November 15, 2009
by Graham

Ground Floor

“An elderly woman was the victim of a street robbery which netted the thief just £10. … The offender walked behind the victim for a short time before grabbing her handbag, causing her to fall to the floor.” (My local paper this week)

In this context, I should have written ground rather than floor, as the event took place outside. The Oxford Reference Dictionary gives, as section 7 under floor, “colloq. ground”, but the usual formal meaning of ‘floor’ is a surface under cover, and ‘ground’ is a surface covered only by the sky.

This wording explains why ‘floor’ can also be the surface of a forest, cave or ocean, all of which have a covering that is not directly the sky.

Interestingly, although I can accept either ‘cave floor’ or ‘floor of the cave’, and ‘sea/ocean floor’ or (less easily) ‘floor of the sea/ocean’, for ‘forest floor’ I can’t accept the alternative ‘floor of the forest’. And although wood is more-or-less synonymous with forest, I can’t accept ‘*wood floor’ at all.

Do others agree? or is this simply a part of my idiolect?

November 9, 2009
by Graham

Film biographies

In this morning’s (9 November 2009) Start the Week (BBC Radio 4, 9 a.m.), there was a discussion of a new film biography. In introducing it, Andrew Marr, the presenter, used the word biopic, and pronounced it to rhyme with “myopic”.

I assume he was reading from a script, in which case it might simply have been a spelling pronunciation which he failed to spot in time to self-correct, but it might also have been his normal pronunciation of this word (but it would still be a spelling pronunciation).

Biopic is a blend word formed from the first syllables of the words “biographical” and “picture”. Many phrases are written in the first place as two words. Then with familiarity, they turn into a hyphenated phrase, and eventually, if they become fixed enough, the hyphen disappears, leaving a new compound word. For instance, we have offshore – no hyphen, but off-peak. Similarly, there are two different treatments of positions on the cricket field: mid-off and mid-on, but midwicket. There seems no logic to these, other than a desire to emphasize where the division of the two elements occurs (‘midoff’, ‘midon’ look a bit odd – but that could simply be their unfamiliarity).

In the case of biopic, it might have been preferable for the word to have retained a hyphen for the same reason: so that its etymology, and meaning, were more obvious, leading to no “mistakes” in pronunciation – /baɪˈɒpɪk/ seems to me to be much more likely to be an adjective than a noun, and /ˈbaɪəʊpɪk/, as given in all the standard pronunciation dictionaries, is quite clearly the one intended by whoever first coined the word.

October 27, 2009
by Graham

Evenin’ All

Many of yesterday’s British papers (e.g. here, here, here, here and here) reported on Warwickshire Police’s handbook “Policing Our Communities”, with headlines that were critical of the Political Correctness inferred from statements such as “Don’t assume those words for the time of day, such as afternoon and evening, have the same meaning [in other languages as they do in English]”. They go on from there to assume that this prevents any Warwickshire police officer from saying “Evenin’ all” in the way that the character George Dixon did in the long-running BBC TV series “Dixon of Dock Green” (the articles all had a picture of Jack Warner, the actor who played George Dixon).

All linguists know that the day is divided up differently by different languages – I have been wished “Bon soir” in French at 1 p.m., and Spanish has no separate word to distinguish “afternoon” from “evening”, using tarde for both. Even within English, I doubt if everybody agrees on when the afternoon turns into the evening – certainly from summer to winter the time will vary. I’m writing this at 5 p.m. and the sky has a slight blueness in the west, but otherwise it is now night. I think I would call this “evening”. But in summer, I might well consider this to be “late afternoon”, with “evening” starting considerably later. By 8 p.m. today, it will definitely be “night”, but again, in summer, that will be just as definitely “evening”.

I think the instruction in the Warwickshire handbook is to remind officers that they need to be precise about times when taking evidence or asking questions, and not to rely on subjective judgments. Other items in the handbook may be ridiculously over the top, but this one may have some sense in it.

I couldn’t find articles from the Times, Guardian or Independent – probably the three most serious of our national dailies. Does this mean they quite sensibly didn’t cover it, or have I just missed them?

October 20, 2009
by Graham

Fixed and Free

Stress in English is often said to be “fixed and free”, by which is meant that for each word it is fixed, but that there is no fixed position in the word where it must occur, unlike Czech, Finnish or Hungarian, for instance, where it is invariably on the first syllable of a word, or Polish, where it is (with very few exceptions) on the penultimate.

However, the ‘fixed’ part of this statement has to be hedged around with all sorts of caveats. The stress placement on individual words can change over time,and one of the most frequent complaints made by older people about ‘the young’, is that they mispronounce words by putting the stress in the wrong place. Continue Reading →

October 4, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

Latin for choirs

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to pronounce Latin when you’re speaking English, the next problem comes up for singers.

It’s not only English that has its own version of Latin pronunciation, but every language in Europe has its idiosyncratic ways as well. In German, for instance, they pronounce C before E and I (and AE and OE) as /ts/, while G is always /g/. Consonantal U~V is /v/, like Italian.

Should English-speaking choirs pronounce the text of masses written by Beethoven or Schubert (the question never seems to come up with Haydn or Mozart) with the Italianate Latin, or a more German-sounding pronunciation? Likewise, should Fauré’s Requiem be sung in the way that French choirs sing it? (French  composers often set the words with final stress, as French, rather than keeping to the Latin pattern.) In my experience as the rehearsal accompanist for a Choral Society, it depends on the knowledge of the conductor. Our present one knows how Germans pronounce Latin, so he likes the singers to use /ts/ and /g/, and the other quirks, when they sing Schubert, but he is less sure of how the French pronounce Latin, so for Fauré they sing the Italianate style. However he also likes Italianate Latin for Bruckner. The English composer Douglas Coombes was commissioned to write a Requiem for a French choir. They took so long to rehearse it that our choir gave the first performance, using Italianate pronunciation. The work sounded very different when the French choir came to England to sing it with their French pronunciation.

This conundrum of what to do with Latin could be carried on to other languages: should Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem be sung with a Hamburg accent, while Schubert’s songs have a Viennese accent, and Richard Strauss’s lieder a Bavarian one? Taking it even further, should we sing songs using Burns’ words with a Scottish accent, or in the accent of the composer? I have heard Spanish singers distinguish between Castilian and South American pronunciations within the same recital.

This could all get very silly, but actors reading stories aloud often adopt the appropriate accent.

Getting back to Latin pronunciation, Harold Copeman wrote a comprehensive study (Singing in Latin) of the ways in which Latin is pronounced in the various European languages. This was self-published by Mr Copeman in 1990, together with a separate “Pocket” version of the same work. I don’t know whether it’s still available new, but the only copy I can find on Abebooks is now priced at £225!

September 22, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

More on Latin in English (2)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, following the great strides made in philology, the teaching of Latin in schools began to use a reconstructed “Classical” Latin pronunciation. This ‘restored’ the long and short vowel sounds of Latin to /iː, ɪ, eɪ, e, æ, ɑː, ɒ, ɔː, ʊ, uː/ and the diphthongs AE, AU, OE to /aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ/. Among the consonants, C became always /k/, G was always /g/, consonantal I~J became /j/, and consonantal U~V, /w/. S was now to be pronounced /s/ wherever it occurred, and not as /z/ in final position or intervocalically, as it had been previously (See John Wells’ posts). This pronunciation has been taught in English schools ever since.

As if this was not sufficient confusion, the Roman Catholic Church uses a third version, the so-called “Italianate” pronunciation. In this, the vowels are the same as the reconstructed “Classical” pronunciation, but two of the diphthongs are treated differently: AE and OE become /eɪ/. Among the consonants, C is /k/ before consonants or A, O, U, but /tʃ/ before AE, E, I, or OE. Similarly, G is /g/ before A, O, U, but /dʒ/before AE, E, I, or OE. Consonantal I or J is always /j/, but consonantal U or V is /v/. Intervocalic S is /z/, but final S varies between /s/ and /z/. T before I and another vowel (e.g. penitentiam) is affricated to /ts/.

No wonder there is confusion in the minds of English-speaking people when they have a Latin phrase or name to pronounce. Consistency is almost impossible. In the BBC TV series “I, Claudius”, the familiar names – Claudius, Nero, Caligula, Caesar, etc.  were anglicised in the old way: /ˈklɔːdɪəs, ˈnɪərəʊ, kəˈlɪgjʊlə, ˈsiːzər/, but less famous names were pronounced in a more ‘Latin’ way: Agrippina, Messalina /ægrɪˈpiːnə, mesəˈliːnə/.

Minutiae is a complete mixture – the most frequent pronunciation that I hear is /maɪˈnjuːʃiaɪ/, while a full-blooded traditional pronunciation would be /maɪˈnjuːʃiiː/ and a reconstructed ‘Latin’ one would be /mɪˈnuːtɪai/.

Veni, vidi, vici:

traditional: /ˈviːnaɪ, ˈvaɪdaɪ, ˈvaɪsaɪ/

reconstructed: /ˈweɪni, ˈwiːdi, ˈwiːki/

Italianate: /ˈveɪni, ˈviːdi, ˈviːtʃi/

All three as spoken with English phonology, of course.

September 21, 2009
by Graham

More on Latin in English

The pronunciation of Latin words and phrases in an English-speaking context is quite complicated, because three separate traditions clash, making it difficult to be consistent. John Wells has been writing about this recently, here, here and here.

First there is the traditional treatment, which arises from the way in which English pronunciation has changed over the last thousand years. The short vowels of Middle English /æ, e, ɪ, ɒ/ have barely changed in stressed position, and as these were probably quite close in quality to the similarly written vowels in Latin, there was no problem, and the English sound was carried over to the Latin words (e.g. etcetera: /etˈsetərə/, quod erat demonstrandum /kwɒd ˈeræt demənˈstrændəm/. Middle English short /u/, on the other hand, has split (in many forms of English) into /ʊ/ and /ʌ/. Generally speaking, short Latin /u/ has become English /ʌ/: cum (used to join two separate village names together when the two merge in some sense ): Stow Cum Quy /ˈstəʊkʌmˈkwaɪ/. The unstressed short vowels generally became schwa, as in the above examples, without anyone noticing particularly.

The long vowels of Middle English have, on the other hand, changed considerably. They were originally just as easily transferred to Latin words and names that also had long vowels, such as mater, regius, Dido. However, with the Great Vowel Shift, Middle English /ˈmaːtər/ became Early Modern English /ˈmeːtər/ and then /ˈmeɪtər/, /ˈreːdʒɪəs/ became /ˈriːdʒɪəs/ and /ˈdiːdoː/ became /ˈdaɪdoʊ/.

The quantities of Classical Latin were not always observed: some long vowels became short, particularly in antepenultimate stressed syllables (so stamen, /ˈsteɪmən/ acquired the plural /ˈstæmɪnə/), while some short vowels were lengthened (via, /vɪə/ became first /ˈviːə/ and then /ˈvaɪə/.

The Latin diphthongs, written AE, AU, OE, had already in Old English times become /eː, oː, eː/ in most Latin dialects, and these pronunciations, as taught and spoken by medieval monks, were taken over into English. They then developed like the other long vowels.

As for the consonants, Latin C before the front close vowels, whether long or short, became /s/, G became /dʒ/ in the same contexts, consonantal I (alternatively written J) also became  /dʒ/ before another vowel, and consonantal U (alternatively written V) became /v/ rather than /w/.

This is the explanation for the pronunciation in modern English of Latin names such as Julius Caesar /ˈdʒuːlɪəs ˈsiːzər/, Cicero /ˈsɪsərəʊ/, Catullus /kəˈtʌləs/, and legal phrases like sub judice /sʌb ˈdʒuːdɪsi/.

More later.


August 15, 2009
by Graham

Stephen Hawking’s voice

The Investor’s Business Daily has now changed its article alleging that if Stephen Hawking were British he would be dead by now. As Geoff Pullum at Language Log has pointed out, Prof. Hawking is and ever has been British, and has lived all his life in Britain. It is the voice synthesizer that confuses people. Prof. Pullum suggests that Hawking needs to work on the synthesizer to make it sound more British. A television programme about Prof. Hawking broadcast earlier this year raised the same question, and also made the point that the technology was now many years out of date. However, it was said that this was now “his” voice, recognized throughout the world, and that to change it at this stage would not be useful. There are now reports that he may have changed his mind.

The synthesizer system in question is DECTalk, which was developed by Dennis Klatt and Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1980s. I heard it demonstrated at the Utrecht Phonetics Congress in 1983, and spoke to Dennis about the possibility of its being used as an audio component in a computerized pronunciation index at the BBC. When I got back to the office after the Congress, I arranged for a demonstration of the system to be given to my management, and to some BBC engineers, but unfortunately there was no money available at that time to make any progress on computerizing our work, even without audio. However, I still have the demonstration tape that DEC brought with them to that meeting. A number of voices both male and female were on offer, and the one that Prof. Hawking has been using was called “George”.

It was another 18 years before an audio component was added to the BBC’s pronunciation database.

August 7, 2009
by Graham

Email etiquette

A couple of years ago, when the television film about my brother’s death was making headlines, I had an email from a Sky News journalist, wanting to interview me. It began “Hi Graham”. The woman writing had never heard of me until two days before, and yet she was presuming to write as if we had been friends for years. I didn’t reply until eighteen months later, by which time I was no longer “interesting”, and told her I did not appreciate being addressed in such a way by a complete stranger. During the furore, I was also rung by journalists unknown to me asking “to speak to Graham”. I literally pulled the plug, and was incommunicado for days.

Not only was it, in my view, inappropriate to start a letter to me in such a way at any time, it was far less so when the topic of the proposed interview was so painful to me.

Recently, I have bought a large item for the house, making the transaction by email. Again, I was addressed by the woman at the other end with  “Hi Graham”. If I had signed off in my email to her (in which I addressed her as “Dear Ms Xyz”) as “Gordon Brown”, would she have still written back “Hi Gordon”?

Emails have legal validity, just as much as printed or handwritten letters sent through the post. As such, business emails should be written in a similar style. It shows a lack of respect for the recipient to reduce the level of formality to that used between close friends.

I once received a letter at the BBC addressed to “The Head Pronunciation Honcho”. Needless to say, it came from California. I treated that as a joke, and wrote back in a similar way. Formal business mail is not to be treated so light-heartedly. I am not asking for deference, merely common politeness.

July 31, 2009
by Graham


This blog is hosted by WordPress, whose own development blog today has this:

“The WordPress team had initially committed to maintaining the WordPress 2.0.x legacy branch until 2010. Unfortunately, we bit off more than we could chew—the 2.0.x branch is now retired and deprecated, a few months shy of 2010.”

What is “deprecated” supposed to mean in this sense? Both my British and American dictionaries define “deprecate” as “to express disapproval of” something. What word did the writer intend to use?