What is the Value of Broad Transcription?

This blog post is an open inquiry: what is the value of teaching broad transcription to actors these days?

Every fall, I teach phonetics to my first-year acting students at Rutgers. Every fall, we go through the empty consonant chart, attempting to make each possible physical action – both voiced and unvoiced – in each individual cell. This physical exploration usually goes smoothly – sorting through the resulting consonant sounds as either familiar or unfamiliar depending on whether it’s a sound that actually occurs in some human language and on what languages my students speak – until we get to the unvoiced alveolar fricative. My students dutifully curl their tongue tips/blades up towards their alveolar ridges to try to create some unvoiced fricative flow between those two surfaces, and the resultant consonant sound is deemed unfamiliar. A similar consensus is reached when we get to the unvoiced post-alveolar fricative, as well.

When we look at the symbols together later and when I identify English consonant phonemes, shock and consternation fills the room as I identify these as <s> and <sh> sounds, respectively.

“That’s not how I make my <s> sound,” cries the student.

“How do you make it?” I ask, delighted that the student has developed the physical awareness to identify how s/he is shaping sound.

This inquiry becomes valuable for a number of reasons. The student then gets to articulate out loud what’s happening inside his/her vocal tract. The rest of us get to try on that student’s allophone of /s/. Other students get to articulate out loud how they are doing it differently. The rest of us get to try on lots of different allophones of /s/. The students begin to understand that each one of us has our own individualized speech patterns. The students realize that, despite the differences in the room, we can all understand each other’s /s/s. I get to introduce some diacritics that will help phonetically describe the different /s/s in the room. I get to introduce the concepts of “phoneme” – a meaningful sound – and “allophone” – a particular realization of a meaningful sound. I get to describe the differences between broad transcription and narrow transcription.

I rely heavily on broad transcription when it comes to identifying English vowels, particularly diphthongs. After some proper time phthonging, including moving tongue mountains and rolling grapes from front to back to front, my students and I look at the vowel quadrilateral. Cue cognitive dissonance again.

“This symbol [u] signifies that the back of your dorsum is arched highly towards the area around your soft palate, and your lips are rounded,” I proclaim.

“This symbol is identified with the lexical set word GOOSE.”

“That’s not how I make the vowel in that word.”

Fair enough.

Even more dissonant is the broad transcription of the PRICE and CHOICE diphthongs (/aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/, respectively). Many students feel that they close the PRICE diphthong towards [i], and they are not wrong. Many students feel that they start the CHOICE diphthong with the back of their tongues arched, rather than cupped, and so more in the vicinity of [o]. They are not wrong. And the discrepancies between their allophones of those phonemes and the broad transcriptions of those phonemes make it hard for them to remember the broad transcriptions.

The inevitable question that comes next, every fall, is what’s the point of learning the somewhat idealized broad transcriptions of phonemes? I can think of some reasons, but I want to know what yours are, readers.

Ok, I can’t resist listing the reasons I use to justify for myself the teaching and assessing of broad transcription:

  • when the students go out into the world as professional actors, they may encounter dialect coaches who only use broad phonemic transcription
  • it will be useful when looking at various pronouncing dictionaries
  • it may be useful as shorthand
  • it is useful for the students to have learned broad transcriptions of phonemes when they are asked to realize phonemes in those ways for certain pronunciation patterns like “General American,” “Standard American,” “Neutral American,” or “Non-Regional American”

Really, though, readers, what are your thoughts?

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