Phun with Phonetics

Most linguistics students will at some point be faced with the daunting task of learning the phonetic alphabet. That long list of little symbols which is supposed to adequately represent any sound in any language and make possible the transcription of the spoken word. In reality it falls short on many levels but we need not go into that now.

The whole set looks something like this:


As you can see, some signs, especially many consonants, appear familiar, whilst others take some getting used to. The bane of most students is being briefly introduced to these in a lecture and then trying to learn them from a book without the advantage of sound.

That’s where some brilliant folk over in Ohio came in and built this little online game which gives you four possible symbols to choose from for every sound you hear. A little bit of phun with phonetics and you too will soon be aceing your transcription exams…


Alphabetical confusions

I’m in Serbia just now watching as my six year old cousin slowly learns the alphabet. The second one. She already knows the Cyrillic alphabet, now she needs to learn the Latin one (the one I’m using now). Once she’s in school, she’ll be expected to be able to read and write in both, using one then the other on alternate days or weeks for school and homework. Welcome to Serbia (and a couple of other countries in these Balkan parts).

Just to make things a little more confusing for these poor kids, about half of the letters in both alphabets are the same, and then there’s a whole bunch which look the same but actually represent another letter (‘P’ is actually pronounced ‘R’, ‘H’ is ‘N’, ‘X’ is ‘H’ and so on and so forth). Some of you may recognise the Russian Cyrillic alphabet in that, and yes, the Serbian one is similar, but not the same. The Serbian one was developed in the 19th century, using the Russian example as a base but adapting it to Serbian so that each symbol would correspond to exactly one sound in the spoken language. This means that once you’ve mastered the alphabet, it’s ridiculously easy to learn to spell. Think of all the problems we have with English – the double consonants, the vowels which are pronounced differently depending on the word, the silent letters, the homographs which aren’t homophones and vice versa – none of that exists.

Still, to get to that stage you have to learn two alphabets. I still get confused walking around town as signs and notices can be written in either, so the word for restaurant (“RESTORAN”), when written in Cyrillics (“PECTOPAH”), could in theory represent either alphabet as all letters exist in both. This often results in momentary mind-boggling confusion, as the word, if read with the Latin alphabet in mind, is gobbledygook. There is also another favourite of mine: the fact that a capital Z is written ‘3’. My relatives still make fun of me because at the age of maybe 11, I misread the sign above the zoo as saying “park 300”. You can see how confusion can come about.

Once you’ve mastered both alphabets, you can then feel another level of despair at discovering that the lower-case cursive Cyrillic letters have, in a number of cases, absolutely nothing to do with anything else you’ve been learning (check out G, D, T or P):


Here is what some of that looks like when you try to put the letters together to form words (this is a Russian example from my friend Alexey):


This is the point where I pretty much gave up the hope of ever being able to read handwritten letters and was silently grateful for print technology which almost never uses the cursive font.

To sum it up: Serbian, because why makes things simple when you can make them complicated?