January 7, 2009
by Graham
2 Comments

r-deletion

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
3 Comments

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
4 Comments

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
0 comments

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”.

November 26, 2008
by Graham
1 Comment

Confusion of constructions

An article in The Independent on 22 November 2008 includes this sentence:

“The US is in a sitting duck administration until Barack Obama can take office in January.”

Yesterday I heard a broadcaster say that someone would have to “pay the sacrifice”.

These are examples of the confusion of two constructions,which it is easy to do in speech, although the “sitting duck” for “lame duck” should have been removed when the writer read over what he’d written (do journalists ever do that any more, with the time pressures that they’re under?)

Many style guides now accept that “between … to” and “centre around” are acceptable English, as they are so frequently met with (the second has been around since at least the 18th century). However, surely they are no more than a confusion between(!) “between … and” and “from … to”, and “centre on” and “revolve around”, just as “pay the sacrifice” is a confusion between “pay the price” and “make a sacrifice”. I think most thoughtful English teachers would still point out to their students that this last one was muddled, so why not continue to be critical of “between … to” and “centre around”?

Today I’ve heard “stepping into a hornet’s nest”. Is that what I’m doing by raising this subject?

November 20, 2008
by Graham
9 Comments

Spanish historical phonology/phonetics

Athel Cornish-Bowden asks, in a comment under the post on English spelling reform, if Spanish spelling has remained constant over hundreds of years, as his Spanish host claimed a few weeks ago. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. We have to distinguish between changes in the spelling, and changes in the pronunciation which may or may not be recognised by the spelling.

If I may return briefly to English, we can read Shakespeare relatively easily, because modern editions adopt modern spelling, while leaving the words themselves unchanged. The same is true of Spanish – Golden Age playwrights such as Lope de Vega are published with modern spellings, and they are fairly straightforward for us to read.

English has changed its vowel system drastically since the Norman Conquest, while the consonants have remained remarkably stable. This is why most of the difficulties with English spelling are to do with representations of vowels: Middle English had two phonemes written as <ea> /ε:/ and <ee> /e:/. These have merged in many cases into /i:/, but some <ea> words have shortened to become /e/.

Spanish, on the other hand, has kept the same vowel system (i.e. phonology) since the Middle Ages, but its consonant system has undergone some radical phonetic changes as well as some less radical phonological ones. The spelling has changed to some extent to reflect this. There is evidence to suggest that in Cervantes’ time,  the letter ‘x’ represented the sound /ʃ/ – as it does in Catalan and Portuguese today. This is reflected in the way that French has borrowed Quixote – spelling and pronouncing it Quichotte. Medieval Spanish also had a phoneme /ʒ/ (written as ‘j’), which devoiced to /ʃ/ some time before the end of the sixteenth century. In the course of the 17th Century, the point of articulation of this merged consonant (/ʃ/ from /ʒ/ and original /ʃ/) moved back from palato-alveolar, or even perhaps palatal, to velar, becoming /x/. Because the change did not affect the distribution of the phoneme, merely its phonetic nature, it was unnecessary to amend the spelling, but eventually, because there were now two possible spellings for /x/, the letter ‘j’ became the norm in Spain, while elsewhere, ‘x’ remained (cf the Spanish spelling Méjico versus the Mexican spelling México, both pronounced /ˈmexiko/). There have been other changes, but this is enough to show that Athel’s host was not quite right in his assumptions.

October 26, 2008
by Graham
56 Comments

English spelling reform

This year has seen the centenary of the Spelling Society, formerly the Simplified Spelling Society, and inevitably there has been a lot of comment in the press, mostly uninformed criticism of anyone (particularly John Wells, as its President) who supports even a modicum of reform as an abandonment of “standards”.

Proposals for reforming English spelling go back way before the Spelling Society was founded, but the momentum for change increased in the 20th century. Robert Bridges, as Poet Laureate, had enough clout to persuade Oxford University Press to reprint a series of his essays with ever increasing numbers of reforms, which included new or adapted letter shapes for particular sounds; Bernard Shaw went a step further, by leaving an immense amount of money in his will for the formulation of a new writing system for English, which would not be based on the Roman alphabet, and would not simply be a new form of shorthand. He wrote several letters to The Times on this subject in the 1930s and 1940s, using the economic argument that the only way of achieving success was to persuade politicians of the saving in terms of both money and time: an alphabet that contained a single symbol for each of the phonemes of English, thus obviating the necessity for digraphs and eliminating ambiguities (e.g. row, lead), would use up less space on the page, therefore less paper, therefore be cheaper; and quicker to both write and read, therefore saving much time, and therefore money. (The elimination of superfluous hard signs in Russian is said to have reduced the length of “War and Peace” by over 90 pages!)

Shaw’s will was overturned in the courts, but a competition to devise a new alphabet was held, and the winner was rewarded not only with a cash prize, but with the satisfaction of seeing his alphabet published by Penguin in a dual-text edition of “Androcles and the Lion” (1962). (One of the adjudicators, who also helped refine the winning entry, was Peter MacCarthy, who lectured in phonetics at several universities, and was my external examiner when I took the undergraduate course in phonetics at Edinburgh in the 1960s.) Right enough, this alphabet did save space – roughly one third of the page containing the Shaw alphabet version is blank, but there was no way that it could ever become a success: the Roman alphabet has now more-or-less conquered the world, and to expect anyone, native speaker or, perhaps especially, foreign learner to take the trouble to learn this new writing system is beyond belief.

Some simple reforms would be easy: the initial w and k of words such as wrong or knife could be dropped with no problem: they are pronounced in no variety of English that I have ever heard (an exception is the word acknowledge, where the /k/ is carried over from knowledge with the Latin prefix AD > AC by assimilation). This would be parallel to the change from Old to Middle English, when initial h of such words as hnutu (“nut”) stopped being written as well as pronounced. Most changes, however, would founder on arguments about which variety was to be the basis of the new spelling. The most obvious division is between rhotic and non-rhotic accents, but there are many others, such as the non-distinction of the THOUGHT and CLOTH vowels in Scots (Knots and Crosses is the punning title of Ian Rankin’s first Inspector Rebus novel), or the different distribution of the GOOSE and FOOT vowels in both Scots and Northern English, or, in Northern England, the lack of a split between STRUT and FOOT, which rhyme in many varieties. If each variety’s speakers were allowed to develop their own version of English spelling, life would be made very difficult for publishers!

It is noticeable that almost all the advocates of spelling reform use traditional orthography in their own writings (Jack Windsor Lewis is an exception in his blog, but not elsewhere). This is presumably because they do not wish to risk the anger of the general public, or politicians (such as David Cameron who attacked John Wells in a speech recently), who do not understand the arguments.

English is not the only language to have a difficult spelling system: French is notoriously difficult, and even Spanish, as I have written here before, is not totally transparent. Reform is possible – Norwegian, for instance, has undergone several spelling reforms since the late nineteenth century, mainly aimed at reducing its similarity to Danish. However, it is the ingrained attitude of the English-speaking public that will have to be changed before any progress can be made in simplifying the world’s premier language.

September 21, 2008
by Graham
1 Comment

Boulogne, Gdansk and Spain

A post on Languagehat (18 September) about the variant spellings of Boleyn (as in Anne Boleyn), and its origin in the place name Boulogne reminds me that I’ve been thinking about the anglicization of this name and others for some time.

Going back to the early 1980s and the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the name of Gdansk became prominent in this Polish form rather than its then rather better known German form, Danzig. It seemed obvious that the anglicization should be as it looked: ‘g-dansk’, but there were a few people who suggested that it would be closer to the Polish pronunciation to call it /gdaɪnsk/. Poland and Polish names were constantly in the news at the time – Lech Walesa (so spelt in the British press) and Karol Wojtyla (likewise) became familiar to everyone, and although the spellings in the papers did not change, it was soon accepted that ‘Walesa’ was pronounced /vau’ensə/ and ‘Wojtyla’ /vɔɪ’tɪwə/. The reason of course was that the Polish diacritics were not being used, and the native spellings were Wałęsa and Wojtyła. Similarly, in Gdansk, the <n> is really (in Polish) <ń>: Gdańsk: /gdaɲsk/. Those advocating an anglicized pronunciation /gdaɪnsk/ were transferring the palatalization of the nasal into a preceding close front vowel.

Perhaps we should have listened. This is exactly what has happened to give us the English pronunciation of Boulogne and Spain. French /bulɔɲ/ has become English /bʊ’lɔɪn/ or /bə’lɔɪn/, and Latin/French/Spanish Hispania/Espagne/España gave older English /spaɪn/, which through the Great Vowel Shift became /speɪn/.

The same development has given us the family name Gascoigne from Gascogne, but the place name has developed differently into Gascony.

An exception is Cologne, which by the rule “ought” to be /kə’lɔɪn/, but is actually /kə’loʊn/.

September 12, 2008
by Graham
7 Comments

Two squibs in reply to other blogs

First, in yesterday’s blog entry, John Wells claims of “agrément”: “You read it here first”. Perhaps you did, but John has not read Word for Word, pictured in the column to the right of this, which Stewart Clark and I published in 2003:
agrément, borrowed from French, is found on a product’s label to show that it has been approved by the relevant EU authority. Hence its meaning in English is ‘approval’.
Stewart and I included an approximation to the French pronunciation as we could find no evidence of an anglicized version, and considered it to be a word more likely to be encountered in print than in speech. John may well be right in saying that you saw an anglicization in his blog first.

Second, Jack Windsor Lewis disagrees with me here about the function of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit. He would like it to be a purely advisory body, while I would like to see its recommendations made mandatory on those whom the public perceive as BBC personnel (presenters, newsreaders, journalists). Continue Reading →

August 28, 2008
by Graham
5 Comments

False Friends

Anyone learning a foreign language soon becomes aware of false friends – those words that look alike in both the languages. One of the most obvious false friends in English for anyone learning it is actual. Most European languages seem to have a word that looks very much like it, but which means something different, usually ‘current’, or ‘present day’. But what about words that mean something quite different in different varieties of the same language? I’m thinking of words like alternate, that in British English means ‘every other’ – “He works on alternate days”, but in American English is an alternative word for – alternative. Many British airline passengers are disconcerted when an American pilot tells them they will be landing momentarily: they are expecting to be able to get off the plane. In British English, momentarily means ‘for a moment’, but in American English, ‘in a moment’. Warning signs on level crossings in Britain had to be changed after the authorities discovered that while has a different meaning in some parts of England. “Stop while the lights flash” was intended to mean that if the lights are flashing, stop, because a train is coming. But in some forms of English, the sign meant ‘stop until the lights flash’. Does this sort of false friend have a name?