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A Primer Of Phonetics
Although the study of phonetics numbers more disciples in England than Dr. Sweet seems to think, he stands so indisputably above all other phonetists in this country that it would be almost presumptuous to comment on the great learning and accurate observation which have been lavished upon this book. Still, as Dr. Sweet has definitely stated the object of his work, we are bound to ask ourselves how far his intentions have been fulfilled. "This book is intended to supply the double want of a new edition of my 'Handbook of Phonetics,' and of a concise introduction to phonetics, with especial reference to English." Such are the words with which Dr. Sweet begins his preface. We should rather have called it an attempt to construct a practical phonetic alphabet with examples of its application to English, &c.
For this purpose Dr. Sweet takes Bell's system as the groundwork, and hence forms a number of more or less conventionalized symbols, to which are added diacritics quant. suff. Six pages are devoted to "Introduction," which combines hints to beginners with a justification of the spelling reformers; then follow 34 pages of "Analysis," in which the symbols are assigned to their respective sounds, and thirteen sets of diacritics given by which they may be modified. The next 30 pages are taken up with "Synthesis," in which the elaborate and difficult subject of glides is treated, and seven fresh sets of diacritics are introduced. Then 40 pages give the special sound-systems of English, French, German, Latin, and Greek, with illustrative passages; and the book ends with a table of symbols.
On comparing this volume with the 'Handbook of Phonetics,' a great improvement must be recognized; the notation which was there employed was unsatisfactory, and many serious, if not very obvious mistakes were admitted. Most of the latter have disappeared, and the new notation avoids many disadvantages of the old. At the same time much has been sacrificed for the diminution in space which is not balanced by more elementary treatment. As an introduction to phonetics we fear the book can scarcely be pronounced a success. The science is no doubt a difficult one, but that is the more reason for treating it clearly and progressively. This volume, even more than the 'Handbook,' will puzzle beginners by the confusion of elementary and advanced learning. Distinctions which are both clear and important for a specialist are not always either clear or important for a learner; while the distinction between "inner" and "outer" rounding on p. 15, which even Prof. Sievers ('Phonetik,' p. 75) confessed too technical for him, might surely be omitted from a primer. Again, on p. 36 we have a combination to represent a single sound, made up of two symbols, a pair of brackets and three diacritics, and this is spoken of as merely tentative until our "analysis becomes more minute"! The effect of this elaboration is that many important distinctions have to be ignored-for example, that between sonant and consonant, nasals and liquids, &c, which is of much practical importance. Thus, in the German specimen on p. 101, dannen is written by four symbols which may be transliterated by dan n. Now dannen is undoubtedly a word of two syllables, and therefore the two sounds which are here represented by the same symbol differ in the very important respect that one can be the bearer of the syllabic accent, while the other cannot. As Dr. Sweet rightly regards phonetics as the indispensable foundation for all study of language, it would have been better to put in the foreground those distinctions which have been of the greatest moment in the history of languages. Dr. Sweet's attempt to restore the true or approximate pronunciation of Latin and Greek will be found both interesting and suggestive.
-The Athenaeum, Issue 3375
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