Let’s face it: nobody enjoys taking exams. It feels good to be done with them, especially if you think you’ve done well, but the emotions we associate with this educational fundamental are typically dread, anxiety, or even panic.

I’m taking an introductory course in phonetics. A handful of us graduate students always sit in the back of a lecture hall populated mostly by undergraduates, but I rather like the setup; it’s a nice change from my more intimidating seminar-style classes. I also can’t complain about the level of difficulty, as I am already familiar with most of the material thanks to my own undergraduate phonetics course.

So, I was never worried about the written portion of midterm, which I took on Monday. It was almost thrilling, in a way, to work through the problems in a race against the clock. I mean, besides the GRE, this was my first timed exam in well over two years. When one takes a lengthy post-bac hiatus from academia, one must then wonder upon return, “Have I still got it in me?”

But there was a part of the exam that was new even to me. Notice that the use of the phrase “written portion” in the previous paragraph provides the implicature that there was another portion which I have not yet mentioned. But I will, shortly.

Now, all linguists, especially phoneticians, are familiar with and use on a daily basis the International Phonetic Alphabet (henceforth IPA, not to be confused with the beer). The symbols of this alphabet are used to represent any sound in any language of the world, with the intent that they be used universally in linguistic research.

The correspondences between some sounds and symbols are perfectly straightforward for English speakers: [t] is the first sound in tiger, [n] is the last sound in sun, so on and so forth. However, there are some sounds in English that are mapped to odd-looking letters (e.g., [ʃ] for the first sound in shy), and then, of course, there are plenty of sounds that exist outside of English that may be represented by symbols never found outside of a linguistic context. Here is the word midterm written in IPA, first in Californian English and then in other varieties and languages:

  1. mɪd̚tʰɚm
  2. mɪt̚tʰɜm (Australian English)
  3. mid̚tʰɛʀm (French-accented English)
  4. tɕuŋgaŋkosa (중간고사 – Korean)
  5. tɕʰi˥ʈʂoŋ˥kʰaʊ˩˨ (期中考 – Modern Standard Mandarin)

It gets pretty complex, doesn’t it? The cool thing is that with knowledge of the IPA, one can approximate any utterance in any language with close to proper pronunciation. It’s also helpful when you need to be exact in your description of someone’s pronunciation; for example, in a previous post, I used IPA to describe the way my Australian friend said the word Californian.

Now, back to the exam: the unwritten portion was a production exam, which means that we drew made-up words written in IPA out of a bucket and had to pronounce them correctly. Three words were worth fifteen percent of the exam grade! Although I wasn’t worried at all about being able to identify the symbols in the words I would draw, I was still just the slightest bit nervous, since I’ve never been tested on my ability to vocalize random non-English sounds before.

Are you curious about the words I had to pronounce? If you know your IPA, give these a shot (I used a nifty little website, ipatypeit, to produce the following symbols):

  1. kœ˥˩ kœ˩˥
  2. ŋɔɪɾɚz
  3. ʃu̥tʼaɪt

Anyway, I think I did well on the production portion of the exam, although my examiner was completely inscruptable and gave no feedback whatsoever. I’ll find out my score by the end of the week. And that will be it for my first (and quite possibly last) midterm of graduate school! [hɪpʰɪpːhɚeɪ]!

What kinds of interesting things have you had to do for exams or final projects in school?


Word of the Day: orthography, a word often used in linguistic contexts, which simply refers to the way words are spelled in a given language. English orthography, for example, is a Frankenstein’s monster of a system. If we were to use IPA as the only orthography of all the world’s languages, reading them all would become (relatively) easier, but they would also lose all kinds of information embedded in the words, word segments, and letters themselves. And let’s not forget that there is inherent sociocultural value in having a unique writing system.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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