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.

February 27, 2013
by Graham


A headline in the Daily Mail reads “Richard III’s ancestors demand a York burial”. Really? How have they got in touch? Through a ouija board?

The article begins “The living descendants of King Richard III have joined the campaign to demand that his remains are reburied in York.”

So the writer of the article, as opposed to the sub-editor writing the headline, knows what is “up” and what is “down” in genealogy. However, the sentence is still wrong, because to the best of my knowledge, Richard III has no “living descendants”. He had one legitimate child, who died before Richard (who was himself only in his early thirties when he died). There were also at least two illegitimate children of whom, again, at least one pre-deceased Richard. The current disputants are actually descended from Richard’s sister. If anyone wants to claim that this is a distinction without a difference, consider whether your own brother or sister’s children are your descendants. I don’t think we want to go there!

The online version of the Daily Mail story has changed “ancestors” to “descendants”, so one cheer for semi-accuracy.

February 25, 2013
by Graham


I’ve just been listening to Nick Robinson’s programme about the BBC and the General Strike of 1926, and noticed that he referred to “listeners-in” throughout. In fact this was something that Reith thoroughly disapproved of. In 1924 he had written a book called “Broadcast over Britain, in which we find

“An objectionable habit is to refer to the listener as the ‘listener-in’; this is a relic of the days when he actually did listen in to messages not primarily intended for him; now he is the one addressed, and he accordingly listens. Only the unlicensed listen-in.” (page 162)

February 12, 2013
by Graham

A crooked pronunciation

We’ve all come across words that when read quickly can appear to have one pronunciation, but in fact have a totally different one, because the wrong one shows that the structure of the word has been misread. Two famous such words are “misled” and “underfed”, pronounced /ˈmaɪzÉ™ld/ and /ÊŒnˈdɜːft/ respectively. Because they look like perfectly well-formed past tenses, small children may well misinterpret the division of these words into their constituent parts as ‘misle’ and ‘underf’ + past marker, instead of ‘mis’+’lead’ and ‘under’+’feed’.

Well, I was surprised this morning to hear the well-respected Julie Meyer, CEO and founder of Ariadne Capital, say on the “Today” programme, that the reputation of the banking industry had gone /ˈɔːri/. Again, the word is a perfectly well formed adverb or adjective, like many others that end in ‘-y’, but it has nothing to do with ‘awe’: the structure is ‘a’+’wry’.