September 22, 2020
by Graham

How do you pronounce ‘GH’?

We’re all accustomed to the many ways that the letter combination ‘ough’ is pronounced in English, depending on the word:

cough, rough, though, through, thought, Slough, and the whimsical hiccough.

But the letters -gh- by themselves are only pronounced in two ways here: /f/ and silent.

Originally -gh- represented the voiceless velar fricative, /x/, which now only remains in Scottish accents, and is represented there by -ch- (as in loch), although in Northern Ireland, loch is spelt lough, but the -gh- is pronounced /k/.

-gh- appears in many other words, not just as part of the -ough- complex. We find it also following -au-, as in laugh (/f/) and caught (silent, but serving to lengthen the preceding vowel). And following -ei-, as in weight, weigh, etc., it is always silent.

Elsewhere, it appears initially, sometimes to no purpose, as in ghost, and its relatives ghastly and aghast, but also in words borrowed from Italian, such as ghetto, where it serves, as in Italian, from which ghetto is borrowed, to make the -g- a plosive rather than an affricate. (This use should also help remind English speakers that Genghis Khan ‘ought to’ be pronounced /’dʒeŋɡɪs/ rather than /’ɡeŋɡɪs/ – consider the spellings of the name as it appears in transliterations of Central Asian languages: Chingiz, for instance).

This does not exhaust the possibilities. The loss of the velar fricative has allowed -gh- to represent all the remaining English voiceless fricatives, with the exception of /s/ (unless any reader can show me otherwise). Most commonly it becomes /f/, but in a single place name, Keighley, it has become /θ/: /ˈkiːθli/, and in the family name Greenhalgh, it all depends on the particular family which bears the name, sometimes /ɡ/, but at other times /ʃ/ or even the affricate /dʒ/, so /ˈɡrinhælɡ, -hælʃ, or -hældʒ/. And in Northern Irish, as noted above, -gh- represents /k/.

There is even one class of names in which I maintain that -gh- represents a vowel – in British English, schwa. The best known of these is Edinburgh, which in the English of England is pronounced /ˈedɪnbərə/. Americans generally pronounce this name with the final -gh pronounced as the ‘goat’ vowel.

August 12, 2020
by Graham

B(e)aring all

I went to my GP surgery this morning for a standard blood test, but because of the current pandemic, there was a notice stuck to the inside of the door’s window giving me instructions on how to behave. As I said to the nurse who came to open the door for me, I was not expecting to have to take off all my clothes for such a routine procedure.

I’m passing over possible reasons for the use of “await” where I would have expected “wait for”

August 5, 2020
by Graham

Flexible truths

I’m reading “Shaw’s Music” (i.e. George Bernard Shaw’s music criticism) at the moment (three volumes, each of nearly 1000 pages), and came across a comment he made in 1891 that he could easily have written yesterday.

“There is nothing that we do in this country more thoroughly and artistically than our authorized denials of statements which everybody knows to be true. From the honourable gentleman in the House of Commons who asks a question about some notorious job, down to the poorest wretch who protests against being worked for seventeen hours a day, we all receive the same crushing denial, the same dignified rebuke for giving currency to silly and vulgar gossip, the same pledges of the highest credit and the best authority that the statement made is absolutely without foundation. And within three weeks everyone concerned, including the unimpeachably respectable deniers, openly admit that the statement was perfectly true, and that they knew it to be perfectly true all along, and, in fact, denied it on that account.”

And not only in this country, although perhaps the ‘artistic’ bit applies more to us.

A “job”, by the way, in this sense means “a transaction in which duty or the public interest is sacrificed for the sake of personal gain or political advantage” (OED sense 3a)

June 3, 2020
by Graham


This word has achieved a lot of prominence in the last three months, but it is being used in a way that the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t – yet – recognise.

Shield as a verb in English goes back a long way: it appears in Beowulf. But there it is used as a transitive verb, i.e. you shield something (against or from something else). For instance an umbrella shields you from the sun. Also “It is desirable to shield against electrostatic fields without interfering in any way with magnetic fields” (slightly adapted quotation from an example from 1935 in the OED).

But now we see and hear the following sentence almost every day “People who are shielding should stay at home”. We all know what that means, but it doesn’t stop it from being a novel usage of the verb – the direct object, never stated, but always understood, is “themselves”. The NHS website says:

“If you’re at high risk (clinically extremely vulnerable) from coronavirus (COVID-19), there are extra steps you’re advised to take to protect yourself. These extra steps are called shielding.”

The use of shielding in this sentence appears to be a noun, but as the sentence is a definition of the meaning of the word, I would say that it is a metalinguistic use of it, and so no particular part of speech. Words in English are often best described not as ‘noun’, ‘verb’ etc., but as being used in nominal, or verbal, contexts. Probably the most famous example of this is the quotation from Shakespeare “But me no buts”, in which the word but, most often a conjunction, is used as both verb and noun within four words. I suggest that most laymen will not recognise this nice distinction, and that shielding has now taken on the ambiguous function of present participle and verbal noun.

The same is true of the word build, as the OED shows:

“7. quasi-passive use of the present participle, as in the house is building, originally the house is a building, where building was the verbal noun, and a = on prep. See a prep.1 12, and building n.
[1535 Bible (Coverdale) Ezra v. 16 Sence that tyme hath it bene in buyldinge.
1535 Bible (Coverdale) John ii. 20 Sixe and fourtye yeare was this temple abuyldinge.
a1665 J. Goodwin Πλήρωμα τὸ Πνευματικόv (1670) xv. 436 The Wall that is a building.]
1841 G. Catlin Lett. N. Amer. Indians II. xlvi. 95 A very pretty little town, building up.
1860 Mercantile Marine Mag. 7 300 The..lighthouse is stated to be building.
1862 G. W. Thornbury Life J. M. W. Turner I. 199 Five drawings of the abbey, then building.”

I shall be interested to read any comments – supporting or contradicting my analysis.

May 11, 2020
by Graham

Course and Sauce

My friend Alec is taking the opportunity of being locked down to catch up on some reading he’d been intending to get round to for the last fifty or so years, and has reached D H Lawrence. In “Lost Girls”, chapter 6, he has found the following:

“Of course,” he said – he used the two words very often, and pronounced the second, rather mincingly, to rhyme with sauce: “of course,” said Mr. May, “it’s a disgusting place – disgusting! I never was in a worse, in all the cauce of my travels. …”

Alec comments: “we’re bang in Lawrence country. Mr May is a ‘stranger’ who has been in the US. So go on, why did I never know I was mincing when for my entire life I have rhymed ‘course’ with ‘sauce’. Apart from rhotic accents, who doesn’t?”

My suggested answers are
1) Could rural Derbyshire have still been rhotic in the early 20th century?
2) Might there still have been a difference between /ɔə/ and /ɔː/ as a hang-over from previous rhoticism?
3) Did Lawrence distinguish mourn from morn, and use the mourn vowel in course?
4) Did Lawrence pronounce sauce to rhyme with ‘loss’?

Can anyone provide a definitive answer?

March 7, 2020
by Graham


This seems an unlikely heading for a post from me – how can this possibly have any interest for pronunciation nerds?
Until this week, I have only heard a single pronunciation for this – the ‘obvious’ one: koROHna(virus). (I’m sorry to use a modified spelling rather than IPA, but after a time, all my IPA posts seem to turn into gobbledegook.)
This goes with Corona beer (in the US) and what I remember from my childhood in England: a range of fizzy drinks, mostly ending in ‘-ade’ (add whichever your favourite fruit is at the beginning of the word). Also the astronomical solar corona.
But now I’m hearing both koRONNa (as in RONald), and KORRona (as in CORRidor).
Isn’t it amazing how quickly pronunciation can diversify and change?

Covid also has two pronunciations, depending on whether you follow the ‘normal’ English interpretation of VCV where the first V is long, so ‘kohvid’, or know your Latin poets enough to think it should rhyme with Ovid.
The sequence -ovV- is very much a moveable feast in English pronunciation. Take the monosyllabic words ending in -ove:
clove, cove, dove (past tense of dive), Gove (family name), grove, hove/Hove (place name), Jove, Nove (family name), rove, stove, strove, trove, wove are all GOAT words
dove (bird), glove, love, shove (STRUT)
move, prove (GOOSE)
I’m not claiming this is an exhaustive list.
And there’s also the British/South African writer, William Plomer, who rhymed his name with ‘bloomer’.

February 17, 2020
by Graham


Jim Daley ( has written an interesting piece on the discovery of a piece of birch gum chewed by someone in Denmark 5700 years ago. At the end of the piece he says, by way of light relief, “Fortunately, no one has yet tried to coin the word gumomics.”
And yet that is precisely what Mr Daley has done. Or has he? The website “digestinternational” covers the same story, ending with the words “Fortunately, no one has yet tried to speak the word gumomics.” Whoever is the originator, I’ve now perpetrated the same neologism, and perpetuated it for all time on the Net.

February 14, 2020
by Graham


We’re all going to have to get used to this, apparently, odd name in the coming months as Pete Buttigieg tries to become the next president of the US.
I think it’s an interesting case, not because the name itself is odd – if you come from Malta, where the name originates, it is distinctly NOT odd, but because despite Americans’ well-known difficulty with languages other than English (some might say even with English!), Mayor Buttigieg has managed to retain an approximately Maltese pronunciation for himself.
How many English speakers with no knowledge of Maltese would arrive at the pronunciation -jejj for the final syllable? And I suspect that most would also use the STRUT vowel in the first syllable rather than the FOOT vowel which seems to be Pete’s preference.
There are very few words in English – and those abbreviations – in which a final -g is pronounced as if it were a ‘j’: veg (as in “meat and two veg”), Reg (short for Reginald, or with lower case r-, for “register” and words of the same group); marg (short for “margarine”, which some older pedants insist should be pronounced with /g/ in any case). There may be others, but not many. So to get the general public to pronounce -gieg as ‘jejj’ is quite an achievement. Of course, what is missing is the ‘correct’ Maltese spelling, which has a dot placed above the ‘g’ in both places (Buttiġieġ). I suspect that Mayor Buttigieg, or his father’s family, abandoned that as a sophistication too far.
Paul Auster, in his novel 4 3 2 1, tells the story of a Jewish immigrant family. The patriarch of the family, on the way over from Europe, is advised by a fellow traveller to choose a name with prestige when he gets to Ellis Island – something like Vanderbilt, or Rockerfeller. However, when confronted by the imimigration official, and asked his name, the man can’t remember what he was told, and says, in Yiddish, ‘Ikh hob fargessen’, at which the official writes down “Ichabod Ferguson”. The first American Mr Buttigieg obviously had better luck!

January 23, 2020
by Graham

What is Rudy Giuliani’s job?

Alec Bamford has reported:

“Anyone with lingering doubts about the BBC’s blatant left-wing bias should have been listening to Gary O’Donoghue’s reporting on the impeachment story in the World News on the evening of 21 January.
Before he corrected himself, O’Donoghue clearly described Rudy Giuliani as ‘Trump’s personal liar’.
This is an outrage. Trump lies perfectly well by himself and it is scandalous for the BBC to suggest that he requires someone to do it for him.”

December 17, 2019
by Graham


Cheops is the well-known name of the Egyptian Pharaoh whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Gizeh. This is actually the Greek form of the name, and in modern times he has had his name ‘re-egyptianized’, if I may coin such a word, as Khufu. The pronunciation of the Greek version, in English as given by every one of the standard pronouncing dictionaries, is ‘key-ops’, as in “most important operations”.
Cheops is now the name of a satellite sent up today by the European Space Agency (ESA), from French Guiana, to study exoplanets. Every commentator I have heard mention the name so far has used the pronunciation ‘kay-ops’. Why? This is the French pronunciation. Does that mean that the ESA is now using French rather than English? Even so, why should English speakers use a French pronunciation instead of the one that has been familiar to English speakers for probably two hundred years? When I first heard it this morning, I thought the spelling must be something else, perhaps ‘kayops’, an acronym for some obscure project, and it was only when I saw the name written down that I realised what was meant (it does stand for some obscurely named project, obviously made up to fit the name “Cheops”).
I wonder if the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit has sanctioned the use of the French pronunciation, or whether BBC News has gone ahead with this ludicrous version without consulting them (which in my experience would be par for the course).