September 12, 2016
by gpointon

How many ways to skin a cat?

I don’t usually watch the BBC’s science programme “The Sky at Night”, but last night I accidentally caught the beginning, and was hooked for the full half hour. What struck me, apart from the science, was the number of ways the various participants found to pronounce the name of a star: Proxima Centauri.

Proxima: /ˈprɒksɪmə/, /prɒkˈsiːmə/, and /prɒkˈsɪmə/

Centauri: /senˈtɔːraɪ/, /senˈtɔːri/, /senˈtjʊəri/

No pronunciation of one of the words necessarily corresponded to any one of that of the other, so that there were more than three pronunciations for the phrase (and there weren’t that many more speakers). My own preference would have been for the first in each case: /ˈprɒksɪmə senˈtɔːraɪ/, but I accept that my use of the traditional rendition of Latin vowels in English is now rather old-fashioned. I often hear people use /aɪ/ for the spelling ‘ae’, and /ɪ~i/ for the spelling ‘i’, on the grounds that “That is how they said it in Latin”. Why then will the same people not consistently – or ever – use /k/ for the spelling ‘c’? Or /w/ for the spelling ‘v’? I suspect it is because the “That’s how they said it” argument is being made by people who never learned any Latin formally and so don’t really know what they’re talking about.

But then, when did language ever change because people knew what they were talking about?

August 9, 2016
by gpointon


With the Olympics taking place in Rio, we are hearing the words athlete, athletic(s) and to a lesser extent athleticism all around us. This group of words seems to be unusual among those containing the sequence /θl/ in that it is quite common to hear a schwa inserted between the two consonants. The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary includes this pronunciation, but marks it as stigmatized, while the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation and the 3rd edition of the OED online have this as an American pronunciation, without further comment. Strangely, the OED says that the spellings athelete, athaletic, atheletic, and athuletic all occur in regional US English, but gives no example sentences or other sources for this statement. Only the OED seems to have caught up with itself enough to include the variant for pentathlon and pentathlete, but not for heptathlon or heptathlete (decathlon has not been updated since 1933, and decathlete is not given at all – yet).

Other words containing the sequence, such as breathless, Athlone, Kathleen (i.e. whether the stress falls on the first syllable alone, on the second alone, or with secondary stress on the second syllable) do not seem to exhibit this possibility, so I wonder what makes athlete, etc. so special.

It can’t even be that this group of words is treated as if the -thl- was syllable initial, because this un-English initial sequence is often heard from monolingual English speakers when they attempt to pronounce the Welsh syllable llan- in such place names as Llangollen or Llandudno. I’m not aware of having heard a schwa between the two in these names.

June 29, 2016
by gpointon

Slithery Slivers

As we know, many English-speaking people use the labiodental /f/ and /v/ in place of intervocalic /θ/ and /ð/. This was at one time claimed to be a feature of Cockney, but it is far more widespread than that.

An interesting hypercorrection is to use /ð/ where standard English would have /v/. When this happens among people who would normally be considered well, or very well educated, does it warrant an entry in dictionaries as a variant, particularly if the hypercorrection appears in print?

I have recently read Sir Leonard Woolley’s book “Ur of the Chaldees”, first published in 1929. My copy is a Pelican Book, printed in 1938, and on page 140, we can read the sentence “Crushed together under a fallen brick we found at least a hundred slithers of ivory, many of them minute in size and as thin as tissue-paper.” As it happens, I also have a copy of the revised edition published in 1982 with “minimal revisions” by P R S Mooney, described on the fly leaf as “Senior Assistant Keeper in the Department of Antiquities, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford”. The identical sentence, with no changes, appears on page 253. Previously, I have only heard this combination of pronunciation and meaning from people who, from their accent and other oral behaviour, could be assumed to be hypercorrecting.

The nearest OED definition of slither, as a noun, is “Something smooth and slippery; a smoothly sliding mass, the same as sliver n.1 1.”, where we have “A piece cut or split off; a long thin piece or slip; a splinter, shiver, slice”. I’m not sure whether this means that Oxford is, or is not, accepting “slither” as an alternative spelling to “sliver” in this sense. If they are, perhaps they should give at least one example sentence, and Woolley seems to provide the perfect one.

June 17, 2016
by gpointon

Religious misunderstanding?

Two statements heard on television recently:

“If not kept under control, large numbers of moths can desecrate crops.”

“Medieval knights would go on crusade in order to reduce the amount of time they would have to spend in perjury.”

May 30, 2016
by gpointon
1 Comment

Some data on criteria for plural phenomena in English

In response to Matthew Phillips’ comment on my last post, I thought I should add more on Latin and Greek plurals in English. He raises the question of consortia being used as a singular noun in English, but is relieved to find that retaining consortium as the singular is not yet a lost cause, as a Google search finds roughly eight times as many hits for “We are a consortium” as for “We are a consortia”.

However,  both media and data are now regularly used with singular verbs, and this weekend I’ve heard strata as a singular. Criteria and phenomena are frequent singulars. Is this something to do with –a being a Latin feminine singular ending? All these nouns now appear to be treated as invariable, with the same form for the singular as the plural. At least, I have not yet consciously come across examples of *medias, *datas, *criterias, *phenomenas (and a Google search for the latter two distinctly discourages their use). This puts them in the same category as sheep and deer.

The word referendum, on many British people’s minds at the moment, has two plurals, the Latin referenda, and the anglicized referendums. At the time of the 1974 referendum in the UK on the then Common Market, my predecessor as Head of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit, Hazel Wright, put forward the proposition that they could usefully be distinguished, the English plural being used for the process, for which an alternative word might be plebiscite, so that we can say that there have been two referendums in Scotland recently: in 2014 for separation from the United Kingdom, and in 2016 for staying or leaving the EU. The Latin plural is then retained for the actual question being asked, so that when a referendum is held in Switzerland, for example, there may be several questions on the voting paper, and these questions are the referenda. Wikipedia (sv referendum) seems to confirm this distinction, and says that the OED does not like referenda as the English plural.

Memorandum also has both forms for the plural in English: memoranda and memorandums, although the abbreviation memo is the most usual form seen (how long will it be before some bright spark decides that memo is a Latin word, and needs the plural memi?) Both referendum and memorandum are technically Latin gerundives (adjectives formed from verbs), which decline like BONUS (i.e. the feminine forms are like 1st declension nouns, e.g. REGINA, and the masculine and neuter forms are like 2nd declension nouns, such as DOMINUS and BELLUM). Hence the plurals of words ending –um in –a. One such Latin plural is confidently singular in English, and forms its own plural in the English way with –s: agenda.

Now, does anyone plant nasturtia in their garden?

May 21, 2016
by gpointon

A Dangerous Thing

It’s not only the pronunciation of Classical names and words that has changed as a result of the pseudo-knowledge of Latin and Greek by British people. Grammatical forms have also been affected.

As ‘every skuleboy no’, Latin nouns that end in -US have their plural in -I. So, for instance, ALUMNUS gives ALUMNI, and DOMINUS gives DOMINI.

But every schoolboy is wrong. I have recently seen the word “omnibi”. The writer felt it necessary to explain that this was the plural of “omnibus” (and I don’t think he was joking). Even more shocking was my experience at a meeting of professional phoneticians a few years ago, when two separate presentations were given in which the speakers explained that their results were gained from analysing “corpi”. Clearly the Latin education of these people had never stretched as far as the third declension. If it had, they would have known that the plural of CORPUS is CORPORA, and that OMNIBUS is already plural – the dative and ablative plural of the adjective OMNIS. It would be better if we just attached the ordinary English plural to all these words, as we do with CENSUS (4th declension), whose Latin plural is CENSUS. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that as the plural in an English sentence – censuses is the regular thing. And since we abbreviate omnibus to bus, and give that the plural buses, what’s wrong with ‘corpuses’, ‘alumnuses’ and all the rest of them? We could stretch this to Greek plurals as well, and have ‘phenomenons’ rather than what we get now – phenomena as a singular. Referendums and referenda are already alternative plurals, and when it comes to words from other languages, we are happy to simply add ‘s’ – cellos, not ‘celli’; opuses, rather than opera -which has been hijacked to mean something different as a singular, and has generated the regular plural operas. Rarely do we obey Italian plural rules – has anyone seen the Italian plurals of gondola, piazza, pizza, in an English context? Where we do use Italian plurals, in the names of the various pastas (‘paste’, anyone?), they are treated as we treat hair, sugar, wheat, rice, advice, as uncountable nouns that are singulars (“This spaghetti is very nice – where did you buy it?”).

May 11, 2016
by gpointon

A Little Learning

Until the end of the 19th Century, when, in Britain at least, we began to have universal education, most people, however intelligent they were, didn’t have access to as much knowledge as we have today. The ‘educated’ classes tended still to learn Latin, and in many cases Greek, to a reasonable level (whether they retained what they were taught is a separate matter). Consequently, the only people who would get to pronounce Latin and Greek names would have an inkling of the standard way of doing it, using the traditional English pronunciation. In the book (and films of the book) “Goodbye Mr Chips”, old Mr Chips bemoans the replacement of the traditional pronunciation of Latin with the reconstructed Classical pronunciation because, as he puts it, it was easy to teach VICISSIM as ‘vie-SISS-im’, but caused nothing but hilarity in class if you were compelled to teach ‘we-KISS-im’.

Now we all know so much more, and we know – or think we know – how to pronounce Latin and Greek. Even those of us – the majority – who have never learned either of the Classical languages at school. But we don’t. Returning to my last post, on Palmyra, we can see that this Classical name for the place in Syria was obviously to be stressed on the second syllable, pronounced like the word ‘mire’, because “that’s the way you pronounce a long ‘y'”. Any other way would have been thought pretentious. The Arabic name is totally unrelated to it, so the Arabic pronunciation is irrelevant.

A similar misapplication of ‘rules’ of Classical pronunciation is applied to the port of Athens in Greece: Piraeus. This is the only spelling ever seen in English, and the traditional pronunciation is ‘pie-REE-us’ (think -AE as in Caesar – even today no one talks about a SAY-zar salad). Most people now seem to call it ‘pi-RAY -us’. This is neither good traditional English, nor good Greek – the Greek pronunciation is ‘piREFs’; so making -ae- represent the ‘ay’ diphthong is not even a spelling pronunciation. The only justification I can think of is the Roman Catholic, Italianate, pronunciation of Latin, which most British choirs use for singing Latin texts. When the word ‘caeli’ appears, it is pronounced ‘CHAY-li’. Most words borrowed from Latin with -AE- that have become English, such as paediatrician, are so well established with ‘ee’ that the American spelling has dropped the -a- altogether.

A little learning …


March 28, 2016
by gpointon


All three of the current standard pronouncing dictionaries of English give only one pronunciation for this historic Syrian place name – /pælˈmaɪrə/. I assume that this is still the recommendation of the Pronunciation Unit, and yet today, almost every commentator, reporter or newsreader that I’ve heard on either BBC Radio or TV – including those on Radio 4 who I can usually rely on to follow the Unit’s recommendations – has said /pælˈmiːrə/.

Is it time for a rethink?

March 24, 2016
by gpointon

Return to Bosnia

The wheels of international justice grind exceeding slow, and eight years after his arrest, Radovan Karadzić is eventually being sentenced today. I commented in 2008 (here) on the confusion between at least two pronunciations of his family name, and it is continuing today. Where does the pronunciation /ˈkærədɪtʃ/ come from? Both Sarah Montague (Radio 4 Today programme) and Edward Stourton (Radio 4 World at One) have used it, and yet every BBC reporter who covered the story from Bosnia at the time of the genocide and has been quoted today, and also every native speaker of languages from the former Yugoslavia that I have heard commenting on the story today has used what the Pronunciation Unit recommended from the early 1990s onwards: /ˈkærədʒɪtʃ/. You would have thought that the presence of a -z- coming between the -d- and the -i- would be enough to make them think, but obviously not. Of course, the two transcriptions I have given reflect anglicised pronunciations rather than a native Serb version.

March 3, 2016
by gpointon


A Franco-British summit is being held in Amiens today. The name is pronounced in French /amjɛ̃/, which is often misinterpreted in English as /ˈæmiɑ̃ː/. The BBC’s recommendation is the closer /æmˈjæ̃/. Chris Aldridge, Radio 4’s Chief Announcer, had obviously not had time to check before he read the 7 o’clock news this morning, because he used the /-ɑ̃ː/ pronunciation. By the time of the 7.30 summary, he had had a chance to look it up, and was on track with /-æ̃/. This is exactly as the system should work, and perfectly acceptable to the audience. The point of this post, however, is not Chris Aldridge’s pronunciation, but that of the reporter more-or-less on the spot in Calais, Anna Holligan. I see from her online profile that she is the BBC’s correspondent in The Hague. This may explain why she said /əˈmiːnz/. Is this the usual pronunciation in Dutch?