The Chocolate Box: thoughts on the use and abuse of the phonemic chart

A box of chocolates

To me, a phonemic chart looks something like a box of chocolates – a matrix of cells, each containing an intriguing-looking symbol. It invites you to sample the different flavours and to explore the full set. No surprise that such an appealing visual aid finds its way onto the walls of so many of the world’s classrooms.

It’s the box that matters

I wonder though if this resemblance to a chocolate box may be a problem. There are two elements, the chocolates and the box, but our eyes are naturally drawn mainly to the chocolates. We focus on the very specific shape and flavour of each one, and meanwhile we pay no attention at all to the box. However, with the phonemic chart, there is a sense in which the box is more important than the symbols. Let me explain.

Symbols are arbitrary

In a phonemic chart, the symbols are arbitrary. They are not as ‘scientific’ as they appear. The reason that they look this way is that they are ‘imported’ from the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). As phonetic symbols, they do indeed represent very specific sounds and as such, can be used in the close analysis of different languages and accents. But when we ‘borrow’ them for pronunciation teaching purposes, we are using them to represent phonemes and not specific sounds.

Phonemes are not sounds

In the real world, a single phoneme such as /e/ may be realised in a variety of ways. For example, the vowel sound in the word bet is very different in RP and New Zealand speech, yet in both cases it is an instance of the phoneme /e/. The symbols in the chart do not commit us to a single accent.

A system of distinctions

So how is the box more important than the symbols? Well, it’s this: the system of phonemes in English is a system of distinctions. What matters about the vowel in bet is not so much its intrinsic quality, but more the fact that it is different from the vowels in bit, beat or bait, for example. In fact, we could represent these four vowels in a mini-chart like this:

In this mini-chart, instead of IPA symbols, I could have used typical spellings such as ea, i, ai and e. There’s no reason why not, because as I’ve said, in a phonemic chart the symbols are arbitrary. What is not arbitrary here is the fact that each phoneme has a wall separating it from the next-door phoneme. What is important is not the precise quality of the occupant of each cell, but the fact that it is distinguishable from its neighbours.

Names, not descriptions

Having made this point, the main thrust of this post is done. But before signing off, I would like to make three final points to respond to questions that readers may have. The first point relates to the IPA symbols. If they are arbitrary as I have suggested, then we shouldn’t draw conclusions from their appearance. A good example is the vowel phoneme /eə/, as found in hair. The symbol makes it appear that this phoneme must be a diphthong – a vowel which changes from one sound to another in the middle. However, phoneticians have pointed out that in England at least, it is increasingly common to pronounce it as a pure vowel, with no change in the middle.

So should we change the symbol as some have suggested? Perhaps, but on the other hand, the traditional symbol will do no harm, as long as we remember that it is arbitrary. Remember: a symbol represents a phoneme like a sort of name; it doesn’t describe it.

A false equivalence

My second point brings us back to the chart looking like a chocolate box. This appearance makes it seem that each phoneme is of equivalent importance, and this is not so. For example, fewer speakers nowadays use the phoneme /ʊə/ in words such as cure. There’s probably a good case for leaving this chocolate untouched, or not even having it in the box in the first place. So for classroom purposes, some phonemes are less important than others.

When distinctions get lost

Thirdly, there is a problem relating to the number of cells in the box. What happens if, in your accent, two different phonemes have become one? For example, many speakers in the north of England do not distinguish between the vowels in luck and look. The first point I would make here is that this is a problem for the chart, not for speakers with this accent feature. If there were too many cases where two phonemes become one, the chart would lose its value. However, I don’t think there are too many. If you find a case where the chart has two phonemes where you have only one, you might say to your class for example something like: These two words have the same vowel sound in my accent but many other speakers have two different vowel sounds, and that’s why there are two symbols in the chart.

What do learners need?

From your learners’ perspective, the best bet is for them to make as many of the distinctions in the chart as they can. It’s not the end of the world if they can’t distinguish one or two, but for every distinction lost, the message gets a bit less clear. It’s like a digital picture – the fewer the pixels, the fuzzier the image.

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it

As a final thought, I would like to say that we can and should be flexible with regard to pronunciation and follow the maxim, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’. Don’t try to repair sounds which the learner produces if they work perfectly well already. There’s no reason why the phonemic chart cannot be made to work in harmony with this pragmatic philosophy.

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