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/?

April 23, 2013
by Graham

Online grammar teaching

Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” programme, broadcast on Saturday mornings at 9 am, this week included a contribution from Nevile Gwynne. We were told that Mr Gwynne (and throughout the programme he was called “Mr Gwynne” rather than “Neville”) retired as a businessman (we weren’t told what line of business he was in) twenty years ago, and has since made his living teaching grammar, nowadays via the internet. I was going to sigh and shrug my shoulders at some of his statements, but I’ve also been reading the back numbers of Alex Rotatori’s blog and found his ‘altercation’ with an Italian writer on English phonetics who is less than perfect, to put it mildly; so I thought I would share some of the comments that Mr Gwynne made.

1) We think with words. We cannot think without words. Therefore the bigger vocabulary we have, the better we can think.

2) A lack of knowledge of correct grammar can lead to wrong thinking. Wrong thinking can lead to wrong decisions.

3) Happiness depends in part on the command of grammar. Wrong grammar leads ultimately to wrong meaning.

4) You will never find ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ confused by Jane Austen, P G Wodehouse or John Buchan. (How does he know? Has he read every word of their books so closely that he would find every example of what he would regard as ‘bad’ grammar?)

5) Shakespeare never splits an infinitive. Nor does Buchan or Orwell (two authors he specifically mentioned in this context).

6) Shakespeare introduced 19,000 words to the language, and every one of them was a useful word. The words he introduced were the Latinate equivalents for more homely words, and he thereby helps us to think better.

7) ‘Per capita’ should be replaced by ‘per caput’, as it is taken to mean ‘per head’ not ‘per heads’. (The OED shows that ‘per capita’ precedes ‘per caput’ by a couple of hundred years.)

8) You don’t learn language just naturally like a nightingale learns to sing. It has to be learnt partly by imitating other people and partly by being learnt. (This last one I copied down verbatim.)

I can’t make my mind up whether he was invited on to the show with serious intent, or in order to show him up as a charlatan.

Among other things, he was asked if “grammarian” was a word, and he said he didn’t know. For someone who is so ready to give blanket statements about great writers not to have heard of “A Grammarian’s Funeral” by Robert Browning is quite surprising.

He corrected Sian Williams when she said /pɑːˈtɪsɪpl/ to /ˈpɑːtsɪpl/. All three current pronouncing dictionaries allow /pɑːˈtɪsɪpl/.

He seemed to acquiesce in the statement that “‘infer’ is simply a posher way of saying ‘imply'”.

I don’t think any comment on the validity of these statements is necessary.

On his website, Mr Gwynne says he is an Old Etonian and has an MA in Modern Languages from Oxford. He gives no more information on his qualifications to pontificate on ‘correct’ English. Clearly, the internet encourages this type of thing (see Alex’s experiences with Sr Canepari). Unfortunately, it leads to the real experts being denigrated, and so can be quite dangerous.


April 15, 2013
by Graham
1 Comment

Penthesilea and satyrs

Melvyn Bragg trailed this week’s In Our Time (on the Amazons) on Radio 4 this morning (Thursday 11 April) at 8.30 pronouncing these two words as /penθəˈsiːlɪə/ and /ˈsætaɪəz/.

I was interested to learn what he was going to say in the actual programme, when confronted with three Greek scholars. On the first mention of the name, he repeated /penθəˈsiːlɪə/, but then asked if this was correct. His guest was very kind, and said that there were two spellings, and that this was the pronunciation of one of them. They then both went on with /penθesɪˈl(e)ɪə/, which is the only stress pattern I can find in most dictionaries, British or American. However, the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation does give /penθəˈsɪlɪə/ as an American pronunciation, so perhaps Lord Bragg has picked it up there at some time.

I was not aware of the word satyrs being used in the programme, but perhaps I wasn’t listening carefully enough.

April 3, 2013
by Graham

Pronunciations new to me

Just a couple of pronunciations I’ve come across recently that I’d never encountered before:

1) /ˈdiːtrɪtəs/ (Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, on Broadcasting House, Radio 4, Sunday 31 March 2013)

I’ve heard /ˈdetrɪtÉ™s/ quite often, but never the version from Mr Evans. OED, LPD and EPD give only second syllable stress: /dɪˈtraɪtÉ™s/, but the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation accepts /ˈdetrɪtÉ™s/ as an American pronunciation (with flapped second /t/).

2) /ˈbɪsɪkl/ (Alexander J Ellis, Early English Pronunciation Volume IV, page 1166, in a section on words beginning with bi-: “When the accent falls on the bi-, we usually have (bi·) [IPA /bɪ/] as bicycle, biparous (bi·sikl bi·pɐrÉ™s) [IPA /ˈbɪsɪkl ˈbɪpÉ™rÉ™s/]. In Ellis’s defence, he was writing in 1873-4, while the OED’s earliest example of the word is from 1868 (Daily News, 7 September, where the  word is spelled “bysicle”), only 5 years before, so that Ellis had quite possibly rarely if ever heard it. I wonder if he changed his pronunciation when this vehicle became more popular?

March 20, 2013
by Graham


I’ve been working with a group of archaeologists and historians on the local manorial rolls, which are remarkably complete. We are all amateurs, and have called in a professional palaeographer to translate the medieval Latin. There is one word which even he has failed to translate, and it is one which is very clearly written and so cannot be being misinterpreted. It occurs in the reign of Hanry VIII and the whole entry reads as follows:

“A day is given for all the inhabitants to adequately repair the stokes by the next Feast of St John the Baptist under pain of forfeiting to the lord 6s 8d. And the same day to make metonille under pain of 6s 8d.”

Is there anybody out there who can suggest what this may mean – or better still who knows what it means? Please?

March 3, 2013
by Graham

Multilingual education and prejudice

Almost all the British papers have carried the story this week that Gladstone Primary School in Peterborough has not a single native English speaking pupil out of 450. Predictably the story as run by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express is slanted towards the anti-immigration lobby, but the reason I mention it here is that the Mail, although not the Express, or any other report that I can find, talks about European and Asian languages (many of which are named, including Dari), but adds “and four African dialects”.

Is this purely ignorance on the part of the author, Andrew Levy, or is it a way of subliminally introducing racism – that the linguistic codes used in Africa are not worthy of the designation “language”?

Linguistically there is no reason for distinguishing between the two groups of languages. I had thought that the use of “dialect”, to mean an obscure language spoken in out of the way places, had died out by now, but I was obviously mistaken.

All the reports, including the Mail and Express ones, do point out that the school has been given a good report following the latest visit by Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools.