Category Archives: theater

Writing with IPA (and not in the snow)

We got your Shakespearean OP -- Yeah you know me!

confused-looking woman holding a notebook

CC image “Confused” courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

M paused as he explained the definition of the word. “You know that weird string of letter-like symbols when you look it up in the dictionary?” he said. “Do any of you have a clue what that’s all about?”

The nerd in me took .02 seconds to pipe up. “That’s the International Phonetic Alphabet,” I said, equal parts proud and embarrassed.

“Of course it is,” said M.

The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA for short (not as tasty as certain fermented beverages that also go by the same name, but at least as interesting, in certain circles) is a kind of symbolic spelling that linguists use to represent how a word is pronounced without stumbling over spelling conventions. The IPA applies across all known languages or dialects. IPA spelling shows up immediately after the boldfaced entry of every word in the dictionary, between two backslashes, as with this example from Merriam Webster:

dic·tio·nary: noun \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē\

Since I was a somewhat nerdy child, and did use the dictionary while I was growing up (going through the pupae stage of my bookworminess, I guess you could say), I had long wondered about those symbols myself. Although I supposed they were related to pronunciation, I was never quite sure how until I took my first phonetics class.

The sounds of language

Ahh, phonetics. The study of the sounds of speech. Typically, when we’re talking about how a writer renders a particular dialect or language, we’ll say “s/he wrote that dialect phonetically” to mean that the spelling evokes sound rather than writing conventions. “I’m gonna” versus “I’m going to,” for example. The thing is, every author has his or her own idea of what that dialect actually sounds like, and all kinds of spelling variations can be used. How do I know what I’m hearing in my own head is what the writer intended?

This poses a problem just among English-speakers. Try to get an American English speaker or a Welsh English speaker to write “phonetically” for an Aussie or a Kiwi. They will just look at each other curiously. The vowels for all our varied English dialects are totally different.

Enter the IPA. Every symbol is assigned one sound. Additional notations known as diacritics add details such as whether the sound is voiced or voiceless, aspirated (followed by a puff of exhaled air) or not. Although based on the Latin alphabet, IPA contains plenty of other funky symbols to keep digital transcriptionists busy.

To the layperson, IPA looks like a bunch of hieroglyphics. Learning IPA is the equivalent of learning a new written language. It’s most useful in academic circles and for students of language. (I did say I was a nerdy child, right?)

IPA in daily life and in Shakespeare

We could use it to represent the sounds of English today. All of us, native speakers or not, have at one point complained about how English spelling and pronunciation don’t seem to have ANYTHING to do with each other sometimes.

But there was a time when English writing was much more “phonetic” than it is today. And scholars say Shakespeare captures a lot of that language.

The fruits of research into the language of Shakespeare have even taken the stage at The Globe Theatre in London, where a number of productions were performed in what is called OP, “original pronunciation.”

Original pronunciation, you say? How do they know what Shakespeare’s compatriots actually sounded like?!

For a fuller discussion, watch this video. In brief, according to the noted historical linguist David Crystal, there are three main types of evidence researchers use to determine the pronunciation of historical dialect. First, they look at what people writing at the time have to say about how their language is spoken. Second, they use the written evidence (since English used to be much more phonetic, spelling gives us helpful clues). And third, researchers look at poetry and rhyme, on the concept that poetic stanzas were meant to rhyme, and not look strange as they do to the modern eye.

The result is something that doesn’t sound at all the way most of us are used to hearing Shakespeare pronounced (watch for examples). To my ears, it even sounds sort of Irish. I swear it’s not the apostrophe in my name talking.

I’m pretty sure The Globe’s production staff put together a pronunciation guide for the actors who had to learn the script in OP. I doubt it was an IPA guide, though.

 

Bi-ˈkəz ðæt wʌd bi ˈkɹe-zi!1

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What’s your favorite nerdy discovery?

 

1 With apologies for any mistakes I may have made, or any dialectal offenses I may have incurred.

Words = Power

over life size sculpture of a human face

© AOC. All rights reserved.

For the final two weeks of my voice and speech class, each of us was meant to work with a specific text that we’d chosen. Not more than a few lines. My teacher said this could be dialogue, a presentation, poetry, song lyrics… whatever. The main criterion was the text should be something we knew well… and that each of us was comfortable delivering in class.

I began thinking about the text a couple of weeks ago when my teacher reminded us to have it ready. Almost immediately, I also began to think about how I could avoid the lines that would not stop going through my head. Surely, I thought, I can’t be comfortable with those words…

I’ve been circling this thought for weeks. The words that I can’t shake are a song lyric, beautiful in its phrasing and heavy with emotional freight. They are awful and beautiful at the same time. Awful, because I want with every fiber of my being to be the one who wrote them. Beautiful, because even without music, they sing.

And he was always much more human than he wished to be

Really, the verses pursue me. I’ve tried isolating bits of the lyric from the rest: experimenting with just two lines to use in class. Thinking, if I separate these threads, these veins that bleed into one another, the smaller fragment will be easier to contain. Easier to carry.

My mistake.

So I skulked the stacks in the drama and poetry sections of the library, in search of something memorable — something I could easily remember — which was also easier to carry, and easier to hear.

What I checked out was the following:

  • The Essential Dickenson (Emily)
  • Three plays by David Mamet

So much for happiness and froth. I wonder what this says about me…

All of my selections proved to be difficult at meeting my primary search criterion: text that was lighter than the haunted verses that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Emily is memorable, but her poems have a strength of structure that conspires against me. I’ve always had difficulty reading poetry aloud. I have to fight against being held hostage by the end of the line. Emily’s poetry is cadences of pure tensile strength… How can a little weakling like me begin to play with her text?

Mamet, on the other hand, has easy, flowing dialogue. But it’s nearly impossible to find speech that doesn’t carry dangerous, spiky undercurrents, even in the comedies.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the musculature in Emily’s poetry, I found it relatively easy to remember her verse. I really liked the start of this poem, particularly because I am a writer:

She dealt her pretty words like Blades–
How glittering they shone–
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone–

The power of words! Who wouldn’t love to declaim those lines? Up until the very moment I stood up in class I was convinced those would be the words that passed my lips.

Didn’t happen that way. Instead, I went with a bit from the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert. The book has a wonderful, gentle sense of humor, and I thought I could use that rather than the bare intensity in Emily’s lines. Back to eschewing the heavy stuff.

In the end, I chose the power verses for myself, but kept them secreted from the audience. I was afraid of the strength of those verses — could I contain them, could I embody them… could I handle their impact on the people who would hear me speak?

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What about you — can you think of a time when you pulled back from your own power?