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
20 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.”

January 19, 2015
by gpointon
3 Comments

Baristas again

Here baristas were mentioned in some of the comments.

I’m reading “The Falls” by Ian Rankin at the moment, and have come across this:

‘Not often I see you smiling,’ his barista said as she made him a double latte. Those were her words: barista, latte. The first time she’d described her job, she’d pronounced it ‘barrister’ which had led a confused Rebus to ask if she was moonlighting. (page 24)

Obviously, not only is this a Scot (I think we can assume that she is) who is new to the word barista, but also one of the increasing number who are less than fully rhotic!

January 10, 2015
by gpointon
5 Comments

French place names – again

The tragic events in France have once again shown the difficulties reporters have in knowing how to pronounce the names of the places involved. Obviously, they have rather more important things on their minds, but when names are constantly repeated, you would think that at some point they would have a few seconds to check with either a local – if they’re at the place itself, or with experts back at base (in the BBC’s case, of course, the Pronunciation Unit – and why, by the way, have they dropped the word “Research” from their title?)

Alec Bamford, an avid reader of this blog, has sent me the following:

“Amid the desperate ad-libbing by talking heads who knew no more than the average viewer, the attempts by various BBC personnel to pronounce Dammartin-en-Goële provided some interest. At least it kept changing which is more than can be said for the repetitious waffling. We had a variety of mid central simple vowels, one ‘goal’, Lyse Doucet, who is Canadian and should have known better, came up with Dammartin-en-Gueule which does not sound appetising, but the winner must be Kasia Madera. Despite getting a 2:1 in French (or so Wikipedia tells me), she decided, correctly, it was bi-syllabic. And pronounced ‘Go-hell’. With a [h], would you believe.”

Villers-Cotterêts was another one ripe for mispronunciation: ‘as any fule kno’  final -er in French is pronounced /e/ (the first verbs we learn are the -er class). But this time it isn’t just English learners who can be tripped up: many French people are uncertain about final -er in proper names. My late wife, when a student in France (before she met me) had a boy friend whose name was Roger Maler. While Roger is /rɔʒe/, Maler is pronounced /malɛːr/. What makes this doubly confusing is that at home the Maler family spoke Catalan, and in Catalan, the name is pronounced /male/… Anyway, there are several places in France containing the word Villers in their names, and in every case, it is pronounced /vilɛːr/.

December 18, 2014
by gpointon
4 Comments

Aaron and Maria

When did the name Aaron start to be pronounced /ˈarən/? John Wells has included it as a pronunciation for the modern personal name since the first edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (1990), and the 15th edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1997) followed suit, but I’ve only become aware of its widespread use since the footballer Aaron Ramsey rose to prominence. John Wells says that the pronunciation of the Biblical name remains, usually, /ˈɛːrən/, but I wonder for how much longer?

The reason for my doubt is the parallel case of Maria. When I was growing up (in the middle of the last century), the only pronunciation you ever heard for this name was /məˈraɪə/. It was often to be heard in the colloquial name for the police vehicle that was used for transporting prisoners: black Maria (in those days they usually were black, and not owned by private security companies). Then, in the mid nineteen fifties, two separate American musicals appeared whose main character was called Maria, in both cases appropriately pronounced /məˈriːə/: West Side Story, and, shortly afterwards, The Sound of Music. Both musicals had hit songs which included the name (“Maria”, ‘I just met a girl called Maria’ – according to Wikipedia, the name appears 27 times in the song; and “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” respectively), and so we were bombarded with this continental pronunciation day in day out, for months, if not years. Now, it has to be pointed out that Mariah Carey and Maria Aitken use the traditional pronunciation, otherwise they get their name treated in the ‘wrong’ way. Likewise, 19th century (and earlier) characters from fiction, such as the two Maria Bertrams of Mansfield Park, Maria Lucas of Pride and Prejudice, or Maria Thorpe of Northanger Abbey, or the eponymous Maria of Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel run the risk of being pronounced anachronistically, so thoroughly has the continental pronunciation taken hold.

As an aside, the only criticism I have to make of Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Mr Turner, in which he displays a mastery of different grunts, is that he stressed Purcell on the second syllable, which readers of this blog with long memories will recall I demonstrated to be a 20th century innovation.