Today was a day that I had to face one of my fears. No, not one of those typical fears like jumping out of a plane, riding a glass elevator, or seeing a really scary movie, but rather I had to learn how to transcribe words in British English. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of trying to do a trasncription from British English, you're probably thinking that I'm crazy and that it can't possibly be that bad. Well, I'm here to tell you that you're so wrong! I'm sure that you'd like to know why I think that it's so bad though, right? Well, it's a good thing, because I'm gonna tell you.
I think that it comes down to a fundamental problem with English, namely in the vowel system. As speakers of English, we don't have the luxury that the Romance languages, like Spanish or Latin for example, do in that there are a very limited number of vowels to deal with. For all intents and purposes, Spanish only has five vowels, and from what I've read in the literature, they don't vary all too much. Sure, some of the other Romance languages, French for example, have diverged a bit from this simplified vowel system, and they have crazy nasal vowels and rounded vowels and other goodness like that.
Now back to English. Rather than having a simply five-vowel system, we have a whole heap of vowels and dipthongs that don't really fall in such simple places to chart. Add to that the fact that many of the dialects of English (British, American (all the subdialects of it) Indian, West African, South Africa, ethc.) are separated a great deal by their vowels. When I saw a vowel and dipthong map of British and American English by two speakers in my textbook by the late, great Peter Ladefoged, I about fainted. It was a really scary site to see all those vowels and where they sit. So, back to my transcription. It's hard enough being a native speaker of American English (the midland north version of course) to figure out what vowels I actually have and how they compare to other American English varieties. But then, having to step away from what I know and hear in my head and transcribe another totally different variety of English with its peculiar vowels (at least to American ears) is a nightmare. British English has a whole heap of different mid vowels even though their "outside" (front and back) vowels tend to be more clear. So, long story short, doing my phonetics homework for this week was not much fun, although it did force me to really use my ears.