Apparently Mark and I overlapped in Paris! Who knew. I was there for une journée d'études for the CNRS project Temptypac, which was fun and interesting, plus of course being in Paris is always superbe…
My French is up to most basic communication needs, but my husband's isn't, so we shopped around a bit for a phrasebook to help him maximize touristic enjoyment while I linguistified. We found four suitable candidate pocket phrasebooks. One cost 5 euros rather than 7. It also happened to be the one that included the all-important phrase, "Je voudrais cinq tranches de jambon, s'il vous plaît", without which phrase one cannot navigate Paris at all. But the main deciding factor for us, besides the extremely valuable euros, was the pronunciation guides.
English orthography, of course, is pretty useless as a precise indication of pronunciation, and English orthographic representations of any kind won't help a naive speaker get those French phonemes that English doesn't have. But a pronunciation guide should be able to help one produce a sequence of English phones that closely approximate a comprehensible stream of French phones, hopefully without insulting your interlocutor's mother, dog or sensibilities too profoundly.
The key thing for us was that the guide should employ orthographic conventions useful for speakers of American English. Here are phrases from the three guides we rejected. See what pronunciations these suggest to you:
Can you tell me when to get off?
Pouvez-vous me dire quand je dois descendre?
poo-vay-voo muh deer kawN zhuh dwah deh-sawN-druh
Where's the subway [underground] station?
Où est la station de métro?
oo ay lah stah-seeyoN duh may-troh
Can I take my car on the boat?
Je peux transporter ma voiture sur ce bateau?
zher per trons-por-tay ma vwa-tewr sewr ser ba-to
Can I get a cash advance?
Puis-je avoir une avance de crédit?
pwee zha-vwar ewn a-vons der kray-dee
Where are the bus [coach] stops?
Où sont les arrêts de car?
oo sawng lay areh der kar
How long does the trip [journey] take?
Combien de temps dure le voyage?
kawnbyang der tahng dewr ler vwahyazh?
Below are some key correspondences in the three systems, listed by phrasebook number:
French schwa, as in the 1sg pronoun je
Nasal vowels indicated by:
1. capital N following the vowel
2. lowercase n following the vowel
3. lowercase n or ng following the vowel
1. indicated by hyphens
2. indicated by hyphens
3. not indicated
Low front vowel
3. "ah", "a"
For us rhotic speakers, of course, the key thing was to get one which didn't transcribe the central vowel as 'er', which suggests to us that we should say something that ends in [ɹ]. I still remember the blinding flash of light when I realized years ago that the speech hesitations spelled "er" and "erm" in British texts are intended to sound just like the hesitations spelled "uh" and "um" in American texts. I'd been reading them internally as [əɹ], [əɹm], and if you'd asked me to read them aloud, that's how I'd have done it, even though never in my life had I heard anyone hesitate with such a noise. What a ninny.
Be that as it may, using the "er" orthographic convention, rather than "uh", poses a bit of a problem in these phrasebook pronunciation orthographies. French has a syllable-final 'r' sound. French 'r' is nothing like English 'r', but putting an English 'r' in is probably better than nothing in trying to approximate a French word with English phones. So syllable-final 'r' in these phrases should sometimes be pronounced. In Phrasebook 1, which spells the central vowel as 'uh', any syllable-final 'r' symbol in the pronunciation guide actually stands for an intended 'r' sound of some kind. But in the 'er'=schwa books, one has to distinguish between syllable-final 'r' in 'er', which is not pronounced, and syllable-final 'r' everywhere else, e.g. in 'sewr' (sur) or 'kar' (car), which is.
A similar though to my ear less severe problem is posed by the syllable-final orthographic nasals. In phrasebooks 2 and 3, sometimes they're really there; other times they're not, when they're just present to indicate a nasal vowel. So, e.g., the 'n' in 'ewn' (for une) in Phrasebook 2, is intended to be pronounced, but the 'n' in 'a-vons' (for avance) ideally shouldn't be; rather the preceding vowel should just be nasalized. This is probably a very minor issue, considering the degree of pronunciation imprecision involved anyway, but it's nice that Phrasebook 1 at least makes an effort to distinguish between nasalized vowels and syllable-final nasal consonants.
Weirdly, in the English portion of the texts of books 1 and 3, both British and American terms are provided, with the British in square brackets following the American. Given that the pronunciation orthography in 1 is useful for rhotic dialects while 3 is intended for non-rhotic ones, I would have thought that in 3, the British term would be the main one, with the American in square brackets following, but not so.
Both phrasebooks 1 and 3 are published by Berlitz. I don't know why they offer two French-English phrasebooks, unless it's because the pronunciation guides differ; the binding and content were different but the price was the same. There wasn't any obvious indication up front, though, that one might be better for Americans than the other. Phrasebook 2 is published by Lonely Planet. I made the notes above from photos of single pages I took in the bookstore. Ironically, I'm afraid I don't have the phrasebook we actually bought in front of me, so I can't tell you who published it, but it was a) 2 euros cheaper and b) like phrasebook 1 in many of its orthographic conventions, so useful for rhotic speakers. It also was the one told how to order five slices of ham, which as I note is key.
Finally, just out of curiosity, I also had a quick look in an English/Persian phrasebook published by Lonely Planet on the way out, and to my astonishment it used a completely distinct pronunciation orthography! Attached is a photo of part of a page of that one, so you can see how different it is (as usual, click to zoom). They've got macrons over the 'a's and everything. Seems like the particular orthographic pronunciation conventions in these phrasebooks varies at the whim of the author; it's certainly not standard by publisher, at any rate.
I find the whole phrasebook orthography situation pretty weird. It's another clear example of a situation in which providing English speakers with the rudiments of a linguistic education — in this case, a smidgen of basic phonetics and a bit of a clue about the IPA — would be useful in a seriously practical way. If that were generally part of the secondary education of most English speakers, phrasebook writers could stop inventing their own weird systems and standardize.