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/.

April 22, 2010
by Graham

Latin and English – again

I’ve just been listening to “In Our Time” on BBC Radio 4 (the latest one available as a podcast, 22 April 2010), and was struck yet again how inconsistent English speakers are in their treatment of Latin names. The discussion was about Roman satirists, and was between Melvyn Bragg (of course) and three professors who may be expected to have a thorough understanding of Latin: Mary Beard (Professor of Classics at Cambridge University), Denis Feeney (Professor of Classics and Giger Professor of Latin at Princeton University) and Duncan Kennedy (Professor of Latin Literature and the Theory of Criticism at the University of Bristol).

Nevertheless, their pronunciation was inconsistent. All three pronounced Maecenas as /maɪˈsiːnæs/ (with occasional reduction of the final vowel to schwa), which is neither traditional English (/miːˈsiːnæs/) nor an adaptation of Classical Latin (/maɪˈkeɪnæs/). One of the two men astonishingly spoke of the battle of /faɪˈlɪpaɪ/, which bears no relation to either the Classical Latin pronunciation or the traditional anglicisation. On the other hand, all the participants in the programme spoke of Lucilius as /lʊˈsaɪljəs/, which includes the traditional English treatment of the (long) stressed vowel.

There is obviously total confusion in the minds of native English speakers over the way in which they should pronounce Latin names, even those that have been used in English for many years – and even among the Classics community. My view is that the reformed pronunciation introduced into schools in the mid-nineteenth century, and the influence of the Roman Catholic church in propagating the Italianate pronunciation, are the reasons for this.

I wonder if the same confusion exists in other European languages?

As a footnote, for anyone interested, the whole series of “In Our Time” is now available on the BBC website, going back to October 1998.

April 20, 2010
by Graham

Olivia O’Leary

I notice that BBC Radio 4 announcers regularly pronounce Ms O’Leary’s family name as /əʊˈlɛəri/. I suppose from her accent that this is what she calls herself, but I’m wondering if following suit when one does not have an Irish accent is mimicking her rather than representing her name in ‘neutral’ terms. For those unfamiliar with Radio 4’s output, Olivia O’Leary is the presenter of “Between Ourselves”, a discussion programme that deals with a single issue in each edition.

To start from a different example. True to my roots, I pronounce bath with the TRAP vowel (as John Wells says in Accents of English, it would seem a denial of my northernness to change this). A friend of mine comes from the City of Bath, and he insists that I am mispronouncing his city. On the other hand, he pronounces Newcastle with the same BATH vowel (not a good key word in this discussion!), regardless of the fact that most Novocastrians from either Newcastle upon Tyne or Newcastle under Lyme will use the TRAP vowel. In my view, he is right to say /…’kɑːsl/ and I am right to say /bæθ/ – both in the terms of our own accents.

To return to Ms O’Leary. In her accent, I assume she calls King Lear /lɛər/. Certainly, when the Short Brothers Lear Fan Jet plane was in the news, Northern Irish commentators called it the /lɛər fɑːn/, but this did not persuade others to pronounce it in the same way. In my view, Ms O’Leary should be pronounced /əʊˈlɪəri/ by the announcers from other parts of the UK. By trying too hard to get a close approximation to her own pronunciation, they might appear to be simply making fun of it (and by extension, her).

April 13, 2010
by Graham
1 Comment


The main railway station in Edinburgh is named after the first of Walter Scott’s novels, which he published anonymously. The pronunciation known to everyone and contradicted nowhere is /ˈweɪvərli/, but is this really what Scott intended?

There are certain characters whose dialogue is rendered in a – fairly inconsistent – attempt at Scots. Most of them are portrayed as saying Waverley without any indication of what vowel sound they are using in the stressed syllable. Two, however – Bailie Macwheeble and Janet Gellatley – regularly pronounce the name “Wauverley”.

Is this an attempt to imitate a broad Scots version of a different pronunciation from the one we all know? Did Scott think of his hero as being pronounced /ˈwævərli/, or /ˈwɑːvərli/ (which in many Scots accents are neutralized)? Or alternatively /ˈwɒvərli/, which could then be rendered as ‘Wauverley’, /ɒ/ and /ɔː/ being also neutralized for many Scots.

Just a thought.