December 31, 2012
by Graham

Another proposed new spelling system

I’ve just found this on the BBC website. In case anyone has problems linking to it, it says

‘Learning a language is often tricky, particularly when it comes to spelling new words. “The Spell As You Pronounce Universal Project” (SAYPU) wants everyone to spell words the way they are pronounced – and for the world to spell in Latin script.

‘School children in English-speaking countries have difficulty spelling words such as ‘people’ and ‘friend’. They contain the odd vowels which are not pronounced. SAYPU suggests it is about time we started spelling what we pronounced and not just in English, but in all languages. Say, for instance, the word ‘oui’ – or ‘yes’ in French – would be spelled WEE and the word ‘Leute’ in German – meaning ‘people’ – as LOITE. The director of Logos Capital, Jaber George, who is launching the programme today, insists their aim is to help raise worldwide literacy levels by making spelling easier.

“One of the reasons why, in some cultures and in certain languages, there is [sic] higher illiteracy rates than in others is because of the difficulty in learning how to read and write, and by having, actually, a phonetic alphabet, then you don’t have this problem anymore; everyone will be able to read and write much more easily. So Esperanto, basically, is to have a single language spoken by everyone; here, what we are trying to do is just to have all these languages written using the same alphabet.”‘

The obvious objection to this is that the Latin alphabet has only five vowel symbols (six if you include ‘y’), but English has 11 monophthongs before we get to schwa. French also has 11 plus schwa, and also 3-4 (depending on dialect) nasalized vowels. Unfortunately, the 11 monophthongs are not identical in the two languages, so the same symbols, which I assume in this new system are supposed to represent the same ‘sounds’, do not do so. For instance, if we use ‘e’ for the sound in English get, this is most similar to the French vowel in tête, and then what do we do for the second vowel in abbé? This is something like the English diphthong in they, which we could write as ‘ey’. But then if we adopt this spelling for French, what do we do with the words abeille and abbaye? According to my Petit Robert, all three of these words are pronounced differently, so we need three different spellings for them.

I can find no information about “Jaber George” except that he is a director of Logos Capital, as mentioned above. I assume he isn’t a linguist, and I think we can safely dismiss his plans as ill-thought-out. After all, if they don’t work for two major languages such as English and French, then they fail at the first hurdle.

December 20, 2012
by Graham
1 Comment

The Dark Ages – An Age of Light

Further to my comments about Mark Lawson and his programmes about European crime writing, and his expertise, which some readers of this blog thought inappropriate as he was not setting himself up as an expert (a view I cannot share), we now have Waldemar Januszczak as not only the presenter, but also the writer and director of the TV series on The Dark Ages.

I have no complaints about Mr (or is he Dr?) Januszczak as an art critic and historian, but someone really ought to have told him that an alphabet is not the same as a language. In the fourth programme in the series he referred to the futhark (which he mis-pronounced /ˈfÊŠthɑːk/ by the way) as a language. How can we linguists get it into the heads of non-specialists that this is not the case? A presenter of a serious programme who confused elements with molecules would be howled down – and quite rightly – but because everyone can speak a language, everyone is therefore considered to be an expert, and not to need any help with the terminology.

Someone in the BBC must have commissioned this series, but it is very clear that no one editing it was any more knowledgeable about language than the “expert” presenter.

Despite his name, by the way, Waldemar Januszczak is English.

Perhaps we need a media-friendly linguist (not an all-purpose ‘egghead’ like Stephen Fry or Melvyn Bragg) to put forward a plan for a sensible series on language. Are there any volunteers?

November 24, 2012
by Graham

Back to English spelling

One of the problems with English spelling is the number of borrowings there have been from other languages. It is often said that English should follow the lead of languages like Spanish, that spell as they are pronounced. Leaving aside the fact that this is not strictly true of Spanish in any case, English adopts a different policy to borrowings. Spanish tends, where possible, to adapt the spelling of foreign words to Spanish orthographic conventions. Football, for instance, is borrowed as “fútbol”. This allows an approximation to the English  pronunciation to be represented and copied.

English does the opposite: the original spelling is maintained (when the source language uses the Roman alphabet), with the result that English readers are expected either to know the spelling conventions of all these languages, or to ignore them and develop new pronunciations based on the English interpretation of the letters used.

In practice, of course, we get a mishmash. People use what they think is the appropriate letter-to-sound correspondence, and more often than not, get it “wrong”. Take the sequence -au- in words borrowed from German. The electrical goods manufacturer Braun is generally pronounced as /brɔːn/, taking no notice at all of the German convention for -au-. On the other hand, the beer, Löwenbräu, is pronounced /ˈləʊənbraÊŠ/. Perversely, here the -au- is pronounced as it would be in German if there were no umlaut above it, so while many people probably think they are being quite clever, because they ‘know’ that -au- is pronounced /aÊŠ/ in German, they are still “wrong”.

Similarly, the Italian product bruschetta is most often heard as /brʊˈʃetə/, because people think they know that -sch- is pronounced /ʃ/ in foreign words. They would do better to think of it in the normal English way of school, scheme, etc (and increasingly schedule in Britain as well as America).

The letter “z” is a particular problem: the prefix “schizo-” is itself fairly schizoid. Here the sch- is ‘correctly’ pronounced as in Greek, but the -z- is given a German (or Italian – but in this word German) pronunciation /ts/. The same ‘wrong’ foreign interpretation is put on the -z- in words such as chorizo (Spanish, and so originally either /θ/ or /s/), and the style of curry called dopiaza /dÉ’piˈætsÉ™/. The last two are presumably based on memories of the Italian pronunciation of -z- rather than the German.

Chorizo demonstrates -ch- pronounced as it is in both Spanish and English, but the adjective macho is often heard as /ˈmækəʊ/. Is this because it is assumed to be originally pronounced /x/ as in German or Scots, a sound not in the inventory of ‘English’ English, and replaced by /k/?

Any revision of English spelling would have to find a solution to these problems. Perhaps using the Spanish way, giving us Brown, Lervenbroy, skizofreenia, broosketta, choreetho and matcho for the words discussed above.

November 13, 2012
by Graham

Politics alert!

I don’t often comment on BBC politics or indeed any BBC matters apart from language use, but here goes:

In the now notorious interview that George Entwistle gave to John Humphrys on the Radio 4 “Today” programme last Saturday morning, Mr Entwistle admitted to not being aware of the front-page article in the Guardian newspaper on the subject of the ‘Newsnight’ report on child abuse.

When I worked at the BBC, there was a department called “News Information”, which seemed terribly wasteful, but served a vital purpose. Every British national daily newspaper was cut up overnight, and every article (with very few exceptions) marked for its subject matter. This entailed the full attention of several people – the markers, and the cutters, who did nothing but physically cut up the papers. Some articles were necessarily marked for several topics. The end result was a formidable cuttings collection. Every morning, by 9.30, a copy of every article relevant to the BBC was on the desk of all top management. Once newspapers were available on line, this may have stopped, but in those days no executive could claim that (s)he was unaware of a contentious issue.

Even if Mr Entwistle was engaged in meetings on other matters constantly on the day the Guardian published its report, surely his PA should have alerted him to it? I imagine that it was Mr Entwistle’s candid admission on air that led to his resignation later that day.

The economics of cutting up newspapers may be crazy, but the old system would surely have led to a different result in the current case.

October 26, 2012
by Graham

Crime against Scandinavia

The BBC’s Arts guru Mark Lawson is setting himself up as an expert in Scandinavian crime writing. As such, you would think that he would care about the pronunciation of the names of the writers he’s interviewing and talking about, wouldn’t you? Not a bit of it! In a programme broadcast this lunchtime on BBC Radio 4, he managed to mangle Sjöwall (his version: /ʃəˈvæl/), Wahlöö (/vəˈluː/), Staalesen (/ˈstɑːlÉ™sÉ™n/), and  Ã…sa (Larsson) (/ˈeɪsÉ™/). I’ll forgive him /ˈlɑːsÉ™n/, as some dialects of Swedish would pronounce the ‘s’ in this way, but the others simply prove that he has no ear for language at all – at least two of these names were spoken by other Scandinavians in the course of the programme.

I’ve thought before that he is too proud to consult the Pronunciation Unit (I don’t remember ever speaking to him when I worked there). Either that, or he thinks he knows better. Whichever, his producer should have more control.

Better anglicized pronunciations for these names would have been: /ˈʃɜvæl/, /ˈvɑːlɜ/, /ˈstɔːləsən/, /ˈɔːsə/, and /ˈlɑːʃən/.

October 25, 2012
by Graham


This blog has recently been migrated from one server to another, causing problems with the coding of “unusual characters”, e.g. IPA, in the comments. This is being worked on, and the hope is to have it corrected soon.

October 19, 2012
by Graham

What the ‘ll’

I’ve written before about the name Purcell, and the evidence that indicates it must originally have been pronounced with first syllable stress, but it isn’t the only name ending in –ell to be stressed in this way: Marvell, Durrell, Cavell, Parnell, Angell, Mitchell, are all traditionally stressed by bearers of the name in the UK (I can’t answer for other places) on the first syllable. I know that Americans tend to pronounce the first two of these names with stress at the end: Mar’vell, Du’rrell, and I have heard an English professor of English Literature stress Andrew Marvell‘s name in this way – and I seem to remember that John Wells, in his blog some years ago, commented on this with surprise. Certainly the usage of both Gerald and Lawrence Durrell was ‘Durrell (initial syllable stress). Edith Cavell, the 1st World War nurse executed by the Germans as a spy is most frequently heard with final stress, but evidence collected by the BBC from the family is in favour of initial stress, and, at a service of commemoration in Norwich Cathedral, I have heard her supporters also use initial stress. The same is true for Parnell, surname of the 19th century Irish Protestant nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell: initial stress.

In all the cases bar one (Parnell), the etymology of these names, according to the Oxford Names Companion at least, shows that initial stress is the original pattern: Purcell (“swineherd”), Durrell (“hardy” – from French ‘dur’), Cavell (“bald” – ultimately from Latin ‘calvus’). The cases of Marvell, Angell and Mitchell (from “mickle” – meaning “great” or “large”) are self-explanatory. The exception, Parnell, is apparently a diminutive of the given name Petronilla, so second syllable stress would be understandable. Howell and Powell (= ‘ap Hywel’) are both derived from the Welsh name, and never, to my knowledge, stressed other than on the first syllable.

One of the most famous –ell names is Liddell – as in Liddell and Scott (Greek Lexicon), Alice Liddell (daughter of the above, and eponymous heroine of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and Eric Liddell, hero of the film Chariots of Fire. I have never heard this name stressed other than on the first syllable.

It is a frequent feature of English language family names that a final consonant should be doubled, not only –l, perhaps as a way to distinguish it from the vocabulary word from which it is derived: Crabb, Mudd, Abbott, or simply as a doublet for the form with a single final consonant: Hewitt, Hewlett (both meaning “little Hugh”), Lockett, Waylett. The members of this last group are often diminutives. Where these names are polysyllabic, there is no reason to change the stress to the final syllable.

Another device used by some families is to add a final -e to the vocabulary word from which their name is derived: Blacke, Browne, Greene, Cliffe, Fowle(s), Groome, Rowe, Wilde.

Of course, before the days when spelling became standardised, those with a single and double final consonant letter were both in use, whether for the vocabulary word, where it exists, or the name, but the doubling seems to have persisted more readily for the names. Likewise for those names now distinguished from the vocabulary word by the ‘addition’ of a final –e: before the fixing of spellings, both forms were used for the vocabulary word and the name.

October 1, 2012
by Graham
1 Comment

New coinage or resurrection?

John Simpson of the OED was interviewed by Evan Davies on last Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme, about ‘new words’ in the OED.

One of the words mentioned was medal, used as a verb, which Evan had noticed for the first time this summer, in connexion with the London Olympics, meaning “to win a medal”. John pointed out that the word had been current with this meaning since at least the 1960s, the earliest reference in the on-line OED being from the Valley News (California) on 9 June that year. Like Evan, I had never heard it until this year, so it may be that it has taken some time to cross the Atlantic, probably with those athletes who have trained in the US.

Another example of a new word – to me at least – is de-arrest: my local paper carried a news story about some suspicious individuals who tried to collect used cooking oil from a restaurant, apparently claiming to be from the council. A police spokeswoman said “He and another man were arrested on suspicion of theft while we tried to check out who they were. They have now been de-arrested.” Is this a different procedure from what would have been carried out if they had been merely released? I can see a nice distinction being made between the two, rather like marriages being dissolved or annulled (the one admitting their previous existence, and the other denying that they had ever been contracted).

The OED says of de-arrest: obsolete, rare. The only quotation given dates from 1791: “A ship dearrested or released by order of Council”. It adds “= dis-arrest”. The most recent quotation for dis-arrest is from 1693, so even more obsolete than de-arrest.

Since writing this, I’ve found an article in the Guardian from 1 March 2006 in which this paragraph appears:

“According to section 30, subsection (7) and (7A) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to ‘de-arrest’ is to allow that ‘a person who has been arrested under any act of law at a place other than a police station, shall be released before reaching a police station if a constable is satisfied that there are no grounds for keeping him under arrest’. Unlike being released with no further action, being de-arrested means that the record of the initial arrest is removed.”

So, de-arrest is officially not obsolete!

September 8, 2012
by Graham


The awful events near Lake Annecy have brought this place name into prominence. At first sight it is a straightforward French name, with no problem for people needing to pronounce it, such as British radio and TV newsreaders and journalists, and yet over the past week I have been hearing three anglicised pronunciations: /ˈænsi/, /ˈænəˈsiː/ and /ænəˈsiː/. The pronunciation given in the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation, edited by Olausson and Sangster, both of whom have since left the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit, is yet a fourth: /ænˈsiː/. From the variations heard, I can’t work out which is the Unit’s current recommendation.

So, which one is ‘correct’? Of course, the answer has to be, “all and none”, as to speak of a correct anglicisation for an unfamiliar name is nonsensical. However, my preference would be for the first of these, on the grounds that in French the medial schwa would be omitted by the law of three consonants (a schwa is only retained, or indeed may be inserted, if there are three successive consonants in a word or phrase, which is not the case here); and that initial stress seems more ‘natural’ for British English speakers. American English may prefer final stress, as it does in many French names (and even some thoroughly anglicised ones such as Christine).

August 3, 2012
by Graham

IPA versus Respelling

Dictionaries which try to show the pronunciation of words can basically use one of two methods: either they can use a respelling system (this was the only possibility for dictionaries compiled up to the middle of the 19th century), or they can use a phonetic alphabet. To all intents and purposes nowadays, this means the IPA. Is one of these better than the other?

Writing about the presentation of pronunciation seems to be flavour of the month among linguists and phoneticians at the moment, and the latest edition of Language and History (the journal of the Henry Sweet Society) is devoted to it. One of the articles claims that IPA is gaining the upper hand, and that this is the system used by a majority of current dictionaries. I dispute this: even the Oxford family of dictionaries uses a respelling system in the Little, Pocket and Paperback versions, the IPA transcription not going ‘below’ (in size) the Concise. Similarly, Chambers Dictionary still uses a respelling, as do the Penguin English Dictionary, Collins’ Dictionary and Thesaurus of the English Language, and Cassell’s English Dictionary, all reputable dictionaries. US dictionaries have never favoured IPA.

These are all dictionaries intended for native speakers, as opposed to the ever-proliferating dictionaries aimed at non-native learners (the Oxford Advanced Learners’ being the best known). One justification given for using the IPA in learners’ dictionaries is that while we British are unaccustomed to seeing the IPA, and so easily confused by it, the rest of the world has been using it happily for many years. Another reason is that the IPA gives a consistent and accurate representation of the pronunciation, while a respelling does not. Is that true?

All the dictionaries that use IPA still transcribe the words phonemically, or phonologically, rather than phonetically, so that the letters used are an approximation to the actual sound value, and may differ quite a lot from the value given to the same letter in the transcription of other languages. It is notorious, for instance, that almost all the phonemes of French are articulatorily different from their apparent equivalent in English, so that where a French dictionary will write, for instance, /də/ for orthographic ‘de’, English will use the same schwa symbol in /ðə/ for ‘the’; but the two schwas are articulatorily, auditorily and acoustically quite distinct. The German schwa is different again. Also, IPA transcriptions tend to become as fixed as any traditional orthography, even when the phonetic detail changes: Danish, for instance, is still written with symbols that may have been appropriate in the 1940s, but are not so today. When I visited Denmark in 1982, an eminent professor of phonetics, now deceased, told me that had he spoken Danish as a child like the current (i.e. in 1982) television newsreaders, his father would have beaten him to within an inch of his life, and yet this 1982 version of Danish had become the norm. It may be argued that the introductory material can deal with this, but how many people actually read the introduction?

Respelling is often justified because it is easier to interpret by reference to traditional orthography, and also because it can be read by speakers of different accents, and so is less prescriptive than IPA. (It is ironic that phoneticians, who may advocate IPA, and are certainly descriptivists, should be accused in this way of being prescriptive.) However, in many ways, respelling is just as prescriptive: most systems do not allow for the accents of that triangle of England in which there is no velar nasal phoneme (all occurrences of ‘ng’ are pronounced /ŋg/ – finger and singer rhyme). Likewise, whatever vowel letter or combination of letters is chosen to represent /ɑː/ is generally used in John Wells’ BATH set, even though in the northern half of England, and also in many parts of the US, it is the TRAP vowel that is used in bath and its like. At one stage in its history, the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary had a symbol that allowed for this: ‘â’ could be pronounced ‘long’ or ‘short’ in bath, while ‘a’ was always ‘short’ (as in hat), and ‘ä’ was ‘long’ (as in calm), but unfortunately, in later editions this innovation was dropped, and the dictionary became more prescriptive again. No dictionary that I know of deals satisafctorily with the complex of STRUT, FOOT and GOOSE: northern England never carried out the STRUT~FOOT split, and Scots has a different distribution of FOOT and GOOSE from England. Some words even in southern England may vary in their FOOT~GOOSE realisation: room is a well-known example.

Both systems have their advocates, and both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. I don’t see the demise of respelling coming any time soon.