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.

January 1, 2010
by Graham

Dictionary of Blunders

I’ve recently been given a copy of this little book, which appears to have been published about 1880 (no author’s name is given, and it’s undated) by Whittaker & Co., London. In fact even the title is in some doubt as the cover gives the title as above, but inside it appears as “A Dictionary of Daily Blunders, containing A Collection of Mistakes often made in Speaking and Writing”. It can’t be earlier than 1880, because there is a reference to the Queen’s Speech of 20 May in that year: “I invite your careful notice to the important questions of policy connected with the future of South Africa”. This usage is deprecated, correcting it to “I invite you carefully to notice …”

The most interesting thing about the book is not in many cases the actual usages criticized (as we do not know the author, we cannot know what authority he – I don’t expect for a moment that it was a ‘she’ – had for his statements, other than his personal likes and dislikes), but the fact that the same usages that are heavily criticized today, as if they were recent solecisms, also appear in this book. For instance,

Aggravate has not quite the same meaning as irritate, though sometimes used for it, as “Don’t aggravate me”.

Allege is not properly spelt alledge, though the error is common.

And one I often received when I was at the BBC:

Americanisms are errors, and as such should be avoided. For instance, vise for vice, center for centre, Savior for Saviour, fiber for fibre, etc.

(I’m surprised that the writer is not critical of the use of etc following a list started with ‘for instance’!)

There are some interesting comments on pronunciation, one of which in particular caught my attention:

Byron. The poet called himself Birn, not Byron.

This ties in with the post about Gordon Brown’s pronunciation of iron which John Wells wrote a few weeks ago, here. My late wife, who was Scottish, distinguished the metal from the flattening implement by her syllabification. To my shame, I cannot remember which was which, but perhaps a reader of this has a similar experience to share …

December 28, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

English stress – again

Jack Windsor  Lewis has sent a comment to my post on “two names and a word” which dealt with an unusual pronunciation of sedentary:

This morning, 28 Dec 09, also on Radio 4 but on Andrew Marr’s ‘Start the Week’ discussion programme, I he’rd Cambridge Professor of Neuroscience Barbara Sahakian, use the stressing ef`ficacy inste’d of the usual front stress which is the only one recorded in the three big pronouncing dictionaries and in M’Webster Online. Her speech sounds int’restingly slightly transatlantic. The Internet gives no info on her speech-formative years. I’ve no definite memory of hearing it so stressed before but I think I have he’rd the also unrecorded in`tricacy.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard ef’ficacy before, although it doesn’t surprise me (but maybe it does in someone so well educated as Professor Sahakian). Like Jack, I have heard in’tricacy. These are yet more examples of words taking on an antepenultimate stress pattern, perhaps in order to avoid three unstressed syllables in a row. They follow the pattern of con’troversy, frag’mentary, tra’jectory (which I am old-fashioned enough to still pronounce ‘trajectory – although I do split infinitives!) All these have changed, or are in the process of changing, from initial to second-syllable (= antepenultimate in these cases) stress.

John Cowan commented on my “sedentary” post that in the US, the -ary suffix of sedentary and fragmentary does not reduce to /-əri/. In the words that I was assuming it was being stressed by analogy with – elementary, complimentary, even US English reduces -ary to /-əri/, so this would not be a bar to the stress pattern changing in American accents as well. One more example among many of the conservatism of US English (that’s not meant as a criticism, by the way).

December 24, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

A rary bird

I’ve been following John Wells’ thread on nursery rhymes, and have found this rare example from a French one:

“Oui, oui, choux!” un maire y crie, “ça masse!”

December 22, 2009
by Graham

Two names and a word

Nicholas Glass, in his report for Channel 4 News yesterday on the arrest of five men charged with stealing the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from Auschwitz, named two other places: Gdynia and Wrocławek. He can be excused (as we are talking about Channel 4, not the BBC, here) for being unable to pronounce the second of these, which he rendered as /ˈvrɒkləvek/ (I assume that the BBC Pronunciation Unit would have recommended /vrɒtsˈwævek/), but he sounded dyslexic with his attempt at the first, which he called /ˈgɪdnɪə/. Admittedly, the unfamiliar initial cluster /gd/ is not easily managed by an untrained English speaker, but he has the example of Gdansk which has been well known for the last thirty years at least, or does he call that /ˈgædənsk/? The easiest way to deal with Gdynia is to put a schwa between the /g/ and /d/, which is what I would expect most people to do without thinking about it: /gəˈdɪnɪə/.

This morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 had a report on children’s fitness levels. The university professor responsible for it spoke of the decrease in fitness being caused by a more /səˈdentəri/ lifestyle. This pronunciation is recognised by John Wells’ LPD as “British non-RP”, but not by the other pronunciation dictionaries. Presumably it comes about by analogy with such words as elementary, complimentary, parliamentary. These words are all derived from nouns with first syllable stress, followed by two unstressed syllables. Since English tends towards alternate stressed and unstressed syllables in longer words, it is quite usual for the main stress to be shifted  to the third syllable when the suffix -ary is added. Two-syllable words do not normally show this tendency: momentary retains its first syllable stress. However, fragmentary is in the course of succumbing to the antepenultimate stress – and Wells does not even note this as “non-RP”, although he does not give it as a US pronunciation. Sedentary appears to be going the same way.

December 12, 2009
by Graham

How many words?

It’s often said that English has more words than any other language. I’m not aware of any bona fide linguist who’s said this, but the statement crops up in newspaper articles from time to time.

Is it true? How would you start to count? I suspect that one reason the idea has arisen is that English has the largest dictionary (at least I don’t know of a language that has a bigger dictionary than the OED), and so people make the assumption that the biggest dictionary must represent the biggest vocabulary.

English certainly has an awful lot of different words – but even then, at what point do we separate vocabulary items into different words, rather than different meanings of the same word? Flour and flower are now indubitably two words, but etymologically they both derive from Latin FLOS.

An enormous number of English words are borrowed from other languages. Is this a proof that English has more words than other languages, or is it an admission that English is so word-poor that it needs to borrow to fulfil its purpose as a means of communication?