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13 March 2017

Whose language is it anyway?

The English Pronouncing Dictionary is 100 years old this year. This classic British guide to pronunciation, originally authored by Daniel Jones in 1917, has long been considered “perhaps the greatest work of the greatest of British phoneticians”[1].

When the ‘standard’ was male and Southern

The original English Pronouncing Dictionary used PSP (Public School Pronunciation) as a model, defined as ‘that most usually heard in everyday speech in the families of Southern English persons whose menfolk have been educated at the great public boarding schools’. Daniel Jones and his peers, such as Henry Sweet, led the way in the study and teaching of pronunciation, and their work has been noted as the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Jones’s dictionary soon became the ultimate guide for anyone wishing to check the ‘standard’ pronunciation of words, whether English was their mother tongue or a language they were learning.

The changing of attitudes

Attitudes towards pronunciation and accents have changed significantly over the past 100 years. Starting with Wilfred Pickles OBE in the 1940s, even the BBC has gradually introduced regional accents to its line-up of news broadcasters, distancing itself somewhat from the old-fashioned view of PSP or RP (Received Pronunciation) as the voice of broadcasting. Changing attitudes are also related to the growth of English as a global language. In 2008, language expert David Crystal estimated that globally, non-native speakers of English outnumbered native speakers by three to one, and more recent estimates have suggested this could now be as high as six to one.

Nowadays there’s rarely any need, or for most people any desire, to modify accents or the way in which their words are pronounced. And those learning the language can turn to social media for advice on how to understand and be understood in English. For many, YouTube has become the go-to resource, with countless YouTubers dishing out free advice on English grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Internet favourites like ‘Korean Billy’ are even teaching the British a thing or two about their own regional accents.

Do we still need an English Pronouncing Dictionary?

Whist recognizing the wealth of online resources that are available to help with pronunciation, Publishing Manager Wendalyn Nichols at Cambridge University Press explains why dictionaries remain of value to language learners:

“When learning a language, it is incredibly useful to have a single, consistent model when developing speaking skills, and clear pronunciation in particular, even if you have no desire to lose your accent. So rather than presenting learners with a model for how they should speak, the English Pronouncing Dictionary simply offers learners a consistent point of reference for how many people do speak. Its purpose is descriptive, not prescriptive. The accents described in the dictionary are two widely-recognised standard accents of English that can be described as broadcast English for the British pronunciations, and ‘standard’ American broadcast English for the US pronunciations.

Importantly, authoritative dictionaries like this also provide a trusted resource for learners who may otherwise struggle to make sense of the conflicting advice on the Web, which can often be inaccurate or biased toward the speaker’s own accent.”

Cambridge University Press took over the publishing of the English Pronouncing Dictionary in 1991. In addition to the classic print version, it is now also available as a mobile app for Android and iOS. Perfect for anyone wanting an instant, trustworthy guide to pronunciation in their pocket, and no doubt something that the pioneering Daniel Jones, and perhaps even Professor Higgins, would have approved of.

[1] Roach, P., Setter, J. and Esling, J. 2011. Preface. In: Jones, D. Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary 18th Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, iii

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