February 25, 2015
by gpointon

Inexorable change?

Every one of the current pronunciation dictionaries agrees that the stress in the word inexorable is on the second syllable. On Monday this week, in the Radio 4 programme charting the history of Britain in numbers, Professor Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History, All Souls, Oxford, clearly said /ɪnekˈsÉ’rÉ™bÉ™l/. It might have been less surprising if the stressed vowel had been the longer /ɔː/, as in adorable, deplorable, ignorable, restorable. Google lists 29 words ending in –orable, and not one, so far as I can see, ends in /-É’rÉ™bÉ™l/.

Perhaps Professor Humphries is setting a new trend. Time will tell.

February 23, 2015
by gpointon

Composers’ whimsies

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was normal for composers to give speed indications for their music in Italian. Beethoven started to vary this with German, and Schumann followed suit, but Italian is still the main language for tempi – even this word is the Italian one.

Sometimes these indications are hard to interpret, and here are three that I’ve come across. They don’t bother me as a pianist – they all appear in choral music, and as I’m ‘only’ the accompanist, I just follow the conductor, so it’s up to him/her to decide how fast or slow to take the music.

Handel – tempo ordinario (appears quite often in oratorios)

Rossini – Allegro cristiano (Credo from his Petite Messe Solennelle – a piece that is neither ‘petite’ nor ‘solennelle’, but definitely a ‘messe’)

Beethoven – Andante con moto, assai vivace, quasi allegretto ma non troppo (Kyrie from Mass in C, Opus 86)

Beethoven in particular seems to be hedging his bets with this one.

February 6, 2015
by gpointon

Is this a new word?

The ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 is a rich seam for unusual usages. Yesterday threw up two, of which one could be a new word (unless someone can find a previous example?)

The eminent economist Jim O’Neill, best known perhaps for inventing (or at least popularizing) the acronym BRIC for the rapidly developing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, was interviewed by Mishal Husain about his latest role, advising the British government on the subject of antibiotic drug resistance, and he twice talked about ‘incentifying’ innovation in the use of existing drugs. When Mishal came back at him, she used the regular ‘incentivizing’ in the same context. The OED has no entry for ‘incentify’. (Was he creating it by analogy with intensify?)

Later in the same programme, the New Zealand Justice, Lowell Goddard, whom Teresa May has chosen as her third candidate to lead the inquiry into historic child abuse and its alleged covering up by the late Home Secretary Leon Brittan, used the word scope several times as a transitive verb, in the phrase “to scope an inquiry”. This time, the OED does have an entry for scope as a transitive verb, but only tentatively – the entry reads

trans. ? To calculate the scope or range of. Obs. rare.

1807   J. Barlow Columbiad v. 194   Lincoln..Scoped the whole war and measured well the foes.”

I’m not sure that Justice Goddard intended the same meaning as Barlow, but ‘calculate’ doesn’t quite seem to fit.

PS, 8 February – Having finished “The Falls”, I’m now reading the next Rebus novel, “Resurrection Men”, and have found this, on page 73: “Hynds had his [warrant card] open, too, but his eyes were elsewhere, scoping the room.”

January 19, 2015
by gpointon

Baristas again

Here baristas were mentioned in some of the comments.

I’m reading “The Falls” by Ian Rankin at the moment, and have come across this:

‘Not often I see you smiling,’ his barista said as she made him a double latte. Those were her words: barista, latte. The first time she’d described her job, she’d pronounced it ‘barrister’ which had led a confused Rebus to ask if she was moonlighting. (page 24)

Obviously, not only is this a Scot (I think we can assume that she is) who is new to the word barista, but also one of the increasing number who are less than fully rhotic!

January 10, 2015
by gpointon

French place names – again

The tragic events in France have once again shown the difficulties reporters have in knowing how to pronounce the names of the places involved. Obviously, they have rather more important things on their minds, but when names are constantly repeated, you would think that at some point they would have a few seconds to check with either a local – if they’re at the place itself, or with experts back at base (in the BBC’s case, of course, the Pronunciation Unit – and why, by the way, have they dropped the word “Research” from their title?)

Alec Bamford, an avid reader of this blog, has sent me the following:

“Amid the desperate ad-libbing by talking heads who knew no more than the average viewer, the attempts by various BBC personnel to pronounce Dammartin-en-Goële provided some interest. At least it kept changing which is more than can be said for the repetitious waffling. We had a variety of mid central simple vowels, one ‘goal’, Lyse Doucet, who is Canadian and should have known better, came up with Dammartin-en-Gueule which does not sound appetising, but the winner must be Kasia Madera. Despite getting a 2:1 in French (or so Wikipedia tells me), she decided, correctly, it was bi-syllabic. And pronounced ‘Go-hell’. With a [h], would you believe.”

Villers-Cotterêts was another one ripe for mispronunciation: ‘as any fule kno’  final -er in French is pronounced /e/ (the first verbs we learn are the -er class). But this time it isn’t just English learners who can be tripped up: many French people are uncertain about final -er in proper names. My late wife, when a student in France (before she met me) had a boy friend whose name was Roger Maler. While Roger is /rɔʒe/, Maler is pronounced /malɛːr/. What makes this doubly confusing is that at home the Maler family spoke Catalan, and in Catalan, the name is pronounced /male/… Anyway, there are several places in France containing the word Villers in their names, and in every case, it is pronounced /vilɛːr/.

December 18, 2014
by gpointon

Aaron and Maria

When did the name Aaron start to be pronounced /ˈarÉ™n/? John Wells has included it as a pronunciation for the modern personal name since the first edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (1990), and the 15th edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1997) followed suit, but I’ve only become aware of its widespread use since the footballer Aaron Ramsey rose to prominence. John Wells says that the pronunciation of the Biblical name remains, usually, /ˈɛːrÉ™n/, but I wonder for how much longer?

The reason for my doubt is the parallel case of Maria. When I was growing up (in the middle of the last century), the only pronunciation you ever heard for this name was /məˈraɪə/. It was often to be heard in the colloquial name for the police vehicle that was used for transporting prisoners: black Maria (in those days they usually were black, and not owned by private security companies). Then, in the mid nineteen fifties, two separate American musicals appeared whose main character was called Maria, in both cases appropriately pronounced /məˈriːə/: West Side Story, and, shortly afterwards, The Sound of Music. Both musicals had hit songs which included the name (“Maria”, ‘I just met a girl called Maria’ – according to Wikipedia, the name appears 27 times in the song; and “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” respectively), and so we were bombarded with this continental pronunciation day in day out, for months, if not years. Now, it has to be pointed out that Mariah Carey and Maria Aitken use the traditional pronunciation, otherwise they get their name treated in the ‘wrong’ way. Likewise, 19th century (and earlier) characters from fiction, such as the two Maria Bertrams of Mansfield Park, Maria Lucas of Pride and Prejudice, or Maria Thorpe of Northanger Abbey, or the eponymous Maria of Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel run the risk of being pronounced anachronistically, so thoroughly has the continental pronunciation taken hold.

As an aside, the only criticism I have to make of Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Mr Turner, in which he displays a mastery of different grunts, is that he stressed Purcell on the second syllable, which readers of this blog with long memories will recall I demonstrated to be a 20th century innovation.

December 10, 2014
by gpointon

An English educational website

I’ve just come across this website: http://www.primaryhomeworkhelp.co.uk/

It contains an amazing amount of information about Britain, its history, geography, etc, including the way in which the Union flag was developed, stage by stage, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen so clearly set out anywhere else. It’s a shame, therefore, that no one has thought to check the quality of the English in the text.

This is a website written for primary school children, at a very impressionable stage of their education, when exposure to well-written, well-spelled (or spelt?) and well-punctuated Standard English is most likely to influence their own practice. This is not a call for prescriptivism in language, but a recognition that whatever linguists may say about the acceptability of non-standard forms of language, and the arbitrary norms that have been set up for spelling and punctuation, in the real world, when these children come to look for jobs, they will be judged at least partly on their ability to produce English which conforms to these norms. Apart from the deliberate orthographic oddity of Jack Windsor Lewis’s blog, I do not know of any linguist who writes anything other than standard English, using capital letters, apostrophes, and all its the other paraphernalia in the conventional way.

“Primaryhomeworkhelp”, even in its headings, ignores these conventions, having sections on “topics including tudors, victorians, romans“. There is a large section on literacy, and perhaps fortunately, given the quality of the English elsewhere on the site, this consists entirely of links to other sites, many of which no longer work. Other examples of errors: “Through out the ages”; “Brittania”; “Arial” (for “Aerial”). Among the Romans, apparently “Men wore a knee-length tunic (chilton)… Rich boy’s wore a toga”.

These may all simply be typos, but as this is an educational site, some proof-reading really ought to have been carried out. Meanwhile, I suppose I am now liable for breach of copyright, as the final sentence on each page states “You may not redistribute, sell or place the content of this page on any other website or blog without written permission from the author.” No mention of acceptable usage for review purposes.

October 24, 2014
by gpointon


Martin Ball writes: “Did anyone hear Jonathan (I think rather than David) Dimbleby pronounce ebola as /ˈɛbÉ™lÉ™/ on Radio 4 the other day?
Is this pronunciation somehow nearer to that of West African languages?”

I didn’t hear Jonathan Dimbleby say this, but as I recall from the ever more distant past, the recommendation the Pronunciation Unit used to make for the river after which the virus is named is /ˈɛbÉ™lÉ™/. The river does not feature in the Lippincott-Columbia Gazetteer – a gazetteer nearly as big as the Webster 3rd International Dictionary, but it is in Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary, with this same pronunciation – perhaps the source of the BBC recommendation. On the other hand, I see that the Oxford BBC Guide to Pron. gives /i:ˈbəʊlÉ™/, ee-boh-luh, for the virus, which might explain why, when she has to say “suffering from Ebola”, Diana Speed (Radio 4 newsreader) appears to be saying /ˈi:ˈbəʊlÉ™/, as if it was two words, like e. coli /ˈi: ˈkəʊlaɪ/. The pronunciation I’m hearing most is /iˈbəʊlÉ™/, and when Diana has the phrase “Ebola virus”, she reverts to this pronunciation. I suppose the new style BBC Modified Spelling would be ‘i-boh-luh’. In old style, that would be ‘Ä•bōlă’ – with an acute accent above the ‘ō’ to mark the stressed vowel.

The newspapers seem unable to decide whether the name should carry an initial upper case letter or not. Obviously the name of the river does, but I don’t think the disease needs one – no one is remembering the connexion between the river and the disease, and I suspect that most people outside West Africa are unaware of the river’s existence.

As to the pronunciation in West African languages, we need an expert. Webster probably took its pronunciation from the colonial power, which would mean a French-style interpretation, re-interpreted into English as having initial stress (cf the anglicization of ‘Pompidou’ or ‘Mitterrand’).

PS I’ve now (2 November) heard from Martha Figueroa-Clark at the BBC, and she confirms that the recommendation is ‘ee-boh-luh’, or alternatively written ‘eebōlă’ – with an acute accent above the ‘ō’ .

September 23, 2014
by gpointon

How Dutch is Louis van Gaal?

Yesterday morning the Radio 4 Today programme wasted several minutes of valuable airtime discussing the pronunciation of Manchester United’s manager’s name. The editors no doubt see this as “good broadcasting”, but when you consider that most items are cut short through lack of time, this is a pointless discussion. All that needs to be done is for broadcasters to consult the Pronunciation Unit, and they will get definitive advice. Instead, the discussion was made even more ridiculous by someone talking to a Dutch BBC employee, who told them it was /xa:l/, only for the sports reporter (who is, naturally, renowned for his infallibly correct pronunciation of all sportsmen’s, and -women’s names) to say that he believed that the man had said to call him /gɑːl/. The Dutch employee is of course correct about the Dutch pronunciation, but is the reporter also correct about what Louis calls himself when speaking English?

This morning, as a counterweight to this, the same presenter (Evan Davis), happily pronounced President Assad’s name with stress on the second syllable, as did Sarah Montague, while Nick Robinson varied between first and second syllable stress. No comment was made about the appropriateness or otherwise of either version.

I may be wrong, but I should have thought that it was far more important to be consistent with the name of a politician who has been around for many years and may be around for many more to come, than to worry about a here-today-and-gone-tomorrow football manager (and if Man Utd’s results continue as they have started this season, then Mr van Gaal’s tomorrow will come quite soon).