How to make a phonetician really sad and frustrated

grumpy-teacherMost phoneticians love to talk about their science. But there’s one reaction that makes us want to lie about our profession. The conversation we dread goes something like this:

  • Hi what do you do?
  • I do research in phonetics, the science of speech.
  • Oh dear, I’d better mind what I say – ha ha – hey George, watch what you say, the pronunciation police are here (etc etc etc).

Phonetics is not about Elocution

Elocution is the business of helping people to speak clearly, in a manner that is easy for others to understand. Under that definition, it should be a noble profession. After all, the ability to speak clearly in a manner that is easy for others to understand is a rare and valuable skill that everyone should aspire to.

Unfortunately, however, the idea of elocution has become associated with use of particular  features of accent and grammar that have nothing to do with speaking clearly, and everything to do with old-fashioned snobbery and other elitist attitudes, that nowadays are rejected by many people, including most phoneticians.

So what does all this have to do with phonetics?

Henry Higgins was modelled on English phonetician Henry Sweet

It is true that part of the history of phonetics overlaps to some extent with part of the history of elocution. It is also true that if you want to help people speak clearly in a way that is easy for others to understand, then a good knowledge of phonetics will be very useful to you (though it can also be dangerous).

But it is not true that phonetics and elocution are the same thing. Phonetics is a very broad, interdisciplinary topic that covers all aspects of the scientific study of speech, as we’ll explain (at last!) in a minute or two.

Most importantly, current-day phoneticians are rarely accent-snobs. They usually love all kinds of accents (even socially ‘unacceptable’ ones), and enjoy studying them in their natural habitats.

Some phoneticians are also interested in sociolinguistics, and enjoy studying attitudes towards accents. One of the most consistent findings of research on sociolinguistics is the inconsistency of social attitudes towards particular features of accent and grammar.

What is considered ‘posh’ in one society is often the very same feature of speech that is considered ‘disgraceful’ in another, and vice versa.