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?

June 29, 2011
by Graham

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.

June 12, 2011
by Graham
1 Comment

The unwisdom of prophecy

“Citoyens, le dix-neuvième siècle est grand, mais le vingtième siècle sera heureux. Alors plus rien de semblable à la vieille histoire; on n’aura plus à craindre, comme aujourd’hui, une conquête, une invasion, une usurpation, une rivalité de nations à main armée, une interruption de civilisation dépendant d’un mariage de rois, une naissance dans les tyrannies héréditaires, un partage de peuples par congrès, un démembrement par écroulement de dynastie, un combat de deux religions se rencontrant de front, comme deux boucs de l’ombre, sur le pont de l’infini; on n’aura plus à craindre la famine, l’exploitation, la prostitution par détresse, la misère par chômage, et l’échafaud, et le glaive, et les batailles, et tous les brigandages du hasard dans la forêt des événements. On pourrait presque dire: il n’y aura plus d’ événements. On sera heureux. Le genre humain accomplira sa loi comme le globe terrestre accomplit la sienne; l’harmonie se rétablira entre l’âme et l’astre. L’âme gravitera autour de la vérité comme l’astre autour de la lumière.”

(Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables”, Part V, Book I, Chapter 5.)

“Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then there will be nothing that resembles the history of the past; unlike today, people will no longer have to fear conquest, invasion, usurpation, national rivalries pursued by force, an interruption of civilisation depending on a royal marriage, a birth in the hereditary tyrannies, a division of peoples by congresses, a dismemberment because of the fall of a dynasty, a battle of two religions head on, like two shadowy stags on the bridge of infinity; they will no longer have to fear famine, exploitation, prostitution caused by distress, misery through unemployment, and the gallows, and the sword, and battles, and all the highway robbery of chance in the forest of events. One could almost say: there will no longer be any events. People will be happy. Mankind will obey its own law just as the earthly globe obeys its laws; harmony will be re-established between the soul and the star. The soul will gravitate around truth as the star does around light.”

This paragraph is omitted from my English translation, although it is in the Nelson Classics edition in French, where I found it. The words are spoken by Enjolras, a revolutionary at the barricades in 1830, but how much of it did Hugo, quite a hothead in his young days, believe?

April 26, 2011
by Graham

The anniversary of Chernobyl

On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster it seems appropriate to discuss the way the name is pronounced in English. In 1986, the main question was whether the stress should be placed on the first or second syllable: ‘Chernobyl, or Cher’nobyl. As it happens, this was a question that had been settled for the BBC as early as 1944, according to the entry in what was then a card index. Presumably there had been some action between Soviet and German forces there which had been important enough to get a mention in BBC news. The name also figured in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch, which bears out this supposition. Stress is on the second syllable.

But now, how to deal with the stressed vowel? Russian /o/, in stressed position, is probably closest to Southern British English /ɔː/, but since the reversion of off, cross and suchlike words to /ɒ/ from /ɔː/, there is no common English word spelt ‘o’ and pronounced /ɔː/ in British English (provided the following letter is not ‘r’, of course). The choice lies between /əʊ/ and /ɒ/. I’m not sure if there is a definite pattern in all cases that determines which of these two is chosen, but names ending in -ovich (Shostakovich, Rostropovich) have /əʊ/, while -ovsky names (Tchaikovsky, Mayakovsky) have /ɒ/. This might lead one to think that it depends on whether the syllable is open or closed, with /ɒ/ before consonant clusters. However, Prokofiev, which in English is /prəˈkɒfief/, with /ɒ/ in an open syllable, goes against this.

The Pronunciation Unit’s recommendation to announcers was always /tʃə(r)ˈnɒbɪl/, but I’m not sure that there is any good phonotactic reason why /tʃə(r)ˈnəʊbɪl/ might not be preferred.

In a previous post, I mentioned the Spanish problem of Barcelona (/-əʊnə/) versus Tarragona (/-ɒnə/), which may be influenced by the long or short vowel in the first syllable. But then there’s Pamplona (/-əʊnə/)…

April 10, 2011
by Graham

Robert Bridges

Robert Bridges (1844-1930) became the Poet Laureate (largely an honorary position under the Crown) in 1913. I think that his poetry is mostly forgotten nowadays, and arguably his greatest claim to poetic fame is his championing of Gerard Manley Hopkins. However, he also had linguistic interests, particularly to do with English spelling and pronunciation.

In 1910 he wrote an essay for the English Association entitled “On the Present State of English Pronunciation” which was intended to promote a new spelling for English that would encourage a ‘better’ standard of pronunciation. He specifically notes Daniel Jones’ Phonetic transcriptions of English Prose (1909) as showing [ə] – which he writes as ‘er’ – for all manner of ‘different’ vowels. “The only question can be whether Mr Jones exaggerates the actual prevalence of degradation. Some will acquit him of any exaggeration. Others I know very well will regard him as a half-witted faddist, beneath serious notice, who should be left to perish in his vain imaginings” (page 46).

Bridges’ solution is to decide how words should be pronounced, and then reform the orthography accordingly. The theory is that by teaching this reformed orthography in schools, children will learn to pronounce English ‘properly’. A good model is northern English, where many of the vowels have remained ‘uncorrupted’. This last statement has led some people to believe that Bridges spoke with a Lancashire accent. I cannot believe this: he was born in Kent and educated at Eton. However, his father died when Bridges was still a child, and his mother’s second husband was a clergyman with a parish in Lancashire. Perhaps a happy childhood home in Lancashire may have led him to his liking for that accent

Unlike Shaw, who wanted a totally new alphabet for English, Bridges wanted to use adapted Roman alphabet letter shapes, for example those he found in fonts used for Old English by the Oxford University Press, to distinguish one sound from another. In the 1920s, he started to re-issue all his essays with a gradually more complex spelling system to exemplify his ideas. For instance, in the first reprinted essay, The Influence of the Audience on Shakespeare’s Drama, he uses a script ‘g’ for the voiced velar plosive, but the usual printed ‘g‘ for the voiced palato-alveolar affricate, and a shape similar to ‘ŋ’ for the velar nasal. However, he leaves ‘j’ and ‘dg‘ unchanged for the affricate, so that judgment remains ‘judgment’. The plan was to refine the spelling gradually in the course of the reprints, but Bridges died in 1930 before he could complete his plan, and his widow and David Abercrombie did the best they could from the notes he left. In his last long poem, The Testament of Beauty, he adopted a simpler re-spelling, deleting final -e from words such as motive, to show that the ‘i’ was pronounced /ɪ/. Note that this was not an attempt to simplify English spelling in order to make it easier for people to learn, but because he believed that a regularized spelling would ‘improve’ their pronunciation.

In 1913, Bridges was the instigator, and one of the founders, of the Society for Pure English, whose aims were to guide the language in directions which its members (“a few men of letters, supported by the scientific alliance of the best linguistic authorities”  – Tract No. 1, 1919, page 6) felt to be “advantageous”, including some “slight modifications” (ibid). The Society’s work was almost immediately suspended because of the outbreak of the First World War, but started to issue its Tracts in October 1919. The last one, no LXVI, entitled A retrospect, was published in 1946.

Bridges early recognised the importance of broadcasting, and in 1926, he became the Chairman of the BBC’s new Advisory Committee on Spoken English, and at the first meeting demonstrated his ideas for how unstressed vowels could retain a flavour (as he put it) of the original. The minutes are silent on what Daniel Jones and Arthur Lloyd James, both present, had to say about this. The Committee published the first results of its deliberations in a booklet entitled Broadcast English I: Recommendations to Announcers Concerning some Words of Doubtful Pronunciation in 1928. As I mentioned in a recent post, a year later, Bridges got permission to republish this as Tract no XXXII of the Society for Pure English, with annotations from some correspondents – an unusual proceeding: for the chairman of a committee to publish a critique of a report of that same committee!

When Bridges died, John Reith wrote in his diary “21 April 1930: Robert Bridges died today and I am very sorry indeed.”