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broadcast earlier this year raised the same question, and also made the point that the technology was now many years out of date.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?

July 18, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

Moon Landing

This has nothing to do with language, but this weekend, the world commemorates the 40th aniversary of the first moon landing.

In the US, it is celebrated as 20 July. This is correct (in UTC) for the landing, but I remember clearly staying up until three in the morning of 21 July to watch Neil Armstrong make his giant step live on television in the UK.

When things happen on Earth, the date and time when they happen can be decided by the longitude of the event, so that Columbus reached the Americas some five hours earlier than the simultaneous time in Europe. Captain Cook sighted Australia some hours later than the time would have been in Europe, and possibly a day later than it was at that moment in America. Each New Year creeps up on Earth gradually over the space of a whole day.

But when an event happens elsewhere in the universe, whose terrestrial time zone is the one to use? While 20 July is correct for the Americas, much of the populated world will have watched the moon landing on 21 July local time – Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia.

July 3, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

More on money

Following on from my previous post on money, it occurred to me that 1½d was almost always pronounced three ha’pence, and less often a penny ha’penny while 1½p was always one and a half pence. The abbreviation for the old penny was d, standing for the Latin denarius, just as s stood not for shilling but solidus, and £ for libra. We have kept the pound symbol, but substituted p for the penny. As a result, its most frequent pronunciation is /piː/. Does any other nation abbreviate one of its major currency units to its first letter?

Apparently oddly, we often hear about a one pence piece. I’ve even been told quite firmly that the coin says ‘one new pence’ or more recently ‘one pence’ on it. No it doesn’t: it says either ‘one penny’ or (on the coins dated for the first few years after 1971) ‘one new penny’. However, I was once told that shortly after decimalization, a sign appeared in the Ladies toilets in Harrod’s store, that said ‘Please use one new pence pieces’ (the cost of ‘spending a penny’ had now rocketed by 240% overnight!). When a customer remonstrated with the attendant that it ought to have said ‘Please use one new penny pieces’, the reply was that /ɪts ˈwɜːf ˈtuː ən ˈɑːf jə ˈnoʊ/.

June 29, 2009
by Graham


With this word in the news almost every day at the moment, we are hearing two pronunciations from British broadcasters: /ıˈreınıən/ and /ıˈrɑːnıən/. The first of these is, I think, the majority pronunciation, but the second is heard from many who would probably consider themselves better informed about the country and its people – for instance John Simpson. He and I crossed swords over this, and he alluded to our disagreement in one of his articles nearly thirty years ago, ending “He [i.e. GP] walked on, a disappointed man”. His arguments in favour of /ıˈrɑːnıən/ were two: that it was the pronunciation used by Iranians themselves (but as I pointed out, they are speaking English as a foreign language, and so not to be completely trusted on this – just as a Frenchman speaking English but pronouncing his country name with a nasalized vowel would not be copied by native English speakers); and second, that as the country name is /ıˈrɑːn/, then he was simply adding /-ıən/ in the normal way. I countered this with the example of Panama, which also ends in /ɑː/, but whose derived form is /pænəˈmeınıən/.

I was not trying to persuade him because of a belief that /eı/ was intrinsically the ‘better’ vowel to use, but so that he would conform to the one being used by the majority of his colleagues, and so be less conspicuous to listeners and viewers, who would otherwise start asking themselves (and me!) questions, and stop listening to the content of the report, which is far more important.

June 23, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

By or for?

Interviewed on this morning’s BBC Radio4 ‘Today’ programme about the election of John Bercow as the new Speaker of the House of Commons, the MP Nadine Dorries (Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire) claimed that this was a vindictive act on behalf of the Labour Party. I wonder who committed it, then. I think she meant to say ‘on the part of’ the Labour Party.

‘On behalf of’ is increasingly used where ‘on the part of ‘ would be better. In fact, the traditional meanings of the two phrases are diametrically opposed: ‘on behalf of’ means acting in someone else’s interests, while ‘on the part of’ means made or done by the person or group mentioned.

The two expressions could be replaced by the simple ‘for’ (on behalf of) or ‘by’ (on the part of), but these carry less ‘weight’ than the longer phrases and so might more easily be missed.

If ‘on the part of’ disappears from the language, we shall have lost a useful way of distinguishing between what we do and what is done for us.

June 18, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

Weak form loss

John Wells has been talking (here and here) about the loss of weak forms from English. Two more that have disappeared for an understandable reason are the weak forms of penny and pence.

Before decimalization of the British currency in 1971, any amount of money ending in -pence was pronounced /… p(ə)ns/: twopence (usually spelt tuppence) (/ˈtʌp(ə)ns/), threepence (/ˈθrɛp(ə)ns, ˈθrıp(ə)ns, ˈθrʌp(ə)ns/, fourpence (/ˈfɔːp(ə)ns/) etc. The adjectival forms ending in -penny were also reduced, to /p(ə)nı/, with the same reductions of the numeral, including halfpenny, which became /ˈheıpnı/ (final /f/ elided) (the pronunciations of tuppence and threepence show just how longstanding these forms were: tuppence must represent the shortening of /uː/ to /u/ and predate its split into /ʊ/ and /ʌ/ – spelt tuppens, the OED has an example from 1514).

Once we decimalized, it became necessary to distinguish between the old penny and the new (the coin worth 6d in ‘old’ money was retained for some years, but was now worth 2½p in the new). The way we all did this, I suspect without thinking much about it, was to use the strong form for the new value. I had half expected that when the new currency became familiar, we would all go back to our old ways, and the weak form would re-emerge, but this has not happened. I tested it in the early 1980s by asking for some 10½p stamps at a post office, and pronouncing the value as /ˈtɛmpnsˈheıpnı/. The counter clerk – older than me, and so well able to remember pre-decimal money – asked me to repeat my request, and it was only when I eventually said /ˈtɛn ənd ə hɑːf ˈpɛns/ that I got the stamps.

I started with two weak forms lost, but I think that makes three: unless someone can correct me, I think that half was only ever weakened when followed by -penny or -pence as an amount of money (i.e. not the family name Halfpenny), so that it is no longer heard.

June 11, 2009
by Graham

Loss of anglicizations

T Morris, in a comment to this post, asks why there are no English ‘translations’ of French place names, such as there are in other languages (Parigi in Italian) or as there are for English names in other languages (Rome rather than Roma).

In fact, there are English spellings of French place names that differ from the French originals, but they seem to be reducing in number over the years. We used always to write Lyons and Marseilles for Lyon and Marseille, and going further back in history, Calais used to be written as Calice. ‘The Jackdaw of Rheims‘ (one of the best-known Ingoldsby Legends) provides another example. As a (very) small child, I imagined that Dunkirk must be in Scotland, and Ushant never seemed to me to refer to a place in France (I think it is now usually seen in its French spelling – Ouessant).

The same thing is happening with other foreign place names – Saragossa is now usually Zaragoza, and Corunna has become La Coruña. As we travel more, we become aware that our spelling and pronunciation of foreign place names has got out of step with the native, and we adjust our version to make it more similar to the original. With spelling that is easy, but the pronunciation will still be an approximation, better or worse according to our individual ability to imitate, or willingness to do so. The changes take place particularly for those place names that have dropped out of our consciousness, and then come back to us – Flushing became Vlissingen when car ferries started to use the port more regularly, and Leghorn became Livorno when it became an easily accessible tourist resort.

The regions of France still retain their English names – Brittany, Normandy, Burgundy, Gascony show no signs of becoming Bretagne, Normandie, Bourgogne or Gascogne.

If we turn the question around, it seems odd that the French have so few spellings of their own for place names in the British Isles – after all, (Norman) French was the language of government in England for about three hundred years. I can find a handful – Londres, Douvres, Cantorbéry, Edimbourg, Cornouailles, Tamise (the Thames), and the names of the constituent parts of the islands – Angleterre, Ecosse, Pays de Galles, and Irlande, plus Grande Bretagne itself. The French pronunciation of English place names without different spellings is, however, just as gallicized as our pronunciation of French names is anglicized – as is to be expected.

June 5, 2009
by Graham

Heavenly Peace

Throughout the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and for some years afterwards, the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace was frequently mentioned in the news.

Then at the time of the student democracy protests in 1989, with no explanation that I can remember, we were told that they were concentrated in Tiananmen Square (which most people had great difficulty in pronouncing). It was only some time later that I realized that these two names referred to the same place (I know nothing of Chinese apart from how to anglicize its pronunciation).

The New China News Agency had already decided that from January 1979 all Chinese names would henceforth be reported by them in their Pinyin spellings, and this has gradually filtered through to all English news reports, although in 1989 we were still hearing about Peking rather than Beijing, but this doesn’t seem to me a reason for a translation of a place name to be abandoned in favour of an incomprehensible Chinese name. Could it have had anything to do with the contradiction between its name and the actions of the Chinese government?

For the record, Tiananmen has three syllables, and is most accurately anglicized as /’tjɛn æn mən/ with all four nasals clearly articulated.