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.”

April 6, 2011
by Graham

A label on a lapel

I was taken aback to hear Anthony Horowitz, scriptwriter for many TV programmes, including Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, and Poirot as well as many children’s books, use the pronunciation /ˈleɪpəl/ in an interview Saturday Live, BBC Radio 4’s Saturday morning programme (9-10 am): “I’m wearing my Blue Peter badge in my /ˈleɪpəl/”. According to his Wikipedia entry, Horowitz was born in 1956, but I don’t think this has anything to do with it. I’ve not been able to find his pronunciation in any of my dictionaries, although I have found /ˈlæpəl/ in New English Dictionary (edited by Ernest A Baker, MA DLit, Director of the University of London School of Librarianship and Lecturer in English, UCL, published by Odhams Press, 1932), and Cassell’s Concise English Dictionary (no editor given), in its First Australian Edition, 1945.
Can anyone throw more light on Horowitz’s usage, or is it an idiosyncracy of his idiolect?

March 12, 2011
by Graham


This word has caused more trouble than most when trying to decide on a pronunciation. The BBC’s pre-war Advisory Committee on Spoken English managed to change its mind twice in the course of ten years before giving up on a recommendation.

In 1928, the first edition of Broadcast English I – Recommendations to announcers regarding certain words of doubtful pronunciation gave ‘gárraazh’ (there was no IPA transcription).

In the extraordinary publication of the Society for Pure English – Tract no. XXXII, “The BBC’s Recommendations for pronouncing doubtful words, Reissued with Criticisms Edited by Robert Bridges’ (and remember that Bridges was the chairman of the BBC Committee!), Bridges writes “One can feel no sentiment about the pronunciation of garage, except to deplore that there should be another word added to the some 200 which used to be -age and are now commonly pronounced -edge or -idge; for instance, Jones records in his dictionary (1917) that cultivated Southern English people, in their ordinary conversation, pronounce parsonage as pahsnidg (pa:snidʒ). Anything that can check the spread of this disease is useful, and it is to be hoped that the B.B.C. announcers will set the example of a more agreeable solution than the phoneticians have predetermined.” Did Bridges really want us to say /ˈpɑːsənɑːʒ/? One must also wonder at the sight of the chairman of a committee issuing a critique of a report that his committee has published!

The second edition of Broadcast English I, published in 1931, after Bridges’ death, and when Bernard Shaw was chairman of the Committee, gave only ‘gárredge’. Shaw is reputed to have said that as sausage ends in -edge, there was no reason for garage to be any different.

The third edition (1935) went back to ‘gárraazh’ and added /ˈgærɑːʒ/ (IPA had now been added to all the words). The only reason I can find for this is that the ‘public’ objected to what it considered a lowering of the BBC’s standards. An initial problem that faced the committee was that the 1st edition of the OED does not contain the word, but the supplement, published in 1933, giving the earliest citation from 1906, has both pronunciations. Henry Wyld, author of the Universal Dictionary of the English Language (1932), joined the committee in 1934, when it was reorganized, with four linguists (Daniel Jones, Arthur Lloyd James, Wyld and Harold Orton) making preliminary recommendations to the full committee. Wyld had also given both pronunciations in his dictionary, so it can be assumed that he had no objection to either of them.

It seems that no one considered the pronunciation /gəˈrɑː(d)ʒ/, which is thought of as American, in any of these discussions. Both the Webster New International Dictionary and Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary indicate initial stress as either British or ‘especially British’.

I can’t believe that in 2011 anyone any longer cares much about which of these pronunciations they hear, but it would not be surprising if the claim made by Robert Walshe of the British Library, in this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 – that /-ɪdʒ/ is increasing in frequency at the expense of /-ɑː(d)ʒ/ – was justified, as most common words ending in -age are pronounced (in British English at least) in this way.

March 2, 2011
by Graham
1 Comment


I suspect I’m not the only person who had never heard of this place in Libya until yesterday. My suspicion is more-or-less confirmed by the inability of the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John SImpson, to make his mind up over it. In his report to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning (Wednesday 2 March 2011), he pronounced alternately /ædʒdəˈbiːə/ and /ædʒdəˈbaɪə/.

I was wondering if the local pronunciation was what was causing his problem – a vowel quality something like /əi/ for instance? – when Harriet Cass, reading the news bulletins through the programme, called it /ædʒˈdebiə/. The Columbia-Lippincott Gazetteer of the World – now sadly fifty years old – gives the Italian spelling Agedabia, with stress on the -da- (transcribed as äjĕdä´byä). Allowing for the need of Italians for a vowel to be inserted in order to pronounced the /dʒ/, this corresponds well to Harriet’s version, so I think we can believe that Harriet is following the Pronunciation Unit’s advice (as she almost always does), and discount John’s uncertainty as simply lack of knowledge.

Never trust journalists’ pronunciation simply because they’re in the place they’re talking about!

February 21, 2011
by Graham


Eric Hayman has commented that BBC newsreaders and journalists are vacillating between /bɑːˈhreɪn/ (where /h/ may represent either a glottal fricative or a velar fricative) and /bɑːˈreɪn/, leaving the orthographic ‘h’ unpronounced.

I cannot believe that the Pronunciation Unit has changed its recommendation, which was always the second of these, and was published as such in both the BBC English Dictionary published by Harper Collins, and the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation. To me, /bɑːˈreɪn/ is as well established an anglicisation as any other country name, and I don’t see any point in tinkering with it. It just sounds pretentious to me, and I’ve noticed that some broadcasters, even when they’ve made the effort to pronounce the ‘h’ in some way on the first occasion they need to say it, have then reverted to the anglicisation on further mentions of the name.

January 23, 2011
by Graham


There was some discussion on John Wells’ blog a couple of months ago (here) about traditionally SBE BATH words now being increasingly reported with TRAP. John said “The fact that more younger people than older report a preference for /ɒ/ in one and for /æ/ in chance can be seen as a greater willingness on the part of northern respondents to report a preference for their own pronunciation in cases where it is known to deviate from the perceived norm (RP: wʌn, tʃɑːns).”

I should like to propose an additional explanation. As John himself says in AoE: “The TRAP-BATH Split … represents the ossification of a half-completed sound change, which seems to have come to a stop well before completing its lexical diffusion through the vocabulary which met the structural description of the lengthening rule.” (page 233) This has led to the formation of the group of words that John classifies as 59ʹ (to which I would add aftermath, and Belfast among fairly common words. I should also move Iraq, Iran and Sudan into this group from 59c. I realise none of the groups is supposed to be an exhaustive list). This group of words can easily lead to confusion in the minds of SBE speakers. I suspect that no consonant cluster invariably triggers the Split – exceptions can be found in almost every case:

staff but gaff(e), path but maths, brass but lass, after but caftan, grasp but asp, master but aster, ask but Gascony. And so on.

I have heard TRAP pronunciations in many supposedly BATH words from speakers of otherwise clearly southern varieties of British English, who were born and brought up in the southern part of England. They were sporadic – i.e. of particular words and not throughout the class. Could it not be the case that the sound change may be reversing itself to some extent, presumably because it never was completed, and perhaps because of the influence of American English, where many of these words still have /æ/, but also from the influence of the increasing numbers of Northerners who are heard speaking with confidence in their own accent, which may be raising the uncertainty levels of Southerners in specific cases? Increased geographical mobility has also led to large numbers of Northerners living in the south, and having children whose accents are affected by both influences: words learned at home with TRAP but those learned in the street or at school with BATH (grass and bath, for instance, are likely to be learned at home from parents, but master, staff from a wider acquaintanceship).

Another quotation from AoE: “There are many educated northerners who would not be caught dead doing something so vulgar as to pronounce STRUT words with [ʊ], but who would feel it to be a denial of their identity as northerners to say BATH words with anything other than short [a].” (page 354) As I first read this, I nodded to myself – I have only a handful of words with /ɑː/ whose spelling is not either ‘al’ or ‘ar’, and these include words with final -a such as spa and bra, which could scarcely be pronounced in any other way than with /ɑː/.

January 16, 2011
by Graham

Souls and Ghouls

Amanda Vickery, Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London, from this month, recently presented a TV series on domestic life in Georgian England – At Home with the Georgians. Professor Vickery is a Lancastrian, and her accent is as might be expected from such a background. She had one very idiosyncratic pronunciation: entrepreneur as /ˌɒntrepəˈnɜː/, but the main reason for writing this post was her pronunciation of the eminent member of the Lunar Society, Matthew Boulton, whose family name she pronounced /ˈbʊltən/. This immediately reminded me of Patricia Routledge (another Lancastrian – from Birkenhead), whose pretentious character Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced /bʊˈkeɪ/) in the BBC TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances, was always talking about her Royal /ˈdʊltən/ with the handpainted periwinkles.

Both Boulton and Doulton are generally pronounced with /əʊ/ as are most words containing the orthographic sequence -oul-. A week or so after Professor Vickery’s programme, a series called Edwardian Farm, in which two archaeologists and a historian recreate life on an Edwardian farm through a whole year, dealt with chicken rearing. I was surprised to hear one of the archaeologists, Alex Langlands, call them /ˈpuːltri/.

There is clearly a problem with the -oul- spelling. Several other cases come to mind: David Coulthard, the Formula 1 racing driver, and now BBC motor racing commentator, calls himself /ˈkəʊlθɑːd/ (only with a Scottish accent, so [oː] rather than [əʊ]). I know this because when he was first engaged as a driver, one of my colleagues in the BBC Pronunciation Unit spoke to him by telephone. At the time, journalists were wanting to say /ˈkuːltɑːd/, but he insisted it was ‘first syllable as in coal, and the -th- as in thin‘. Everyone in the Radio Newsroom laughed at this, and said he was lucky he was being mentioned at all! but eventually the pronunciation has settled as /ˈkuːlθɑːd/, and I suspect that it is now too late to change it, despite his clearly expressed wishes. Coulsdon, in London,  swung back and forth in the course of the 20th century between /ˈkuːlzdən/ and /ˈkəʊlzdən/. Glenn Gould is always /guːld/, and yet I knew a family of the same name who were always /gəʊld/.

As I pointed out above, most words with -oul- are pronounced /əʊ/ – boulder, shoulder, mould, smoulder, soul, and many fewer with /uː/ – ghoul is the only example which comes to mind immediately, others, such as boules and moules (as in moules marinière) being obvious borrowings from French.