April 30, 2021
by Graham
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Alba

This is the Scots Gaelic name for Scotland, and has been chosen by Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland for the Scottish National Party, as the name of his new party, set up in opposition to the SNP after his ‘disagreements’, to put it politely, with his former colleagues.

I have been very surprised to hear some of the BBC’s news presenters – although not all – use a pseudo-Gaelic pronunciation for the name. They appear to be trying to follow the pronunciation given by Wikipedia, which uses this IPA transcription for the Scots Gaelic: [ˈal̪ˠapə]. Such a pronunciation will be very hard for non-Gaelic speakers to get their tongues around. Wikipedia does also give the usual English pronunciation as [ˈælbə]. Most Scots – the vast majority of Scots in fact – do not speak a single word of Gaelic, and it has not been spoken natively by Scots in Edinburgh and points south for hundreds of years. It therefore seems to me perverse to want to inflict a pronunciation which is not intuitive to most of the listeners and viewers, who will simply wonder what is going on.

Is this a subtle way of trying to influence the audience in its attitude to the party?

Will pressure be put on the Pronunciation Unit to make the ‘Gaelic’ version its official recommendation?

April 4, 2021
by Graham
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Richard III – The Reunion

I have always thought the Radio 4 programme The Reunion as being reliable and well presented. When Sue MacGregor was leading it, I never had any quibbles with it, but this morning, the programme about the discovery of Richard III’s body in a car park in Leicester (they didn’t ask why he was buried in a car park, fortunately), perpetuated the canard that there are at least three descendants of Richard, including Benedict Cumberbatch. I wrote about this some years ago, when the body was first discovered (see post entitled Genealogy).

Kirsty Wark also perpetrated two pronunciations which I am sure I should never have heard from Sue M: she used ‘lay’ as the past tense of the verb ‘lay’ (while Richard’s coffin was lying in the cathedral at Leicester, people ‘lay’ flowers there) instead of ‘laid’, and she pronounced genealogy as if it were spelt ‘geneology’. To paraphrase Maureen Lipman, family historians have an ‘alogy’, not an ‘ology’.

Scots will always tell you that they speak the ‘best’ English. Don’t you believe it – they slip as often as the rest of us.

March 6, 2021
by Graham
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Perpetuate or perpetrate

In the interview that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have given to Oprah Winfrey, the Duchess implied that Buckingham Palace (not mentioning individual names) had been “perpetuating falsehoods about us”.

When I heard the clip for the first time, I was puzzled: did she mean that there were falsehoods circulating, and that the Palace was disseminating them further, or did she mean to say that the Palace was perpetrating the falsehoods, i.e. initiating them?

This is a frequent source of confusion, and this morning (Saturday 6 March 2021), Nick Robinson, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, actually said that the Duchess had accused the Palace of perpetrating falsehoods.

I wonder if a view of the complete interview will clarify the Duchess’ meaning.

January 19, 2021
by Graham
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The Queen’s English – literally

Serendipitously, not long after writing my last post, I watched a TV programme called “The Queen: in her own words“, which, as it said on the tin, included many examples of her speaking, the extracts used coming from the whole of her public life, from the first radio broadcast during the Second World War, when she was a teenager, up to the present day.

It was immediately obvious that over that period, nearly 80 years, her accent had changed. This was commented on by the narrator, and Jane Setter, the Professor of Phonetics at Reading University, as most of my readers will know, was asked about this (starting at around 50 minutes into the programme). It was probably a result of the cutting, which is always done for journalistic priorities rather than factual accuracy (I speak from personal experience!), but Jane appeared to be saying that the Queen had deliberately changed her accent in order to sound more approachable and more ‘like one of us’ rather than distant, speaking from somewhere ‘up there’.

Unless there is any documentary evidence for this, I think it is far more likely that as a result of her exposure to a much wider range of accents, her own has, like mine, changed by imperceptible degrees, just as all accents are gradually changing. As a child, the Queen and Princess Margaret did not go to school, but had a governess. Their language models were probably restricted to a very narrow range of variation. Starting when she was allowed to join the ATS when she was eighteen, and learned to drive as her contribution to the war effort, she would begin to experience a wider variety of speech. There would not be an immediate effect, but perhaps this was what started the change.

In the 1970s and 80s, it became noticeable that the TRAP vowel was changing from its relatively high front quality to a more open version. Princess Anne and the actor Anna Massey were both pilloried in the press for using this pronunciation, and often spelled “Princess Unne” and “Unna Mussey” to show that adherents of the older pronunciation felt they were replacing it by the STRUT vowel. And also to imply that they were doing it deliberately to show that they were trying to sound more egalitarian. This criticism has disappeared, presumably because most people now use the more open version of TRAP, and the old one belongs to what is often described as a ‘cut-glass’ accent.

It is strange how assumptions can change and reverse direction. Calling an accent “cut glass” appears to imply that it is an affectation, and yet when Princess Anne was accused of using the less cut-glass version of TRAP, this in its turn was ‘blamed’ on affectation.

Are these not just more examples of accentism?

November 28, 2020
by Graham
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Accentism

It’s interesting to read that the French are adding “accent discrimination” to their equality laws.

In Britain, we seem to be getting past the stage of despising people for the way they speak. When I joined the BBC in 1979, it was still very rare for a national newsreader to have a regional accent, and the first time I was interviewed for BBC Radio Stoke, the first question asked was “How can a person from Stoke on Trent (with heavy emphasis) get to be head of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit?” Certainly at that time, my accent would not have been thought acceptable for reading the news. At my interview for the job (a very impressive board – Adam Raphael (Presenter of The World Tonight on Radio 4); Ann Every (Chief Announcer, World Service) and Randolph Quirk; as well as my head of department and a personnel officer), I was asked why I thought RP was used for newsreaders and announcers, but not necessarily for weather forecasters. My answer was that perhaps it had something to do with the content of the message – The News (with definite capital letters) was a statement of fact (how times have changed!) which should be delivered in a neutral tone, and RP was then considered the most ‘neutral’ and authoritative accent, whereas the weather forecast was more a matter of opinion, and on a topic we all ‘suffered’ from, and so more suited to a regional accent, showing that, in the modern phrase, we’re all in it together.

In 1986, a television documentary called “Talking Proper”, in which I took part, included a contribution from a Scottish accented newsreader, recently attached to Radio 4, who had had an appalling letter from a listener, saying “I hear you’re going on holiday soon: I hope it’s somewhere the IRA is interested in.” That newsreader was on a temporary attachment, and so moved on, but later returned to Radio 4, and received nothing but complimentary comments from listeners. I suspect that neither Alan Smith (clearly not RP) nor Neil Nunes or Viji Alles gets abusive hate mail any more. I may be wrong, but my feeling is that the British public is now far more accepting of different accents than it used to be, even thirty years ago.

The British accents that regularly come bottom of the polls for ‘likes’ are mostly those of industrial cities: Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow. Is the dislike caused by a perceived ugliness in the sound, or is it rather the fact that outsiders have a poor understanding of the current social conditions of the area, and still associate the Black Country, Merseyside, the schemes in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the East End of London with slums and ‘dark Satanic mills’?

I certainly can’t imagine a British politician, being asked a question by a Geordie journalist “Can somebody ask me a question in English, please?” as a French politician recently did in the equivalent situation.

September 22, 2020
by Graham
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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
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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
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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
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Shielding

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
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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?