February 3, 2010
by Graham


I thought Uttoxeter deserved a post of its own, because it also raises a transcription and dialect question.

Both /ÊŠt/ and /ÊŒt/ have been quoted, by Michael Lamb and John Maidment, as possible pronunciations of the initial sounds, and I agree. But in northern dialects the /ÊŠ/ ~ /ÊŒ/ split never happened, so the vowel used by locals unaffected by “education” (as John and I have been!) is still the equivalent of /ÊŠ/. On the phonological level, this is fine.

However, to transcribe it as /ÊŠ/ for all northern accents/dialects, as is most often done, leads to parodists of these accents/dialects using the southern English /ÊŠ/ indiscriminately in both STRUT and FOOT. If I try to recall my own “pre-educated” pronunciation, the nearest southern English vowel is actually a short /ɔː/, and this is certainly what I hear from my unreconstructed friends and relatives who have not had my “advantages”. This means that there are minimal pairs between but and bought, pun and pawn, full and fall, where the distinction is one of vowel length only. (Incidentally, when I’m tired, I may get /ÊŠ/ and /ÊŒ/ the “wrong” way round, and am quite likely to say /pÊŒt ÊŠp/ instead of /pÊŠt ÊŒp/. Birth will out!)

This is the situation for North Staffordshire as I hear it. I can’t find much in the literature about the phonetics of the speech of the Potteries. Certainly TV and radio adaptations of Arnold Bennett never have actors with convincing accents. There are several examples of this undifferentiated vowel from Garth Crooks (former footballer, now broadcaster) here.

February 1, 2010
by Graham

Abergavenny, etc

John Wells was mentioning (here) the unpredictability of the pronunciation of British place and family names from their spellings, and some are recorded in the Dictionary of Blunders. The fact that they are mentioned at all must mean that in the author’s opinion they were being mispronounced, and this may be giving us an indication that in some cases the pronunciation was actually changing at the time he was writing (the 1870s or early 1880s).

ABERGAVENNY (family name) is pronounced Abergen’-ny. (This is also still, apparently, the pronunciation of the Marquis of Abergavenny, although it is not his family name.)

BELFAST is pronounced Bĕl-făst’, not Bĕl’-fast. (The author does not specify the exact pronunciation of ‘a’ the second time. Nowadays either stress pattern seems to be acceptable, and either /æ/ or /ɑː/ for the ‘a’.)

BERKELEY STREET is pronounced Bark-ley Street, and not as spelled.

BERKSHIRE is pronounced Bark-shire, and not as spelled. (There are some British dialects in which ‘er’ is still pronounced /ɜː/.)

CARSHALTON is pronounced Casehorton. (The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names acknowledges that this had existed, but by 1971 was no longer heard. The pre-war BBC publication Broadcast English II, which covered English place names, did not include it at all.)

CHOLMONDELEY (family name) is pronounced Chum’ley.

CINQUE (the Cinque Ports) is pronounced like sank. (Not today it isn’t. The BBC recommendation is ‘sink’.)

CIRENCESTER is pronounced Cissester. (Strangely, the BBC’s original recommendation, in 1930, was /ˈsɪsɪtə(r)/. Nowadays, the spelling pronunciation has prevailed: /ˈsaɪrənsestə(r)/, and I believe it is often shortened to /ˈsaɪrən/.)

COCKBURN (family name) should be pronounced Coburn, and not as spelled. (This applies to the port, and some years ago, an advert appeared in the London Underground:

Said King Charles to his court

“I enjoy a good port.”

Said a courtier game

“If I tell you the name

of the best will you make me a knight?”

The king nodded his head

and the courtier said

“Cockburn’s Port is the port for a king.

But remember to say it without the C K.”

So the court cried “Long live Harles the Ing!”)

COLQUHOUN (the name of a person) is pronounced Cǒ-hoo’n. (It still is.)

COWPER. The poet called himself Cooper, and not Cow-per.

CRICHTON is pronounced krī’ton, not krĭk’ton.

HELENA is pronounced Hĕl’-ĕ-na, not Hē-lē’na.

JACQUES is zhāk in French and jakes in English. (This is ambiguous, because the writer uses ā sometimes for /ɑː/ and sometimes for /eɪ/.)

MACLEOD is pronounced mak-loud, not măk-le’-ŏd.

MAINWARING (a family name) is pronounced Mannering.

MARJORIBANKS (a family name) is pronounced Marchbanks.

NAOMI is pronouncec Na’-o-mi, not Na-ō’-mi.

NASMYTH is pronounced Na’smith, not Naz’-mith.

PHŒBE (a female Christian name) is pronounced Fē’-bē.

ST. JOHN (a family name) is pronounced Sin’-jun.

ST. MAUR (Earl) is pronounced Sĕ-maur.

January 30, 2010
by Graham

hospital ~ orbital ~ digital

Jack Windsor Lewis has mentioned (here) the frequently different pronunciation in BE of the /t/ in hospital and orbital. I wonder if part of the reason for the /t/ of hospital becoming voiced in British English, while that in orbital does not (I know the grammar of that is a bit odd, but I’m sure you know what I mean), is a rhythmic difference. There is also a grammatical difference, of course, but a third rhythmic pattern occurs in digital, and digital and orbital have the same grammatical structure:

Hospital, Orbital, Digital

Hospital, Orbital, Digital

January 22, 2010
by Graham

More on 1880s pronunciation

Most of the pronunciations given in the Dictionary of Blunders are what one would expect for 1880, and show that the arguments about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ are very much the same as today:

ab-do’-men, not ab’-dŏm-ěn (OED1 agrees with this, but OED2 gives initial stress before second syllable stress, although many medical people use ab-do’-men, which corresponds to the Latin quantities)

a-kū’-men, not ak’-ŭ-men (OED2 gives second syllable stress before initial stress, which corresponds to the Latin quantities)

al-bu’-men not al’-bum-en (OED2 does not recognise initial stress, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone British say /ælˈbjuːmən/)

bĭtu’men not bĭt’-u-men (OED2 gives second syllable stress before initial stress, which corresponds to the Latin quantities, but current British pronunciation dictionaries all indicate second syllable stress as American)

CHIVALRIC is pronounced shiv’-ǎl-rik not chiv-ǎl’-rik (OED1 and OED2 have second syllable stress first, and also allow initial /tʃ/)

CONTRIBUTE is pronounced kon-trĭb’-ute, not kon’-trĭb-ute. (Interesting that the initial stress was being heard even then)

DECADE is pronounced dĕk’-āde, not dēk’-ade (OED1 gives only /ˈdekəd/ – as the BBC Advisory Committee was also recommending nearly 50 years later)

LAMENTABLE. The accent in this word is on the first syllable, lăm’-ĕnt-able. (Clearly, he was hearing second syllable stress )

LIBRARY. This word is often mispronounced li’-bar-ay, instead of li’-bra-ry. (No change today)

MISCHIEVOUS is pronounced mĭs’-chĕ-vŭs, not mis-chē’-vŭs, nor mis-che’-vě-us. (No change today)

Two which I can find no other ‘authority’ for are:

CAESURA is pronounced sez’-ū-rǎ (not even OED1 allows /e/ in the first syllable, nor stress on that syllable)

GLAMOUR is pronounced glā’-moor not glă’-mur. (I wonder where he got this from?)

January 16, 2010
by Graham

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Is it because of the enormity of the tragedy playing out in the western part of the island of Hispaniola that the pronunciations being used by the BBC have been standardised so quickly? Has the management sent down an edict that the established anglicisations be used for both the name of the state and that of its capital, so that no time need be wasted arguing with viewers and listeners, or internally, about the rights and wrongs of alternatives?

I’ve heard virtually no renditions of Haiti as /ˈɑːiːtiː/, but only /ˈheɪti/. As for the capital, very rarely has anyone uttered an attempt in my hearing at the word Prince with a French pronunciation. The usual ‘error’ is to call the capital /ˈpɔːt əʊ ˈprãs/, in the mistaken belief that this is the French pronunciation, but in French there is no liaison of the /t/, so the usual French pronunciation is /ˈpɔːr əʊ ˈprãs/ /ˈpɔːr o ˈpr̃ɛs/. (I’m sorry I’m using [ã], but placing a tilde above [æ] or [ɛ] is too much effort). /ˈpɔːt əʊ ˈprɪns/ has a long pedigree in English, and there is no need to replace it at this juncture.

January 13, 2010
by Graham

Trend Setters

In all aspects of culture, the leaders who introduce innovations, whether consciously or not, are gradually followed by the rest of the population who wish to emulate them. This is most obvious in clothes, where before the instant communications of the present day, it was well-known that the fashions of London and Paris slowly percolated out into the provinces, first to other big cities and centres of population, and eventually to the country districts. Until the 19th century, this could take decades.

In language, the prestige forms have always tended to be those used by the rulers and other respected people. ‘Standard’ Old English, for instance, i.e. the form of that language mainly studied today, was that of Wessex, where King Alfred’s court was highly respected and dominated England outside the Danelaw. By the time of Middle English, the centre of influence had moved to London, and the standard dialect, from which Modern English developed, was that of the south east midlands. When the BBC was set up, RP was chosen as the accent to be used by most of its announcers as it was judged to have more prestige than any other.

For particular aspects of West European culture, however, other languages have dominated. Classical music, for instance, was largely codified in Italy, and many of our musical terms are borrowed from Italian: sonata, cantata, symphony, opera, orchestra, piano, violin, timpani, tuba, crescendo, allegro con fuoco. The related art of dance, however, was very important at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, and most of our ballet terms are French: pas de deux, adage, ballet, pirouette. These terms are common to most European languages. In the late 19th Century, English sports were exported. and the associated words were borrowed by other languages, sometimes as a direct translation (German Fussball) or by a re-spelling (Spanish fútbol) or not even that (French football).

In the present day, the centre of Western culture is the US, and the international terms are borrowed from its form of English for computing and ‘popular’ culture, such as pop and rock music, and film. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it could be said that the US, for all its larger – and growing – population than the UK, was part of the periphery of the language, retaining many features that had been changed in the British Isles. Now there can be no doubt that Britain is part of the periphery, and the US the centre. Individual changes include trivial ones such as the pronunciation of Vietnam as /viːetˈnɑːm/, which started to replace /viːetˈnæm/ only after Hollywood started to make films about the conflict,or the phrase train station in place of the traditional railway station (mostly in my unscientifically tested view used by people born after about 1965). Most obviously is the tendency for rock singers to use American-type accents rather than English. Some people might attribute this last to a failure in self confidence on the part of British rock musicians – even The Beatles used American accents on their early releases, before they started to celebrate their Liverpool roots – but I think it is simply another example of the natural desire of people to emulate what they see as the best in their field.

January 11, 2010
by Graham

1880s English

A few more interesting entries from the Dictionary of Blunders:

“ABSQUATULATE (introduced from America) means to run away from your ‘squatting’ or settlement. The word is applied in England to any one running away from his creditors.” OED1 has the word, but the first fascicle of the OED was published in 1884, probably three years after this little book. OED gives three quotations, the latest from 1861, so its appearance here may show that the word was in more-or-less common use nearly twenty years later. This is one of the few entries that does not try to correct a perceived blunder, but simply defines a word.

“DONATE, meaning give, grant, present, is an Americanism, and should be avoided.” Even as recently as OED2, this word is still categorized as “chiefly U.S.”, although the 9th edition of the Concise Oxford (1990), has no such comment. I have never thought of it as an American import, so its use in the UK must have been common for many years before that. Incidentally, OED2 defines it: ‘To make a donation or gift of; hence, vulgarly (in U.S.), to give, bestow, grant’. I can see very little difference between “make a gift of” and “give”, so why one usage of donate should be ‘vulgar’ but not the other puzzles me.

DOCILE, FEBRILE, and FRAGILE are all to be pronounced with -ill as the final syllable. This is not a surprise – the BBC recommendations as late as 1928 agree with this. The memory of these pronunciations in Britain is completely lost now, and they are thought of as American only. SENILE, on the other hand, has always been /ˈsiːnaɪl/ on both sides of the Atlantic, and is given so in this book. The /-aɪl/ pronunciations in the UK presumably arose when Classical education declined, leaving no one certain which words originated in a Latin -ĪLIS, and which in -ĬLIS. How then did US English manage to retain the distinction? I’m not sure how well Americans think Peter Sellers did with his accent in Dr Strangelove, but one of the obvious ‘mistakes’ was that he referred to /’mɪsaɪlz/ throughout.

January 9, 2010
by Graham

More Blunders

The anonymous author of A Dictionary of Blunders has a thing about syllabic /l/:
BRIDAL should not be pronounced bri’-dle, but as spelled, bri’-dal.

GRAVEL … should not be pronounced grav’-l, but grav’-vel.

MEDAL … should be pronounced med’-al, not med-dle.

MORTAL … should not be pronounced mor’-tle, but mor’tăl.

But he makes no comment on the pronunciation of gambol, while saying it must not be confused with gamble, and we also find

GARDEN should not be pronounced gar’-den, nor ge-a’r-den, but gar’-d’n.


SUDDEN. This word is occasionally pronounced sud’dn, instead of sud’-den, as spelled.

If garden and sudden are allowed with syllabic /n/, then why not allow syllabic /l/ in the other words? I can see some sort of point to bridal/bridle and medal/meddle, as he may feel that the words need to be distinguished in pronunciation as in spelling, but there is no word ‘gravvle’ or ‘mortle’.

January 6, 2010
by Graham

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

I’ve been rather disappointed by the BBC since Christmas Day over the attempted bombing of an airliner approaching Detroit airport. For at least the first week, there was absolutely no consistency among even radio newsreaders in the pronunciation of the suspect’s name. Stress on the last element varied between Abdul’mutallab and Abdulmu’tallab.

Christmas Day is the worst day of the year for such a story to break, because there is noone in the Pronunciation Unit office, but for the uncertainty to last for a week is very unusual. There is a particular problem with this name, because although the individual names are Moslem ones, of Arabic origin, the bearer of them is a Nigerian, and so may not be a native Arabic speaker, although according to Wikipedia, he was a student of Arabic, and his mother is a Yemeni. The major language of the Moslem faith area of Nigeria is Hausa, but this may not be his first language either. The BBC does have a Hausa Section at Bush House who could be asked for information, and when I was the Pronunciation Adviser, my home telephone number was easily found throughout the Corporation in case of difficulty 24 hours a day (there was one occasion when I was rung at 3 am). I don’t imagine that any of the current members of the Unit have their numbers available in this way, and their manager, whose number may be accessible, would not be able to help, as he is not a linguist. I would have had to do some research to establish the best way to deal with the name, but the advantage of contacting me was that my advice would have been immediately available to the whole Corporation, whereas research by a newsreader, while it might well have been as good, would have been known to that newsreader’s immediate colleagues only, and not the wider broadcasting world.

Here is a plea by some American news people for a simplification of difficult names. Is that reasonable, or a cop out?

January 4, 2010
by Graham

Intrusive r

There are many articles available on the internet about the so-called ‘intrusive r’, but as a visitor to this blog has written asking me to correct people who “persist in inserting an extra [R] between the [W] and the [I] (of ‘drawing’) making the word into [DRAWRING] ! WRONG !!!!!”, perhaps yet another will not be out of place. I mentioned the word drawer and its confusion with draw in a previous post (here), but now for something longer.

Speakers of the English language can be divided in many ways. One of these is into the two classes of ‘rhotic’ and ‘non-rhotic’.  By this is meant that some varieties of English pronounce all orthographic ‘r’, (the rhotic group), while others do not (the non-rhotic speakers).

Non-rhotic accents occur in most of England, the whole of Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and some parts of the United States, notably New England and the South, although the position in US English is complicated and changing. Scotland, Ireland, Canada and most of the United States are traditionally thought of as being rhotic.

Non-rhoticity in English means that /r/ as a phoneme occurs only when the following sound is a consonant. Every pre-consonantal and pre-final orthographic ‘r’ is dropped. In accents of England, this has been noticed for over 200 years. The consequence of this r-dropping is that words such as idea and near, saw and sore, farm and calm now rhyme (/aɪˈdɪə/~/nɪə/, /sɔː/~/sɔː/,  /fɑːm/~/kɑːm/). The majority of words ending in these vowel sounds (/ə, ɔː, ɑː/) similarly have no following orthographic ‘r’, but a minority do end in a written ‘r’. When a word such as near or sore is followed by another word, or a suffix, that begins with a vowel, the orthographic ‘r’ is pronounced, as it would be if the ‘r’ occurred at the beginning of a word, immediately before a vowel. So we get the phrase near and far /ˈnɪər ən ˈfɑː/, where the first orthographic ‘r’ is pronounced, or reversing the words: /ˈfɑːr ən ˈnɪə/. By analogy with these words, the rhyming words which happen not to end in ‘r’, acquire an /r/ sound in the same situations. Hence, the idea of … becomes /ðɪ ˈaɪdɪər əv …/ and drawing becomes /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/.

My complainant says that “I consider it to be ignorance of the learning of pronunciation.” I suspect that he, like every other native speaker of English, learned his pronunciation from the people around him. As non-rhotics have been around for at least two hundred years, the current perpetrators of this horror (in his view) must have learned their errors from their parents, siblings and friends, just as he has learned his (presumably) rhotic ways from his.