May 11, 2016
by gpointon

A Little Learning

Until the end of the 19th Century, when, in Britain at least, we began to have universal education, most people, however intelligent they were, didn’t have access to as much knowledge as we have today. The ‘educated’ classes tended still to learn Latin, and in many cases Greek, to a reasonable level (whether they retained what they were taught is a separate matter). Consequently, the only people who would get to pronounce Latin and Greek names would have an inkling of the standard way of doing it, using the traditional English pronunciation. In the book (and films of the book) “Goodbye Mr Chips”, old Mr Chips bemoans the replacement of the traditional pronunciation of Latin with the reconstructed Classical pronunciation because, as he puts it, it was easy to teach VICISSIM as ‘vie-SISS-im’, but caused nothing but hilarity in class if you were compelled to teach ‘we-KISS-im’.

Now we all know so much more, and we know – or think we know – how to pronounce Latin and Greek. Even those of us – the majority – who have never learned either of the Classical languages at school. But we don’t. Returning to my last post, on Palmyra, we can see that this Classical name for the place in Syria was obviously to be stressed on the second syllable, pronounced like the word ‘mire’, because “that’s the way you pronounce a long ‘y'”. Any other way would have been thought pretentious. The Arabic name is totally unrelated to it, so the Arabic pronunciation is irrelevant.

A similar misapplication of ‘rules’ of Classical pronunciation is applied to the port of Athens in Greece: Piraeus. This is the only spelling ever seen in English, and the traditional pronunciation is ‘pie-REE-us’ (think -AE as in Caesar – even today no one talks about a SAY-zar salad). Most people now seem to call it ‘pi-RAY -us’. This is neither good traditional English, nor good Greek – the Greek pronunciation is ‘piREFs’; so making -ae- represent the ‘ay’ diphthong is not even a spelling pronunciation. The only justification I can think of is the Roman Catholic, Italianate, pronunciation of Latin, which most British choirs use for singing Latin texts. When the word ‘caeli’ appears, it is pronounced ‘CHAY-li’. Most words borrowed from Latin with -AE- that have become English, such as paediatrician, are so well established with ‘ee’ that the American spelling has dropped the -a- altogether.

A little learning …


March 28, 2016
by gpointon


All three of the current standard pronouncing dictionaries of English give only one pronunciation for this historic Syrian place name – /pælˈmaɪrə/. I assume that this is still the recommendation of the Pronunciation Unit, and yet today, almost every commentator, reporter or newsreader that I’ve heard on either BBC Radio or TV – including those on Radio 4 who I can usually rely on to follow the Unit’s recommendations – has said /pælˈmiːrə/.

Is it time for a rethink?

March 24, 2016
by gpointon

Return to Bosnia

The wheels of international justice grind exceeding slow, and eight years after his arrest, Radovan Karadzić is eventually being sentenced today. I commented in 2008 (here) on the confusion between at least two pronunciations of his family name, and it is continuing today. Where does the pronunciation /ˈkærədɪtʃ/ come from? Both Sarah Montague (Radio 4 Today programme) and Edward Stourton (Radio 4 World at One) have used it, and yet every BBC reporter who covered the story from Bosnia at the time of the genocide and has been quoted today, and also every native speaker of languages from the former Yugoslavia that I have heard commenting on the story today has used what the Pronunciation Unit recommended from the early 1990s onwards: /ˈkærədʒɪtʃ/. You would have thought that the presence of a -z- coming between the -d- and the -i- would be enough to make them think, but obviously not. Of course, the two transcriptions I have given reflect anglicised pronunciations rather than a native Serb version.

March 3, 2016
by gpointon


A Franco-British summit is being held in Amiens today. The name is pronounced in French /amjɛ̃/, which is often misinterpreted in English as /ˈæmiɑ̃ː/. The BBC’s recommendation is the closer /æmˈjæ̃/. Chris Aldridge, Radio 4’s Chief Announcer, had obviously not had time to check before he read the 7 o’clock news this morning, because he used the /-ɑ̃ː/ pronunciation. By the time of the 7.30 summary, he had had a chance to look it up, and was on track with /-æ̃/. This is exactly as the system should work, and perfectly acceptable to the audience. The point of this post, however, is not Chris Aldridge’s pronunciation, but that of the reporter more-or-less on the spot in Calais, Anna Holligan. I see from her online profile that she is the BBC’s correspondent in The Hague. This may explain why she said /əˈmiːnz/. Is this the usual pronunciation in Dutch?

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.