October 24, 2014
by gpointon


Martin Ball writes: “Did anyone hear Jonathan (I think rather than David) Dimbleby pronounce ebola as /ˈɛbələ/ on Radio 4 the other day?
Is this pronunciation somehow nearer to that of West African languages?”

I didn’t hear Jonathan Dimbleby say this, but as I recall from the ever more distant past, the recommendation the Pronunciation Unit used to make for the river after which the virus is named is /ˈɛbələ/. The river does not feature in the Lippincott-Columbia Gazetteer – a gazetteer nearly as big as the Webster 3rd International Dictionary, but it is in Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary, with this same pronunciation – perhaps the source of the BBC recommendation. On the other hand, I see that the Oxford BBC Guide to Pron. gives /i:ˈbəʊlə/, ee-boh-luh, for the virus, which might explain why, when she has to say “suffering from Ebola”, Diana Speed (Radio 4 newsreader) appears to be saying /ˈi:ˈbəʊlə/, as if it was two words, like e. coli /ˈi: ˈkəʊlaɪ/. The pronunciation I’m hearing most is /iˈbəʊlə/, and when Diana has the phrase “Ebola virus”, she reverts to this pronunciation. I suppose the new style BBC Modified Spelling would be ‘i-boh-luh’. In old style, that would be ‘ĕbōlă’ – with an acute accent above the ‘ō’ to mark the stressed vowel.

The newspapers seem unable to decide whether the name should carry an initial upper case letter or not. Obviously the name of the river does, but I don’t think the disease needs one – no one is remembering the connexion between the river and the disease, and I suspect that most people outside West Africa are unaware of the river’s existence.

As to the pronunciation in West African languages, we need an expert. Webster probably took its pronunciation from the colonial power, which would mean a French-style interpretation, re-interpreted into English as having initial stress (cf the anglicization of ‘Pompidou’ or ‘Mitterrand’).

September 23, 2014
by gpointon

How Dutch is Louis van Gaal?

Yesterday morning the Radio 4 Today programme wasted several minutes of valuable airtime discussing the pronunciation of Manchester United’s manager’s name. The editors no doubt see this as “good broadcasting”, but when you consider that most items are cut short through lack of time, this is a pointless discussion. All that needs to be done is for broadcasters to consult the Pronunciation Unit, and they will get definitive advice. Instead, the discussion was made even more ridiculous by someone talking to a Dutch BBC employee, who told them it was /xa:l/, only for the sports reporter (who is, naturally, renowned for his infallibly correct pronunciation of all sportsmen’s, and -women’s names) to say that he believed that the man had said to call him /gɑːl/. The Dutch employee is of course correct about the Dutch pronunciation, but is the reporter also correct about what Louis calls himself when speaking English?

This morning, as a counterweight to this, the same presenter (Evan Davis), happily pronounced President Assad’s name with stress on the second syllable, as did Sarah Montague, while Nick Robinson varied between first and second syllable stress. No comment was made about the appropriateness or otherwise of either version.

I may be wrong, but I should have thought that it was far more important to be consistent with the name of a politician who has been around for many years and may be around for many more to come, than to worry about a here-today-and-gone-tomorrow football manager (and if Man Utd’s results continue as they have started this season, then Mr van Gaal’s tomorrow will come quite soon).



August 11, 2014
by gpointon
1 Comment

Google and Potteries accent

In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, it seems incredible that a Memorial should be in danger of destruction, but that is what is happening in Stoke on Trent, where one of the six historic town halls (the one for Fenton – the town that Arnold Bennett left out of his Five Towns) is up for sale and consequent probable demolition. Inside is a ceramic war memorial with the names of Fenton’s war dead. It cannot be moved, apparently, because of the way it is attached to the building, but since the Department for Justice vacated it (the building’s latest incarnation was as law courts), the Stoke on Trent City Council seems to be washing its hands of the destruction of this memorial which has not only personal significance for the members of the deceaseds’ families, but also artistic and industrial historic merit.

There is a campaign on line to get the building, and so the memorial, preserved, and a week or so ago, the campaign committee organized a human chain round the town hall, and a YouTube video resulted. This has a commentary spoken by one of the organizers, in what I would call a fairly ‘mild’ Potteries accent, with hardly any difficulties in comprehension for listeners from anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, the subtitles provided by Google are hilarious. I can only suggest you listen, read and wonder at the way some of the words have been interpreted by their program. Thanks to Alec for pointing me towards these subtitles.

August 11, 2014
by gpointon

Confusing place names

We’re used, in the British Isles, to place names that have more than one pronunciation – Shrewsbury (/ˈʃrəʊzbəri/~/ˈʃruːzbəri/) is probably the best known, although those with long memories will recall that there was a veiled threat to my position over the pronunciation of Althorp 17 years ago (/ˈɔːltrəp/ – as used by the Spencer family, or /ˈɔːlθɔːrp/ – as imposed by the anti-Spencer journalists of the news organizations). We are also quite used to place names whose pronunciation appears to bear little relation to the spelling – Happisburgh (/ˈheɪzbrə/), Wymondham (/ˈwɪndəm/), Kirkcudbright (/kərˈkuːbri/), and very occasionally there are place names with alternative spellings whose pronunciation remains the same. In fact the only one of those that I can quickly bring to mind is only a few miles from where I’m writing this – St Ippolyts~Ippollitts – or any combination of single and double -p- , -l- , or -t-. The pronunciation is always /ˈɪpəlɪts/, despite the original Latin form of the name being Hippolytus, and therefore ‘correctly’ stressed on the second syllable: /ɪˈpɒlɪts/.

Now we have the more contentious question of a foreign place name that has three European spellings, and three pronunciations: Arbil~Erbil~Irbil. Should we be standardizing on one spelling and pronunciation, or leaving it to the whim of the individual reporter to decide from dispatch to dispatch which it will be? So far this last fortnight, the only one I haven’t heard is Arbil ?/ɑːˈbiːl/?.

I realize that compared to events on the ground, the pronunciation of this place name is very small potatoes, but the use of multiple forms of a name can confuse the audience when clarity is already in short supply.

July 19, 2014
by gpointon
1 Comment

Galilee and Galileo

I don’t usually watch or listen to the First Night of the Proms, but as yesterday evening’s concert was Elgar’s “The Kingdom”, an oratorio I have never heard, I decided to make an exception. Part way through, when the disciples are touched by the Holy Spirit and start speaking languages of which they had no previous knowledge, they are referred to as “Galileans”. Why not? they come from Galilee. The only pronunciation given for this adjective in the standard pronunciation dictionaries, is /gælɪˈliːən/, as one might expect. However, the word was sung twice by the choirs (the BBC Singers and the BBC National Choir of Wales – so they were taught by two separate chorus masters) as /gælɪˈleɪən/. To me this is the adjective one might form from the name of the Italian astronomer Galileo.

Some years ago, when I was still supposedly influential as the BBC’s Pronunciation Adviser, Radio Drama produced Ibsen’s “Emperor and Galilean”, for which my office provided (at their request) assistance with the pronunciation of proper names and other problematic words. The reason they gave for ignoring our recommendation for “Galilean”, and using the same anti-etymological version as the one I heard last night, was that “it sounded better”!

Clearly, the pronunciation dictionaries are out of date, and we must now accept that the “Galilean heresy”, pronounced identically, can refer both to Christianity seen from the point of view of 1st century Judaism, and the heliocentric ideas promulgated by Galileo and Copernicus, as criticized by the Roman Catholic Church.

July 7, 2014
by gpointon
1 Comment

A team of pronouns

When I was learning French, our excellent teacher gave us a mnemonic for learning the positions of the personal pronouns – other than the subject forms – in relation to the verb. It was in the form of a football team:

me nous te vous se

le la les

lui leur


(en was the substitute)

This was in the days before team managers developed their own theories of team structure – 4-2-4, 4-3-3, etc, and before more than one substitute was allowed, and then only in case of injury. The goalkeeper was number one, although he never wore a number on his back (I think Yashin, the great Soviet goalkeeper, may have been an exception). The other positions were right back (2), left back (3); right half (4) centre half (5), left half (6); outside right (7), inside right (8), centre forward (9), inside left (10) and outside left (11).

The pronouns are placed in the order of “forwards” first, then “halfbacks”, then “backs” and then the goalie. If necessary, the substitute follows the goalkeeper. So, “Chaque jour il me donnait les clefs” becomes “Chaque jour il me les donnait” when “les clefs” is replaced by a pronoun (forward before halfback); but “Il les leur donnait” (halfback before back) if he gave them to some other people; “Il s’en alla” (forward before substitute); “Il y en a” (goalkeeper before substitute).

It works, but now that we have all the different formats of football teams, depending on the whim of the manager at the time, or according to what he perceives to be the need when playing against a particular opponent, how do you teach pupils the position of French pronouns?

June 18, 2014
by gpointon
1 Comment

-ed or not -ed

There was a time when, if you wanted to buy a complete set of some publication which came in its own slip-case, it was known as a “boxed set”. The OED records this from as early as 1895 (Chicago Tribune, 22 December: “The boxed set of three volumes”), and in the case of recorded music, from 1947 (New Yorker 22 March: “Columbia’s two-volume boxed set of Handel’s ‘Messiah’”). This usage has continued up to the present day (OED has “Though some of the films are available as singles, the boxed set contains added features on the bonus disc.” from the Montreal Gazette, 3 June 2006).

However, increasingly the form “box set” is used. I was surprised to find that the OED records this as early as 1969 (Appleton Post Crescent, 26 October: “Box set of 8–12 oz. Tumblers” – Appleton is in Wisconsin for those like me who were previously unaware of its geographical location).

I have always assumed that the shorter form came about because of phonetic simplification of the cluster /sts/, removing the /t/ from the middle, but now, in a single edition of a British newspaper I find three examples of similar phrases: terrace house, for which I have always said terraced house, and these: “[This company] offers ‘gigabit fibre’ broadband to select customers in London”; “online shoppers who buy through select websites”.

“Terrace house” appears in Jane Austen’s Sanditon and James Joyce’s Ulysses, so it has a very long pedigree, and in fact, the OED refers you to ‘terrace house’ if you first look up ‘terraced house’, which it can only date back to 1958 (Daily Express, 3 April: “Their tiny terraced home in the back streets of Horden, Durham”).

“Select” seems to me to have a different meaning than “selected”. A website, or a customer, is selected when it is chosen maybe at random, whereas a “select customer” or “select website” is one picked out for some special reason of excellence. The OED appears to agree with me. Are we witnessing a change in the language from adjectival -ed forms based on nouns to bare nouns, and also to the removal of the -ed from adjectives derived from verbs?



May 5, 2014
by gpointon

Potteries accent

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a long stretch of a genuine Potteries accent on Radio 4 before this – usually actors are attempting it from some other starting point, but here is the Real Thing, in a short story called “Pot Luck”. Final ‘ng’ is [ŋg], intervocalic /t/ often becomes /r/ (for instance “not on” becomes /nɒrɒn/, /aɪ/ has a distinctly front open /a/, /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are neutralised, and there is the ubiquitous term “duck” when addressing someone – anyone.

It’s available on the BBC iplayer for four more days:


I hope you can enjoy it.

April 13, 2014
by gpointon

An error in Domesday Book translations?

I talked about the etymology of the names Welwyn and Willian in an earlier post (here). I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

The earliest reference to Welwyn that is given in the English Place Name Society volume on Hertfordshire (1938), is ultimately from AD 944-6, in a copy of the 13th century, published by Birch in his Cartularium Saxonicum in the late 19th century. There it appears as “Welingum”, a form that goes back to the Old English dative of welig, with the -n- inserted by analogy with the many other names that regularly ended in -ingum. In Domesday (1086) the name appears six times – according to the published translations. Willian’s earliest appearance in the record appears to be in Domesday, where it is given the spelling “Wilie”, and, apparently, is mentioned once only. However, I think that some of these seven mentions have been mis-attributed, and that at least three more of them refer to Willian, which is one of the three ancient parishes that make up Letchworth Garden City.

Here are the entries as translated in the Phillimore edition of Domesday, which includes the Latin text as well as an English version:

1. “In Welwyn [spelled 'Wilge' in the Latin] the Bishop [Robert Bishop of Chester] also holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough. The value is and always was 3s. This land lies in (the lands of) Bygrave, the Bishop’s manor. Archbishop Stigand held it.” [but Bygrave borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

2. “In Welwyn [Welga] Robert of Pont-Chardon holds 1½ hides and 20 acres from Robert [Gernon]. Land for 3 ploughs; in lordship 1; another possible. 3 villagers with 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 1 cottager; 2 slaves. Meadow for 2 oxen; pasture for the livestock. The value is and was 30s; before 1066, 40s. Godric, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, held this land; he could sell.”

3. “In Welwyn [Wilga] William of Eu holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough, but it is not there. The value of this land is and always was 3s. Alstan of Boscombe held it; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. In the same village, William Delamere holds 2 hides from William of Eu. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; 5 villagers have another; a third possible. 2 cottagers. Pasture for the livestock. The value of this land is and was 32s; before 1066 £4. Alstan of Boscombe held 1 hide of this land; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. Alfgeat, his man, held 1 hide; either could sell.” [but Weston borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

4. “In Welwyn [Welge] Roger holds 2 hides from Geoffrey (of Bec). Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 villagers with 4 smallholders have 4 ploughs; a fifth possible. 4 cottagers; 1 slave. 1 mill at 8s; meadow for 2 ploughs; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 20 pigs. In total, value 50s; when acquired 20s; before 1066 £6. Gode and her son held this land from Queen Edith; they could sell.”

5. “In Willian [Wilie] Geoffrey of Bec holds 5 hides and 1 virgate himself. Land for 9 ploughs. In lordship 2 hides; 2 ploughs there; another 2 possible. 10 villagers with 1 man-at-arms and 4 smallholders have 5 ploughs. Meadow for ½ plough; pasture for the livestock; wood for fences. In total, value £10 14s; when acquired £4; before 1066 £12. Leofric, one of Earl Leofwin’s Guards, held this manor; he could sell. A Freeman, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, had ½ hide; he could sell. A widow had ½ hide less 10 acres; she could not sell without Godwin of Letchworth’s permission.”

6. “In Chells Godfrey holds 1½ hides from Peter [of Valognes]. Land for 1 plough; it is there, with 2 smallholders and 1 slave. Value 30s; when acquired 20s; before 1066, 40s. Alwin held 1½ hides of this land. Apart from 10 acres and 1 plot, which Alwin Dod [son], Aelfric Little’s man, holds; they lay in (the lands of) Welwyn [Wilga]; he could not sell outside.” [but Chells lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn.]

7. “In Welwyn [Welge] a priest holds 1 hide, in alms from the King. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 2 cottagers. Meadow for 1 plough; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 50 pigs. In total, the value is and always was 25s. He held it himself from King Edward in alms. It lies in the (lands of the) church of this village. William Black, the Bishop of Bayeux’s man, annexed 12 acres of this alms land in the King’s despite, as the Hundred testifies.”

It looks to me as if the earlier translators have simply seen a ‘g’ in the spelling, and automatically thought “Welwyn”, without considering the geography. Neither have they  taken into consideration the modern spellings: each time there is an ‘i’ in the original, the land in question lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn. If the two names have always differed in their first vowel, as seems likely, why not take this evidence at face value?

There is another point: in ordering the various estates, the Domesday compilers tend to group them according to their location within the hundred, so that adjoining estates are listed next to each other. William of Eu’s holding in ‘Wilga’ is listed between Graveley and Weston (these two places are close to Willian, but not to Welwyn). Geoffrey of Bec’s first holding (‘Welge’) comes between Datchworth and Langley (near to Welwyn); his second (Wilie) between Chells and ‘Rodhanger’ (exact location unknown, but near to Norton in North Hertfordshire, another part of Letchworth Garden City). This would also imply that ‘Wilga’ referred to Willian, and ‘Welge’ to Welwyn.

February 22, 2014
by Graham


The present upheavals in Ukraine bring the pronunciation of its place names into prominence. Even the country’s name is now subtly different from what it was thirty years ago. Then the geographical area was always called “The Ukraine”, which was suitable for what was a part of a larger whole (cf. “The Midlands”, “The Algarve”)  but since its independence with the break up of the Soviet Union, the definite article has been dropped.

Ukrainian is a different language from Russian, so the old Russian forms of its place names have also, on the whole, been abandoned in favour of the equivalent Ukrainian forms. So we now have Lviv, which used to be Lvov (and before World War II, when it was part of Poland, Lwów), and Kharkiv, formerly Kharkov. The capital, however, has not lost what has become a standard anglicization – Kiev. However, I’m puzzled by the pronunciations for this that I’m hearing on both radio and television. The eponymous dish – chicken kiev – is always pronounced (in my experience at least) /ˈkiːef/, and I have always pronounced the city in the same way. Now, I am hearing /ˈkiːev/ or even /kiːˈev/. These are not the Russian pronunciation, nor the Ukrainian. Must we now start getting used to all Russian or Russian-like names having their final -v pronounced /v/? Moloto/v/? Prokofie/v/? Khrushche/v/?