October 15, 2011
by Graham

This is a must-have thing

Standing in the check-out queue at my local supermarket yesterday afternoon, I noticed that the person behind me was buying a Jamie Oliver knife block set.

Like many products these days, it is labelled in several languages. The German, however, was easier to understand than usual. Why does it say that the product is “must-have”, and why is it a “set”? What’s wrong with the word “unentbehrlich”, or some other equivalent, and wouldn’t “Garnitur” fit the bill for ‘set’? My German is not very good, so there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the use of English words in this context, but if someone English were to use foreign words in such a way, then they would be considered to be very uppish, and the reaction would be “Oooh, get you!”.


October 1, 2011
by Graham

An unusual ‘intrusive’ r

We’re all used to the so-called intrusive r in English – the ‘r’ pronounced after a word ending in /ɑː, ɔː, ɜː, ə/ when the following word also begins with a vowel. A few days ago, I heard one which was new to me, although perhaps it has just passed me by until now. Mark Easton, the BBC’s Home Editor, was talking about the possible eviction of travellers from Dale Farm in Essex, and he used the phrase ‘dénouement of …’

The intrusive r between these two words was unusual for me, as he clearly used a French-type nasalized vowel at the end of the first word: /deˈnuːmãrəv/. (Apologies for using /ã/ – I’m not sure how to add an accent immediately above a vowel.) I’m not aware that I’ve ever heard a nasalized vowel followed by an intrusive r before. If he had used a final /ŋ/, which the EPD allows as a possible English pronunciation – although neither ODP nor LPD gives this option – then an intrusive r would have been impossible.

I haven’t examined any of the literature on English pronunciation, but I don’t recall this possibility being mentioned. No doubt someone reading this will be able to point me to a reference.

September 27, 2011
by Graham

Political language

The newspapers and news and current affairs programmes this week are full of Labour “apologising” for the mistakes they made during their period of office between 1997 and 2010. I do not remember politicians ever apologising for their own actions in government over the time when I have been taking an interest (about 50 years). They may apologise for slavery, which ended in Britain in the 18th century, although the slave trade went on until 1806, but that is an easy thing to do – no one can even remember a family member who was involved, they all died so long ago; but to apologise for things you did, or didn’t do, ten years ago – that is something new in my experience.

But something else changed when Labour came to office in 1997. Ministers when interviewed about their policies always insisted that this was the “right” thing to do. From Tony Blair to, especially, Gordon Brown, and all their subordinates, they one and all arrogantly suggested that having considered all the alternative policies, there was only one right course of action, and this was it. However arrogant the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major may have been, my recollection is that they only ever claimed that their policies were the best options, wording which allows more wriggle room if they subsequently need to be changed.

Perhaps if Labour had stuck to this less definite phraseology, they would not now be apologising for getting it wrong.

I’m surprised that no political commentators seem to have picked up on this.

September 13, 2011
by Graham

A “new” word

They say (whoever ‘they’ are) that travel broadens the mind. In my case it’s just broadened my vocabulary. I’ve come back from a fortnight’s holiday in Germany with a new word in my armoury – cater-cornered. I had never come across this before, but it appeared in two separate guides, one in Munich, the other in Nuremberg. I was mentally pronouncing it to myself as /ˌkeɪtəˈkɔːnəd/ – by analogy with the word I was familiar with: the verb cater, and worked out by comparing the wording in the books with the evidence on the ground (“A is cater-cornered with B”) that it must mean ‘diagonally opposite to’, but I was totally bemused by this usage of what to me was a completely unknown word in a guide book translated from German, by a German (and I was telling myself yet again that you should never ever translate anything for publication out of your own language, but only into it), and that he/she was using a strange sort of dictionary.

The word is in none of the editions I have of Chambers’ dictionaries – my first port of call for ‘obscure’ words like this, but the 7th edition of the COD has it, without comment, pronounced as I have shown it above. The 8th edition however, specifies it as US, and changes the pronunciation to /ˌkætəˈkɔːnəd/. It’s not given in the 5th edition, and I don’t have ready access to the 6th. (The 9th-11th editions have gone back to /ˌkeɪtəˈkɔːnəd/, by the way, although OED3 retains /ˌkætəˈkɔːnəd/).

The most recent British English example given in OED3 is from The Listener in 1959: “A square cat, going cater-cornered among the leeks.” If I had read this sentence, I wouldn’t have had a clue what it meant.

Have I been missing something all my life, or is this an example of a word that has travelled to the US, dropped out of use completely except in dialectal British English, and unlike so many words, not yet come back? It does not, after all, make an appearance anywhere in the British National Corpus.

August 17, 2011
by Graham

Prescriptive and Descriptive

These days, any linguists who claimed to be prescriptivists would find themselves cast out of the linguistic community, and yet to a greater or less extent, we are all prescriptivists, in private at least, and those of us who teach a language to non-native students are necessarily prescriptivist – languages do have rules, and it is essential to at least try to inculcate them into the heads of learners (and anyone who complains about my splitting an infinitive in this sentence should read the original edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, published in 1926).

Descriptive linguists work with language as it is actually produced, and not like prescriptivists – who tell you what they would like it to be. The prescriptivist position is logically untenable – the first time a language is analysed, the analysis must be descriptive of the state of the language at that time: there is no previous analysis with which it can be compared, and so no “it must be”s or “it ought to”s are possible. So this has to have been the position that the first Greek grammarians found themselves in, and also the first Chinese, or Sanskrit, or any other linguists. In our own day, it is also what happens when linguists work with previously ‘uncontacted’ groups in places such as the Amazon.

Prescriptivists also do not seem to realise that their own use of whatever language they may speak is also vastly changed from that of their ancestors: they tend to accept their own usage as ‘correct’, even when it can be shown that their own grandparents must have had a different one (what was their grandparents’ attitude to change?). This is particularly easy to demonstrate with pronunciation, where they frequently point to the ‘mis-stressing’ of contribute and distribute on the first syllable, while themselves considering the stressing of the second syllable of vagary or quandary, which was normal 100 years ago, to be laughable.

These thoughts have come to me after reading Jack Windsor Lewis’s blog post on disputable pronunciations, where he describes /ˈerənəs/ for erroneous as an ‘undeniable mistake’. It could be that the eminent biologist who used this pronunciation (and I heard it too) believes that this is the correct pronunciation: after all homogeneous is often pronounced /həˈmɒdʒənəs/, even though there is a word of a different meaning spelled homogenous, and while this pronunciation is not yet given by EPD, ODP or LPD, the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation does have it, with no condemnatory comment: “Less commonly also pronounced huh-moj-uh-nuhss”. In my recent experience, the only thing wrong with this statement is the two words “less commonly”, because I now seem to hear it far more often than the ‘regular’ pronunciation /hɒməˈdʒiːnɪəs/. Are these people also making “an undeniable mistake” in Jack’s words, or as descriptivists, must we now say that it is a part of the language? The editors of all but the BBC dictionary seem to be saying that it is not acceptable – they must have heard it, and yet even John Wells, who marks all sorts of pronunciations as “not acceptable” (and this is another example of a great descriptivist being prescriptive), denies it an entry. If Olausson and Sangster are correct, on the other hand, then /ˈerənəs/ must be considered a “less common” pronunciation of erroneous.

I have heard another of our greatest linguists telling an audience that it is impossible for a native speaker to make a mistake. This must surely be wrong – mistakes are made by accident, and we have only to consider spoonerisms, which are inadvertent, to realise that we all make mistakes in our speech every day of our lives.

Prescriptivists are clearly losing a fighting battle – as I once said – in trying to stop all change that they happen not to like, but descriptivists too will correct what they consider to be mistakes. The problem is: when does a mistake happen so often that it ceases to be a mistake, and becomes an acceptable alternative, or even drives out the older version altogether, as has happened with vagary and quandary ( and /bælˈkəʊni/ a hundred years earlier)?

August 4, 2011
by Graham

Nordic languages

The Germanic group of Indo-European languages split into three sub-groups – East, West and North Germanic. East Germanic, now extinct, included Gothic, in which the earliest  example of a Germanic language in writing – the extracts from the Bible translated by Ulfilas – still exists. This manuscript dates to the 4th century, and is housed at Uppsala in Sweden (having been looted from Prague during the Thirty Years War).

West Germanic gave rise to present-day German, Dutch, English, Frisian and Afrikaans.

North Germanic, which comprises the Scandinavian languages, itself divided into two: West and East. West Scandinavian is now represented by Icelandic and Norwegian (and Faroese) while East Scandinavian is Danish and Swedish. These are the historical divisions, but there are various features of the languages which cross these boundaries in different ways.

The most obvious is that Swedish and Norwegian share ‘tonelag’ – a feature unusual in European languages, of tonal distinctions like those in Chinese. Pairs of two-syllable words may be distinguished solely by whether they are spoken on Tone 1 or Tone 2. However, in dialects of Northern Norway, this feature has disappeared, leaving pairs such as “bønder’ (“farmers”) and ‘bønner’ (“beans”) homophonous. I don’t know if the same has happened in the Swedish spoken in the north of that country – perhaps someone can enlighten me? To complicate matters still further, the tones may vary from one dialect to another, just like vowels and consonants.

Neither Danish nor Icelandic have ‘tonelag’. Danish, however, does have a reflex of it, called ‘stød’, which is a glottal stop inserted in one member of the pair. Just as the spelling of Norwegian and Swedish gives no indication of the tone pattern on their bisyllables, so Danish does not reliably indicate in its spelling the presence or absence of ‘stød’ – and an added complication is that sometimes the glottal stop, which comes in the coda of the syllable, precedes a final consonant, and at other times follows it. The dialects of the extreme south of Jutland have lost the stød – which puts them in a similar situation to the dialects of northern Norway. This is fortunate for foreign learners, who can just ignore both tonelag and stød without causing too much confusion in their listeners!

On top of this, Norwegian Bokmål often looks like Danish, while Nynorsk can resemble Swedish. In Danish, the word for “week”, for instance, is ‘uge’. In Bokmål it is ‘uke’. In Nynorsk it is ‘veke’, and in Swedish ‘vecka’. In Icelandic, ‘vika’. Here Bokmål and Danish go together. Icelandic – which ‘should’ be with Norwegian, agrees with Nynorsk, but both are close to Swedish.

The isoglosses are difficult to sort out across the Norse area. Icelandic has retained a lot of features of Old Norse, and is more different from the other three than these are amongst themselves. The speakers of  Danish, Swedish and Norwegian get along very well without the need for translators, and it always surprises me that fiction for adults written in one of the three may be translated into the other two.

July 28, 2011
by Graham

Norwegian – Bokmål and Nynorsk

In response to my last post, on Utøya, John Maidment has asked: “How should “Breivik” be pronounced in Norwegian? I keep hearing /ˈbreɪəvɪk/ or sthg similar from Brits on tv.”

I’ve replied briefly on the specific question, but it raises a more general question.

Norwegian has two standard written forms:

Bokmål, or ‘book language’, has developed from the Dano-Norwegian of the pre-independence (at least from Denmark) era up to 1814, when Denmark was ‘punished’ by the Congress of Vienna for supporting Napoleon, and Norway was given to Sweden in recognition of Sweden’s help in the fight against him. Gradually, as a result of several spelling reforms, more and more of the specific Danish features of the written language have been removed.

Nynorsk, ‘new Norwegian’, the other written standard, was developed later in the 19th century by Ivar Aasen, in order to distance Norwegian rather more from Danish, and he took features of traditional Norwegian dialects of the south and west of Norway. It is ironic that some of these features are archaising, and yet the variety is called “new” Norwegian.

Very few people speak either of the varieties, but instead use their local dialect, which may be closer to one or the other of the written standards. There is a lot of literature in both, and broadcasters usually stick to one variety or the other – they are, after all, mostly reading a script.

It sometimes seems to foreigners (i.e. non-Norwegians) that there are almost more spoken dialects of the language than there are Norwegians to speak them, and this in a way makes the language easier to learn – very often the foreign learner simply appears to come from some remote valley whose dialect the listener has never encountered before. Norwegians are also very forgiving of the mistakes that foreigners make. After all, not many visitors to the country bother to learn anything of the language.

More later.

July 24, 2011
by Graham


The tragic and shocking news from Norway in the last days has brought the name of this formerly insignificant island in a lake not far from Oslo to the world’s attention.

The name means “the outer island”, illustrating the Scandinavian feature of placing the definite article, in this case feminine, after the noun as a suffix. It also has the typical Scandinavian (Norwegian and Danish, but not Swedish or Icelandic) letter <ø> which represents a front rounded vowel. The British media are mostly replacing it with <oe>, treating it (quite reasonably) in the same way that they would the German (and Swedish and Icelandic) <ö>, or ‘o umlaut’.

The pronunciation in Norwegian is [ˈʉtœya]. The [œ] is rather different from the French vowel represented by the same IPA character, the French vowel having ‘close’ rounding, while the Norwegian one has ‘open’ rounding – the lips are much further apart.

This is obviously causing problems to English-language broadcasters, not surprisingly, but the nearest one could come would be something like /ˈuːtˌəjə/.

The word “utøy” (without the definite article) is ambiguous – splitting it into ‘u’ and ‘tøy’, it means “vermin”, and the pronunciation is distinguished by the /t/ being strongly aspirated in “vermin”: [ˈʉtʰœy], but not in “outer island”. “Vermin” is also neuter, and so in the definite form is ‘utøyet’ rather than ‘utøya’.

July 7, 2011
by Graham

Phonetic twaddle

I’ve just come across this, entitled “Learning Pronunciation with Dictionary IPA” and was appalled. Macquarie University is quite rightly acclaimed as the home of the standard Dictionary for Australian English, which you would think would entitle users of the language pages of its website to expect a high standard of scholarship. Yet this document appears to have been put together by non-native speakers of English, who have not had their English proof-read by a native speaker, and who also have a very defective knowledge of phonetics and what we might call the “phonetics world”.

At the head of the document we read “The Dictionary International Phonetics Alphabets (IPA) is a set of phonetic transcriptions …” Since when has “Alphabet” been plural in this context?

Then we come to “The Basics”:

“Syllable is … a unit of spoken language and consists of one or more vowel sounds alone or of a syllabic consonant alone, e.g. the word sy/lla/bles/ consists of three units of sound.” So how do the consonants fit into this, and is the final syllable ( in the terms of the document) the ‘l’ or the ‘e’?

The final sentence defining “Vowel” states: “Sometimes vowels are referred as ‘voiced’ sounds.” This could simply be a typo, with ‘to’ (between ‘referred’ and ‘as’) omitted by mistake, but under “Consonant” we have “Sometimes consonant is referred as ‘unvoiced’ sounds.” Poor English, and just plain phonetically wrong.

So, is a syllable one sound, or is it made up of more than one sound? The writer does not tell us, and continues to confuse us to the end (see below as well).

The next paragraph answers the question “What is the International Phonetic Alphabets?” So, once again, an unexpected plural. This is beginning to sound like the meerkats in the British TV advert for a price comparison website (for readers outside Britain, change ‘meerkat’ into ‘market’ for an explanation of this).

“How does IPA work? The tables below show how each symbol sounds like …” Shouldn’t that be ‘what’, not ‘how’?

“Put the sounds together … For example, you have the word ‘examine’. First, divide the word up into syllables (single sound), e.g. the word, e/xa/mine, (so three syllables). Try to pronounce the word. Next, Look up the word in the dictionary and you will find the IPA of the word /examine/, the IPA is /ɪ g ˈz æ m ɪ n/ (British pronunciation). Then, check where the stress is. Is the primary stress in /e/ or /xa/ or /mine/? It’s /ˈxa/. So you sound louder, longer and done in a higher pitch of voice on the sound /ˈzæ/”.

There is total confusion between spelling and transcription, where both are enclosed in /…/. How are learners to understand that the orthographic <x> is split between two syllables when they are being told that the spelling has <xa> as the second syllable, but the transcription has /z æ/, and what is one to make of the statement “you sound louder, longer and done on a higher pitch”?

I know the Internet is full of rubbish, but for this to appear under the ‘imprint’ of a respected university in a country where the principal first language is English beggars belief.

Rant over.

July 3, 2011
by Graham

Pronunciation in Dictionaries (2)

The addition of a comprehensive pronunciation history to all the entries in a dictionary would be wonderful – and comments to my last post confirm my opinion. However, there are just a few slight problems.

Jack Windsor Lewis has pointed out that the OED gives a full list of spelling variants through the ages for each word in the etymology section, and implies that we can learn a lot about the word’s pronunciation from that, but while spelling several hundred years ago was at the whim of the writer, and so was likely to reflect that writer’s pronunciation, the fact that several spellings were often used contemporaneously with each other probably means that the pronunciation also varied at the same time.

Johnson, in the exchange with Boswell that I quoted last time, says “whose pronuncation should we follow?” Does a historical (or an historical – thank you Martin) pronouncing dictionary restrict itself to one dialect/accent, and if so, which one? or does it cover the range of dialects/accents at each period?

As if this was not a thorny enough problem, the next is even harder. How do you represent the pronunciations? All the current pronouncing dictionaries use a phonological transcription, and have done since Daniel Jones’ first edition of the EPD in 1917. The OED, in its original form, used a transcription that was much more complicated. There is a very good explanation of the history of this transcription, and also its interpretation, by Professor Mike MacMahon in the Transactions of the Philological Society, 1985, pages 72-112.

A phonological transcription is all very well, but the symbols used in the EPD, for instance, have barely changed since 1917. A.C Gimson, in his 1967 edition (the 13th), changed /ou/ to /əu/, and in the 14th edition, further amended /əu/ and /au/ to /əʊ/ and /aʊ/. He also updated the vowel charts in the introduction to reflect changing qualities. This helps to cover a single changing dialect/accent, but without a large number of explanatory notes, it could not explain the full variety of English pronunciations, whether diachronically or synchronically. A truly phonetic transcription would need to be used, which might result in entries looking something like this (which I hope is approximately accurate):

ˈhlaːvwɛərd > ˈlaːvərd > ˈlɔːvərd > ˈlɔːərd > ˈlɔːrd >ˈlɔːəd > ˈlɔəd > ˈlɔːd

(hlafweard > lord).

And this needs to be repeated for every word, from its first appearance in the language. As Martin Ball has asked, are there any takers for the job?