​—​ LESSONS: IPA ​—​

Oct. 25, 2012

/ə/ - The Schwa


The schwa is the most used vowel in the English language. To demonstrate, here is a piece of dialogue from Hideo Kojima’s video game Metal Gear Solid. You can click on the text to hear it spoken by voice-actor Paul Eiding who plays Colonel Roy Campbell in the game. Just read the text while listening to the audio.


“The nuclear weapons disposal facility on Shadow Moses Island, in Alaska’s Fox Archipelago, was attacked and captured by Next-Generation Special Forces, being led by members of FOX-HOUND.”


This is the first sentence of the game, and it’s a mouthful with its spelled out initialisms and specific location description! Now, read the text below. It’s the same dialogue, but now the schwas are written down and the audio is 30% slower, so you can listen more carefully to them.


“Thə nucleaɚ weapəns disposəl fəciləty on Shadow Mosəs Islənd, in əlaskə’s Fox Archəpeləgo, wəs əttacked ən’ captshɚd by Next-Genərayshən Speciəl Forcəs, being led by membɚs əf FOX-HOUND.”


Twenty-two schwas in one sentence! You clearly see that all the schwas are on the unstressed parts of words. Paul gives more emphasis on certain words, too (in bold):


“Thə nucleaɚ weapəns disposəl fəciləty on Shadow Mosəs Islənd, in əlaskə’s Fox Archəpeləgo, wəs əttacked ən’ captshɚd by Next-Genərayshən Speciəl Forcəs, being led by membɚs əf FOX-HOUND.”


Paul’s phrasing his words. There’s musicality in his speech. I’ve translated his sentence into musical notation:


Oct. 23th, 2012

IPA Vowels


You may’ve read in my previous article, that I studied the IPA system because I wanted to work on my accent in different languages. What motivated me to really work on it, was a band competition I took part in. In 2010, I was the lead singer for the band Complexity, a progressive metal band, and I wanted everything to be as good as possible. Working on my pronunciation, I knew that, next to getting a more authentic (American) English accent, it could also improve my general vowel control in singing, which could be very helpful.
   I wrote down the vowels in such a way so that I’d get a good overview. The following table will show you what I did:

IPA Normal Combined
/i/ /ɪ/ lead lid lid lɪd
/e/ /ε/ late let let lεt
/ɑ/ /æ/ lot cat lɑt cæt
/o/ /ɔ/ low war low wɔr
/u/ /ʊ/ Luke look Luk lʊk
/ʌ/ /ə/ son Jackson sʌn Jæcksən
/ɝ/ /ɚ/ fur information fɝ ɪnfɚmeɪshən

The Vowel Configuration Table
On the left you see a table with three columns with grouped vowels. First, go through the whole middle column (Normal) until the dashed line​—​you can click on the words to hear an audio example (neatly done thanks to HTML5). You get: lead, lid, late, let, etc.

   I do two things:

  1. I start with​—​what would be called​—​the pure vowels, where next to them, the lighter, less open versions follow;
  2. I use the miauw order { i, e, a, o, u } unlike the alpha­betical {a, e, i, o, u}, because with this, you go from the most front vowel position, /i/, gradually to the most back vowel position, /u/.


The ‘Schwa Pair’ and the ‘Err Pair’

Next to the five pairs of vowels, there are the pairs: /ʌ/ & /ə/ and /ɝ/ & /ɚ/. The first pair are the most effortless vowels to make. The most widely used interjection, uhm, uses the /ʌ/ vowel. The /ə/ vowel, also known as the schwa sound, sounds pretty close to /ʌ/, and is used for unstressed syllables. Because they’re so similar, I call them the schwa pair, with one symbol used when it’s stressed (/ʌ/) and the other when it’s unstressed (/ə/).
   Finally, the last pair, the err pair, are a combination of the schwa pair with the added /r/. And here too, the first vowel is used for a stressed syllable, the second for an unstressed one. However, the vowel sounds are different from the schwa pair: the vowel in fur doesn’t sound like the one in son; it does sound like the -son in Jackson, though. There are huge discussions about how the schwa pair should sound. Really, I’ve heard different professional examples of both of the schwa pair, and they sound different from each other. The way I see it, /ɝ/, /ɚ/, and /ə/ are identical to each other, but the first two have an added /r/, and the last two are for unstressed usages.

Phonetics
The symbols used for the vowels are called phonetics. They are absolute, which means their sounds never change. This is not the case with the English language.
   The following words don’t have the same vowel sounds, while the letters forming the vowels are consistent:

        ● lite - elite;
        ● peak - steak;
        ● weight - height;
        ● bomb - tomb.

There are words which are spelled exactly the same, but sound different depending on context. They are called homographic heterophonic words:

        ● the girl - the artist;
        ● a lead singer - a lead balloon;
        ● a desert - “They desert us.”;
        ● a bow and arrow - “Bow before me”.

And you have words that sound exactly the same, but are spelled differently. They are called heterographic homophonic words:

        ● one - won;
        ● two - too;
        ● four - for;
        ● eight - ate.

The English language is according to Larry Trask, a spectacular example of heterography. Using the IPA sytem, however, you will have a standardized representation of sounds.

Oct. 21th, 2012

IPA for Lyrics


For a school assignment, I had to sing Phantom of the Opera’s Music of the Night. I wanted my accent to sound 19th-century English, just like the musical cast. Therefore, I listened a lot to the main cast recordings, and deciphered every vowel and consonant so that I could practise it easily.
   Here it is:


mjuzɪk ɘv ðɘ naɪt

naɪtaɪm ʃɑpɘnz, haɪtṇz itʃ senseɪʃṇ;
dɑknɘs stɜz ænd weɪks ɪmædʒɪneɪʃṇ.
saɪlɘntli ðɘ sensɪz ɘbændɘn ðeɘ difensɪz.

slɘʊli, dʒentli, naɪ-tʌnfɜlz ɪts splendɘ;
grɑs-pɪt, sen-sɪt, tremjʊlɘs æn(d) tendɘ.
tɜn jɔ feɪs ɘweɪ frɘm ðɘ geɘrɪʃ laɪt ɘv deɪ;
tɜn jɔ θɔt-sɘweɪ frɘm kɘʊl-d, ʌnfilɪŋ laɪt
​—​æn lɪsṇ tu ðɘ mjuzɪk ɘv ðɘ naɪt.

klɘʊz jɔ-raɪz ɘnd sɘrendɘ tu jɔ dɑkɪst drimz;
pɜdʒ jɔ θɔts ɘv ðɘ laɪf ju nju bɪfɔ;
klɘʊz jɔ-raɪz, let jɔ spɪrɪt stɑt tu sɔ
​—​æn ju-lɪv æz juv nevɘ lɪvd bɪfɔ.

sɒftli, deftli, mjuzɪk ʃæl kɘres ju,
hɪɘ-rɪt, fi-lɪt, sikrɘtli pɘzes ju,
ɘʊpɘn ʌp jɘ maɪnd, let jɔ fæntɘsi-zʌnwaɪnd ɪn ðɪs,
dɑknɘs wɪtʃ ju nɘʊ ju kænɘt faɪt
​—​ðɘ dɑknɘ-sɘv ðɘ mjuzɪk ɘv ðɘ naɪt.

let jɔ maɪnd stɑ-tɘ dʒɜni θruː ɘ streɪndʒ nju wɜld,
li-vɔl θɔːt-sɘv ðɘ wɜld ju nju bifɔ,
let jɔ sɘʊl teɪ-kju weɘ ju lɒŋ tu bi
​—​ɘʊnli ðen kæn ju bɪlɒŋ tu mi.

flɘʊtɪŋ, fɔlɪŋ, swi-tɪn-tɒk-sɪ-keɪʃṇ;
tʌtʃ mi, trʌst mi, seɪvɘ-ritʃ sen-seɪʃṇ.
let ðɘ drim bigɪn, let jɔ dɑkɘ saɪd gɪ-vɪn tu ði
paʊɘ-rɘv ðɘ mjuzɪk ðɘt aɪ raɪt
​—​ðɘ paʊɘ-rɘv ðɘ mjuzɪk ɘv ðɘ naɪt.

ju ɘlɘʊn kɘn meɪk maɪ sɒŋ teɪk flaɪt:
help mi meɪk ðɘ mjuzɪk ɘv ðɘ naɪt.

Music of the Night

Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation;
darkness stirs and wakes imagination.
Silently the senses abandon their defences.

Slowly, gently, night unfurls its splendour;
grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender.
Turn your face away from the garish light of day;
turn your thoughts away from cold, unfeeling light
​—​and listen to the music of the night.

Close you eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams;
purge your thoughts of the life you knew before;
close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar
​—​and you'll live as you've never lived before.

Softly, deftly, music shall caress you;
hear it, feel it, secretly possess you.
Open up your mind; let your fantasies unwind in this
darkness which you know you cannot fight
​—​the darkness of the music of the night.

Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world;
leave all thoughts of the world you knew before;
let your soul take you where you long to go
​—​only then can you belong to me.

Floating, falling, sweet intoxication;
touch me, trust me, savour each sensation.
Let the dream begin; let your darker side give in to the
power of the music that I write
​—​the power of the music of the night.

You alone can make my song take flight:
Help me make the music of the night.



As you can see, it’s quite different from but also similar to normal writing. HTML is not so IPA-friendly. I need to tweak the formatting some more to make it look better. Anyhow, it will take some time to understand IPA. When you finally do, however, you’ll be able to read this whole Phantom song in IPA like you would in normal writing.