August 25, 2015
by gpointon
10 Comments

So,

I was at the Phonetics Congress in Glasgow the other week, and just about every paper began with the word “so”, as did every answer to a question afterwards, regardless of its format. I’ve noticed the same in radio and TV interviews recently. “So” seems to have taken over completely from “Well” as the all-purpose filler while the speaker gathers his/her thoughts.  For example: “What did you have for breakfast?” “So, there was … ” or “Did you enjoy your breakfast?” “So, it was the normal thing – bacon, eggs …”

Has anyone else noticed this increasing tendency?

June 25, 2015
by gpointon
5 Comments

… and counting

I’m not sure how much the pronunciation of numbers is taught around the world, but it is not completely straightforward. If we start counting, from one upwards, there is no problem: one, two, three, … ninety-nine, one hundred. But then, would you go on with “one hundred and one” or “a hundred and one”? In ‘ordinary’, unemphatic British English, I suspect that for all numbers between 100 and 199, “a” would be more usual than”one”. In a more deliberate style, for instance the announcer at a darts or snooker match, “one” would be the norm: “one hundred and eighty” (maximum score in darts) or “one hundred and forty-seven” (maximum break at snooker) with appropriately exaggerated intonation. The same is true (“a” rather than “one”) for numbers between 999 and 2000.

These are the pronunciations for ‘pure’ numerals. But when we talk about a specific set of numbers, usage changes. The designations of roads, for example. A1, A10, A99 are ‘ay one’, ‘ay ten’, ‘ay ninety-nine’. Go above that, however, and although the round hundreds (100, 200, 1000 etc) are similarly pronounced: “ay one hundred”, B1000 ‘bee one thousand” (and I think ‘one’ is more normal than ‘a’ here), those in between are split into their component parts: B656 is ‘bee six five six’, A1307 is ‘ay one three oh seven’.

Year names is another series where the strict numerical pronunciation doesn’t apply. All years between 1001 and 1999 were simple: split in two and pronounce each half as a numeral: ten sixty-six; twelve fifteen, eighteen oh five. The BBC had a lot of discussion over the pronunciation of 2000 and onwards. 2001, following the Stanley Kubrick film, was always going to be “two thousand and one”, but how about the others? 2000 is almost invariably not called “two thousand”, but “the year two thousand”. Some Radio 4 newsreaders were criticized for pronouncing 2002, -03, … as “twenty oh two, … oh three” instead of “two thousand and two” etc. But then the Olympics held in London were always the “twenty twelve” Olympics. We now seem to have two acceptable ways of pronouncing third millennium year names. This parallels the French practice, which has always had the two possibilities : “dix-neuf cent(s) quatre-vingts” or “mille neuf cent(s) quatre-vingts” for 1980. The years up to 1000 are not so obvious, perhaps because they were so long ago: did the Romans leave Britain in “four ten” or “four hundred and ten”? Did the Emperor Justinian (the last Roman emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue) die in “five six five”, “five sixty-five” or “five hundred and sixty-five”?

Vehicle numbering is also not straightforward: Peugeot cars for instance are all given numbers, and the digits are pronounced separately: does anyone remember the sporty “two oh four”? The long-lived “four oh four”? Boeing aircraft numbers are also (in Britain) pronounced digit by digit: “seven oh seven”, “seven three seven”, even “seven seven seven”, but Airbus are not: A320: “ay three twenty”, A380: “ay three eighty”.

Telephone numbers: they are pronounced as single digits, but if six digits, then as two intonational groups of three (not as in many languages, as three groups of two). London numbers have eight digits: two groups of four (the first ending in a rise, the second in a fall). The area code (or if a non-geographical code, e.g. 0800, the indicator of the category of number: free, premium or mobile) forms an initial third intonational group, also ending in a rise.

Numbers between 0 and 1: all digits should be separately pronounced. An oddity is that 0.206 will often be pronounced “nought point two oh six”, with the two zeroes (yet another way of pronouncing either of the 0 symbols) treated differently.

These comments may not accurately represent other parts of the English-speaking world, but they are certainly true of many if not most speakers of British English.

 

April 21, 2015
by gpointon
3 Comments

Eggcorns and spell checkers

I’m not sure whether errors of spelling or grammar introduced to a text by spell checkers are eggcorns in the same way as those caused by a misunderstanding in the mind of a person, but here are two that I’ve come across lately, one of which is clearly an eggcorn, and the other is presumably introduced by an unchecked spellchecker:

From a cafe menu:

“Try our new home-made moussaka with tender lamb and succulent roasted aboriginals”

From a commercial organisation’s blog:

“There are plenty of different formats of Dashcams to fit different budgets; from simple stick and go battery operated devices, GPS trackers, to intergraded cameras.”

April 10, 2015
by gpointon
3 Comments

The pronunciation of names from history

Martin Ball has commented on my post about the pronunciation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘real’ family name – Dodgson. He raises a more general point that I think deserves a full post rather than simply a reply to his comment.

My position is fairly ambiguous -  a linguist with a professed ‘classical’ attitude of descriptivism, but having held a job for most of my career that necessitated taking a prescriptive view to some extent. I don’t think Martin’s example of Shakespeare is appropriate here – pronouncing the ‘r’ would go against current SBS phonology and the difference in the vowel sounds is also a result of the phonetic changes in certain phonemes, so that attempting to reproduce them would be unnatural to present-day speakers of SBS. Martin admits that we should, out of courtesy, pronounce the names of living people in the way in which they pronounce them themselves (always allowing for differences in dialect, and, I would add, in the case of foreign names, for differences in phonology and phonotactics), but doubts whether the same courtesy should apply to long-dead individuals. I think it would be a pity to lose the knowledge of these older pronunciations, from a scientific standpoint, and also, still using courtesy as a criterion, a shame to ignore the wishes of surviving family members. I’ve written before about Purcell, and recently, I attended a lecture during which the speaker said of Purcell “but we all pronounce him ‘Purcéll’ these days”. I protested that BBC Radio 3 certainly still calls him ‘Púrcell’, and I was unexpectedly backed up by a lady who said that ‘Purcell’ was her maiden name, and they always pronounced it with first syllable stress. Apart from Purcell and Dodgson, other names that have pronunciations now largely forgotten are Hazlitt /ˈheɪzlɪt/, Southey (whom  Byron rhymed with ‘mouthy’) /ˈsaʊði/, and the fictional names Casaubon (from ‘Middlemarch’) /kəˈsɔːbən/ and Jekyll, in the Robert Louis (and by the way the final ‘s’ should be pronounced!) Stevenson story /ˈdʒiːkəl/, although in this case the real person Gertrude Jekyll is never, in my experience, subjected to the mispronunciation.

It’s understandable that the general public, who quite reasonably pronounce names as they see them, should be unaware of these quirks of spelling (or is it the pronunciation that is quirky?), but my view is that those whose business it is to use spoken language professionally should take advantage of all the  help they can, and the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit exists precisely for this purpose – as do the several good dictionaries that include pronunciation advice. I often wonder why Chambers Biographical Dictionary does not.

March 30, 2015
by gpointon
4 Comments

Lewis Carroll

I was listening to “Start the Week” on BBC Radio 4, presented by Andrew Marr, and dealing mainly with the anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I was not surprised that Mr Marr should pronounce Carroll’s ‘real’ surname as /ˈdɒdʒsən/, when all the evidence points to his pronouncing it /ˈdɒdsən/ – as did the late, great dialectologist John Dodgson. Most people pronounce it that way without thinking, as it is what the spelling implies. I was disappointed that the author of the latest biography of Dodgson/Carroll , Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, should follow suit. Has  he not spoken to members of the family? He also mispronounced the name of the place in Cheshire where Dodgson was born – Daresbury. Although this looks like /ˈdɛːzbəri/, it is actually pronounced /ˈdɑːzbəri/. I see from his biography that Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is an Oxford academic. Perhaps he conforms to the stereotype of Oxford dons, no doubt inaccurate in most cases (but it is the exception that proves the rule) of not needing to consider anything that happens outside that city.

John Dodgson was the author of the multiple volume Place Names of Cheshire published by the English Place Name Society. He suffered all his life from those who told him how to pronounce his own name. His remains must be performing all sorts of acrobatics.

March 21, 2015
by gpointon
9 Comments

Foreign or native

This may seem heretical for a phonetician, but I’ve often thought that it is possible to learn a foreign language too well. When I was a post-graduate student, there was another person around whose first language was not English, but who spoke it as if he’d been at a public school. It was very difficult to like him, until you forced yourself to remember that he was, after all, a foreign learner of the language. His pronunciation was perfect, but other aspects of his behaviour were totally non-British, such as his gestures, and these made him appear arrogant, although he wasn’t. A slight foreign accent – or even a strong one – can fool a native speaker into thinking your control of their language is better than it actually is!

I was reminded of this last week when I watched a TV documentary about Goering. The name of the voiceover artist didn’t appear until the credits rolled at the end of the film, so I spent the whole hour wondering how anybody could think that coup was pronounced /kuːp/. Early on in the film he had said /ˈpentʃənt/ for penchant, and I’d thought, well, maybe there are people who’ve only seen it written, and so treat it like pendant, but then he went on to pronounce anti-semitism as /æntiˈsiːmaɪtɪsm/, and finally indictment as /ɪnˈdɪktmənt/, by which time I was beginning to suspect he was using English as an additional language – if not, then he was a very ill-educated Brit. His name came up at the end as Martin Heckmann. He has his own website and his accent, right enough, is impeccable, but if he is going to work as an English voiceover, he needs to make sure that he knows how to pronounce every individual word. If he had had a slight German accent, I should have had no problem with these pronunciations – two of the words are borrowed from French, one is an exceptional spelling, even in English, and the fourth, taking off the ending, could, at a pinch, be pronounced as he said it, but as it was, he simply gave the wrong impression of his ability.

In case anyone reading this is in any doubt, the usual pronunciation of these words is /kuː/, /ˈpɑ̃ʃɑ̃/, /æntiˈsemɪtɪsm/ and /ɪnˈdaɪtmənt/.

February 25, 2015
by gpointon
22 Comments

Inexorable change?

Every one of the current pronunciation dictionaries agrees that the stress in the word inexorable is on the second syllable. On Monday this week, in the Radio 4 programme charting the history of Britain in numbers, Professor Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History, All Souls, Oxford, clearly said /ɪnekˈsɒrəbəl/. It might have been less surprising if the stressed vowel had been the longer /ɔː/, as in adorable, deplorable, ignorable, restorable. Google lists 29 words ending in -orable, and not one, so far as I can see, ends in /-ɒrəbəl/.

Perhaps Professor Humphries is setting a new trend. Time will tell.

February 23, 2015
by gpointon
9 Comments

Composers’ whimsies

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was normal for composers to give speed indications for their music in Italian. Beethoven started to vary this with German, and Schumann followed suit, but Italian is still the main language for tempi – even this word is the Italian one.

Sometimes these indications are hard to interpret, and here are three that I’ve come across. They don’t bother me as a pianist – they all appear in choral music, and as I’m ‘only’ the accompanist, I just follow the conductor, so it’s up to him/her to decide how fast or slow to take the music.

Handel – tempo ordinario (appears quite often in oratorios)

Rossini – Allegro cristiano (Credo from his Petite Messe Solennelle – a piece that is neither ‘petite’ nor ‘solennelle’, but definitely a ‘messe’)

Beethoven – Andante con moto, assai vivace, quasi allegretto ma non troppo (Kyrie from Mass in C, Opus 86)

Beethoven in particular seems to be hedging his bets with this one.

February 6, 2015
by gpointon
2 Comments

Is this a new word?

The ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 is a rich seam for unusual usages. Yesterday threw up two, of which one could be a new word (unless someone can find a previous example?)

The eminent economist Jim O’Neill, best known perhaps for inventing (or at least popularizing) the acronym BRIC for the rapidly developing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, was interviewed by Mishal Husain about his latest role, advising the British government on the subject of antibiotic drug resistance, and he twice talked about ‘incentifying’ innovation in the use of existing drugs. When Mishal came back at him, she used the regular ‘incentivizing’ in the same context. The OED has no entry for ‘incentify’. (Was he creating it by analogy with intensify?)

Later in the same programme, the New Zealand Justice, Lowell Goddard, whom Teresa May has chosen as her third candidate to lead the inquiry into historic child abuse and its alleged covering up by the late Home Secretary Leon Brittan, used the word scope several times as a transitive verb, in the phrase “to scope an inquiry”. This time, the OED does have an entry for scope as a transitive verb, but only tentatively – the entry reads

trans. ? To calculate the scope or range of. Obs. rare.

1807   J. Barlow Columbiad v. 194   Lincoln..Scoped the whole war and measured well the foes.”

I’m not sure that Justice Goddard intended the same meaning as Barlow, but ‘calculate’ doesn’t quite seem to fit.

PS, 8 February – Having finished “The Falls”, I’m now reading the next Rebus novel, “Resurrection Men”, and have found this, on page 73: “Hynds had his [warrant card] open, too, but his eyes were elsewhere, scoping the room.”