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.

July 7, 2012
by Graham

What do you call someone?

The question has arisen this week particularly because of the behaviour of Bob Diamond towards the MPs on the House of Commons Select Committee questioning him about the LIBOR scandal. He consistently called them by their first name, while they equally consistently and ostentatiously called him “Mr Diamond”. Is he genuinely on first name terms with all of these people, or was he following the recent internet tradition of calling every one in that way? Whatever, it came across that he was being arrogant, patronising, and insolent, while the MPs were deliberately distancing themselves from him by their formality – in what was, after all, a very formal situation.

I had a similar experience myself a few years ago when there was a public controversy over the circumstances of my brother’s death. I received an email from a Sky News producer wanting to interview me. It began “Hi Graham”. I didn’t reply for two years, by which time I reckoned that I was no longer of interest. My reply was scathing: “How dare you address me as a long-term friend when you had never heard of me until two days before, and during a period of acute stress for my family” (I paraphrase – I can’t remember the exact words I used). I wrote about this in an earlier post, and Stewart Clark and I had a complete section on writing letters and emails in our book Words: A User’s Guide.

The question arises, would Mr Diamond talk to the Queen and Prince Philip in the same way: “Liz” and “Phil(ip)”? I suspect not, but if you can address a perfect stranger by their first name, why not? I remember that when I lived in Norway, there were raised eyebrows among my Norwegian colleagues when they heard a Swedish television interviewer use the familiar “du” form to the then Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme. And this was in Scandinavia, a much more relaxed society than Britain.

It is one of the signs that politicians and journalists are becoming too close that the BBC’s Evan Davies, interviewing for the Today programme on Radio 4 frequently teeters on the brink of overfamiliarity with his political interviewees, and non-politicians are almost always given the first name treatment. Do they ask for that, or is it put like this: “Do you mind if I call you …?” to which it would seem churlish to answer “Yes”.

Another question of naming occurs regularly in “The Archers” (Radio 4 soap opera for those outside the UK). It may be to introduce new listeners to the characters so that they can sort them out, but in my experience it is not normal British English usage. The characters frequently refer to other members of the cast by their first name, even when talking about them to close members of the family. Thus “Ruth”, the wife of “David”, and mother of “Pip”, “Josh” and “Ben”, often calls “David”‘s mother “Jill”, even when talking to these characters. In my experience, which may now be old-fashioned, the correct form of address is “your Mum” or “your Gran” (or whatever term is used for the grandmother). The same mis-use (if it is that in 2012) applies across the programme. My own daughter calls her mother-in-law by her first name, but when talking to my son-in-law, she calls her “your Mum”, as I do in talking to my son-in-law. Perhaps my daughter is as old-fashioned as I am.

Now that I’ve displayed my low taste in radio, I’ll stop.

June 30, 2012
by Graham

The tentacles of spelling pronunciations

Tentacle, barnacle, manacle: all words that are stressed on the first syllable.

But now, in a Today programme interview on BBC Radio 4, our erstwhile Foreign Secretary, brother of the current leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, has brought us a new one in all seriousness: debacle /ˈdebəkl/. He was referring to the current situation in the eurozone , and it took me a few seconds to decipher what he was actually saying.

Can David Miliband really have gone through his life never having heard this word pronounced?

June 26, 2012
by Graham

Rhotic/non-rhotic spelling problems

This weekend’s papers have brought up (quite inadvertently on their part) a problem caused by the development of non-rhotic accents:

“High Street banks are often reluctant to invest in what they see as risky and uncharted territory” (Mail on Sunday, 24 June 2012)

“We’re in somewhat unchartered territory in 2020.” (The Independent, 23 June 2012).

My non-rhotic pronunciation is such that I could never confuse these two words: (un)charted /ˈtʃɑːtɪd/ versus (un)chartered /ˈtʃɑːtəd/. But the version of non-rhotic English espoused notably by Tony Blair, but also by many others, uses schwa in both words (/ˈtʃɑːtəd/), leading to the mis-use of ‘(un)chartered’ for ‘(un)charted’ in such contexts.

A similar problem arises with formerly and formally.

“The artist /ˈfɔːməli/ known as Prince” could be interpreted as either, with totally different meanings. Prince intends, and as a rhotic American, spells, formerly, but if “Prince” was his official name, then formally would be equally appropriate.

I don’t believe that any amount of spelling reform could eliminate this problem.

June 17, 2012
by Graham

Ukraine and other anglicisations

On Saturdays, The Independent newspaper has a column called “Errors and Omissions”, which discusses infelicities in the language used in the paper over the previous seven days.

Yesterday it discussed the use (or not) of the definite article with “Ukraine”. Guy Keleny (writer of the piece) seems to be against omitting the article on the grounds that what Ukrainians do, even when speaking English, is irrelevant – they are not native speakers of English, and their usage, while it should be noted by us, ought not to determine our linguistic behaviour.

There are other country names whose definite article has been lost – Lebanon and Gambia are two that immediately come to mind. In the cases of Ukraine and Lebanon, these are names for places which used to form part of larger countries and have become independent: Ukraine from Russia, and Lebanon from Syria. In the case of Gambia, this is the name of a river, and river names are usually preceded by the definite article – The Thames, The Rhine, The Potomac. Geographical areas are also usually given an article – the Caucasus, the Maghreb. And in English, the Netherlands, though in Dutch the name is simply Nederland, neither ‘articled’ nor plural.

Many island groups also carry the article – the British Isles, the Maldives, the Philippines.

I have some sympathy for Mr Keleny – I used to argue against John Simpson that the adjective formed from Iran was Iranian, pronounced /ɪˈreɪnɪən/, not /ɪˈrɑːnɪən/, regardless of what Iranians themselves say when speaking English,  just as we say /bəˈheɪmɪən/ for the adjective from Bahamas. I also argued that just because the Chinese were now insisting on spelling the name of their capital Beijing, we had no need to change our well-established anglicisation Peking. After all, the French and Spanish call London ‘Londres’, and we have our own spellings for many European cities, and almost all country names. Must we change them as well?

However, time moves on, and we do abandon some of these established anglicisations, as has happened with Saragossa, Flushing, and Leghorn over the past century.

One thing Mr Keleny has got wrong: the Chinese have not changed the name of their capital, simply its spelling in Roman letters. The Indian cities of Mumbai and Chennai, on the other hand, have had not just the spelling, but the names changed to eradicate supposedly colonial connotations.

June 4, 2012
by Graham

Queen’s English Society, RIP

Two years ago, I wrote a post on the Queen’s English Society as it set up an “English Academy”, and I ended my post “Who will prove the futility of the Queen’s English Society’s efforts to its members?”

We now have the answer: its own members. BBC News has just reported that fewer than twenty bothered to turn up to the AGM, and that it has been decided to wind up the Society.

There’s nothing more to be said, I think.

May 9, 2012
by Graham

What is iconic?

It seems that anything can be “iconic”. I’ve collected all of the following in just a few weeks:

The turtle is an iconic species.

The beauty of a traditional radio telescope is iconic.

Al-Qaeda targets iconic buildings.

The Roundhouse, in London, is iconic, as are the ruins of Greyfriars at Dunwich (both obviously to be targeted by Al-Qaeda!)

Terence Conran is Britain’s most iconic designer.

The gull-wing doors of the Mercedes 300 are iconic.

Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes in “Now Voyager” is an iconic image.

The OED has no earlier quotations than 1976 for what one has to assume is the meaning in all these cases:

“Designating a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context”.

How quickly meanings can spread.

April 24, 2012
by Graham

News Corporation

This Murdoch company is in the news again today with the most recent appearance of James Murdoch before the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking at the News of the World.

The name of the company is usually abbreviated to “News Corp”, and it’s interesting how many people pronounce this without the final ‘p’ – /’njuːz kɔː/. The pronunciation /kɔː/ is normal for the word corps, as a military unit, but I don’t remember ever having it heard as an abbreviation for corporation except in this context. Some BBC reporters are ‘guilty’ in this respect, but presenters such as Martha Kearney on The World at One are keeping to the longer pronunciation, which is the only one given in both the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation. The latest edition of the EPD that I own doesn’t give the abbreviation at all. I wonder how long it will be before the innovative pronunciation finds its way into the dictionaries.

April 17, 2012
by Graham

Anders Breivik

Following my post on Utøya last July, John Maidment asked me about the pronunciation of Breivik, and I gave an answer here. I’m still hearing the pronunciation with schwa from some broadcasters, including some Radio 4 newsreaders, so maybe that is what the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit is recommending.

I don’t want to get into a long discussion of the case, but BBC News is reporting that Breivik is claiming that he killed 77 people out of ‘self-defence’. This is a mis-translation of the Norwegian term, which is “nødrett”. Einar Haugen’s Norwegian-English Dictionary says “jus necessitatis (= case involving legal act of necessity); ytterste nødrett: ‘justifiable homicide’.”

April 14, 2012
by Graham

Pleonasm or useful linguistic device?

During the 1970s and 1980s, there was frequent adverse comment in the press and to the broadcast media (I was at the end of quite a lot of complaints) about the phrase “at this moment in time”. Complainants generally said things like “what’s wrong with just saying ‘now’, or ‘at the moment’?” I think the answer is that they don’t mean quite the same thing. “At this moment in time” is more immediate than either of the other words/phrases, and emphasises this.

I haven’t heard the phrase for some time, and that is either because it’s now so common that I don’t notice it any more, or else because it’s dropped out of use again. However, a new pleonasm has taken its place: “for ever”. Programme presenters and voice-over artists are increasingly using this phrase in the context “it changed his life for ever” or “this changed history for ever”. The words “for ever” are completely unnecessary here – if someone’s life, or history, is changed, it is highly unlikely that it could be changed back by a new set of circumstances.

So why do we use these unnecessary phrases? I think it is because we need to add emphasis to our statements. To say that “something changed” sounds rather flat. To say it changed “for ever” adds that extra bit to stress the point. It is not a new phenomenon: language is constantly wearing out, and so needs to be re-invigorated by some means, and this is one of them. Eventually the new term can become so ingrained that we don’t realise it was originally a pleonasm. Take the French word “aujourd’hui”, for instance. When we learn French as a foreign language, we accept without question that this means “today”, but if we analyse it, we can break it down into its etymological components, and find that it translates as “on the day of today”, since the Old French word for “today” was “hui”, the French reflex of the Latin word “hodie” – itself a contraction of “hoc die” = “on this day”. “Hui” by itself became such an insignificant little word that in order to draw attention to its meaning, it had to be extended to “aujourd’hui”. The same is what happens in English when we hear “this casual meeting changed his life for ever”.