December 14, 2013
by Graham

One sentence, two meanings

About a month ago, John Maidment wrote about an ambiguous phrase: here

Now here is a proverb that has two meanings, and they are quite difficult to distinguish even by their intonation:

“No news is good news”. When this means that the absence of news constitutes good news, it may be “\No /news is \good _news.” To mean that whatever the news, it is bad, it may be “\No _news is â—Ÿgood â—žnews.”

And another: “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”. Is this a wind which causes harm to everybody, or does it mean that in most circumstances, no matter how “ill” the wind, some one will benefit from it? Only the intonation can tell us: “It’s an ˈill \wind, that blows \nobody any good.” (harms everybody) or “It’s an \ill wind that blows \nobody any â—žgood.” (someone will benefit).

December 8, 2013
by Graham

Welwyn and Willian

These are two villages in Hertfordshire. Welwyn /ˈwelɪn/ is better known these days for Welwyn Garden City, founded by Ebenezer Howard, but somewhat later than Letchworth Garden City (the world’s first garden city), and which is situated a couple of miles away from the old Welwyn village. Willian /ˈwɪlɪən/ is in fact one of the three villages that make up Letchworth GC, the other two being Norton, and Letchworth itself.

Both names are derived, according to the English Place Name Society’s volume on Hertfordshire (1938), from the Anglo-Saxon word for “willow”, which occurs in the forms welig and wylig. The first of these gave rise to Welwyn, and the second to Willian (both come from the dative case of the word, so that its meaning is literally “at (or to) the willows”). Presumably welig and wylig are the forms in different dialects of Anglo-Saxon. The two villages are only about 10-15 miles apart, and yet seem to be on opposite sides of an isogloss. Is there anyone out there who can confirm the two dialects for me?

In case anyone has seen it, the recent movie “The World’s End” was shot mostly in Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City. Ironically, the film tells the story of a pub crawl, and Letchworth GC was the world’s original town with no pub: the first licensed premises in the town did  not open until 1961, the town having been established in 1903 (Letchworth is also the site of Europe’s first roundabout – ca 1909 – it appears in the film).


December 1, 2013
by Graham

Portmanteau words

According to the OED’s examples, Lewis Carroll may have invented the use of ‘portmanteau’ to mean a word made up of the elements of two or more other words in order to somehow combine their meanings: in Through the Looking-glass, the words slithy and mimsy, which he coined for the poem Jabberwocky, are called by him portmanteau words (slithy = lithe and slimy; mimsy = flimsy and miserable).

Nick Robinson created another for the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 on 28 November: /ˈræpɪdʒɪŋ/ (I hesitate to put it into traditional orthography). It was a purely accidental coinage, and one which he immediately noticed (slips of the tongue often pass unnoticed by the perpetrator, and are sometimes even denied when pointed out to them), and corrected, in both ways. He meant to say either “wrapping” or “packaging”, but for some reason his brain mangled the message on its way to his mouth, and a mixture of the two words was the result.

I suppose you could say that in Saussurian terms, the “langue” was correct, but the “parole” slipped, or to use Chomsky’s words, the competence was there while the performance left something to be desired.

November 25, 2013
by Graham

Doctor Who

This weekend it has been almost impossible to avoid Doctor Who. Even Google introduced a simple game to its home page for both Friday and Saturday. I don’t understand why they didn’t commemorate JFK’s assassination on Friday, but there was Doctor Who and a dalek … My regular weekend crossword was also full of references to the programme, but I didn’t expect it to invade my professional space. On Saturday morning my copy of the latest edition of JIPA (The Journal of the International Phonetic Association for the uninitiated) arrived, and on page 359, in a review of “English Accents and Dialects” by Hughes, Trudgill and Watts, Hannah Leach, of the University of Sheffield, has this:

“Rose: If you’re an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the North?

The Doctor: Lots of planets have a North!

(Series 1, Episode 1, 2005).”

Of course this is not really series 1, but the first in the new run. That was Christopher Ecclestone, but we’ve since had David Tennant, a Scot, playing The Doctor with a South East accent. Pedants would have wanted Rose to say “as if” instead of “like”.

November 17, 2013
by Graham

Haiyan and Tacloban

It’s over a week since the appalling typhoon hit the Philippines and I’m still unsure what the “official” BBC pronunciation of these names is.

Most broadcasters are calling the typhoon itself /ˈhaiˈjæn/ or /ˈhaiˈæn/, but Radio 4 newsreaders appear to be saying /ˈhaiˈjen/, which puzzles me: the name is Chinese, and I always understood that the usual anglicisation for the Pinyin syllable yan was /jæn/, not /jen/, regardless of the tone (for instance the port of Yantai: /ˈjanˈtʌɪ/ – OBGP transcription).

As for the city most affected, I’ve lost count of the number of different pronunciations I’ve heard, sometimes from the same person within a few seconds. Here, you can hear a “male from Philippines” say the name as /taʔˈklobÉ™n/, but there is no indication as to his first language. Stress has appeared on any of the three syllables, and sometimes on first and third. I am sure that the Pronunciation Unit is recommending only one of these, but clearly nobody is taking much notice. The one chosen is not so important as the making of a choice and sticking to it.

A few weeks ago Tony, Lord Hall, the Director General, made a speech in which he said he wanted to get back to the Reithian triad of the BBC’s purpose: to inform, educate and entertain. There have been at least two occasions in the past 15 years when  direct orders have come from on high to use a particular pronunciation – the notorious case of Althorp, and the more benign one of Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Surely the same could happen again. It would ‘educate’ (in teaching a standard) and ‘inform’ (by clarifying the identity of the place referred to).

Print journalists have to conform to the style of their organ, including using standardised spellings for proper names. The equivalent in broadcasting is standardised pronunciations.

November 11, 2013
by Graham


The other day, I forget exactly when, I heard someone on BBC Radio 4 use a word I hadn’t come across before, and one to which my immediate reaction was “he’s making it up”. However, I should have remembered that it is actually very difficult to make up a “new” word in English as so many have been created and then forgotten over the years. The word this time was indignance and I was at first puzzled as to whether he “meant” ‘indignity’ or ‘indignation’. The context then clarified it to ‘indignation’.

Needless to say, the OED has an entry for the word, with this meaning, but I’m still wondering whether the speaker the other day was using it as a familiar word, or whether he simply ‘created’ it from indignant on the spur of the moment by analogy with all the other similar pairs, such as resistant ~ resistance. The OED’s most recent example for indignance dates from 1845, and its earliest from 1590.

November 3, 2013
by Graham

Pottery Phonology (2)

This post may be something of a disappointment to anyone wanting a comprehensive analysis. As I said last week, while the modern accent can be compared, for its differences, with standard British English accents, it would be wrong to compare the dialect in the same way, as both the modern standard and the local dialect are descended separately from different dialects of Middle English, and even Old English. Modern Standard English arises from the form of the East Midlands dialect of Middle English as spoken in the London area (and note that what is usually taught today as ‘Standard’ Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, was not this dialect, but Wessex), whereas the dialect spoken in North Staffordshire was West Midlands.

It would take a whole doctoral thesis to make a thorough analysis of the phonology of Pottery dialect, so here are just some of the most noticeable features:

Middle English (ME) long U /uː/ has split: in many cases it has become /ai/, as in house or council (the first of these is a Germanic word, the second Romance, which is itself interesting for dating the evolution of the sound), so that “Arfur Tow Crate in Staffy Cher” can make fun of the phrase ‘kind slice’ for “council house”. Other words with ME /uː/, however, have developed to /ɛu/. Now and mouse are examples of this.

ME /a/ before a nasal had already become /ɒ/ in the West Midland area, so that man is pronounced /mɒn/, and cannot is /kɒnə/.

ME /eː/ has simply diphthongized in many cases: see is pronounced /sei/, while ME /ai/ has become a closer monophthongal vowel /iː/: say is pronounced /siː/.

ME /iː/ has in many cases merged with ME /eː/ – wife /weif/, mice /meis/. Elsewhere it has undergone the general vowel shift to /ai/, and then simplified to /aː/ and then to /ɑː/ my wife is often called /ˈmɑː liːdi/ (= “my lady”).

ME /el/ has opened to /al/: tell pronounced /tal/. In final /al/ the /l/ has vocalized and the /a/ backed and risen to form a diphthong /ou/: ball pronounced /bou/.

Apart from the phonology, Pottery dialect has some archaizing grammatical features as well: retention of a second person singular form of modal verbs is the most obvious. The shibboleth question for recognizing another Potteries native is “Cost kick a bo’ agen a wo’, then yed it til thee bost it?” Translated, this is “Can you kick a ball against a wall, then head it until you burst it?” It loses a lot in the translation.


October 26, 2013
by Graham

Potteries phonology

Thanks to Ed for suggesting this post.

The first thing is to distinguish between the modern Potteries accent, which I suppose I still have, although modified after 45 years’ non-residence, and the traditional dialect. Both have a phonology that is different from RP, but whereas the modern accent is an approximation to RP, with certain differences that are common to many other regional accents, the traditional dialect has no direct relationship to RP, but is the descendant of the north west Middle English dialect of the area.

The modern accent’s distinctive features are

(1) The non-existence of a velar nasal phoneme: all occurrences of [ŋ] are homorganic allophones of /n/ preceding a velar plosive. Thus ‘singer’ rhymes with ‘finger’ (/-ɪngə/), and ‘singing’ is pronounced phonemically /ˈsɪngɪng/.

(2) The three RP vowels /ʊ, uː, ʌ/ are replaced by two, with different distributions. The short one is often represented by /ʊ/, but this is not very close to the phonetic reality. I’ve written about this before, here. It is not enough to say that /ʊ/ and /ʌ/ are neutralised because some RP /ʊ/ words have Pottery /uː/, e.g. ‘book’, and many other words spelled -oo-.

(3) The distribution of /æ/ and /ɑː/ is different. Basically, /ɑː/ is restricted to stressed – whether primary or secondary –  word-final position (e.g. ‘spa’, ‘bra’, ‘Panama’) or pre /lC/ or /rC/, when the /l/ or /r/ is deleted (e.g. ‘palm’, ‘farm’). There are exceptions – e.g. ‘father’, ‘banana’, but this is the general position (my idiolect has only about a dozen words with /ɑː/ which do not fulfil the two conditions).

(4) The distribution of /h/. There is uncertainty about its occurrence or non-occurrence (so what’s new?) I once heard the Chairman of the City of Stoke on Trent’s Education Committee begin a speech with the words “First hof hall, HI would like to say ow appy HI ham to be ere, this hevening”.

Phonetically, of course, there is a lot of difference between Pottery and RP.

Traditional dialect next week.

October 21, 2013
by Graham


In the 1970s a series of books (well, they were more like pamphlets really) were published that illustrated local English dialects by making fun of them, not in a nasty way, but affectionately, by people who wanted to record local phrases and pronunciations before they disappeared. One of the first was “Krek Waiter’s Peak Bristle” (translate as “Correct Way to Speak Bristol), which included such useful terms as “Bem Breckfuss”, and “Count’s Louse”.

There were three “Bristle” books, and these were followed by others, including “Arfur Tow Crate in Staffy Cher”, which also spawned a sequel. While “Bristle” made great play of the Bristol ‘added l’ (for those who don’t know, many words ending in schwa have /l/ added to them – including Bristol itself, which was earlier “Bristow”), the Staffy Cher books were able to draw on the vowel system of Stoke on Trent (Potteries) dialect as well as its grammatical idiosyncracies, and unlike the Bristol examples, they need to be ‘translated’: “Dine thar straight” (‘down thy street’), “Kind Slice” (see “Count’s Louse” above) “Eye Straight” and “Eye Lean” (High Street and High Lane).

Apart from poking fun, these books actually demonstrate some aspects of English phonology that turn up even in more standard forms of the language – so “Bem Breckfuss” includes the assimilation of alveolars to labials, and both “Count’s Louse” and “Kind Slice” shows the frequent interpolation of a plosive between a nasal and a sibilant. Non-phoneticians are often surprised to learn that their speech also exhibits these features.

October 12, 2013
by Graham

Spanish orthography

Last week’s post was my own translation of an interview that Professor Salvador Gutiérrez, member of the Real Academia Española, and Professor of General Linguistics at the University of León in Spain, gave to the Spanish newspaper “La Razón” in May (¿Sabemos escribir?). There has been a lot of discussion about education in general this year in Spain because of a proposed new curriculum law – “la ley Wert” – named after the current Minister of Education.

Spanish is often held up as a model that English should follow in its orthography, and yet here is someone complaining about the low standard of spelling by Spaniards. This link is to an article, also published in “La Razón”, pointing out that a tweet sent by opponents of the new law itself contained four errors (three of spelling, one, more doubtful, of vocabulary).

It is true that any written Spanish can be read correctly straight off the page, but spoken Spanish cannot be automatically spelled correctly: there are several points of ambiguity – the letters ‘b’ and ‘v’ are always identically pronounced (phonetically they may be [b] or [β], but these are allophones of a single phoneme, and so contextually determined); ‘h’ is always silent, so that there can often be doubt as to its presence or absence as part of the spelling of a word; ‘g’ is pronounced /x/ before ‘e’ or ‘i’, but there are words in which ‘j’, which is always pronounced /x/, may occur before ‘e’ (e.g. Jerez) ot ‘i’ (‘jinete’). These are difficulties that all Spanish speakers face. In addition there are those caused by the neutralization of ‘ll’ and ‘y’ in certain dialects, to anything from approximant /j/ to palatal plosive /ÉŸ/. So it goes on.

Even languages which supposedly have regular orthographies turn out to be rather more complicated when examined more closely.