Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Linguistic Lingo and Lyric Diction I - the Phoneme

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Linguistic Lingo and Lyric Diction I - the Phoneme

Article excerpt

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THE READER WHO HAS BEEN FOLLOWING Journal of Singing articles on lyric diction topics for the past several years will have noticed that a number of conventions, symbols, and linguistic terms not normally encountered in practical textbooks on lyric diction for musicians have been employed in support of the ideas contained therein. Such occurrences have generally been accompanied by textual or endnote explanations of such terms, to obviate confusion resulting from unfamiliarity. It might reasonably be asked whether such verbal appurtenances are really necessary, or merely arcane argot-complexity for its own sake. Singing and voice pedagogy are after all practical activities, not theoretical disciplines. It is understandable if the reader has been left perplexed or even exasperated by the density of linguistic detail that can inhere in articles on lyric diction. It has been an intentional thrust of this column to push the existing boundaries and delve at times quite deeply into specific aspects of the sound pattern of languages as it impacts the vocal text and its musical performance. The alternative of simply repackaging common knowledge already well laid out in the standard textbooks seems pointless. The introduction of concepts and terminology that are seldom encountered in such texts has been a byproduct of this orientation, and a modicum of understanding and prior familiarity with the essentials of lyric diction has also been presupposed. The question of practical relevance to the voice studio, however, is never abandoned, and is in fact the sine qua non of choosing topics upon which to report. No new terminology or nomenclature has been introduced without first asking whether an alternative, already familiar to the reader, would suffice. However, the full truth, in lyric diction as in life, is rarely simple, and a complete description of a topic often demands a large amount of detail. This can make for dense reading at times, especially if attempted all at once.1

This article on the phoneme is the first in a group of articles designed to address specific standard concepts in linguistics, as they might apply to voice pedagogy and performance. The series is thus an apologia for some of the innovative policies not generally encountered in the standard lyric diction literature that have been employed in Journal of Singing articles since Volume 59 (2002-2003), that might be construed by some readers as unduly theoretical. An attempt will be made to illustrate the practical benefits for both pedagogue and singer of understanding such linguistic concepts.

THE PHONEME

Perhaps no linguistic terminology strikes more terror into the heart of the newcomer to lyric diction than the terms phoneme and allophone. There is nothing inherently complex about these terms, although they do involve some conceptualization. In the present author's undergraduate diction classes these interrelated ideas are introduced quite early on, because they are fundamental to the comprehension of the sound system of a language. It is crucial to understand what a phoneme is and isn't. It is not an articulation, a sound, or an alphabetic symbol, but rather an idea. Every language and dialect has a group of vowel and consonant phonemes that are the building blocks of the language. In most cases, each phoneme is comprised of multiple allophones, which form an inventory of sounds (or articulations) that, within each phoneme, are considered "the same sound" by the speakers of that dialect. Thus, every language has an inventory of phonetic articulations that is larger than the number of phonemes. A phoneme is usually a group of discrete articulations, or individual phones (as linguists call them) that are considered "identical," even though they differ from one another in articulation, and usually also acoustically. Each articulation that belongs to that idea of "identity" in a language is known as an allophone. …

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