Sounding Gratitude for Clifford H. Prator

November 24, 2014 by admin

This is the month of gratitude, and I really do feel it. Today, I’m thinking gratefully about Clifford H. Prator, a father of practical phonetics and author of what was probably the first staple of English pronunciation instruction, used widely for for over fifty (50!) years: the Manual of American English Pronunciation (first published in 1951). Prator’s work with and for ESL students predates the formalized field of TESOL itself, and not just by a little.

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics lists Prator as follows: “Clifford H. Prator (1911–93) was an exceptional administrator, a sociolinguist, a practical phonetician, and a language methodologist.” Let me stop a moment to marvel at the “exceptional administrator” part: in a world where administration has become a lost art, I think this by itself says a great deal about this great man. He was a man of the people. Indeed, Prator did many great things during the 40+ years of his career and his 82 years of life, as I learned through a heartfelt Memoriam written by our own TESOL living legend, Marianne Celce-Murcia. It’s good. Go ahead and read it.

But I digress. The topic? How Clifford H. Prator made me a lover of vowel sounds.

Like so many in our field, I had taken and passed a course on phonetics during my graduate studies, but nothing about it compelled me to dig deeper. My passion lay with curriculum design and reflective teaching. After teaching EFL in Namibia for two years, I landed my first job in the U.S. as the office manager and a sometimes-teacher at a private adult ESL school in Maryland. Assigned a “pronunciation for professionals” class at a private ESL school, I encountered Pronunciation Pairs (Baker & Goldstein, 1990).

With an entire chapter of Pronunciation Pairs dedicated to the distinction between cot and caught, I was horrified, certain that Baker & Goldstein had made a huge error, that they’d forgotten to delete a chapter that just might be useful in the British aisles but which certainly didn’t belong in the U.S. edition of the book. Yeah, that was me: a Californian teaching in Gaithersburg, Maryland, oblivious to the fact that I was, well, oblivious to an entire vowel sound that everyone, not only in Gaithersburg, but probably also in Namibia, had been uttering at me thousands of times a day for several years by this time.

I was in the wrong, but I’m going to argue that I was wrong for the right reason: even then, something in me knew that studying minimal pairs (sheep vs. ship, lip vs. lap, cot vs. caught) was not going to pave the student’s way to increased comprehensibility. But who was I to say anything?: I who had passed my phonology exams but had dug no further.

In 1999, I landed my dream job as an ESL teacher in the Maryland English Institute at University of Maryland College Park. The Californian in me adored every brick building with white columns– which was in fact every building on campus. I was assigned a pronunciation course for International Teaching Assistants, a high-stakes one-semester course through which my students were supposed to become comprehensible enough to teach their undergraduate courses without getting things thrown at them.

The assigned textbook was Prator’s Manual. On first glance, I knew I had gotten myself in over my head, and I knew that I’d have to rely on the Manual to teach me everything I was about to teach: thought groups, front vowels, rising intonation, consonant clusters, and so much more. I dug in.

Meanwhile, the Manual was a perfect fit for my very science-minded international teaching assistants. Every one of them, from the Chinese molecular biologist and the Venezuelan economist to the Saudi civil engineer and the Slovakian entomologist, were a bit too eager when it came to doing the transcription exercises found throughout the Manual. Heads bowed down over their books, they were much more comfortable studying pronunciation than doing pronunciation.

I started to panic. None of this busywork was doing anything to change my students’ very syllable-timed, and therefore, rather inaccessible spoken English. Their graduate teaching fellowships were on the line, and their time in my classroom was supposed to save each one of them.

A colleague, Nina Liakos, must have seen a look in my eyes early in that semester, for she pulled me aside and reassured me: “Just let the book guide you, and you’ll be fine. But read Prator’s chapter on Sandhi now, because it’s really good.” Nina is a voracious and discriminating reader, and even then, early in our friendship, I knew not to ignore her advice.

And so I read Lesson 16: The Sandhi of Spoken English. Like the rest of the Manual, it seems to have been written when Prator was in a beautifully anti-logical dream state: a dream in which the ESL student for whom he had written the book somehow possesses the English vocabulary, grammar and reading skills of a native English speaker enrolled in a phonology doctoral program. Here’s one beautiful example of his writing, excerpted from Lesson 16:

It should be apparent by now that we have already discussed sandhi often in this text, so far without using that term. The various aspects of sandhi that we have dealt with earlier include not only the endings -ed and -s, syllabic consonants, and the /d/-like /t/, but also blending within thought groups, special unstressed forms of words, the insertion of /ə/ between front vowels and /l/ or /r/, the special features of initial and final consonants, the simplification of consonant clusters, and various other kinds of phonetic variation.
– Clifford H. Prator, The Manual of American English Pronunciation, 4th Edition, p. 190

I quickly came to see that the Manual may have been written for ESL students, but it was really meant for me. Everything I think about today is in that book.

In the midst of all those words came to me a kind of clarity, namely, that spoken English is elastic and forever responsive to the particular meaning it is spoken to convey. From a singular instance of meaning (preceded and followed by countless other instances of meaning) emanates what Judy Gilbert has recently named “the Peak of Stress” (described in her beautiful work, the Prosody Pyramid), and from the Peak of Stress, a single vowel sound is ephemerally showcased in the most important syllable of the most important word of the most important phrase. That single vowel sound comes to the fore, and in doing so, initiates a cascade of accommodating behaviors whereby the surrounding sounds reduce, blend, and simplify as if bowing down in deference to the Peak of Stress. And just think: what I have just described here happens hundreds of times a minute in continuous speech.

In short, it is thanks to Cliff Prator that I came to know stress as the heart of spoken English. And what lies at the heart of stress?

Vowel quality.

Karen Taylor

Karen Taylor

Karen Taylor is an educational linguist and instructional designer with a special interest in phonology and how the it intersects with speaking/pronunciation, ESL literacy, and early reading. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she enjoys life with her husband and two children.


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