February 19, 2009
by Graham

Language, Variety, Dialect

In a comment on last week’s post about ‘snow terms’, John Cowan takes me to task for comparing apples with lemons (a ‘malo-citrine’ comment is how he puts it) when I wrote that ‘lie’, ‘settle’, ‘stick’ and ‘pitch’ were alternative terms in use in various dialects of English. He maintains that while ‘pitch’ is a dialectal word “in this sense”, ‘lie, ‘settle’ and ‘stick’ are “part of the standard dialect”.

This raises the question: where is the boundary between two languages, two varieties or two dialects? To me, if the use of a word with a particular sense is restricted to one or more discrete geographical or social areas, then it is evidence of a particular geographical or social dialect. ‘Stick’ is a case in point: Amy Stoller, in another comment on the same post, admits that she had never thought any other word could be used, because that is what she is used to hearing in New York. To me this is good evidence that it is part of New York dialect, as it is of several North Midland dialects in England. I’m not sure why John thinks that “pitch”, on the other hand, is dialectal: it is a word I’m familiar with, and this sense is simply an extension of that for putting up a tent.

We generally speak of British English and American English as being the two major varieties of the language, but each of them comprises a large number of dialects. To me, a dialect is distinguished by its phonetics, phonology, grammar and vocabulary (including the semantics of individual words). British and American English might be considered “super dialects”, but they certainly have different phonetics, phonology, grammar and vocabulary from each other, some features of which are common to all or many of the dialects within that variety. I am not sure where I stand on the question of when two dialects become separate languages: the famous difficulty is for Swedish, Danish and Norwegian – three languages or one? They are intercomprehensible, but generally reckoned separate languages. The old saw about languages having gunboats determines that they are three, but then British English and American English are still one language despite both having their own gunboats …

February 14, 2009
by Graham

Snow terms

England has had far more snow this winter than for many a long year – 18 according to the Meteorological Office.

When snow falls and does not immediately melt, what is it doing? In Scotland, it is said to be lying. In many parts of England it settles, but in the North West of England – and maybe elsewhere – it sticks. And in Wiltshire at least, it pitches. At first sight, this last seems the oddest, but we pitch a tent when we set it up, so this is a similar use of the word.

When we think of dialectal variation, we usually think of the unusual words that occur in one area but not others. Most speakers of English would not consider their use of ‘lie’, ‘settle’, ‘stick’ or ‘pitch’ in this sense as dialectal, but it is just as much part of local dialect as is Glaswegian ‘yin’ for ‘one’, or North Staffordshire ‘purvet’ for ‘rummage’.

February 5, 2009
by Graham


Last week, Birmingham City Council announced that it was no longer going to put apostrophes in its street names. This caused an outcry in the press. I can only assume the council needs the publicity, because the placing of apostrophes in place names has been inconsistent in many places and for many years, and without anybody, apparently, noticing.

Take the London Underground. The Piccadilly Line has stations at King’s Cross and Earl’s Court, but next door to Earl’s Court is Barons Court.

Then there’s the East Coast main railway line out of King’s Cross. It has stations at Brookmans Park and Potters Bar. King’s Cross itself, and also King’s Lynn, at the other end of the First Capital Connect line, are both seen with and without the apostrophe.

There is an ambiguity in one of the Piccadilly Line’s northern stations: Arnos Grove. How is this pronounced? Does it depend on the name’s origin? If there is potentially an apostrophe in the name, then it is /ˈɑːnəʊz/, but if not, then presumably /ˈɑːnɒs/ is better. I can’t recall having heard an announcement that would clarify it for me. Perhaps both pronunciations are used indiscriminately.

January 29, 2009
by Graham

Today’s “Today”

The Today Programme on Radio 4 has this morning once again demonstrated the ignorance of journalists about the nature of language – the main tool of their trade. This was particularly deplorable this morning (Thursday 29 January) as both its presenters claim some expertise in the subject: Edward Stourton has proclaimed himself a linguist, as I have mentioned before, and John Humphrys is well-known for his forthright views on language and its usage, including having written the book Lost for Words. On a day when a report claimed that “the number of people in England who cannot read, write and count properly is unacceptably high”, Stourton introduced a piece by saying that children find the language harder to learn because of its spelling. It cannot be said too often that spelling is an artefact, arbitrarily decided upon; that letters are not sounds, and cannot accurately represent sounds; and that the problems of learning a language and those of learning to spell are totally different. Children who, for whatever reason, leave school without having learned to read and write adequately can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, speak English as well as those whose reading and writing are excellent.

In the interview following this introduction, Stourton went on to say that other languages may be easier to learn because they have rules. Can he really believe that English has no rules? Later mention was made of Finnish as being a language whose spelling system is totally consistent. Whenever the question of the difficulty of English spelling is raised, the ‘perfection’ of that of another language is always contrasted with it. However, one of the other languages that have vied with English for world domination, which has an equally difficult spelling system, is French. What is the functional illiteracy rate for French speakers in France? Do we know? If it is very low, then presumably it is English teaching that is at fault. If it is as high as that for English, perhaps something should be done about the spelling of both languages.

January 19, 2009
by Graham

Where do you shop?

In Britain the answer might be at ASDA, Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Marks & Spencer’s, Debenham’s, Harrod’s …

But some would say “Tesco’s”, and I’ve also heard “Waitrose’s”.

The ‘regular’ treatment of shop names is to add the genitive to a family name (i.e. ‘Mr Sainsbury’s shop, Mr Morrison’s shop’ etc.), but not to a company name that is not originally a person’s name, so “at ASDA” (an acronym from “Associated Dairies”.

Tesco and Waitrose also come into the latter category, Tesco being an acronym from “Tessa Cohen” (the founder’s wife), or perhaps from “T.E.Stockwell” (a tea supplier back in the 1920s) and “COhen”, and Waitrose likewise being an acronym of two of its founders’ names (Messrs Waite and Rose).

Increasingly, however, the ‘rule’ appears to be breaking down. Not only is “Tesco’s” frequently used, and Waitrose starting to become “Waitrose’s”, but there is real uncertainty about how to treat the newer budget supermarkets that have come in from Europe – Aldi, Lidl and Netto. On the other hand, does anyone shop at “John Lewis’s”?

January 7, 2009
by Graham


There have been a few comments about my post on ‘vanishing r’, including one from Jack Windsor Lewis (his blog 145 on 29 December 2008). He suspects that the lack of complaints from the public about the ‘mispronunciation’ of veterinary/veterinarian was due to its relative rarity as a word. However, what I did not write was that when I received complaints about other r-deletions, e.g. February, library, I usually pointed my correspondent to the acceptability of ‘vetinary’. No one ever came back at me on that, accusing me – as they were quite likely to – either of gross ignorance of my own language or of being a wishy-washy liberal who would accept anything. I took this to mean that ‘vetinary’ was acceptable to them when ‘Febuary’ was not. John Wells has given this pronunciation without comment in every edition of his Pronunciation Dictionary, although neither the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation nor the English Pronouncing Dictionary mentions it at all. The popular TV series “All Creatures Great and Small” frequently used the word, and although the action was set in Yorkshire, that would not have stopped viewers complaining if they perceived a word being regularly mispronounced.

My point about meteorological was that it was the first ‘liquid’ that is usually lost, and Jack confirms this when he says he never heard /miːtiəˈrɒdʒɪkəl/. The once carefully trained BBC announcers and newsreaders would pay far more attention to pronouncing all the consonants in this word than they would to the quality of the unstressed vowels (partly because of their vulnerability to complaints from the audience), so they were unlikely to delete the /r/. My impression is that nowadays, broadcast speech is much faster, so more deletion can be expected.

Amy Stoller’s understanding of dissimilation is different from mine, and the r-deletion she mentions is the post-vocalic deletion of non-rhotic speakers rather than the one I discussed.

Adrian Morgan’s comment on ‘Febuary’ being a case of “r-replacement” rather than r-deletion is interesting. Two things are going on with this word: the r-deletion common to all the words I mentioned, which easily leads to a pronunciation /ˈfebri/, and then the re-instatement of the syllable between /b/ and /r/ by analogy with the preceding month name, January.  Children learning the names of the months, in their chronological order, chant “January, February, March, April, …” in rhythmical feet, as /ˈdʒænjuːˌeəri, ˈfebjuːˌeəri, ˈmɑːtʃ, ˈeɪˌprəl, …/

December 19, 2008
by Graham

Vanishing r

It’s well known that “Febuary” is a common pronunciation (and spelling – 706 million hits on Google, but with multiple warnings about “Did you mean to search for February?”), but it’s by no means the only English word that tends to lose an r or /r/. Usually it occurs when two /r/ phonemes start consecutive syllables: arbitrary, contrary, deteriorate, library, literary, as well as February, but there are cases where a syllable intervenes between the two /r/s: secretary, veterinary.

After February, secretary must be the word in which this phenonemon caused the most complaints at my time at the BBC, when any perceived ‘dropped’ /r/ would bring letters on to my desk. And yet veterinary is accepted without question by almost everybody when it is pronounced /ˈvet(ɪ)n(ə)ri/. No one ever complained about it in my 23 years of answering such letters.

What I notice is that if the two /r/s are in adjacent syllables, it is the second that is dropped (e.g. deteriorate > ‘deteriate’), whereas if there is a greater distance between them, the first one disappears (‘Febuary’, ‘secketary’, ‘vetinary’). In the case of meteorological, either the /r/ or the first /l/ can go, but more often it is the /r/, leaving /miːtiəˈlɒdʒɪkəl/ – rather than */miːtiəˈrɒdʒɪkəl/.

I don’t know of an explanation for this, but perhaps someone else can supply one.

December 11, 2008
by Graham

lure, allure

Following on from my last post, with /jʊ/ words being fronted and confused with /ɪ/ words, I’m reminded that a few years ago, a TV programme included a demonstration of falconry, and the expert said she used a /lɜː/. The interviewer was clearly puzzled by this, and asked for an explanation. It turned out that the falconer was talking about a lure. Then last week, I heard the same pronunciation used in the word allure: /əˈlɜː/. John Wells’ Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edition has lure /ljɜː/, commenting that 17% of John’s informants used this pronunciation, but neither /lɜː/ nor allure /əˈlɜː/. Presumably he still considers it non-standard, and judging by the reaction of the TV interviewer, it is sometimes difficult to understand even in context. /jʊə/ words have generally become /jɔː/, as /ʊə/ has increasingly become /ɔː/, but I have also heard /pjɜː/ and /kjɜː/for pure and cure (John has the first of these, but not the second), so it could be that lure and allure are developing in two ways simultaneously: losing /j/ to become /lɔː/ and /əˈlɔː/, and alternatively keeping the /j/, but centralising the whole vocalic complex, and then losing /j/, and becoming /lɜː/ and /əˈlɜː/.

As an afterthought, has anyone heard /ˈplɜːrəl/ for plural? And how many other /jʊə/ words are developing in these parallel ways?

Jack Windsor Lewis has pointed out that I was originally mis-reading the Longman Dictionary, and I have changed the wording accordingly. My thanks to Jack for his close attention to detail!

December 5, 2008
by Graham

Rumbustious nuptials

In his post of 27 November 2008, John Wells mentions the substitution of ‘-uous’, ‘-ual’ for ‘-ious’ and ‘-ial’ in the pronunciation of these two words. There is a more widespread confusion in the minds of English speakers about words ending in -ious, -ial-iary, -uous, -ual and -uary (and probably -iate and -uate, although I have no examples to hand).

I have recently heard judiciary pronounced /dʒʊˈdɪʃʊəri/, sumptuous as /ˈsʌmpʃəs/ and sexual as /ˈseksjəl/.

I think the problem lies in the pronunciation of the -u- in those words that have it in the spelling: /jʊ/. The yod tends to palatalize the preceding fricative (/s/ > /ʃ/) or plosive (/t/ > /tʃ/ and at the same time to front the following vowel, so that /ʊ/ moves towards [ʉ/ or [ɨ]. This leads to the only remaining distinction being between the /ʃ/ and the /tʃ/. John says that the OED pronunciation given for rumbustious, ending /-tiəs/ “sounds very prissy”, and I agree with him. However, celestial, with an ending in the same category, does not sound at all prissy to me when pronounced /səˈlestiəl/.

Narrowing down the endings to those with -ti-, the regular treatment is to pronounce the two letters together as /ʃ/. This occurs in almost all the words ending -tion, for example (there is one exception where the fricative is always voiced: equation /ɪˈkweɪʒən/, and one partial exception: transition, which many people pronounce with a voiced fricative: /trɑːnˈsɪʒən/ – I think this would be the pronunciation of transcision, but then I’m not an RP speaker). There’s also consortium, which is usually pronounced /kənˈsɔːtɪəm/, but which Leon Brittan (British Home Secretary at the time of the Westland scandal in the mid-1980s) notably pronounced /kənˈsɔːʃəm/. The plural, consortia, is more often pronounced with the /ʃ/ than is the singular, although this is still probably a minority pronunciation. Nasturtium (garden plant) and inertia regularly have the fricative /ʃ/.

Going back to rumbustious and nuptial, the first “needs” the /t/ to be retained, or we end up with /s/ followed immediately by /ʃ/, which would turn into /rʌmˈbʌʃəs/. It is then being compared with, and pronounced by analogy with, tempestuous and contemptuous. Nuptial is presumably being pronounced by analogy with virtual and mutual. The preceding /p/ is not a factor, since we have captious, which at the moment at least, is not becoming “captuous”.