May 5, 2014
by gpointon

Potteries accent

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a long stretch of a genuine Potteries accent on Radio 4 before this – usually actors are attempting it from some other starting point, but here is the Real Thing, in a short story called “Pot Luck”. Final ‘ng’ is [Å‹g], intervocalic /t/ often becomes /r/ (for instance “not on” becomes /nÉ’rÉ’n/, /aɪ/ has a distinctly front open /a/, /ÊŒ/ and /ÊŠ/ are neutralised, and there is the ubiquitous term “duck” when addressing someone – anyone.

It’s available on the BBC iplayer for four more days:

I hope you can enjoy it.

April 13, 2014
by gpointon

An error in Domesday Book translations?

I talked about the etymology of the names Welwyn and Willian in an earlier post (here). I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

The earliest reference to Welwyn that is given in the English Place Name Society volume on Hertfordshire (1938), is ultimately from AD 944-6, in a copy of the 13th century, published by Birch in his Cartularium Saxonicum in the late 19th century. There it appears as “Welingum”, a form that goes back to the Old English dative of welig, with the -n- inserted by analogy with the many other names that regularly ended in -ingum. In Domesday (1086) the name appears six times – according to the published translations. Willian’s earliest appearance in the record seems to be in Domesday, where it is given the spelling “Wilie”, and, apparently, is mentioned once only. However, I think that some of these seven mentions have been mis-attributed, and that at least three more of them refer to Willian, which is one of the three ancient parishes that make up Letchworth Garden City.

Here are the entries as translated in the Phillimore edition of Domesday, which includes the Latin text as well as an English version:

1. “In Welwyn [spelled ‘Wilge’ in the Latin] the Bishop [Robert Bishop of Chester] also holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough. The value is and always was 3s. This land lies in (the lands of) Bygrave, the Bishop’s manor. Archbishop Stigand held it.” [but Bygrave borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

2. “In Welwyn [Welga] Robert of Pont-Chardon holds 1½ hides and 20 acres from Robert [Gernon]. Land for 3 ploughs; in lordship 1; another possible. 3 villagers with 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 1 cottager; 2 slaves. Meadow for 2 oxen; pasture for the livestock. The value is and was 30s; before 1066, 40s. Godric, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, held this land; he could sell.”

3. “In Welwyn [Wilga] William of Eu holds ½ hide. Land for ½ plough, but it is not there. The value of this land is and always was 3s. Alstan of Boscombe held it; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. In the same village, William Delamere holds 2 hides from William of Eu. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; 5 villagers have another; a third possible. 2 cottagers. Pasture for the livestock. The value of this land is and was 32s; before 1066 £4. Alstan of Boscombe held 1 hide of this land; it lay in (the lands of) Weston. Alfgeat, his man, held 1 hide; either could sell.” [but Weston borders on Willian, not Welwyn.]

4. “In Welwyn [Welge] Roger holds 2 hides from Geoffrey (of Bec). Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 villagers with 4 smallholders have 4 ploughs; a fifth possible. 4 cottagers; 1 slave. 1 mill at 8s; meadow for 2 ploughs; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 20 pigs. In total, value 50s; when acquired 20s; before 1066 £6. Gode and her son held this land from Queen Edith; they could sell.”

5. “In Willian [Wilie] Geoffrey of Bec holds 5 hides and 1 virgate himself. Land for 9 ploughs. In lordship 2 hides; 2 ploughs there; another 2 possible. 10 villagers with 1 man-at-arms and 4 smallholders have 5 ploughs. Meadow for ½ plough; pasture for the livestock; wood for fences. In total, value £10 14s; when acquired £4; before 1066 £12. Leofric, one of Earl Leofwin’s Guards, held this manor; he could sell. A Freeman, Aelmer of Bennington’s man, had ½ hide; he could sell. A widow had ½ hide less 10 acres; she could not sell without Godwin of Letchworth’s permission.”

6. “In Chells Godfrey holds 1½ hides from Peter [of Valognes]. Land for 1 plough; it is there, with 2 smallholders and 1 slave. Value 30s; when acquired 20s; before 1066, 40s. Alwin held 1½ hides of this land. Apart from 10 acres and 1 plot, which Alwin Dod [son], Aelfric Little’s man, holds; they lay in (the lands of) Welwyn [Wilga]; he could not sell outside.” [but Chells lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn.]

7. “In Welwyn [Welge] a priest holds 1 hide, in alms from the King. Land for 3 ploughs. In lordship 1; another possible. 6 smallholders have 1 plough. 2 cottagers. Meadow for 1 plough; pasture for the livestock; woodland, 50 pigs. In total, the value is and always was 25s. He held it himself from King Edward in alms. It lies in the (lands of the) church of this village. William Black, the Bishop of Bayeux’s man, annexed 12 acres of this alms land in the King’s despite, as the Hundred testifies.”

It looks to me as if the earlier translators have simply seen a ‘g’ in the spelling, and automatically thought “Welwyn”, without considering the geography. Neither have they  taken into consideration the modern spellings: each time there is an ‘i’ in the original, the land in question lies much closer to Willian than to Welwyn. If the two names have always differed in their first vowel, as seems likely, why not take this evidence at face value?

There is another point: in ordering the various estates, the Domesday compilers tend to group them according to their location within the hundred, so that adjoining estates are listed next to each other. William of Eu’s holding in ‘Wilga’ is listed between Graveley and Weston (these two places are close to Willian, but not to Welwyn). Geoffrey of Bec’s first holding (‘Welge’) comes between Datchworth and Langley (near to Welwyn); his second (Wilie) between Chells and ‘Rodhanger’ (exact location unknown, but near to Norton in North Hertfordshire, another part of Letchworth Garden City). This would also imply that ‘Wilga’ referred to Willian, and ‘Welge’ to Welwyn.

February 22, 2014
by Graham


The present upheavals in Ukraine bring the pronunciation of its place names into prominence. Even the country’s name is now subtly different from what it was thirty years ago. Then the geographical area was always called “The Ukraine”, which was suitable for what was a part of a larger whole (cf. “The Midlands”, “The Algarve”)  but since its independence with the break up of the Soviet Union, the definite article has been dropped.

Ukrainian is a different language from Russian, so the old Russian forms of its place names have also, on the whole, been abandoned in favour of the equivalent Ukrainian forms. So we now have Lviv, which used to be Lvov (and before World War II, when it was part of Poland, Lwów), and Kharkiv, formerly Kharkov. The capital, however, has not lost what has become a standard anglicization – Kiev. However, I’m puzzled by the pronunciations for this that I’m hearing on both radio and television. The eponymous dish – chicken kiev – is always pronounced (in my experience at least) /ˈkiːef/, and I have always pronounced the city in the same way. Now, I am hearing /ˈkiːev/ or even /kiːˈev/. These are not the Russian pronunciation, nor the Ukrainian. Must we now start getting used to all Russian or Russian-like names having their final -v pronounced /v/? Moloto/v/? Prokofie/v/? Khrushche/v/?

January 25, 2014
by Graham

Railway Station

This is what I call the place where I catch the train both to and from London. Increasingly, what I’ve always considered to be an Americanism – train station – is being used, even by friends of my own generation. Until about 15 years ago, I had the feeling that ‘train station’ was current only among British people born since about 1965, but it is now seeping up the generations, and last week-end, I heard it on the lips of a 70 year old. Interestingly, the first line of Paul Simon’s song Homeward Bound is “I’m sittin’ in the railway station”. I know he wrote it in Britain (actual location disputed), but since when do Americans use British phrases simply because that’s where they are? Of course, “I’m sittin’ in a train station” wouldn’t scan.

Anyway, the OED inevitably has a section on the phrase. The first references are to the Morning Chronicle, March 1845 and the Daily News November 1856, both British, but then there is a long gap to 1955 (US) and then 1981 (New York Times Magazine) which is, like me, commenting on the usage: “When was the last time you heard a young, rich-affluent-wealthy type use the phrase railroad station? Upper-class use is now train station.”

I mention this now because I’ve just caught up with the first episode of the new series of “Mr Selfridge” on ITV, in which the (fictional) female owner of a dubious ‘gentlemen’s club’ gives a reading from her autobiography, and uses ‘train station’. Even though she had supposedly recently returned from the US, I don’t think that would have been right in 1914, especially given the circles she is supposed to move in, and the 1981 quotation given above. Film makers, whether for the big screen or TV, go to great lengths to get costume and set dressing correct. Why can’t they pay the same attention to the language their characters use?

January 14, 2014
by Graham


I wrote in an earlier post about regional variation in terms for lying snow. There are also phrases that belong to one part of the country rather than another.

My mother would look at a lowering sky, when dark clouds were gathering before a storm, and say “It’s looking a bit black over Bill’s mother’s”. I always assumed that this was simply a family saying, going back to a time perhaps when a family member or friend called “Bill” lived in the direction from which bad weather often came, but my partner, who was born thirty-odd miles away from me, and whose parents’ families were from Norfolk and South Staffordshire respectively, also uses it, so it obviously has wider currency. I’ve also established that it is known as far away as Blackpool. There is some discussion on various web sites about its origin, from which it also seems common in the East Midlands. Can we stretch it further?

Another one in use in Stoke on Trent is a phrase that means explain something in a long-winded way, or go a long way round for a short cut: “go all round the Wrekin”. The Wrekin (pronounced /ˈriːkɪn/) is decribed in Wikipedia as being a hill of volcanic origin in Shropshire, and so quite some distance from the Potteries, but visible on a clear day (in the old days there weren’t many of them, with hundreds of bottle ovens belching out smoke from being fired with coal!) from the hill tops. Obviously, the expression can only be used in those parts of the country where the Wrekin is a familiar landmark, but not very close by (photograph by Gordon Dickins). How far can we extend this phrase’s usage?

photograph by Gordon Dickins

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.