June 30, 2010

Phonetic Definitions in Dictionaries are a Complete Waste of Time

Here's a dictionary definition for the word 'diaspora' from Merriem Webster Online
Main Entry: di

Pronunciation: dī-ˈas-p(ə-)rə, dē-


Now I'm talking here about the phonetic definition, that is, how each word is pronounced. If you don't know what I mean by phonetics, think back to when you were first taught the alphabet, and were taught "ah, buh, cuh, duh, eh…' etc. How the letters sound is phonetics


Look above! What freaking help is that to anyone? They may as well have the 'how you say this word' section in French or Latin! I mean, really, what flipping use is it to anyone? Who can read "dī-ˈas-p(ə-)rə, dē-"


To make matters worse, there are several ways dictionaries display pronunciation:


Here's the same word on the Cambridge Dictionary Website "/daɪˈæs.pər.ə", and on the Google Dictionary Website "/daɪ'æspərə/, from dictionary.net /Di*as"po*ra/


Now dictionaries are supposed to be helpful, and to be fair to the above websites, some have a little audio icon you can click to hear someone say the word (wrongly, in American, probably, e.g. 'butter' pronounced 'budder', or 'bank' pronounced 'benk' - there's a whole other article on here somewhere about American pronunciation, if you want to get into that!). So that's not too bad...but my gripe here is about the phonetic spelling you see in pretty much all dictionaries, not just online ones. You have just seen four explanations of how to say the word 'diaspora', none of which would be any use, to anyone.

I still don
't know how to say this word: is it dye-ass-purra, or dye-az-pore-ah, dee-ass-per-ah? I'm none the wiser having read the above, and I know of no one who would be.


The phonetic alphabets used in dictionaries are: useless, unhelpful, irregular, inconsistent, indecipherable and uninformative, to everyone except trained linguists, who would no doubt know how to pronounce most difficult words anyway.











  1. I had to learn the phoenetic alphabet for my TEFL course and man, was that a bitch. Not only did I have to learn it, but I had to translate words written in it, and then re-write words into the phoenetic alphabet. My co sometimes references it in class and I know that shit goes over the student's heads. That being said, how are WE, native English speakers supposed to know and use it???

  2. Really? i find the phonetic alphabet totally useful and actually wish i was taught that way in school...and its actually very helpful when trying to show students the difference in pronouncing some of the differences that we know but they have to learn...for example like the difference in the 'th' sound in words like the vs thin...or the 'ch' sound in chemist vs chin...cos lets face it english has too many sounds...my students use the phonetic alphabet a lot and they understand it because the korean alphabet is similar in the sense that one letter has only one sound...duh

  3. Which phonetic alphabet of the four above do you use???

  4. according to the above the word is pronounced: die - ass - per - ruh(the upside down e has the same sound as 'er' in butter)

    the phonetic alphabet is standard..the dictionaries just use it differently..according to the alphabet the middle 2 are correct..the first one gives the same pronounciation but its using a different 'i' and 'a' sound and the last one is just using the normal letters of the english alphabet so that doesn't count...
    i guess that the average person who hasnt studied the phonetic alphabet wouldn have a clue as to wtf is going on but its a good system and i think all language teachers should know it..

  5. "According to the above..." there are four separate phonetic alphabets (at least).

    You say 'all language teachers should know it'. What's "it"? There is no single 'it'. This is my entire point - not that we shouldn't use any phonetic alphabets, but that there are too many different ones.

    Above we have:

    - dī-ˈas-p(ə-)rə, dē-
    - daɪˈæs.pər.ə
    - /Di*as"po*ra/
    - /daɪ'æspərə/

    I would like to stress here that these are not suggested, differing pronunciations of the same word using a single phonetic alphabet, but the same word, with the same pronunciation, suggested by FOUR differing phonetic alphabets.

    My point is unison - ONE phonetic alphabet, across all media, please.

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