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 /ɪnekˈsÉ’rÉ™bÉ™l/. 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 /-É’rÉ™bÉ™l/.

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


  1. I would argue it’s a long /ɔː/ the way she says inexorable. I’m afraid I can’t add a sound file of her saying the word.

  2. Petr –
    I’ve listened again to Prof. Humphries, and I still think it’s the shorter vowel – compare it to her pronunciation of “support” and “more” later in her contribution. Perhaps someone else can tell us where they think she comes from. She has /a/ in “last” rather than /ɑː/, and a rather open beginning to the diphthong /eɪ/.

  3. I must admit that it is one of the shorter versions of a long /ɔː/, but still longer than the /É’/ in her ‘possible’ (~0,065 sec) or ‘possibly’ (~0,058 sec).
    She also pronounces ‘demand, past, casting’ with an /æ/. According to her cv she spent a few years in the US.

  4. Petr – perhaps Prof. Humphries realized too late that she was mis-stressing the word, and so desperately tried to shorten the vowel in the second syllable to recover the situation, leading to a hybrid quality/quantity that you are interpreting as long, but I as short? If this is the case, then maybe we are not hearing a ‘new’ pronunciation, but a botched old one! Or am I fantasizing?

  5. Her CV on the internet doesn’t disclose where she spent her speech-forming years and I’m not particularly good at locating accents. Maybe someone out there can give us a clue?

  6. North of England with a trace of rhoticity: Lancashire?
    Many people just do have the odd idiosyncratic pronunciation in their speech that can’t be explained. There are also random performance errors. We have no way of knowing if she always says “inex-‘orrible”, but it’s certainly weird.

  7. If I may chime in about Mrs (assuming, not sure why) Humphries, having listened to her for a few minutes on YouTube she sounds like she is originally from northern England, like someone has mentioned – Lancashire or perhaps even higher up (though some people consider Lancashire to be Midlands, to me they sound really northern / Yorkshire ) she has a little bit of a posh twang, indicating having spent some time either in London or surrounding area. Her accent isn’t too clear to pin point, I’d need to listen to her a lot more to make my mind up and even then I’m no expert, but anyway point of this comment was to say that for me, personally, it makes sense to put the emphasis on the ” ‘orribly” as it seems to roll off the tongue more – inex orribly, rather than the other (most likely “proper” pronunciation). But then again I could never understand why we spell pronunciation this way, when we “pro-NOUNCE” things. Thought I’d chime in

  8. It took some finding now as the program is already history, several layers of clicking (23/2?). Discussing the presentations of named professors means sticking your neck out, but hear goes. I think it’s Standard Home Counties SBE (original Estuary English, not post-Rosewarne RP trying to sound like Cockneys). Listen to her MOUTH, GOAT and PLACE, and THOUGHT and LOT, none of them RP). Perhaps it’s one of the areas that haven’t yet darkened BATH (so bright here you would indeed be forgiven for thinking it’s a northerner slipping on the TRAP-BATH split). This bright BATH was widespread in the home counties before 1900 but is darkening since. Some rhoticity was suggested, I didn’t hear any, the nearest was “theRe’Re ah”, but that’s disputable (a linking /r/ and an intrusive [r]). Rhoticity would take us westwards, perhaps one of the areas where Home Counties SEB is said to be encroaching nowadays. But not Bristol yet, I believe (listen to Nobel laureate Peter Hicks). PRICE sounds Londonish (dark beginning), which would bring us to Essex or Kent, but that bright BATH is a problem, hardly Southend or Gravesend. Ashford or Reading? (Sorry, a blind guess, I’ve just been reading Torgersen & Kerswill, who don’t even touch bright BATH.) As to the original question, inexOrable, it’s Home Counties LOT [É”], like her “irOnic(a)lly” further on.

    And what about Andrew Dilnot himself. Also Standard Home Counties SEB? For the same reason, listen to MOUTH, GOAT, THOUGHT, LOT.

  9. Thank you, Harry, Eliza and Sidney. My thoughts are that she is from somewhat north of Watford – probably north midland, and with the slight rhoticity, I would put it in Lancashire. But the rest of her accent doesn’t quite fit with this diagnosis. Where is Jack Windsor Lewis when you need him? Of course, an alternative would be to ask Professor Humphries herself …


    The accent shifts a lot in this last one, perhaps in response to the subject matter, stories of child labour. There are two more parts. An underlying northern accent is more obvious here.

    There’s a Who’s who biography I’m not allowed to access.

  11. I have access to Who’s Who through my local library. She was born in Rotherham, and attended Mexborough Grammar School and Mexborough 6th Form College before Newnham College Cambridge. So that explains her accent, but not her pronunciation of ‘inexorable’.

  12. Harry Campbell pointed out that many people just do have the odd idiosyncratic pronunciation. Typically words you might not hear pronounced and are suddenly called on to read aloud. Perhaps you don’t, it was after all your job not to.

    So starting from the northern, lots of modifications in various directions, not RP though, mainly SBE. Her whole life’s in her accent.

    I’ve just remembered someone else who attended Mexborough Grammar School and Cambridge – Ted Hughes. His accent was also a mirror of his life.

  13. Sidney – I’m sure I must have idiosyncratic pronunciations myself. However, thrown into the deep end at the BBC with an accent that was very definitely not RP, and conscious of being judged by almost everybody I spoke to in that environment, I was probably very careful about the vocabulary I used in order to avoid problematic words. I even tried to avoid some everyday words when broadcasting nationally (Radio 4 or World Service, for instance) because of the impression I might give to the listener. Things are easier now, but then I would always say “a week ago” rather than “last week” because of my [a] in “last”. On local radio I was more relaxed about this, as I believed that the audience was different. Unfortunately, having dropped my guard on one occasion when taking part in a phone-in at Radio Kent, a letter arrived from a listener asking me how the BBC could put a man in charge of pronunciation who couldn’t even pronounce a simple word like “last”!
    I attended Hanley High School in Stoke on Trent. The only really famous person to have been there was Reginald Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, but for a contemporary whose voice is heard on radio from time to time, listen to the financier John Moulton, who preceded me to the school by about five years. His accent is also “a mirror of his life”, and I suppose that mine is too, although I think that my accent is quite different from Mr Moulton’s.

  14. Thank you Graham. Radio listeners can be merciless. I would have thought Kentish listeners might’ve been lenient about your [a] for “last”, as there were probably a fair but dwindling number of people who were among the last to keep the earlier [a:] for BATH before everyone else had darkened it. That’s why I first thought Prof. H. might have had a similar [a] from some corner of the home counties or the west.

  15. Sidney – I didn’t say in my last reply to you, but the listener who wrote in about “last week” was eavesdropping! She (I’m sure it was a woman) lived in Essex rather than Kent, so your opinion of Kentish people remains untarnished! Susan Rae, a great Radio 4 Newsreader, with a clearly Scottish accent, had a stint on Radio 4 in the 1980s, before moving to television and then returning to Radio 4 in the early 2000s. She reported (on a TV documentary in the 80s) that she had received a letter from a listener that said something like “I hear you’re going on holiday soon. I hope it’s somewhere the IRA is interested in”. I don’t think she deserved such a virulent comment then – no-one does, and I’m sure she never gets them now, but it shows how worked-up people can get about pronunciation which they dislike.

    A word I pronounce in what is now considered a very old-fashioned way is “trajectory”, which I still stress on the first syllable. I remember my brother saying /treɪ/ for “trait” and thinking this was odd (and that must have been 45 years ago), and a friend of mine used the same pronunciation a few weeks ago, but I would have to think hard before using that pronunciation myself.

  16. @Eliza having read thru Prof Humphries’ biog details and CV on her All Souls website, I very much doubt she would take kindly to being referred to as ‘Mrs’ …

  17. I listened to Ms Humphries’s enunciation again. I found two instances of rhoticity:
    – landloRds
    – who aRe very powerful
    She replaced the BATH vowel by TRAP in
    – demand
    – past
    – asked
    – casting
    I spotted one instance of intrusive r in
    – ideaR of
    She used the dark l in
    – responsibiLity
    – certainLy
    My thanks to all of you who took the time to listen to her speech and share their thoughts on it.

  18. Petr –Thanks for such a comprehensive analysis.

  19. Think you might be missing the influence of ten years at Cornell and Amherst – and the American husband and children!

  20. Deb, that’s what I was thinking when I wrote “Her whole life’s in her accent”.

  21. Sidney, could I ask what you mean by “bright” and “dark” vowel sounds, as that’s a new distinction for me? I’ve only ever come across descriptions of vowels in terms of their height (openness/closeness), frontness/backness, and/or degree of lip-rounding before.

  22. @Kevin Flynn: The terms “bright” and “dark”, or their equivalents in other languages, have been used for hundreds of years to describe how vowels or consonants sound. Perhaps you’re more familiar with bright and dark l (ell)? Think of bright being associated with a higher F2, dark with lower F2. Or think of the whole spectrum – Jacobson, Fant & Halle (1952, Preliminaries to Speech Analysis, MIT) would have said brighter vowels have a more acute spectrum, darker vowels have a graver spectrum. So [a] sounds brighter than [É‘] and [É‘] sounds darker than [a]. No-one has suggested successful sound impressions for the [i]-[a] dimension (Jacobson et al. diffuse v. compact spectrum). The nearest is perhaps “thin” and “fat” – [i] sounds thinner than [a] but it never really caught on.

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