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?

June 25, 2015
by gpointon

… and counting

I’m not sure how much the pronunciation of numbers is taught around the world, but it is not completely straightforward. If we start counting, from one upwards, there is no problem: one, two, three, … ninety-nine, one hundred. But then, would you go on with “one hundred and one” or “a hundred and one”? In ‘ordinary’, unemphatic British English, I suspect that for all numbers between 100 and 199, “a” would be more usual than”one”. In a more deliberate style, for instance the announcer at a darts or snooker match, “one” would be the norm: “one hundred and eighty” (maximum score in darts) or “one hundred and forty-seven” (maximum break at snooker) with appropriately exaggerated intonation. The same is true (“a” rather than “one”) for numbers between 999 and 2000.

These are the pronunciations for ‘pure’ numerals. But when we talk about a specific set of numbers, usage changes. The designations of roads, for example. A1, A10, A99 are ‘ay one’, ‘ay ten’, ‘ay ninety-nine’. Go above that, however, and although the round hundreds (100, 200, 1000 etc) are similarly pronounced: “ay one hundred”, B1000 ‘bee one thousand” (and I think ‘one’ is more normal than ‘a’ here), those in between are split into their component parts: B656 is ‘bee six five six’, A1307 is ‘ay one three oh seven’.

Year names is another series where the strict numerical pronunciation doesn’t apply. All years between 1001 and 1999 were simple: split in two and pronounce each half as a numeral: ten sixty-six; twelve fifteen, eighteen oh five. The BBC had a lot of discussion over the pronunciation of 2000 and onwards. 2001, following the Stanley Kubrick film, was always going to be “two thousand and one”, but how about the others? 2000 is almost invariably not called “two thousand”, but “the year two thousand”. Some Radio 4 newsreaders were criticized for pronouncing 2002, -03, … as “twenty oh two, … oh three” instead of “two thousand and two” etc. But then the Olympics held in London were always the “twenty twelve” Olympics. We now seem to have two acceptable ways of pronouncing third millennium year names. This parallels the French practice, which has always had the two possibilities : “dix-neuf cent(s) quatre-vingts” or “mille neuf cent(s) quatre-vingts” for 1980. The years up to 1000 are not so obvious, perhaps because they were so long ago: did the Romans leave Britain in “four ten” or “four hundred and ten”? Did the Emperor Justinian (the last Roman emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue) die in “five six five”, “five sixty-five” or “five hundred and sixty-five”?

Vehicle numbering is also not straightforward: Peugeot cars for instance are all given numbers, and the digits are pronounced separately: does anyone remember the sporty “two oh four”? The long-lived “four oh four”? Boeing aircraft numbers are also (in Britain) pronounced digit by digit: “seven oh seven”, “seven three seven”, even “seven seven seven”, but Airbus are not: A320: “ay three twenty”, A380: “ay three eighty”.

Telephone numbers: they are pronounced as single digits, but if six digits, then as two intonational groups of three (not as in many languages, as three groups of two). London numbers have eight digits: two groups of four (the first ending in a rise, the second in a fall). The area code (or if a non-geographical code, e.g. 0800, the indicator of the category of number: free, premium or mobile) forms an initial third intonational group, also ending in a rise.

Numbers between 0 and 1: all digits should be separately pronounced. An oddity is that 0.206 will often be pronounced “nought point two oh six”, with the two zeroes (yet another way of pronouncing either of the 0 symbols) treated differently.

These comments may not accurately represent other parts of the English-speaking world, but they are certainly true of many if not most speakers of British English.


April 21, 2015
by gpointon

Eggcorns and spell checkers

I’m not sure whether errors of spelling or grammar introduced to a text by spell checkers are eggcorns in the same way as those caused by a misunderstanding in the mind of a person, but here are two that I’ve come across lately, one of which is clearly an eggcorn, and the other is presumably introduced by an unchecked spellchecker:

From a cafe menu:

“Try our new home-made moussaka with tender lamb and succulent roasted aboriginals”

From a commercial organisation’s blog:

“There are plenty of different formats of Dashcams to fit different budgets; from simple stick and go battery operated devices, GPS trackers, to intergraded cameras.”

April 10, 2015
by gpointon

The pronunciation of names from history

Martin Ball has commented on my post about the pronunciation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘real’ family name – Dodgson. He raises a more general point that I think deserves a full post rather than simply a reply to his comment.

My position is fairly ambiguous -  a linguist with a professed ‘classical’ attitude of descriptivism, but having held a job for most of my career that necessitated taking a prescriptive view to some extent. I don’t think Martin’s example of Shakespeare is appropriate here – pronouncing the ‘r’ would go against current SBS phonology and the difference in the vowel sounds is also a result of the phonetic changes in certain phonemes, so that attempting to reproduce them would be unnatural to present-day speakers of SBS. Martin admits that we should, out of courtesy, pronounce the names of living people in the way in which they pronounce them themselves (always allowing for differences in dialect, and, I would add, in the case of foreign names, for differences in phonology and phonotactics), but doubts whether the same courtesy should apply to long-dead individuals. I think it would be a pity to lose the knowledge of these older pronunciations, from a scientific standpoint, and also, still using courtesy as a criterion, a shame to ignore the wishes of surviving family members. I’ve written before about Purcell, and recently, I attended a lecture during which the speaker said of Purcell “but we all pronounce him ‘Purcéll’ these days”. I protested that BBC Radio 3 certainly still calls him ‘Púrcell’, and I was unexpectedly backed up by a lady who said that ‘Purcell’ was her maiden name, and they always pronounced it with first syllable stress. Apart from Purcell and Dodgson, other names that have pronunciations now largely forgotten are Hazlitt /ˈheɪzlɪt/, Southey (whom  Byron rhymed with ‘mouthy’) /ˈsaʊði/, and the fictional names Casaubon (from ‘Middlemarch’) /kəˈsɔːbÉ™n/ and Jekyll, in the Robert Louis (and by the way the final ‘s’ should be pronounced!) Stevenson story /ˈdÊ’iːkÉ™l/, although in this case the real person Gertrude Jekyll is never, in my experience, subjected to the mispronunciation.

It’s understandable that the general public, who quite reasonably pronounce names as they see them, should be unaware of these quirks of spelling (or is it the pronunciation that is quirky?), but my view is that those whose business it is to use spoken language professionally should take advantage of all the  help they can, and the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit exists precisely for this purpose – as do the several good dictionaries that include pronunciation advice. I often wonder why Chambers Biographical Dictionary does not.

March 30, 2015
by gpointon

Lewis Carroll

I was listening to “Start the Week” on BBC Radio 4, presented by Andrew Marr, and dealing mainly with the anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I was not surprised that Mr Marr should pronounce Carroll’s ‘real’ surname as /ˈdÉ’dÊ’sÉ™n/, when all the evidence points to his pronouncing it /ˈdÉ’dsÉ™n/ – as did the late, great dialectologist John Dodgson. Most people pronounce it that way without thinking, as it is what the spelling implies. I was disappointed that the author of the latest biography of Dodgson/Carroll , Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, should follow suit. Has  he not spoken to members of the family? He also mispronounced the name of the place in Cheshire where Dodgson was born – Daresbury. Although this looks like /ˈdɛːzbÉ™ri/, it is actually pronounced /ˈdɑːzbÉ™ri/. I see from his biography that Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is an Oxford academic. Perhaps he conforms to the stereotype of Oxford dons, no doubt inaccurate in most cases (but it is the exception that proves the rule) of not needing to consider anything that happens outside that city.

John Dodgson was the author of the multiple volume Place Names of Cheshire published by the English Place Name Society. He suffered all his life from those who told him how to pronounce his own name. His remains must be performing all sorts of acrobatics.

March 21, 2015
by gpointon

Foreign or native

This may seem heretical for a phonetician, but I’ve often thought that it is possible to learn a foreign language too well. When I was a post-graduate student, there was another person around whose first language was not English, but who spoke it as if he’d been at a public school. It was very difficult to like him, until you forced yourself to remember that he was, after all, a foreign learner of the language. His pronunciation was perfect, but other aspects of his behaviour were totally non-British, such as his gestures, and these made him appear arrogant, although he wasn’t. A slight foreign accent – or even a strong one – can fool a native speaker into thinking your control of their language is better than it actually is!

I was reminded of this last week when I watched a TV documentary about Goering. The name of the voiceover artist didn’t appear until the credits rolled at the end of the film, so I spent the whole hour wondering how anybody could think that coup was pronounced /kuːp/. Early on in the film he had said /ˈpentʃənt/ for penchant, and I’d thought, well, maybe there are people who’ve only seen it written, and so treat it like pendant, but then he went on to pronounce anti-semitism as /æntiˈsiːmaɪtɪsm/, and finally indictment as /ɪnˈdɪktmÉ™nt/, by which time I was beginning to suspect he was using English as an additional language – if not, then he was a very ill-educated Brit. His name came up at the end as Martin Heckmann. He has his own website and his accent, right enough, is impeccable, but if he is going to work as an English voiceover, he needs to make sure that he knows how to pronounce every individual word. If he had had a slight German accent, I should have had no problem with these pronunciations – two of the words are borrowed from French, one is an exceptional spelling, even in English, and the fourth, taking off the ending, could, at a pinch, be pronounced as he said it, but as it was, he simply gave the wrong impression of his ability.

In case anyone reading this is in any doubt, the usual pronunciation of these words is /kuː/, /ˈpɑ̃ʃɑ̃/, /æntiˈsemɪtɪsm/ and /ɪnˈdaɪtmənt/.