel in 'look' "relatively short, lax, fairly back and fairly close" (Wells 1982: 133). Thus, if you check in any dictionary that provides a phonetic transcription of the word you will find /luk/. Then, according to dictionaries and to very important phoneticians, such as the British John Christopher Wells, 'look' is pronounced placing our tongue rather back inside our mouth, or that they told us
  I don't know about you but I usually don't pay attention whether I'm pronouncing a word with a certain vowel quality/quantity or another. However, while doing this acoustic analysis I realised that all the speakers, wherever their procendence in England, pronounced words like 'look' with their tongue placed rather to the front of their vocal tract, especially those from around London.
  It is maybe time now for some visual aids. The following is the vocal tract that we are used to see, with all the pure vowels represented on it. This particular one bellow was created with the vowel formant measurements by Wells from one of his early studies. On the same scatterplot I have included my results from measuring the frequencies of the first two formants (F1 and F2) of the word 'look' from two speakers from London and Surrey for the sake of comparison. 

  As you can observe, these two speakers vary from each other which is usually due to the speaker's vocal tract anatomy and individual articulatory habits (Johnson 2005). The most interesting remark though is that the orange figures (representing where these speakers pronounce the vowel in 'look') and the phonetic symbol /u/ (representing the measurements by Wells of the same vowel) are rather apart from each other. You may think at this point that I got my measurements wrong but the fact is that this is not an isolated case. In other more recent publications it has been pointed out that "for many younger speakers, the vowel has fronted and unrounded" (Hughes, Trudgill and Watt 2005:50), I would say getting closer to qualities more frequently assignated to /i/. This topic appeared to me very interesting since this change/evolution of pronunciation is rarely mentioned in books nor even in phonetic books used by students when learning  English. 

What do you think of all this? Have you noticed this before? Do you think phonetic books for learners should keep up to date with the times?
So...do you look or lick?

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