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:

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).



August 11, 2014
by gpointon
1 Comment

Google and Potteries accent

In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, it seems incredible that a Memorial should be in danger of destruction, but that is what is happening in Stoke on Trent, where one of the six historic town halls (the one for Fenton – the town that Arnold Bennett left out of his Five Towns) is up for sale and consequent probable demolition. Inside is a ceramic war memorial with the names of Fenton’s war dead. It cannot be moved, apparently, because of the way it is attached to the building, but since the Department for Justice vacated it (the building’s latest incarnation was as law courts), the Stoke on Trent City Council seems to be washing its hands of the destruction of this memorial which has not only personal significance for the members of the deceaseds’ families, but also artistic and industrial historic merit.

There is a campaign on line to get the building, and so the memorial, preserved, and a week or so ago, the campaign committee organized a human chain round the town hall, and a YouTube video resulted. This has a commentary spoken by one of the organizers, in what I would call a fairly ‘mild’ Potteries accent, with hardly any difficulties in comprehension for listeners from anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, the subtitles provided by Google are hilarious. I can only suggest you listen, read and wonder at the way some of the words have been interpreted by their program. Thanks to Alec for pointing me towards these subtitles.

August 11, 2014
by gpointon

Confusing place names

We’re used, in the British Isles, to place names that have more than one pronunciation – Shrewsbury (/ˈʃrəʊzbÉ™ri/~/ˈʃruːzbÉ™ri/) is probably the best known, although those with long memories will recall that there was a veiled threat to my position over the pronunciation of Althorp 17 years ago (/ˈɔːltrÉ™p/ – as used by the Spencer family, or /ˈɔːlθɔːrp/ – as imposed by the anti-Spencer journalists of the news organizations). We are also quite used to place names whose pronunciation appears to bear little relation to the spelling – Happisburgh (/ˈheɪzbrÉ™/), Wymondham (/ˈwɪndÉ™m/), Kirkcudbright (/kÉ™rˈkuːbri/), and very occasionally there are place names with alternative spellings whose pronunciation remains the same. In fact the only one of those that I can quickly bring to mind is only a few miles from where I’m writing this – St Ippolyts~Ippollitts – or any combination of single and double -p- , -l- , or -t-. The pronunciation is always /ˈɪpÉ™lɪts/, despite the original Latin form of the name being Hippolytus, and therefore ‘correctly’ stressed on the second syllable: /ɪˈpÉ’lɪts/.

Now we have the more contentious question of a foreign place name that has three European spellings, and three pronunciations: Arbil~Erbil~Irbil. Should we be standardizing on one spelling and pronunciation, or leaving it to the whim of the individual reporter to decide from dispatch to dispatch which it will be? So far this last fortnight, the only one I haven’t heard is Arbil ?/ɑːˈbiːl/?.

I realize that compared to events on the ground, the pronunciation of this place name is very small potatoes, but the use of multiple forms of a name can confuse the audience when clarity is already in short supply.

July 19, 2014
by gpointon

Galilee and Galileo

I don’t usually watch or listen to the First Night of the Proms, but as yesterday evening’s concert was Elgar’s “The Kingdom”, an oratorio I have never heard, I decided to make an exception. Part way through, when the disciples are touched by the Holy Spirit and start speaking languages of which they had no previous knowledge, they are referred to as “Galileans”. Why not? they come from Galilee. The only pronunciation given for this adjective in the standard pronunciation dictionaries, is /gælɪˈliːən/, as one might expect. However, the word was sung twice by the choirs (the BBC Singers and the BBC National Choir of Wales – so they were taught by two separate chorus masters) as /gælɪˈleɪən/. To me this is the adjective one might form from the name of the Italian astronomer Galileo.

Some years ago, when I was still supposedly influential as the BBC’s Pronunciation Adviser, Radio Drama produced Ibsen’s “Emperor and Galilean”, for which my office provided (at their request) assistance with the pronunciation of proper names and other problematic words. The reason they gave for ignoring our recommendation for “Galilean”, and using the same anti-etymological version as the one I heard last night, was that “it sounded better”!

Clearly, the pronunciation dictionaries are out of date, and we must now accept that the “Galilean heresy”, pronounced identically, can refer both to Christianity seen from the point of view of 1st century Judaism, and the heliocentric ideas promulgated by Galileo and Copernicus, as criticized by the Roman Catholic Church.

July 7, 2014
by gpointon

A team of pronouns

When I was learning French, our excellent teacher gave us a mnemonic for learning the positions of the personal pronouns – other than the subject forms – in relation to the verb. It was in the form of a football team:

me nous te vous se

le la les

lui leur


(en was the substitute)

This was in the days before team managers developed their own theories of team structure – 4-2-4, 4-3-3, etc, and before more than one substitute was allowed, and then only in case of injury. The goalkeeper was number one, although he never wore a number on his back (I think Yashin, the great Soviet goalkeeper, may have been an exception). The other positions were right back (2), left back (3); right half (4) centre half (5), left half (6); outside right (7), inside right (8), centre forward (9), inside left (10) and outside left (11).

The pronouns are placed in the order of “forwards” first, then “halfbacks”, then “backs” and then the goalie. If necessary, the substitute follows the goalkeeper. So, “Chaque jour il me donnait les clefs” becomes “Chaque jour il me les donnait” when “les clefs” is replaced by a pronoun (forward before halfback); but “Il les leur donnait” (halfback before back) if he gave them to some other people; “Il s’en alla” (forward before substitute); “Il y en a” (goalkeeper before substitute).

It works, but now that we have all the different formats of football teams, depending on the whim of the manager at the time, or according to what he perceives to be the need when playing against a particular opponent, how do you teach pupils the position of French pronouns?

June 18, 2014
by gpointon

-ed or not -ed

There was a time when, if you wanted to buy a complete set of some publication which came in its own slip-case, it was known as a “boxed set”. The OED records this from as early as 1895 (Chicago Tribune, 22 December: “The boxed set of three volumes”), and in the case of recorded music, from 1947 (New Yorker 22 March: “Columbia’s two-volume boxed set of Handel’s ‘Messiah’”). This usage has continued up to the present day (OED has “Though some of the films are available as singles, the boxed set contains added features on the bonus disc.” from the Montreal Gazette, 3 June 2006).

However, increasingly the form “box set” is used. I was surprised to find that the OED records this as early as 1969 (Appleton Post Crescent, 26 October: “Box set of 8–12 oz. Tumblers” – Appleton is in Wisconsin for those like me who were previously unaware of its geographical location).

I have always assumed that the shorter form came about because of phonetic simplification of the cluster /sts/, removing the /t/ from the middle, but now, in a single edition of a British newspaper I find three examples of similar phrases: terrace house, for which I have always said terraced house, and these: “[This company] offers ‘gigabit fibre’ broadband to select customers in London”; “online shoppers who buy through select websites”.

“Terrace house” appears in Jane Austen’s Sanditon and James Joyce’s Ulysses, so it has a very long pedigree, and in fact, the OED refers you to ‘terrace house’ if you first look up ‘terraced house’, which it can only date back to 1958 (Daily Express, 3 April: “Their tiny terraced home in the back streets of Horden, Durham”).

“Select” seems to me to have a different meaning than “selected”. A website, or a customer, is selected when it is chosen maybe at random, whereas a “select customer” or “select website” is one picked out for some special reason of excellence. The OED appears to agree with me. Are we witnessing a change in the language from adjectival -ed forms based on nouns to bare nouns, and also to the removal of the -ed from adjectives derived from verbs?