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/.

October 24, 2010
by Graham


Sportsmen – and I suppose sportswomen as well – are often given nicknames by their team mates. For instance, Andrew Flintoff became “Freddy” because of the similarity of his surname to “Flintstone”. The most unimaginative of these is simply to add ‘-y’ at the end of the name, as in Jimmy Greaves becoming “Greavesy’ (“Saint and Greavesy”, “Saint” being Ian St. John, were a double act of TV football pundits).

It’s interesting, therefore, that when you get a footballer whose name actually ends in ‘-y’ (and is pronounced /-i/), the nickname involves removing that syllable. Rooney becomes “Roo”.

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.