January 11, 2011
by Graham

Short news item

Narathiwat, the most south easterly of Thailand’s provinces, is most often in the news because of a long-standing insurgency, but a regular correspondent tells me that a BBC World News report claims three rivers have overflown their banks in the province.

This conjures up the most wonderful mental images.

The standard past tense and participle of flow and its compounds is of course flowed, while flown is the past participle of the verb fly (with past tense flew).

January 6, 2011
by Graham


The current stand off between the two factions in Ivory Coast has brought the former capital Abidjan into the news again. The French-derived spelling tells us that the nearest English pronunciation of this name should be /æbiˈʤɑːn/, and yet I don’t think I’ve heard a single broadcaster say this. Invariably, it seems to me, the affricate is replaced by a fricative, completely ignoring the orthographic <d>.

This is another example of English-speakers shunning the affricate in a ‘foreign’ word, with less excuse than in the case of Beijing, because here we have clear orthographic evidence that the pronunciation should include a stop before the fricative, or, in English, an affricate. Are we afraid of seeming ignorant if we succumb to using an “English” sound in a “foreign” word?

December 28, 2010
by Graham

Producers and Presenters

In response to a comment made by Michael Lamb to my last post, I blame the producers. There was a time, and I hope that in radio that time is also now, when scripts were sent or taken by hand to the Pronunciation Unit for one of its members to go through and add helpful hints to words we thought might be problematical. Often our advice was taken, but sometimes you found that actors, for instance, would think that their version “sounded better”.

I remember that when Ibsen’s play “The Emperor and the Galilean” was recorded for BBC Radio 4, the actors insisted that /gæliˈleɪən/ sounded ‘better’ than /gæliˈliːən/, completely ignoring the fact that  /gæliˈleɪən/ is the usual pronunciation of the adjective formed from Galileo, and so moving the action and subject of the play from 1st century Judea to 17th century Italy. Likewise, one of my colleagues spent many hours compiling a comprehensive list of character and place names for Radio 4’s dramatisaion of War and Peace, only for the actors to ignore it completely, leading to a reviewer being highly critical of the production for the inconsistency and inaccuracy of the pronunciations throughout. This was in the days when we were forced, under John Birt’s idiotic ‘Producer Choice’ to charge enquirers £10 per “word, name or short phrase”. The producer then complained to me that she could have hired a Russian graduate much more cheaply and more satisfactorily, thereby insulting my colleague, who was herself a Russian graduate. Had the producer in both these cases exerted their authority, and insisted the performers follow the advice so expensively provided, much better productions would have resulted. Producers are too timid – they hire so-called experts, and as Michael says, believe that they are experts in all aspects of the subject, including pronunciation. Clearly Richard Miles is not.

December 17, 2010
by Graham
1 Comment

Ancient Worlds

John Maidment has drawn attention to Richard Miles’ yodophobia. I mentioned his pronunciation of confines in my last post, but now, having watched all the series, I can give a list of some, frankly, astonishing pronunciations he has used in the course of the six-week series.

Tigris                       ˈtɪgrɪs

Chaldees                 ˈtʃældiːz

Levant                    ˈlevænt

Sennacherib         senətʃəˈrɪb   and   senætʃəˈrɪb

Boeotia                   bəʊˈiːʃə

Areopagus             ærɪəˈpɑːgəs

Seleucus                səˈluːsəs

monotheistic       mɒnəθəʊˈɪstɪk (twice, so it wasn’t a slip of the tongue)

coup de grace      ˈkuː də ˈgrɑː (no, I haven’t forgotten the final /s/)

As well as these, there was total inconsistency in the treatment of Greek names – Mycenae was anglicised to /maɪˈsiːni/, but Pylos, /ˈpiːlɒs/, was not, while Delos was: /ˈdiːlɒs/, leading me to wonder where he was talking about from time to time, as I could not immediately relate his pronunciation to either the Greek or anglicised version of the name. Thersites /θəˈsiːteɪz/ was given a more-Greek-like pronunciation, rather than /θəˈsaɪtiːz/, the normal anglicisation.

Darius was /ˈdærɪəs/ rather than /dəˈraɪəs/ and mementoes became /məʊˈmentəʊz/ – common pronunciations, but should we really expect to hear them from an eminent TV presenter?

I don’t think Richard Miles should shoulder all the blame – his producers, of whom there are at least four named in various capacities in the closing titles (Maria Powell, Melanie Archer, Tim Kirby, Eamonn Hardy) should have made certain that there was someone on hand to check for consistency – or is it assumed that an expert in one aspect of a subject is therefore expert in all its aspects, including language?

December 10, 2010
by Graham


We’re all used to the phenomenon of nouns becoming differentiated from their homographic verbs by stress movement: dis’pute becoming ‘dispute for instance, and that this is happening despite the best efforts of the Queen’s English Society and its supporters. Now I’ve twice, from different speakers, in separate television programmes, heard the opposite happening.

Jeremy Burckardt, Lecturer in Rural History at the University of Reading, and Richard Miles, who teaches ancient history at the University of Sydney, but from whose accent appears to me to be British, both used the noun confines with clear second syllable stress.

How long before we have to admit this to our pronunciation dictionaries?

December 1, 2010
by Graham

Own Goal

I’ve just bought a second-hand dictionary and thesaurus, which has a  contents list as follows:

“Abbreviations Used in this Book




Commonly Misspelt Words

Weights and Measures”

Strangely enough, “thesaurus” is not included in the list of Commonly Misspelt Words.

November 24, 2010
by Graham

Greek Names

Simon Armitage is a poet who is now presenting TV documentaries, particularly on what might be called ‘poetic’ subjects. I have recently watched one on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and now one tracing the journey of Ulysses through Homer’s Odyssey. I was surprised that he seemed to know so little about Greek pronunciation, or at least the traditional treatment of Greek names in English, especially as he has produced a verse translation of some of the Odyssey.

Names I spotted were Acheron /əˈkɛərɒn/, Charybdis /ʃəˈrɪbdɪs/, Ogygia /ɒʤɪˈʤɪə/ and a place I don’t recognise: /ˈʃerɪə/. Can anyone identify this one? If /k/ in Acheron, why not in Charybdis? I know that while chiropractor is always(?) /k-/, chiropody is often /ʃ-/, but still …

November 14, 2010
by Graham

audacious, visceral, burgeoning

Still watching TV programmes that I’ve previously recorded, I’ve just caught up with two episodes of the BBC series on the Pre-Raphaelites. One of the experts used in the programmes was Alison Smith, Curator at Tate Britain. She had two unusual pronunciations, one remarkable for not being consistent. She used the word audacious four times in the first of the series. On the first three occasions, her pronunciation was as one would expect: /ɔːˈdeɪʃəs/, but then the fourth time it came out as /aʊˈdeɪʃəs/. Can this have been a simple slip of the tongue? Her other unusual pronunciation was visceral, /ˈvɪskərəl/. This I put down to her having learned it as a written word, one she is not used to hearing pronounced.

The narrator of the series, the well-known actor Nigel Planer, had in his script the word burgeoning, and he chose to make the second consonant a fricative: /ˈbɜːʒənɪŋ/, rather than an affricate: /ˈbɜːʤənɪŋ/. I begin to wonder if the affricate /ʤ/ is losing ground in English except in initial position – so that only those few places where /ʤ/ and /ʒ/ make minimal pairs (such as leisure, ledger in British English) will manage to hold on to the /ʤ/.

November 7, 2010
by Graham

Brahms and Priestley

Music is often used to depict works of art in other disciplines – Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, for instance, is a musical interpretation of a poem by Mallarmé; there are likewise many overtures or symphonic poems based on the plays of Shakespeare (Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet by Tchaikovsky, for example) and other writers. What is less common is a description of a musical work in words, other than in a technical analysis for specialists. Here is an extract from ‘Angel Pavement’, by J.B.Priestley:

“It was some time before he made much out of it. The Brahms of this symphony seemed a very gloomy, ponderous, rumbling sort of chap, who might now and then show a flash of temper or go in a corner and feel sorry for himself, but for the most part simply went on gloomily rumbling and grumbling. There were moments, however, when there came a sudden gush of melody, something infinitely tender swelling out of the strings or a ripple of laughter from the flutes and clarinets or a fine flare up by the whole orchestra, and for these moments Mr Smeeth waited, puzzled but excited, like a man catching a glimpse of some delectable strange valley through the swirling mists of a mountain side. As the symphony went on, he began to get the hang of it more and more, and these moments returned more frequently, until at last, in the final section, the great moment arrived and justified everything, the whole symphony concert.

“It began, this last part, with some muffled and doleful sounds from the brass instruments. He had heard some of those grim snatches of tune earlier on in the symphony, and now when they were repeated in this fashion they had a very queer effect on him, almost frightened him. It was as if all the workhouses and hospitals and cemeteries of North London had been flashed past his eyes. Those brass instruments didn’t think Smeeth had much of a chance. All the violins were sorry about it; they protested, they shook, they wept; but the horns and trumpets and trombones came back and blew them away. Then the whole orchestra became tumultuous, and one voice after another raised itself above the menacing din, cried in anger, cried in sorrow, and was lost again. There were queer little intervals, during one of which only the strings played, and they twanged and plucked instead of using their bows, and the twanging and plucking, quite soft and slow at first, got louder and faster until it seemed as if there was danger everywhere. Then, just when it seemed as if something was going to burst, the twanging and plucking was over, and the great mournful sounds came reeling out again, like doomed giants. After that the whole thing seemed to be slithering into hopelessness, as if Brahms had got stuck in a bog and the light was going. But then the great moment arrived. Brahms jumped clean out of his bog, set his foot on the hard road, and swept the orchestra and the fierce man and the three foreigners and Mr Smeeth and the whole Queen’s Hall along with him, in a noble stride. This was a great tune. Ta tum ta ta tum tum, ta tum ta-ta tum ta tum. He could have shouted at the splendour of it. The strings in a rich deep unison sweeping on, and you were ten feet high and had a thousand years to live. But in a minute or two it had gone, this glory of sound, and there was muddle and gloom, a sudden sweetness of violins, then harsh voices from the brass. Mr Smeeth had given it up, when back it came again, swelling his heart until it nearly choked him, and then it was lost once more and everything began to be put in its place and settled, abruptly, fiercely, as if old Brahms had made up his mind to stand no nonsense from anybody or anything under the sun. There, there, there there, There. It was done.”

It helps, of course, if you already know Brahms’ First Symphony when you read this, but I find it a very clear description of the progress of the piece from beginning to end.

October 30, 2010
by Graham

prenuptial mortgagors

I’ve written before about the pronunciation of nuptial and haven’t got much to add, except that a couple of weeks ago, the word was much in the news when the British courts were asked to decide on the legality of a pre-nuptial agreement.

Not a single person I heard use the word, on radio or TV, whether journalist, presenter or interviewee, used any pronunciation other than /ˈnʌptʃəl/. This is given as the second pronunciation in all the current pronunciation dictionaries. Is it time to promote it to first place?

Further to my post on antagonist pronounced /ænˈtædʒənɪst/, which Jack Windsor Lewis so ably expanded here, there is one word where the letter sequence -go- is invariably pronounced with /dʒ/ rather than /g/: mortgagor. The alternative spelling mortgager has been used sporadically since the 17th century, and there is also mor(t)gageour from earlier centuries, but it is odd that -or, rather than -er, has prevailed as the standard spelling when this results in so clear a contradiction to the normal representation of /dʒ/.