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.

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/.