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.

April 7, 2010
by Graham

Spanish rhythm

Attending BAAP last week, I was very pleased to find there was a whole session devoted to rhythm, which I have written about before (here). One of the general conclusions was that the perception of rhythm in a language depends on the native language of the perceiver. English has a relatively complex syllable structure, while French and Spanish have far fewer consonant clusters, so that their vowel onsets are closer together. The syllable durations of French and Spanish, measured in milliseconds, are therefore shorter and more similar that those of English syllables.

Poetry, as the most rhythmical form of lanuage, may be able to help. English verse lines are measured in stresses, and one of the papers at BAAP measured the rhythm of the most regular form: the limerick. This is either a verse of five lines, with three stresses in each of the first two, and the last, and two stressed in the third and fourth lines; or it is a verse of four lines, each of four stresses, the final one of the first, second and final lines being silent, and an internal rhyme in the third line. The rhythm of a limerick can easily be tapped out as it is being read, and the silent stress is obvious.

French verse is measured in syllables: an Alexandrine has 12 syllables, with a caesura after the sixth (in a classical poem). Any line that does not have 12 syllables is not an Alexandrine. Each line can therefore be tapped out with twelve beats.

Spanish verse seems to be a hybrid: a Spanish Alexandrine has 14 syllables. There is no necessary caesura, but a condition of its being a true Alexandrine is that the thirteenth syllable be stressed. Here are eight lines from a poem by Antonio Machado to illustrate this:

Adoro la hermosura, y en la moderna estética
corté las viejas rosas del huerto de Ronsard;
mas no amo los afeites de la actual cosmética,
ni soy un ave de esas del nuevo gay-trinar.

Desdeño las romanzas de los tenores huecos
y el coro de los grillos que cantan a la luna.
A distinguir me paro las voces de los ecos,
y escucho solamente, entre las voces, una.

In each case (allowing for synalepha), the thirteenth syllable is stressed. The only places where there is no synalepha are in the third line between ‘no’ and ‘amo’, and in the last line, between ‘solamente’ and ‘entre’. This makes a total of between 13 and 15 syllables for the individual lines.

If Spanish is syllable-timed, how do we achieve equal lengths for these lines?

March 22, 2010
by Graham

Homing in

At about 8.20 this morning, on the Today programme, Nick Robinson (the BBC’s Political Editor) said that the opposition parties would want to ‘hone in’ on the revelations that Stephen Byers (former Minister for Transport) had been caught claiming to be able to influence government policy. Here he is.

The OED gives examples of hone in, where the sense is clearly ‘home in’, going back to 1965, but while the explanation for the slippage given there (confusion with hone in the sense of practise or refine a technique) is possible, it still seems to me to be a very strange development, and certainly one I would recommend that any foreign learner of the language should avoid as to many people it would still be thought of as a mistake.

March 15, 2010
by Graham


Listening to “Start the Week” on BBC Radio 4 this morning (15 March) I was astonished to hear one of the participants use this word and  pronounce it /kɒgˈnaɪtɪv/.  This is not given by any of the current dictionaries of pronunciation, nor by the OED, and I’ve been wondering what model he was taking in order to arrive at it.

There’s decisive, with its noun decision, as cognitive has cognition, but decisive has the verb decide, for which cognitive has no equivalent (cognize?).

Attrition does give attritive /əˈtraɪtɪv/ but OED notes this as a rare word. Excitive /ɪkˈsaɪtɪv/ – latest quotation 1862. Incitive /ɪnˈsaɪtɪv/ – 1888.

And out of 200 words ending -itive, these are the only ones with pronunciation /-aɪtɪv/.

March 1, 2010
by Graham

Bleck Het

John Humphrys has been sounding off about the English language – again. Why is it that reporters – journalists – believe that because language is their stock in trade, therefore they know all about it? This particular article, published in the Mail on Sunday (28 February) is headed ‘Thet men in the bleck het (… or how we finally learned to stop hiding behind ludicrous accents)’.

David Crystal tells us in his autobiography that he challenged John Humphrys to justify his (JH’s) claims about what David Crystal believed. JH had to admit that he couldn’t, not having read all DC’s output. They are apparently now the best of friends. So why does Humphrys lay himself open to criticism from linguists yet again? In this article we find “The rules of RP as observed by the BBC stated that ‘class’ had to rhyme with ‘arse’ (not that such a rude word would have been permitted) and ‘that’ with ‘wet’ and ‘house’ with ‘rice’ and ‘off’ with ‘law’. And so on. In short, it meant thinking posh.”

Where does he get these ‘rules’ from? No BBC document that I have ever seen stipulated that any particular accent was enforced on broadcasters, and if they had been, neither my two predecessors as head of the Pronunciation Unit nor myself would have been employed in that position – they were both Scots, with Scottish accents, and my accent is irredeemably North Midland.

Even BBC radio announcers have long been taken from a wide range of backgrounds, with recognisably non-RP accents. Humphrys brings out the inevitable Wilfred Pickles, who was a Yorkshire-born actor, but in the 1960s, when John Snagge and Alvar Lidell, together with Frank Phillips were still reading the news, so were Roy Williams (New Zealander) and Dwight Wylie (Jamaican). They may have been in a small minority, but I don’t think they would have accepted that they were ‘token’ colonials – if they had not been up to the BBC’s exacting standards, they would not have been employed.

In any case, Humphrys is alleging that people have stopped speaking with ‘ludicrous accents’, and implies that this is a conscious decision by the individuals concerned. He does not allow that RP, like all accents, has evolved during the last hundred years, and that the evolution is not only from one generation to the next, but may also be by imperceptible degrees in the speech of a single person, even though that person is not aware of the changes. He mentions the study of the Queen’s accent which Jonathan Harrington carried out some years ago, which “concluded that her vowel sounds had undergone a subtle evolution” (Humphrys’ words). This was not to be unexpected, but Humphrys says “the posh have given some ground” as if the Queen was deliberately changing her accent, rather than reacting, as we all do, to the speech of those around us

It takes a remarkable individual who can resist all linguistic influence through a long life.