In my new capacity as executive producer for the Visual Thesaurus (a job title Mark Liberman had some fun with), I'm responsible for editing the content of the website's online magazine and also for creating some of it. I've just launched a new column called "Word Routes," which I'll be posting a couple of times a week. (The column is freely available, but to leave comments or to take advantage of all the other Visual Thesaurus goodness you need to sign up for a subscription.) The first installment of Word Routes is on the word procrastination, which is also the subject of an article I wrote for today's issue of Slate. But rather than just toot my own horn, I wanted to draw attention to some great work that was recently done for the Visual Thesaurus, harnessing the unexpected prowess of opera singers to read the International Phonetic Alphabet.
As profiled in this announcement, the Visual Thesaurus enlisted the help of some vocally talented freelancers to make recordings for the 150,000 words and phrases in VT's lexical database (in turn drawn from WordNet). To my knowledge, no phonetic recording project of this scope has ever been attempted for an English-language online reference. As I mention in the announcement, we're talking about 55 hours of recorded speech, all done in tiny chunks averaging about 1.3 seconds. It turned out that the ideal candidates for this sort of freelance project were performers with a background in opera — for their vocal stamina, attention to the details of enunciation, and most of all, knowledge of IPA. As it happens, just about every opera singer and coach needs to be familiarized with IPA in order to sing in non-native languages, using phonetically rendered libretti. There are occasional exceptions like Pavarotti, who only sang in his native Italian (and, it was whispered, couldn't read music either). But everyone else picks up IPA during their training, whether in a formal conservatory setting or less systematically in private study with coaches.
For the opera singer in training, there are a number of resources available for IPA study. Nico Castel publishes a libretti series covering most of the major operas, employing the "Leyerle Three-line Phonetic-Translation System" (IPA representation on the first line, original language on the second, and word-for-word English translation on the third). For operas and song literature not covered by Castel, there's IPA Source, a vast online library of transcriptions. Or the enterprising young singer might try to do his or her own IPA transcription of a particular piece, using, for instance, German dictionaries from Duden that provide IPA. For relatively uncommon languages like Czech, few phonetic resources are available, so much of the vocal preparation has to be self-directed by necessity.
IPA only gets you so far, however, since transcribed libretti might not provide a terribly "close" phonetic transcription. Vowel length, for instance, is not always indicated in IPA renderings, and may vary from language to language. But armed with IPA, singers can work with coaches (who often specialize in a particular language) to tackle aspects of vocal performance not encompassed by the transcription. Needless to say, after that sort of intensive training, pronouncing IPA representations of citational forms in one's own language (as the Visual Thesaurus team did) is comparatively easy work!
(Thanks to Sara Antunovich for her operatic insights.)