October 18, 2010
by Graham


In last week’s In Our Time, (Radio 4, Thursday 14 October) one of Melvyn Bragg’s guests was Tim Blanning, Emeritus Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge University The discussion was about the Sturm und Drang movement in 18th Century Germany.

In the course of the programme, Professor Blanning used the word protagonists, but he pronounced it /prəˈtædʒənɪsts/. I wonder if he also says /ænˈtædʒənaɪz/ and /ænˈtædʒənɪst/. This is a pronunciation not given by any of the current pronunciation dictionaries, but I wonder if, being an eminent scholar, he is setting a trend for the future?

October 4, 2010
by Graham

A Quotation from Eric Partridge

I’ve been reading “The World of Words” by Eric Partridge (published by Routledge, 1938). In Chapter 2, entitled “The English Language” – chapter 3 is “The American Language” – he draws largely on Otto Jespersen’s Growth and Structure of the English Language, quoting often, and sometimes not acknowledging the source directly. On page 68, we find the following paragraph:

The Puritans influenced the language by causing a diminution both of swearing as a habit and of the number of oaths: whence Law (or Lawks) for Lord, drat it, and goodness gracious. ‘The English swear less than other European nations and … when they do swear the expressions are more innocent than elsewhere.’ Thus it is to the Puritans, or rather to their lingering influence, that we owe a certain number of English euphemisms – mild words for strong words. Why, it is even customary to speak of oaths as expletives or profane language! ‘Where a French or German or Scandinavian lady will express surprise or a little fright by exclaiming (My) God!, an Englishwoman will say Dear me! or Oh my! or Good gracious!‘ Euphemism reached its height of prudery and ludicrousness in the period 1840-70, when, in England, trousers were called by many comic names of the unmentionables kind and, in America, the ladies spoke of the limbs of a piano. ‘Prudery is an exaggeration, but purity is a virtue, and there can be no doubt that the speech of the average Englishman is less tainted with indecencies … than that of the average Continental.’

Can this be true? I know that when I was a student working in a factory, the men would not swear in front of the women, although the women were as hard-swearing as the men amongst themselves. What sort of people did Jespersen (and Partridge, for that matter) mix with? Perhaps language was milder in in the 1930s, or perhaps Jespersen, as a foreigner, was spoken to rather deferentially by the ‘natives’. Whatever, I cannot believe that the position is still the same today. If it is, then the profanity of ‘Continentals’ must be something quite amazing.

September 28, 2010
by Graham
1 Comment

Athenaeum – pronunciation and plural

Dr Jonathan Foyle, presenting a BBC 4 TV programme on the public buildings of the north of England, repeatedly pronounced the Athenaeum in Liverpool as /æθəˈneɪəm/, although his interviewees, members of the club, used the more anglicized /æθəˈniːəm/. I attributed this to a knowledge of Latin, but wondered whether he also pronounced aesthetic with /eɪ/, or treated stressed and unstressed occurrences of ae differently. Would he also pronounce Julius Caesar as /ˈseɪzə/? However, he then had to talk about other buildings with the same name being erected in other northern cities, and used a plural /æθəˈneɪaɪ/. Has my knowledge of Latin been totally lost, or should the Latin plural of Athenaeum not be Athenaea? And what is wrong with Athenaeums?  If I am right, then Dr Foyle’s pronunciation of the singular is not based on a true knowledge of Latin, but on a pseudo-knowledge which also demonstrates a shaky understanding of the usual development in English of the Latin ae.

September 18, 2010
by Graham

Prostrate and known

Catching up on some TV programmes recorded while I’ve been away, I’ve inevitably found some usages to comment on.

First a common confusion of two words, but this time in the less usual way: prostate and prostrate. It’s quite common to hear about men of a certain age having trouble with their ‘prostrate’ (does this mean they like lying down a lot?) For instance, my successor as manager of the Pronunciation Unit thought this was the word for the male gland. However, in a programme about Anglo-Saxon art, Dr Janina Ramirez of Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education described a piece in which Romulus and Remus were lying ‘prostate’ beneath the she-wolf. Is this hyper-correction, or a slip of the tongue, or simply confusion of the two terms?

Second an unusual pronunciation. Professor Robert Bartlett, of St Andrews University, regularly pronounces the word known in two syllables as /ˈnəʊən/. Presumably he pronounces unknown and grown in the same way. Is this a regular feature of particular accents, or an idiosyncrasy on his part? And how about flown (not the same, as the infinitive is flyflow gives flowed (perhaps he says /ˈfləʊəd/ for this.

July 28, 2010
by Graham
1 Comment


Over the last couple of weeks, the name of the tragic child James Bulger has come back into the news after nearly twenty years, because one of his killers, Jon Venables, has been found guilty of child pornography crimes.

As a result, we have been hearing two pronunciations of the name Bulger – /ˈbʌldʒə/ and /ˈbʊldʒə/. The obvious question is – which of these is ‘correct’? The answer has to be, both or neither.

James Bulger lived his short life in the North West of England, where the STRUT-FOOT split never happened. As I’ve mentioned before, here, most speakers of the split accents believe that for non-splitters, it is the FOOT vowel that is consistently used (for instance, they characterise ‘mushy peas’ as being pronounced /ˈmʊʃi/, while the split pronunciation is /ˈmʌʃi/). You would therefore expect splitters to pronounce Bulger as /ˈbʊldʒə/. But the word bulge has /bʌldʒ/, from which splitters might extrapolate /ˈbʌldʒə/ for the name.

So, splitters may use either version and be arguably correct, but the local pronunciation of the name in Merseyside would be more like /ˈbɔldʒə/, the /ɔ/ representing a short THOUGHT vowel.

July 26, 2010
by Graham
1 Comment

Pronunciation mayhem?

Now that my far-from-expert piano playing is no longer needed for a few weeks, I’ve been catching up on reading the various phonetic blogs I usually follow, and have found my name mentioned a couple of times. In particular by Jack Windsor Lewis in relation to the pronunciation of names by BBC newsreaders. He in turn was responding to a blog by John Maidment, in which he complained of rising blood pressure caused by the mangling of Chinese names in a TV documentary.

My view is that John was being rather hard on the documentary makers: Kuomintang and Mao Tse-tung were the established anglicisations, with corresponding pronunciations, for many years before the People’s Republic started to insist on Pinyin romanisations, and I see no reason why we should kowtow to any foreigners who are trying to change what is, after all, our language. I think that Jack in his reply was trying to ride two horses at the same time: he agreed with me about Kuomintang, for instance, but is equally happy for Mishal Husain to use Urdu sounds which are totally un-English, when she is pronouncing Afghanistan. In any case, either my ears deceive me, or she has now adopted a far more English pronunciation of this name. Alvar Lidell, the BBC radio newsreader from the late 1930s to the 1960s, was Swedish, but I doubt whether he ever pronounced Scandinavian names in a Swedish way (/ˈʊʃluː/ anyone?), and similarly Peter Berg, Radio 3 announcer in the 1980s, was also Swedish, but no trace of his origins ever emerged on air.

Jack also takes the BBC to task for pandering to aristocratic wishes in the matter of their names, for instance, Althorp (when Spencer changed his mind, I immediately amended the BBC recommendation, so Jack cannot accuse me of inconsistency here). I wonder how Jack feels about people who omit the “Windsor” from his name, and call him “Jack (or maybe even worse, ‘John’) Lewis”? Whatever our political opinions, and I think that some form of inverted snobbery is at work here – to counteract Reith’s extreme inferiority complex, perhaps – it is surely only courteous to pronounce a person’s name, or a place name, in the manner in which the owners of that name (and the inhabitants of a place are the ‘guardians’ if not the owners of its name) are accustomed to pronounce it themselves. There has to be a rider, of course: “within the same language”. After all, The River Thames has two illogicalities in its spelling, but no one would suggest calling it /θeɪmz/ (and yes, I do know that the river where the Yale-Harvard boat races are held can be pronounced thus, at least according to Lippincott).

July 14, 2010
by Graham

Unclear English

Apologies for my long silence – my musical life has taken over recently (three concerts down, and another on Saturday). As I’m not a natural performer, I’ve had to do lots of practice, something I’m not used to!

The Queen’s English Society is wrong on so many points, but I have sympathy with some of their views when I read the following (taken from a book review about the British intelligence services):

“Despite spending £1 billion a year, Urban is able to come up with numerous examples of things the intelligence services got wrong, some in key areas such as missile and chemical warfare stockpiles.”

We know what the writer means to say, but he has actually implied that it is Urban (the book’s author), who has spent the billion pounds, and not the intelligence services. If a way could be found of instilling into students the absolute need to read over what they have written, and not just write things down as they come into their heads, then the clarity of their prose would be improved immeasurably.

I don’t believe that even the most rabid descriptivist amongst linguists would accept the sentence I’ve quoted in their own work.

June 9, 2010
by Graham

The Queen’s English Society

I’ve been having run-ins with the Queen’s English Society since the early 1980s. Now they have raised their head again with the setting up of an English Academy, which the Society will run, and which is intended to be on a par with the French, Spanish and Italian Academies.

I’m all in favour of children being taught to write clear English, and even for them to be taught English grammar, but the question arises: what are the rules of English grammar which they should be taught?

The Queen’s English Society believes it knows the answer, but all the evidence I have is that its members each simply have their own prejudices. A former President, Godfrey Talbot – well-respected BBC journalist, by then long retired – gave a long speech at one of the Annual General Meetings of the Society in which he inveighed furiously against the intrusive ‘r’, all the while blissfully ignorant of the fact that he was constantly using it as he spoke. Others complain that the use of a double negative is “illogical”: “We ain’t got no tomatoes” is not usually misunderstood to mean “We have tomatoes”, and anyone whose response was “Good, I’ll take two pounds, please” would be likely to get an unwelcome answer! Spanish, meanwhile, regularly doubles the negative as reinforcement: “No hay nada” means “There’s nothing”. Does this make Spanish ‘illogical’? Language is not logical in a mathematical sense and cannot be made so.

The Queen’s English Society web site states “English is becoming corrupted in the age of mass communications, the text message, e-mail and the like”. Yet the society claims to accept that languages change through time: “English will evolve over time, but the QES exists to watch for and to resist changes that are detrimental to its impact and clarity”. I should be interested to know which changes its members see and hear happening today that they would consider not to be ‘detrimental’. The Appendix Probi, probably written in the 3rd century, gives a list of frequently mis-spelled Latin words (mis-spelled because ‘mispronounced’). The speakers of the day ignored these strictures and continued with their corrupt practices, until they created those well-known abominations of so-called language now known as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian …

King Canute knew that he could not turn the tide, and proved this to his courtiers at Bosham. Who will prove the futility of the Queen’s English Society’s efforts to its members?

May 27, 2010
by Graham

A taliswoman, and how to remediate

My local BBC News programme yesterday included what were, for me at least, two linguistic oddities.

First a wheelchair basketball player was described as being a taliswoman for the British team. This word has not yet reached the OED, and doesn’t appear in the British National Corpus. Google brings up between 4000 and 5000 hits, many of them for the same item: a play called ‘Taliswoman’ by Diane Speakman. This is obviously dreamed up as the counterpart to talisman, but was its use yesterday the result of a misunderstanding of the etymology of the word, or a deliberate semi-facetious analogical creation to avoid accusations of sexism? In fact the etymology is, according to the OED, a little obscure, the final -an in particular causing problems. Whatever, the word is certainly not historically derived from ‘talis’ and ‘man’. The Greek {tau}{geacu}{lambda}{epsilon}{sigma}{mu}{alpha} is cited as a possible ultimate source.

Second, in a piece about land reclamation, the reporter used the phrase … to remediate the land. Once again, the OED fails to report this use of the word. Its definitions are “To provide a remedy for, redress, counteract; to take remedial action against”. The noun remediation is defined, with examples only from as recently as 1986, as “The process of restoring a site or a natural product by rendering harmless or removing pollutants and contaminants”, so here we have a new back-formation from the noun to the verb.

April 29, 2010
by Graham

Paradisical vestiges

In Our Time, on BBC Radio 4, continues to throw up unusual pronunciations. This morning (30 April 2010) we have had two more, both from the same speaker, who I think was Julia Lovell, Professor of Chinese History and Literature in the University of Cambridge.

First, she pronounced vestige to rhyme with prestige, a pronunciation I can find in none of the standard dictionaries. I wonder if this was merely a slip of the tongue.

Later she used the uncommon word paradisical, and rhymed it with bicycle. This adjectival form of paradise is found in the OED, with several quotations ranging from 1649 to 1992. The only one of the pronunciation dictionaries to give it is the Oxford, and the pronunciation given there, and in the OED itself, is /pærəˈdɪsɪkəl/. Only two of the OED’s references are to 20th century sources, the earlier one being from 1967, so it is not a word that Professor Lovell is likely to have heard spoken very often. The more usual adjective formed from paradise is paradisal (although there are several other forms in the OED), and the pronunciation given for this is /pærəˈdaɪsəl/.