October 5, 2013
by Graham

Interview on spelling

I’ve recently read this newspaper interview with a professor of General Linguistics.

Q: Do we have a low level of spelling?

A: In general, yes. Above all, young people. It’s more – it’s one of the perennial problems, our major battlefield. And that’s because nobody is born with the knowledge and the process of learning is very slow. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of practice, a lot of persistence and a lot of attention.

Q: What role does reading play in its acquisition?

A: It’s an essential process, seeing that reading and writing are basic. A pupil will be incapable of mastering any course of study who takes half an hour to understand a page. Guaranteed failure. However, not having this facility has nothing to do with intelligence, it just means not having the basic facility.

Q: Is the problem with the teaching?

A: Learning to spell is difficult and takes a lot of practice. It’s like gymnastics: you have to practice it constantly in order to be good at it.

Q: What role does syntax play in the correct use of the language?

A: Spelling has two sides: the letters themselves and syntax. The first can be learned with a lot of practice, and syntax is key to using punctuation. This is the part that children learn last. They have to know how to construct sentences, and for this, the rules of punctuation are key.

Q: Do young people arrive at university well prepared?

A: The majority not. In the university, during the first years, they are corrected severely, but we should be conscious of the fact that teaching spelling is not just a task for language teachers – everyone must be vigilant when it comes to the mastery of the language.

Q: Are the new technologies acting against the correct use of the language?

A: People blame the new technologies, but it isn’t true. The person who makes mistakes doesn’t know the spelling. They have to make sure they read a lot, correcting themselves, because it is a social problem. When they finish their studies, if they cannot spell correctly, they will suffer rejection.

Fairly obviously, from the reply that “they are corrected severely” in universities, this interview is not with a British academic. But where is it from? Answers on a postcard, please (no, not seriously!!). The answer next week.

September 28, 2013
by Graham


Following from Ed’s comment about the occurrence of rhoticity in English dialects as reported by Ellis, Joseph Wright, and the Survey of English Dialects, it seems to me that Ellis was having great trouble identifying exactly what sounds he (and his principal co-workers, Thomas Hallam and Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte) was hearing when the orthography contained ‘r’. I think we can assume that the incidence of rhoticity was falling, and perhaps quite rapidly, throughout the country during the nineteenth century, which wouldn’t have helped. Also the sound itself was ceasing to be a ‘proper’ trill or tap, and becoming more like the present-day approximant.

He recognised what we call “intrusive r” in many parts of the country, and if we had continued to use the phrase he had for it – “euphonic r”, perhaps we might have spared ourselves as linguists a lot of grief from the general public who have picked up on “intrusive r” and beaten us on the head with it for allowing what they hear as a blatant solecism to be perpetuated.

I’d also like to acknowledge here Jack Windsor Lewis’ comment about Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Grammar, and John Wells’ Accents of English. I agree that Ellis’s presentation could have been better, but as the pioneering effort it was, I think he did a great job in covering an immense amount of ground.

September 20, 2013
by Graham

Old dialectologists

Ed’s comment to my last post allows me to widen the discussion from the specific question of th > f in modern English, and its history, to that of how much linguists/dialectologists/orthoepists – call them/us what you will – have or have not registered change in the language.

I’ve been reading Alexander J Ellis’s monumental “Early English Pronunciation”, jointly published by the Early English Text Society, the Chaucer Society and the Philological Society between 1869 and 1889, in five parts, and well over 2000 pages. Despite its title, Part V is an analysis of the English dialect area of Great Britain (i.e. of that part of the island that has been English-speaking for many centuries) and the Isle of Man (which Ellis admits is less interesting as English is mainly a “learned” language for the Celtic-speaking natives) during the 19th century. Many of the dialects include th > f as a feature, at least in some words.

The nearest modern equivalent to Ellis is John Wells’ “Accents of English”, and I was surprised when I looked in the bibliography to Wells’ work that Ellis is not mentioned. While Wells gives a set of key words to identify particular vowels, Ellis goes back to the Old English basis as his starting point, and shows the way in which each OE sound has developed in the various dialects. This accounts for the way in which some sounds have developed differently in the modern forms. As an example, some dialects of the north west and north west midlands of England have, as a reflex of OE /Å«/, the phoneme /ai/, so that house is pronounced /(h)ais/, and mouse /mais/. So what happens to OE /Ä«/, which gives standard modern English /aɪ/? It becomes /É›i/, so that mouse and mice are still distinguished. Wells does not mention this, but then he is talking about accents, not dialects. This raises the question, which I shall not attempt to address here: where is the boundary between an accent and a dialect?

Ellis was not only concerned with vowels, as is shown by the th > f example. He also recognized /tl/ for /kl/ in many dialects, and the rhotacization of /t/ in some contexts and in some dialects. John Maidment wrote about this here and the comments to his post show that /t/ to /r/ is quite widespread. Ellis expressed no surprise at any of these features, and was at pains to point out several times in the work that it was a linguist’s job to describe what he heard, not to pass judgment on the correctness or otherwise of his informants’ speech. Perhaps he has been neglected because, writing before the development of the IPA, he used a phonetic script called palaeotype, which is not always easy to interpret nowadays.

September 12, 2013
by gpointon
1 Comment

th > f (again!)

I’ve just been made aware of reports of a project being carried out at Glasgow University which apparently demonstrates that exposure to and engagement with television soaps can affect the accent of the viewers. The particular feature that the press has picked up on is the ‘infiltration’ (my word) of /f/ for /θ/ into Glaswegian speech, supposedly as a result of too much watching “EastEnders” on BBC1. In fact, I knew at least one Glaswegian who pronounced in this way as long ago as the early 1980s, before “EastEnders” hit the screens. I cannot believe that he was alone. I’ve commented before on the increasing prevalence of /f/ for /θ/. Lucy Worsley could be to blame just as easily as any soap – she is very personable, and viewers will certainly “engage” with her.

Jane Stuart-Smith, the lead researcher, quite rightly makes it clear that the media are only one, and a small one at that, of the influences on language change, but of course, the print media are always keen to find any excuse to denigrate their broadcast rivals, and this exaggeration suits their prejudices.

September 3, 2013
by gpointon

French place names

I’ve recently come back from France, and once again been puzzled by many place names. They just don’t correspond to any spelling conventions in the everyday vocabulary, and yet the French give us no help: to the best of my knowledge, there is no pronouncing dictionary that includes place names (or family names). The Petit Robert has two appendices – “Adjectifs et noms tirés des noms propres” and “Dérivés des noms de personnes (réelles, mythologiques, imaginaires)” which are very usfeul, except that they give no help with pronunciation.

Even the French are often confused by the pronunciation of place names. Perhaps the most famous difficulty for them is Chamonix, which French friends have told me they used to pronounce /ʃamoniks/ – until they went there, and discovered that locals call it /ʃamoni/.

In no particular order:

Eawy, Bulgnéville, Thueyts, Andernos (-s silent or pronounced?), Villers (several places of this name – /vije, vile, vilÉ›r/?), anywhere ending in -x (silent or pronounced?)


July 8, 2013
by Graham

surveillance again

Matthew Phillips has commented that his step-uncle complained about the change in pronunciation of this word in about 1990, blaming the BBC for the change. I thought it might be useful to look at the pronunciations given in a range of dictionaries over the years.

The OED’s 1st edition (this fascicle published in March 1918) gives two English pronunciations: /sɜːˈveɪlÉ™ns/ and /sɜːˈveɪljÉ™ns/, and also the French pronunciation /syrvÉ›jÉ‘Ëœs/. The earliest quotation of the word’s use in English is from 1799, in italics, indicating its status as a perceived foreign word. Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1901, Routledge’s Pronouncing Dictionary, 1909, and my copy of the Nuttall edition of Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary, which is undated, but must be from the early 20th century, all give the single pronunciation /sɜːˈveɪljÉ™ns/. These all pre-date the OED fascicle.

The earliest dictionary in my possession that gives /sɜːˈveɪəns/ is The New Universal Dictionary, edited by H T D Meredith, and published by Associated Newspapers. This is undated, but a feature in the appendix is a list of significant dates in British history, of which the last is the accession of Edward VIII, which closely dates the book to 1936, as his reign began in January that year, and ended in December.

The various current pronunciation dictionaries: Longman (LPD), Cambridge (formerly the Everyman) (EPD) and Oxford (ODP), all give /sɜːˈveɪləns/, LPD adds /sɜːˈveɪəns/, and EPD has /sɜːrˈveɪljəns/ as a US pronunciation.

As is so often the case, blaming the BBC for a change in linguistic usage is unwarranted.

June 28, 2013
by Graham

Is it possible to dement in a choiceful way?

My daughter has reported what she and her work colleagues clearly thought was an amusing conversation.

One of them had been sent on a workshop or some such event, and in describing it back in the office used a word and a phrase that the rest of the team raised eyebrows at.

First the word “choiceful”, which was clearly meant to signify that someone had the possibility of making choices. She excused its use on the grounds that it was American, at which the American among her colleagues said that he had been an American for over 40 years, and had never heard of such a word!

Second, it seems that the workshop must have included a section on dementia, because she then used the expression “he was dementing”. This also was the cause of some hilarity.

Enter the OED.

“Choiceful” does indeed have the meaning “Offering or affording choice, varied”, with two quotations – from Edmund Spenser (1591): “None of these..Mote please his fancie..His choicefull sense with euerie change doth flit.” and Joshua Sylvester (1605): “For costly Toyes; Silk Stockings, Cambrick, Lawne, Heere’s choice-full Plenty.” So although the word does not appear to have been found since the beginning of the 17th century, it is quite possible that it survived on the other side of the Atlantic, and is indeed “American”.

“Dement”: OED “put out of one’s mind, drive mad, craze”, so a transitive verb, from the Latin dÄ“mentāre; or alternatively, “give the lie to; to assert or prove to be false”, also transitive, from the French démentir. Neither of these fits the bill for “he was dementing”, which is an intransitive use, meaning, presumably “he was behaving in a fashion consistent with suffering from dementia”. Google gives about 394,000 hits for the form “dementing”, but many of them are for its adjectival use: “dementing illness” and such-like. Of these, only 1,010 remain when the phrase “was dementing” is searched for, and many of these are in websites that give the conjugations of verbs, but some are relevant, including this, from The Gossamer Thread by John Marzillier: “within a few weeks it was pretty obvious who was dementing and who was depressed”.

Despite appearances, it is actually very difficult to invent a meaning for a word which has not already been used at some time, somewhere.

June 15, 2013
by Graham

surveillance ~ surveyance

When Marmaduke Hussey was Chairman of the BBC Governors in the 1990s, he received a letter from one of his cronies, who happened also to be a former governor of the BBC, asking why ‘we’ were pronouncing the word surveillance ‘with the lls’, rather than as ‘surveyance’, given than the origin of the word was the French verb surveiller, in which the -ll was not pronounced as /l/. Inevitably, the letter ended up on my desk, and I provided the answer that surveillance and surveyance were two separate words in English, with different meanings. Indeed, the OED entry for surveyance includes the bracketed comment “Sometimes apparently confused with surveillance, n.” I sent my draft back to the Chairman’s office as that was where the enquiry to me had come from. Some weeks later, his office sent me a copy of the reply that Hussey had sent, and it included the words (approximately) “it seems there was more to this than we thought – but it made them think!” Two things struck me about this: first that the initial letter didn’t come out of the blue, but was the result of a conversation between sender and recipient, in which it was suggested that a letter might be useful, and second, that the Chairman was not exactly supporting his staff when he added the second phrase. Was the whole thing a test of our competence?

These memories have been stirred by the use this week, in my hearing only by Americans, of the word surveil in connexion with the revelations of Edward Snowden. I’m not aware of having heard it before, but the OED can take it back to 1960 as a back-formation from surveillance. The word ‘back-formation’ always seems to me to be a pejorative term, as if the way in which the new word has been formed is illegitimate in some way, and yet if we can create a new compound by adding suffixes or prefixes to an existing word, why should we not similarly create something by taking a part of the word away? Surveil clearly has a different meaning from survey, and the alternative is the rather clumsy periphrasis “to hold under surveillance”.

May 7, 2013
by Graham
1 Comment

Journalistic naïvety, or malice?

Once again, Saturday Live, BBC Radio 4’s morning programme, has displayed linguistic ignorance, whether by accident or design. Last week’s programme (4 May) interviewed the ‘caller’ (British English ‘commentator’) for the Kentucky Derby (surprisingly the current caller is British). Twice, the presenters made the point that they had consulted a professor of applied linguistics, and that this professor had told them that on this occasion, the Americans had it right, pronouncing “Derby” to rhyme with “herby”, we British being wrong to call it ‘darby’.

I do not believe that any professor of applied linguistics can possibly have said anything so crass. Presumably (s)he was asked which was correct, and the professor had answered fully, saying that the older pronunciation was /ˈdɜːrbi/, but that the pronunciation had changed in Britain, while it had remained unchanged in the States, and I expect that (s)he went on to say that this didn’t make either of them wrong, but just different. Journalists are never happy with this, and invariably extrapolate that “older” means “more correct”.

I was once asked on air which stress pattern of controversy was correct – first syllable or second. I replied that both were given in dictionaries as acceptable, so neither was “incorrect”. The programme presenter then went on to ask “Which do you recommend to broadcasters?” I started to say “first syllable stress, in order to prevent letters of complaint from arriving, and to keep listeners attending to the content rather than the form of the broadcast”, but after the first three words, I was interrupted, and the presenter said “There you have it – the BBC says that cóntroversy is correct!” and I had no opportunity to come back. I vowed never to make the same mistake again.


April 28, 2013
by Graham

Dental fricatives

I’ve been watching Lucy Worsley’s latest TV series on the monarchy – “Fit to Rule”. Dr Worsley is the Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and this is not the first series she has presented. They all seem well researched, and I’ve enjoyed them.

Even her Wikipedia entry notes her over-rounded /r/ (which it calls rhotacism) and she occasionally uses a bilabial trill when a word begins with ‘br’, but this post is about something else. In addition to her problems with the /r/ phoneme, she seems to have no dental fricatives in her armoury: /θ/ and /ð/ are almost invariably replaced, either by /f/ and /v/, or, in the case of /ð/, by /d/. To have one well-educated speaker in a TV programme who has failed to learn these phonemes is disconcerting enough, but she seemed to go out of her way to find others to interview with a similar problem. At least two of the other experts – both with otherwise approximations to RP and both clearly not just ‘experts’ but Experts – exhibited the same feature.

What was once characterized as a Cockney dialectal feature, and disparaged by people who thought they knew better, now appears to be gaining ground at an increasing rate. Are we seeing the beginnings of the loss of a pair of phonemes? In certain words, such as murder from earlier murther for example, this has happened in the standard language, and is recognized in the spelling. In one word, it may have gone the other way: the place name Keighley, which was presumably originally pronounced with a velar fricative, is, uniquely for words spelled ‘gh’, now pronounced with /θ/. Was it formerly /ˈkiːfli/?