on 5 September 2000
The 'Handbook of the International Phonetic Association' aims to bring together a range of information on the International Phonetic Association: a long standing association whose aims include the establishment and maintenance of a phonetic alphabet for the orthographic recording and description of spoken language.
The book is divided into three main sections. The first, the Introduction, gives succinct (most sections are less than two pages in length), and generally clear, descriptions of various aspects relevant to the IPA. They include sections on 'what is the International Phonetic Alphabet?', classification and description of consonants and vowels, types of transcription, and the theory (which emerges as not always being phonetic) which underpins the IPA.
The second, and longest, section (occupying more than half of the book) gives a collection of thumbnail sketches of the phonetic and phonological organization of twenty-nine languages from around the world, describing the phonetics of the language under study, and listing the suggested IPA notation and conventions for the representation of the language being illustrated. In many cases, they are accompanied by a brief description of where the language is spoken, and where to find further studies. This section is undoubtedly the backbone of the 'Handbook', and is sure to be one of the first ports of call for anyone beginning to study the phonetics of a particular language. The languages covered range from American English (curiously, there is no chapter on British English) to French, from Igbo to Sindhi.
The third section, the Appendices, includes the principles of the Association, the symbols of the 'extended IPA', used in the study of 'disordered speech', and the history of the IPA.
The 'Handbook' has a range of points in its favour, not least in that it is a succinct catechism of the Association, outlining some of its key principles and practices. It also offers good coverage (for its length) of some of the key aspects of introductory phonetics, and information on the phonetics of a wealth of languages, which can only encourage the study of more languages. Taken as a whole, the 'Handbook' is a valuable guide for beginners, as well as offering food for thought on the International Phonetic Association and their alphabet for the more advanced.
The only serious flaw (which sits alongside a number of smaller, and often more curious niggles) in the 'Handbook' is the segmental (phonemic) motivation which they conflate unashamedly with phonetic description, and which is sadly apparent in a large number of the illustrations. This phonological motivation is no accident (indeed they embrace it proudly throughout), yet it can only be seen by anyone working seriously at the interface of phonetics and phonology as to its detriment. While any transcription system might be seen as being underpinned by theoretical assumptions, it is not necessary for a system's uses and conventions to be overgrown by them.
Beginners should not assume that because this book is attributed to the 'International Phonetic Association' it has some sort of 'truth' or 'universality' attached to it: indeed, some of the theoretical assumptions evident in this book are undoubtedly as contentious, and long standing, as they come. As such, the 'Handbook' represents the theoretical (and phonological) axe that the authors of this book, rather than the members of the IPA or phoneticians at large, have to grind.
This said, the 'Handbook' stands as a valuable and accessible source of information for anyone with an interest in phonetics and the uses (and phonological abuses) of the IPA, and would be an excellent companion to a more descriptive book on phonetics.
on 15 December 2009
First of all, I would recommend the book itself, and find it hard to improve on the previous review by "A customer".
I gave the book away as a present to a relation who plans to become a speech therapist, and at this moment I wish the title could be at hand. Perhaps a couple of details are worth mentioning - that the English speech is based on American pronunciation. Another is that Hebrew is included, with Hebrew script, but a little strangely Russian and some other eastern european languages are not.
As a linguist I welcome this book, which will be of most interest to specialists.