Actors Be Damned! (or: What I Don’t Think)—What Is the Value of (Super) Narrow Transcription?

All actors should learn narrow transcription. And I mean super narrow, with multiple diacritics hanging off of every symbol like crazed Christmas ornaments. All teachers and coaches should employ similarly narrow transcription in all their prepared materials, and whenever taking or giving phonetic notes. They should not water down the detail even when preparing materials for or giving notes to actors who don’t know any phonetics. If these actors can’t handle it, well, that’s just too bad. They should have paid attention in speech class.
I’m pretty sure some people think that’s what I believe. I don’t.
I think I know why people think I’m the poster boy for the maximalist, super-narrow-transcription-for-everyone-at-all-times position. I have demonstrated a fondness for this sort of transcription, to be sure, in many forums. I teach it, in the classroom and in workshops. Some of my accent teaching materials have even, on occasion, been known to feature multiple diacritics hanging off a single symbol. At the VASTA conference in London in 2014, I even offered up the following as one possible approach to analyzing an accent:
Screenshot 2016-03-09 07.11.33

It’s true: I love phonetics; I love me some narrow transcription. I love the fact that it’s possible to go deeper and deeper in the attempt to describe, ever more precisely, the physical actions taking place in someone’s vocal tract; I love that it can feel like getting lost inside a fractal, surrounded by beautiful branching patterns, at once ordered and chaotic.
I love phonetics, too, for what it’s done for me, and for what it’s done for my students and colleagues. I started off with a good ear for languages and accents, but phonetics has only made it better. I’ve watched countless students benefit similarly from the intensive study of the physical realities of speech. To be clear, I am talking here specifically about narrow, descriptive phonetics. Learning a few symbols within a prescriptive speech training framework, or even learning a larger set of them, but only in broad brushstrokes aren’t at all the same thing. Neither of these endeavors seems to me to be worth the time or effort. Neither one will confer the benefits I’m talking about.
But phonetics is just a tool. As much as I love it, as much as I can get lost in it, it’s only a tool. It’s not even a perfect one—it’s highly imperfect, in fact! Speech is a series of connected gestures in a highly complex three-dimensional space. Representing it with a series of symbols on paper (no matter how many diacritics you use!) is bound to be a simplification, a kind of notional representation. Like all tools, there are some things it does really well, and there are some things it’s just not suited for.
Julie wrote an excellent post last month asking What Is the Value of Broad Transcription? (Go read it, if you haven’t.) Julie’s post takes as a given that there’s great value in teaching narrow transcription in training programs (this is the Knight-Thompson Speechwork blog, after all). And there is, of course. But seeing some of the comments that post collected, both on the post itself and also over on Facebook, I thought it would be useful to write a kind of companion post—What is the Value of (Super) Narrow Transcription?[1] Along the way, I’m also going to set the record straight about What I Don’t Think, i.e. where, when, and how I don’t actually think narrow transcription serves any useful purpose.
Narrow Transcription is Good For:

  • Listening for details. One of the main reasons to train actors in phonetics in the first place is to do an end-run around the phonemic interference that gets in the way of their accurately hearing sounds for what they are (listening for meaning gets in the way). The more detailed we get, the more thoroughly we can tackle, and defeat, that interference.
  • Forcing you to make a call. We all have times when it’s difficult to make a call. Is that closer to [e] or [ɛ]? Did the tongue tip actually make contact on that /l/? Is that vowel more forward or more back, higher or lower? The process of narrow transcription, whether engaged in alone or with a group, forces you to come down on one side or the other. This is a valuable exercise. Accent work has got to be specific—you have to know (in a purely felt way, ultimately) what the target is. If you remain forever vague about the target, you end up with a wishy-washy accent that doesn’t sound plausible to anybody—and that will also, crucially, make your acting vague. (How many American actors have you heard saying [fänsɪ] in The Importance of Being Earnest?)
  • Connecting to the physicality of speech. I keep meaning to write a whole post on this, as I think it’s one of the strongest arguments for speech-training based around descriptive phonetics. Briefly, though, one of the most important things for an actor to possess is a deeply felt, physical connection to language. By opening up their awareness to the fact that speech sounds are the byproducts of specific physical actions, phonetics has the potential to accomplish this. (The teacher has to emphasize the physical throughout for this to be the case, of course.) The narrower the transcription, the more opportunity there is to develop, and refine this awareness.
  • Improving your ear. It improves your ear. A lot.
  • Analyzing an idiolect. I don’t dive into narrow transcription of a stretch of speech when I’m analyzing an accent. I don’t teach people to do this as approach to accent analysis. I don’t actually think this is one of the things that narrow transcription is very useful for. (Significant caveat—I did it once, and I learned a lot. But I still think it was more interesting as an exercise and a proof of concept than an actual methodology. More on that below.) However, one exception to this general rule may be when approaching an idiolect—one specific individual’s idiosyncratic pattern of speech. If you’re playing Martin Luther King, and you decide you’d like to try to capture aspects of his speech with eerie precision (by no means the only artistically viable choice), well, narrowly transcribing him will get you inside his mouth like nothing else will.
  • Specifying the important features of a given accent phoneme target. This one makes both lists. I should probably dedicate a post to this, too, but I think there are arguments to be made both for and against including a diacritic or two in an accent description entry. If you’re going to do it, of course, you should always include a detailed verbal description of the speech action as well as, ideally, isolated audio samples. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a huge problem for actors who don’t know phonetics to encounter something like this:
as long as it’s accompanied by something like this:
In Central Standard Swedish, all /l/s are very light, no matter where they fall in a word. Instead of the back of the tongue bunching and arching up towards the velum (as in American final [ɫ], for example), the middle of the tongue reaches up towards the palate while the back stays relaxed. The whole of the body of the tongue flattens and spreads out to the sides (this is the opposite of the back-of-tongue bunching in a “dark” [ɫ]). Like the other alveolar consonants, /l/ is generally dental in Swedish.
  • Teaching the process of ongoing, open, inquiry. When we engage in narrow transcription in a classroom, we are learning how to attend closely. Specific, attuned, awareness is essential to every aspect of an actors craft. I even might go further and say it’s essential to the development of virtually any skill. Nurturing a habit of asking questions is also vital to artistic development. Group transcription offers an ideal opportunity to stoke young artists’ curiosity and encourage them to question everything—their own perception and intuitions, to be sure, but also the teacher, the textbook, the dictionary and other authorities.

Narrow Transcription is Not Good For:

  • The process of accent analysis. As I mentioned above, I did this once—began work on analyzing an accent by diving straight into some super-narrow transcription. It was an interesting and valuable experience for me. When I’d finished transcribing about thirty seconds worth of speech, I made the surprising discovery that I knew more or less everything I needed to know about oral posture and prosody, and was able to write up detailed descriptions of these straight away. (This wasn’t why I set out to do the transcription in the first place—the discovery was truly a surprise.) I also had quite a few tokens for many phonemes, and was able to quickly settle on reasonable prescriptive target for most of them. So it was actually a pretty successful approach; I’ll probably do it again sometime. But in spite of all that, I’m not sure I can really recommend it, at least not as a baseline approach. For one thing, the kind of narrow transcription I’m talking about (see the example above) is really, really narrow. I wouldn’t have learned nearly so much about the accent if I hadn’t been transcribing that narrowly. And transcribing that narrowly is hard. It’s hard to do even if you’re good at it. And if you don’t have that level of mastery of phonetics yet, well…let’s just say I can think of better ways you might use your time. What’s more, it’s just not necessary. Yes, you should find out as much as you can (whether you write it down in IPA or not) about how each individual sound is made. But this kind of transcription is not necessarily the best way to go about that.
  • Written notes to actors. I think most readers of this blog would agree that if you’re using IPA at all in notes to actors, there’s no sense whatsoever in including more detail than is absolutely necessary. If you’re telling them they said [kænt] instead of [kɑːnt], it’s just silly to indicate aspiration [kʰɑːnt] or to be super-precise about the exact vowel they actually used in their incorrect pronunciation [kɛ̃ə̯̃nt]. Even if they’re super good at phonetics, what’s the point? The purpose of a phonetic note is usually to indicate a single correction, or perhaps two. Additional details just distract.
  • One’s own notes. The same goes for notes you make purely for yourself, of course. Jotting down a quick note in IPA is a way to remember what someone actually said, usually so you can correct it. The only detail you need is the thing that went wrong. Anything additional is completely counter-productive.
  • Accent breakdowns. There are strong arguments to be made that diacritics (for the most part) have no place in an accent breakdown. I’m sympathetic to some of these arguments, and will take them up in a later post.
  • Anything you want someone else to be able to read. The more cluttered your transcription, the harder it is to read, obviously. This is true even for readers who actually know all the symbols and diacritics—it’s just a lot of information to process. That doesn’t mean reading super-narrow transcription isn’t a good exercise, of course. It is. But there’s an obvious tradeoff—the more detailed the transcription, the harder it will be to read.
  • Coaching actors. Phonetics has its place in coaching actors in professional productions, even (sometimes) with actors who don’t know any phonetics. But we’re really not talking about narrow transcription here. Often, we may not even be talking about symbols at all—I might draw a picture of a vowel space and specify different positions, all without every using a symbol. I work a lot in television and film. Most of the actors I coach have no phonetics. Many have no speech training of any kind. With these actors, I may or may not throw in some phonetics as part of our work. It depends on the actor, how they like to work, and how much time I have with them.

Phonetics is a (very) useful tool, but it’s only a tool. It’s just a notation system for describing a series of physical actions. These actions are very complex, so a notation system is a handy thing to have. But the physical actions themselves are what’s important. Feeling them, not hearing them. Understanding that there are physical actions taking place, and that the sound is just a byproduct of those actions. Whether or not symbols are involved, a focus on describing and drawing attention to these actions is always a central part of my coaching. But narrow transcription? Nah.

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[1]Of course, this case has already been thoroughly made in Phil’s superb article: Phonetics and Perception: The Deep Case for Phonetics Training. This post is just a quick sketch version.


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