February 20, 2016
by gpointon


Whether it is the cardinal sin, or the (cuddly?) slow-moving animal, there is a question mark over its pronunciation. On this morning’s edition of Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4, the well-known ‘sloth-woman’, Lucy Cooke, was interviewed. She always says the name to rhyme with ‘moth’, because, as she says, there is a moth that lives on the sloth, and this is the /slɒθ mɒθ/, not the /sləʊθ məʊθ/. Obviously this is a silly argument, as we all know that spelling in English is so apparently inconsistent that there is no reason why it should not be a /sləʊθ mɒθ/. She further said that she distinguished it from the sin, which she pronounced /sləʊθ/. A listener texted, or tweeted, that as the animal was named for the sin, this argument was also unsatisfactory. Then Sir David Attenborough got in on the act, letting the programme known that he always called both the animal and the sin /sləʊθ/. The Oxford English Dictionary was also quoted, and this has /sləʊθ/ as the usual British pronunciation, but /slɔθ, sloʊθ, slɑθ/ the American (given in that order, presumably of frequency heard).

I have always said /sləʊθ/. The etymology of ‘sloth’ is the adjective ‘slow’ plus the nominalizing suffix ‘-th’, as in ‘width, breadth, depth, length, warmth, coolth’. It seems that the vast majority of these  have a short vowel which is derived from a long vowel in the root adjective. Whatever the form in Middle English, therefore (the OED’s earliest example is from ca 1175 – ‘slauðe’), there must be a strong analogical pull in ‘sloth’ towards shortening its vowel too. Added to which, more of the words ending in –oth have a short vowel: broth, cloth, Goth, moth, the Egyptian god Thoth, while both and loth are the only other words to come to mind immediately with /əʊ/. The loss of the letter ‘w’ has made us forget the word’s compound morphological origins.

January 22, 2016
by gpointon

Prisoners interred in Russia

Back in 2007, I wrote about the confusion of the words inter and intern, in the context of going to a funeral. This week, the confusion has surfaced again, but this time the other way round. In her BBC series on the Romanovs, Lucy Worsley has reached the end of her story, and told of Tsar Alexander III “interring” 68 prisoners in Shlisselburg. I’m not sure how many of them either escaped or were released, but it seems quite likely that at least some of them really were interred there. I also wonder if “intern” was the correct word in any case. Chambers defines the verb to mean “imprison, detain, as a precautionary measure”, without a trial, but because the detainee is thought likely to offend in the future. Did Alexander’s victims go through any form of legal process before their incarceration? If so, they were imprisoned, not interned. Or perhaps Dr Worsley intended to say “interred” all along, because they were never seen again?

January 3, 2016
by gpointon


My friend and co-author Stewart Clark has drawn my attention to this BBC blog, which discusses the ‘correct’ pronunciation of the dinosaur’s name. Apparently the Natural History Museum, which is moving its model, stresses the third syllable: /ËŒdɪpləʊˈdÉ’kÉ™s/ on the grounds that the word is derived from the two Greek words “diplos” (διπλόος) and “dokos” (δοκός). This is no doubt true from an etymological angle, but in the 19th century, when the word was coined, all scholars of whatever subject would have been thoroughly trained in Greek, and would have known that this is not a sufficient reason for choosing where to place the stress. After all, humans are omnivorous, a word derived from ‘omni’ (all) and ‘vorous’ (eating) to show that we eat both plant and animal food, but we do not say */ˌɒmnɪˈvɔːrÉ™s/. The traditional rule is that if the penultimate syllable of a Greek or Latin word contains a short vowel, then the stress is thrown back to the antepenultimate syllable. It is only the linguistic ignorance even of otherwise eminent scholars in the modern world which can lead to this discussion. When scholars first described this creature, there would have been no doubt whatsoever about its pronunciation: /dɪˈplÉ’dÉ™kÉ™s/, as the BBC’s own Pronunciation Unit recommends.

For anyone unfamiliar with IPA who may come across this, the traditional pronunciation and BBC recommendation is ‘diPLODokuss’.

November 14, 2015
by gpointon

What’s brown and sticky?

As every British seven year old knows, the answer is “a stick”.

We can add -y to almost any word to make it mean something like ‘like a …’ or ‘quite …’, rather like -ish. Generally we add just the letter -y to do this, even when it creates an otherwise unfamiliar sequence of letters: yellowy, for instance, which doesn’t mean exactly the same as yellowish, or bluey. We don’t usually add -ey, because this is already an ending with other uses: monkey does not mean ‘like a monk’, and I’m not sure what a ‘donk’ would be. In fact, we may even delete a final e, as in poky, meaning small, presumably derived from the (now mostly dialectal) word ‘poke’, meaning a small bag, so that a ‘poky room’ is a very small, cramped, space.

However, sometimes we do have to make this ending -ey, for clarity, and an advert I’ve seen this week had the word ‘tomatoey’, to describe a pizza particularly rich in tomatoes. If this had been spelled ‘tomatoy’, the immediate reaction would be to pronounce the last syllable as ‘toy’, and the reader would be confused – not the aim of the advertiser. The latest advert for Ribena (for readers unfamiliar with this trademark, it’s a sweet blackcurrant drink) says “You Can’t Get Any More Ribenary“. At last! Someone has dared to introduce the notorious intrusive ‘r’ into the spelling!

October 19, 2015
by gpointon

Roaming stress

Alec Bamford uses this term in his comment on my last post. He first mentions it as a description of his own pronunciation of decade, by which I assumed he meant that his pronunciation one way or the other was randomly distributed, but he then goes on to use the term to describe contextually varying stress patterns in English. The example he gives is the California place name Del Mar: stress on ‘Mar’ in isolation, but on ‘Del’ when the name is followed by a stressed syllable (‘Del Mar residents’, for instance). There are many other cases: princess (in British English at least), as in ‘Princess Royal’, but ‘royal princess‘, or compact where second syllable stress as an adjective was normal until the phrase ‘compact disc’ came along, and the pattern ‘compact disc‘ established itself. In the 1980s, when this recording format became available, several Radio 3 announcers came to me at the BBC Pronunciation Unit and wanted me to recommend (which meant so far as staff announcers were concerned ‘dictate’) that the stress be maintained on the second syllable. I would not do this, on the grounds of normal English rhythmic patterns. I wonder whether my successors in the Unit have similar requests today.

It is contextual variation that has caused some bisyllabic words to change their pattern. Object seems always to have been stressed on the first syllable as a noun, and on the second as a verb, and by analogy with such words, new pairs, created when either a noun starts to be used as a verb, or vice versa, the same pattern has been imposed. Recent coinages often cause annoyance when the “wrong” stress pattern is used. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were many complaints to my office that dispute should always be stressed on the second syllable, whether as noun or verb, and Harriet Cass, then a young Radio 4 newsreader, commented to me that she was always horrified when she heard herself saying ‘dispute’ for the noun. (Harriet was once almost rendered incapable of reading the 1 o’clock news by being told by Professor Gimson at about 12.55 that he thought of her as the perfect example of an RP speaker of the younger generation. She ended her career as Chief Announcer at Radio 4.) ‘Dispute’ was then claimed by listeners to be the usage of trade union leaders (much heard on the airwaves in those days talking about industrial disputes), with the unspoken criticism that such people were uneducated and so unworthy of imitation. Again, I wonder if the Pronunciation Unit still gets such letters (or more likely email messages).

As an aside, I may be old-fashioned in my stressing of trajectory, but in the case of another word, trait, my pronunciation is the more modern one. My late brother, eight years my senior, but with identical upbringing to the age of 18 when we each went to university, pronounced this ‘tray’, as older dictionaries recommend. When I first heard him say this, I was puzzled as to what the word was he was using. I have always pronounced the final ‘t’. Why I continue to say ‘trajectory’, and where I got this from, I have no idea. Like most people, I suspect, I have an accent that contains a mixture of regional, social and period (older and newer) features.

September 27, 2015
by gpointon
1 Comment

More stressed

Jack Windsor Lewis has devoted his latest blog post to amplifying my efforts on the changing pattern of English stress. One comment he makes is that he has not personally heard ‘trajectory. This is actually my own pronunciation. I’m a few years younger than Jack, and I don’t think I’ve been influenced in my stressing of this word by any linguistic knowledge I may have picked up over the last few decades. One of the other words I mentioned, that Jack has picked up on, is secretive. The last person I heard say se’cretive was Tony Benn, a very left-wing Labour politician, but from a semi-aristocratic family (he inherited the Viscountcy of Stansgate, but refused to accept it, and ultimately caused a change in English law in the early 1960s). His accent was a rather conservative (small ‘c’) RP, and so this pronunciation was clearly a survival from pre-war days.

Having mentioned decade in the last paragraph, this is another word that has undergone two changes in the last hundred years. The BBC’s recommendation, as given by the Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1928, was spelled in Broadcast English I: Recommendations to Announcers Regarding Certain Words of Doubtful Pronunciation as ‘dékkad’, changed by the 3rd edition in 1935 to ‘déckăd’. This was such an unremarkable pronunciation that in the Society for Pure English’s Tract no. XXXII, (1929)  which was Broadcast English I “Re-issued with Criticisms, edited by Robert Bridges”, no mention of decade is made. I should remind readers that Robert Bridges was also the Chairman of the BBC Committee that issued the original booklet! My own pronunciation of decade is /ˈdekeɪd/, still with first syllable stress, but with a diphthong in the second. Many people now say /dɪˈkeɪd/, which makes it a homophone of decayed, which some might consider unfortunate.

In the interests of completeness, I can report that I heard both in’tegral and com’munal within ten minutes this morning on Radio 4.


September 21, 2015
by gpointon

English under stress

I think we can safely say that the ‘battle’ for second syllable stress on contribute and distribute is now lost. Almost all age groups now appear to me, with no valid statistical evidence whatever, to be putting the stress on the first syllable, and if John Wells’ survey was to be carried out again, I’m sure the percentages would be even higher for initial stress than they were in 2008 (the date of publication of the 3rd edition of his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary). Wells also allows the pronunciation contri’butory (3rd syllable stress), which I heard for the first time (consciously at least) a few weeks ago, from a BBC Radio reporter. I suspect he may have been flustered, and that this was a slip, but it obviously fitted the rhythm of his sentence. Can we expect to hear tri’butary at some time in the future?

It’s interesting that while the four-syllable words kilometre, controversy, trajectory, aristocrat and exigency have alternative pronunciations with first or second syllable stress (stress on the first syllable being the older one), and three-syllable words such as balcony, secretive, quandary, vagary, orchestra, contribute and distribute are now usually stressed on the first syllable rather than the second (orchestra appears to have been the earliest of these to shift – the OED 1st edition reports that Byron stressed the second syllable, and while a 1798 edition of Johnson’s dictionary stresses the first syllable, a later one edited by John Walker (1810) has second syllable stress), there are also words going the other way: integral and communal are now commonly heard in the UK with second syllable stress. Wells did no survey for integral, and shows 68% to 32% in favour of 1st syllable stress on communal, but I think things are changing. Integral, meanwhile, is simultaneously showing another, different, change: possibly by analogy with the word intricate, the /r/ is being shifted to the second syllable, leading to the pronunciation /ˈɪntrɪgÉ™l/.

A problem with the Wells surveys from the first edition of his dictionary on is that those reporting their own usage may have given the pronunciation they felt was the ‘correct’ one, rather than the one they actually used – and in many cases, although they might believe they used one pronunciation, dispassionate observation by others might prove otherwise. I am sure John Wells is aware of this. Only close analysis of a large oral corpus could demonstrate the true position.

Jack Windsor Lewis has a section on this question on his website here.


September 12, 2015
by gpointon

Wounds and injuries

What is the difference between a wound and an injury? In general, I would say that an injury is something that a person suffers as a result of an accident, while a wound is something that is inflicted by an assailant, so that to move to the verb, I am injured if a wall collapses on me because the wind has blown it over, but I am wounded if the wall collapses because someone planted a bomb near to it.

Because this is how I distinguish between these words, I was surprised that the BBC has been reporting that people have been wounded at the Grand Mosque in Mecca following the toppling of a crane during bad weather. Two weeks ago, when an aircraft crashed in Sussex during an airshow, the survivors were described as being injured.

Either way, it has been a terrible accident, but with all the attacks going on worldwide at the moment, the reports seemed to imply some malice behind the crane’s collapse which I don’t think was there.

September 4, 2015
by gpointon

A helping hand

Yesterday I had to go to the Royal Free Hospital in London for a routine annual check up, and afterwards was sent for a blood test. In the “blood room”, you take a ticket as you might at a butcher’s to indicate your place in the queue, and sit and wait. An illuminated sign flashes up the numbers and shows the booth to go to when it is your turn, and there is an excellently clear spoken message for anyone not watching the screen. This message is: “Will ticket no. 401 [in my case] please go to room no. 10”.

As my ticket was unable to follow this instruction without assistance, I took pity on it and carried it to room 10.

August 25, 2015
by gpointon


I was at the Phonetics Congress in Glasgow the other week, and just about every paper began with the word “so”, as did every answer to a question afterwards, regardless of its format. I’ve noticed the same in radio and TV interviews recently. “So” seems to have taken over completely from “Well” as the all-purpose filler while the speaker gathers his/her thoughts.  For example: “What did you have for breakfast?” “So, there was … ” or “Did you enjoy your breakfast?” “So, it was the normal thing – bacon, eggs …”

Has anyone else noticed this increasing tendency?