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.”

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.