Pronunciation in Dictionaries


I’ve been thinking about the way in which pronunciation is shown in general dictionaries, and have come to the conclusion that really,  editors are uncertain what to do about it.

There is a famous exchange between Boswell and Johnson given in Boswell’s “Life” –

BOSWELL. ‘It may be of use, Sir, to have a Dictionary to ascertain the pronunciation.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, my Dictionary shews you the accents of words, if you can but remember them.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, we want marks to ascertain the pronunciation of the vowels. Sheridan, I believe, has finished such a work.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, consider how much easier it is to learn a language by the ear, than by any marks.. Sheridan’s Dictionary may do very well; but you cannot always carry it about with you: and, when you want the word, you have not the Dictionary. It is like a man who has a sword that will not draw. It is an admirable sword, to be sure: but while your enemy is cutting your throat, you are unable to use it. Besides, Sir, what entitles Sheridan to fix the pronunciation of English? He has, in the first place, the disadvantage of being an Irishman: and if he says he will fix it after the example of the best company, why they differ among themselves. I remember an instance: when I published the Plan for my Dictionary, Lord Chesterfield told me that the word great should be pronounced so as to rhyme to state; and Sir William Yonge sent me word that it should be pronounced so as to rhyme to seat, and that none but an Irishman would pronounce it grait. Now here were two men of the highest rank, the one, the best speaker in the House of Lords, the other, the best speaker in the House of Commons, differing entirely.’

One of the interesting points here is the assumption that only one pronunciation should be shown, and that a decision would therefore have to be made about the “correct” one. Johnson is too wise to accept that there is a single pronunciation, but cannot bring himself to show several, and so prefers to give none, simply marking the stressed syllable of each headword.

By contrast, a dictionary which restricted itself to giving a single explanation of the meaning of a word would immediately be deemed inadequate, and entries for most words in any English dictionary give extensive different uses for them, sometimes, in the OED, covering more than one large page. These may be arranged chronologically (sometimes starting with the most recent developments, other times beginning at the beginning with the earliest usages) or according to the most frequent meanings, with the most obscure coming at the end of the entry. As for pronunciation, we usually get a single version – sometimes two when they are both thought to be equally used, such as (n)either (/ˈ(n)aɪðə ~ ˈ(n)iːðə/, but only extremely rarely are we given any diachronic information (for instance that the stress pattern of a word has changed over time, e.g balcony from balˈcony to ˈbalcony).

In order to get a comparable coverage of the pronunciation, we have to buy a separate specialist pronouncing dictionary, and even then, we usually get synchronic information only.

And yet, I’m sure that many consumers of dictionaries would be just as pleased and interested to know the history of a word’s pronunciation as they are of its changing meanings and its etymology.


  1. Excellent post Graham
    A historical pronouncing dictionary would definitely find a place on my shelf!
    Any takers?? 🙂

  2. I heartily concur! Gimme, gimme, gimme!

  3. Of course so many of us wd be eager to acquire such a dictionary if it existed but please dont overlook the fact that in the glorious full Oxford Dictionary, a good deal of information is supplied about words’ histories including all their former spellings under the heading ‘Etymology’. Graham will be happy to find there eg “Till c1825 the pronunc. was regularly bælˈkəʊnɪ; but ˈbælkənɪ (once in Swift), ‘which,’ said Samuel Rogers, ‘makes me sick,’ is now established”.

  4. Maybe in this context I should have written “An historical dictionary” … 🙂

  5. Awesome put!! I guess your post is admirable for appreciations. The details you shared about historical dictionary is pretty hard to find for read this generation. Martin no guesses I would love to take the historical pronouncing dictionary from you. Cheers 🙂

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