February 26, 2024
by gpointon

er … ar … or …?

It’s well known that Middle English /ɛr/ became more open in quality and merged with /ar/, while also in some dialects remaining as a distinct phoneme, but now pronounced /ɜː(r)/, leading to alternative forms for many words, of which one has remained as standard, the other becoming merely dialectal or regional: market, but merchant; person and parson; Derby as /ˈdɑːbi/ in British English but /ˈdɜːrbi/ in American English (and also sometimes regionally in England); likewise clerk as /klɑːk/ or /klɜːrk/ (/klɛrk/ still in Scots) – and spelt Clark as a family name; vermin (standard) but varmint (non-standard).

Many younger people in England are now pronouncing /ɜː/ with a much more open quality, so that we may be seeing the beginnings of a new merger, of /ɜː/ and /ɑː/ – unless /ɑː/ also changes its quality.

One oddity is a word that has retained both pronunciations, becoming specialized in its meanings while at the same time, in a sense retaining the original meaning: sherd and shard (unlike person/parson, where the two meanings are well differentiated). The glass spike sticking up above the London skyline is called The Shard, and a shard is more often than not a piece of broken glass, whereas a broken piece of pottery is a potsherd. When I first saw this word, I misdivided it, and assumed it was ‘pots-herd’, and I couldn’t understand how you could herd pottery (I was very young at the time). I’m sure that part of the reason I didn’t properly understand the word was that in The Potteries, a rubbish heap of broken pots, which every factory (or potbank) inevitably created as there is always a percentage of waste in the firing, is known as a ‘shordruck’. I never saw the word written down, and as Staffordshire has long been a non-rhotic accent, had assumed as a child that it was spelt ‘shawdruck’, in which I also mis-placed the juncture, making it ‘shaw-druck’. The OED does give shord as a historical dialectal variant of shard/sherd, but doesn’t recognise its current use, saying that it is found in the 1700s and 1800s, and gives only one (modern-ish) quotation, from R D Blackmore (best known for his novel Lorna Doone), dated to 1882. The ‘ruck’ half of this word is another story, perhaps for a later date.

January 27, 2024
by Graham

One, two, many

It is sometimes said that there are so-called ‘primitive’ languages which cannot count beyond two.

I find this difficult to believe; but there are certainly languages which distinguish grammatically between one, two and many. They have not simply a singular and plural, but also a dual number. They are therefore not less sophisticated, but in this particular area, more precise, than those with ‘only’ two categories of number. The Indo-European languages’ ancestor was one of these, and there are some remnants of it in many of its descendants – including the Germanic languages, of which English is one, and this may come as a surprise to many English speakers. Nevertheless, such words as between, both and either all imply no more than two items. However, this appears to be breaking down in present-day English, with these words being used in new ways. Here, we discuss between.

Between implies, as the OED makes clear, a central point in relation to two or more peripheral points in opposite directions. These may be geographical points (between London and Manchester) or amounts in numerical terms (between forty and fifty), or even different philosophical or ethical standpoints (between liberty and slavery).

The OED has many sub-divisions for the meanings of this word, and many citations for each sub-division, but in every case where the two extremes are mentioned, the construction used is between … and.

Recently, however, I have started noticing that the word and is being replaced by to. I assume that it has been going on for some time before it became frequent enough for me to become aware of it. Here are some of the most recent that I have noted.

1. The number of real estate agents in the US is between 2.5 to three million. (Digg; 20.11.2023).

2. He added that there are between 1.25 lakh to 1.35 lakh Khoja Shias across the world. (Times of India, page 7; 26.11.2023)

3. “There are between 400 to 500 indigenous tribes in the Amazon Rain Forest.” (quizmaster explaining the answer to a question; 21.01.2024)

And even or:

4. [There will be] high winds between 60 or70 mph (BBC1 10 O’Clock News; 21.01.2024)

Are these to be dismissed as slips of the tongue, or merely the speaker changing the sentence structure in mid-stream, or are they a genuine change in the use of between, which needs to be incorporated in manuals of English usage?

June 3, 2022
by Graham

Turkey vs Türkiye

So, the UN has accepted a request from Ankara to change the spelling of the name of the country of which it is the capital, to that used in the written version of the Turkish language. Well, if they also expect English speakers to change their pronunciation as well, good luck with that! I should be very surprised if English-language publications fall into line with the new spelling – although modern computerised type setting allows anyone to use an ‘ü’ easily, this doesn’t mean that everyone knows how to access that character, and newspapers in general tend not to add diacritics to letters of other languages. The nearest most native English speakers will get to pronouncing the ‘new’ version is probably ‘tur-KEE-ya’; and the best spelling will mostly be ‘Turkiye’, with no umlaut.

February 21, 2022
by Graham

What is “Classical” Music?

A discussion is apparently going on to define “classical” music as opposed to other genres. This morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 invited Debbie Wiseman and Nitin Sawhney to give their views, and Ms Wiseman proposed the most outrageous – and clearly erroneous – definition, perhaps as a provocation, or perhaps she believed it. Who can say?

Whichever, she said that “classical” music was fully notated by the composer and unchangeable. Mr Sawhney challenged this with the examples of J S Bach and Beethoven, who were both great improvisers as well as composers (according to MS Wiseman, this would not be classical music). Perhaps there wasn’t time for her to elaborate what she meant more precisely, but the examples of improvised music within the classical canon are legion. Almost all concerti for solo instrument and orchestra from Haydn up to the time of Beethoven included a cadenza where the soloist could show off his/her expertise at improvisation. Later composers have usually provided a cadenza for the soloist to perform, but should this change determine that Mozart, for example, is therefore not a classical composer? As late as the 1830s, it was common for singers in opera to improvise around the notes that the composer provided, and show off their skill.

In the twentieth century, composers such as Lutosławski wrote aleatoric pieces, in which although each section, and for each instrument, was precisely notated, the leader of the group, whether a conductor for a full orchestra, or a member of the ensemble, would determine when each instrument would begin and end its performance of the individual sections, so that performances could be radically different from each other, and in ways that the composer could not always have imagined. According to Ms Wiseman, these pieces would not be “Classical”.

There are also pieces in which the composer writes short sections, which may be performed in any order, and any number of times, and others in which the precise pitch, tempo and/or dynamics are not specified, but only relative to each other. Are these not within the “Classical” tradition?

And the word “Classical” itself has changed its meaning. Originally, it meant the Western music written between around 1750 and 1830 (both dates approximate). Earlier music of the 18th century was termed “baroque” and “rococo”, and later came the Romantics, usually starting with Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann. Now, “Classical” is opposed to “Popular”, although both terms can be subdivided as often as you like, so that they become to some extent meaningless.

And while we’re at it, why is all music now referred to as “songs”? The clue to “song” is in the word – it’s related to ‘sing’ – and if there are no voices, then it isn’t a “song” (unless you further specify ‘without words’ as Mendelssohn did, for piano pieces written in a particular form, often simply a tune with an accompaniment).

November 28, 2021
by Graham
1 Comment


The only pronunciation I’ve heard for this letter of the Greek alphabet since it was used for the name of the latest Coronavirus variant stresses the first letter, which is being pronounced to rhyme with both ohm and Tom indiscriminately.

And yet the name ‘means’ “little O” as opposed to “big O” which is omega.

If we split the names of both letters into their constituent parts, then the pronunciation is clearly ‘O micron’ and ‘O mega’, but when the two words are fused into one, the traditional English stress rule comes into play, and ‘O mega’, stressed (as two words) with a main stress on both halves, changes its stress to the first syllable of the three, because a short vowel in a penultimate syllable causes the stress to move back to the antepenulitmate, in this case initial, syllable, and we get OM-e-ga (capitals indicate the stressed syllable – I’m using a re-spelling rather than phonetic transcription to allow for variations in the vowel qualities). All three current English pronunciation dictionaries (Oxford, Cambridge and Longman) give this as the principal British English pronunciation, but allow that o-MEGGa is the American version.

When we come to omicron as a single word, the other part of the rule applies: a long vowel in the penultimate syllable retains the stress. As we all know, the word micron has a ‘long’ -i- (actually, of course, a diphthong) – cf microphone, micrometer, microscope, so the pronunciation of omicron ‘ought to be’ with the same vowel: o-MY-kron. This is the first pronunciation given by the same three dictionaries, but allowing OHM-i-kron or OMM-i-kron as less common alternatives.

In my view, the English stress rule is breaking down at the moment (changing might be a better word to use if I could be sure in which direction it is moving), and presumably by analogy with omega‘s initial stress, omicron is shifting to initial stress as well.

Boris Johnson prides himself on his Classical scholarship, but even he was using initial stress in his news conference on 27 November 2021, so I think that any attempt to rein this in, and return to the traditional second syllable stress with a ‘long’ I, is doomed.

November 6, 2021
by Graham

Two deliberately created alternative pronunciations?

During the past week, I lstened to a fascinating radio programme which included a contribution by the world expert on meerkat behaviour, Tim Clutton-Brock.

I was surprised that he pronounced the word for their mating behaviour as /pɒliˈgaɪnəs/. As always these days, not trusting my own memory and usage, I consulted all the pronouncing dictionaries I own, and not a single one gave this as a possible pronunciation.

How could a world expert mispronounce a word which he must have heard from his colleagues many hundreds if not thousands of times?

But then it occurred to me that he may be deliberately mispronoucing it in order for it not to be confused with the very similar, but much more frequently heard word, polygamous.

A similar deliberate ‘mispronunciation’ is used by foreign language teachers in order to distinguish between the two sorts of examination that test the production and understanding of an L2: aural and oral. The two words have identical pronunciations in my accent at least, and I suspect most others, but failing to distinguish between them could have consequences for students and teachers if they were confused. Hence the language teacher’s pronunciation /ˈaʊrəl/ for aural and /ˈɔːrəl/ for oral.

And for those still wondering what word Clutton-Block was using – polygynous, usually pronounced /pəˈlɪdʒɪnəs/.

PS I wonder how he pronounces misogyny and misogynous.

October 25, 2021
by Graham

Notify, mandate and sanction

Thomas West (@IntermarkLS) has tweeted:

“In BrE I keep seeing things like “the last address you notified to the company” and “the complaint notified to the police.” This sounds so wrong in AmE (we notify someone of something; we don’t notify something to someone).”

I refer him to the OED, which gives the following quotation from the Rolls of Parliament in 1433:

“The whiche offre and agrement..[was] notified and communed to all the Lordes.”

On this side of the Atlantic, we have recently acquired an American usage which sounds equally wrong to me, and was until this year very unusual in the UK: the verb “mandate” to mean “compel” (why not use compel, which is not ambiguous?). The problem here is that the normal meaning of the word in British English is “authorise”. The difference, I suppose, is that while both usages are transitive, the AmE usage may be to mandate something, while the BrE usage is only to mandate someone to do something – which AE can also have. So when we read that President Biden has mandated an organisation to enforce the wearing of masks, I wonder why this is so contentious, because to me, the meaning of this sentence is that he has authorised that organisation to enforce mask wearing if it wishes to. The use of notify, however, while it may sound wrong to AmE speakers, at least is not confusing – there is no other meaning of notify.

Sanction is another word with confusing uses. And in this case, the two uses are diametrically opposed. The earliest example quoted in OED is its use as a noun in 1570, where it refers to an ecclesiastical decree (with no sense of either condemnation or approval). Within a hundred years this had become “the penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law”, but at the same time a sanction could now also be the reward for obeying a law (quotations given from 1696 and 1692 respectively).

Since at least the 18th century, a further extension of its meaning has become “something which serves to support, authorize, or confirm an action, procedure, etc.”, with an example from 1727. It is an easy step from there to “permission”.

Interestingly, OED has a quotation from Richard Baxter (1651): “The Law hath two parts, the mandate and the sanction.” Interpret that as you wish!

October 14, 2021
by Graham

The Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania

The latest edition of In Our Time on Radio 4 (first broadcast on 14 October 2021), the programme that tries to deal in depth with a narrow topic, was about the medieval elective kingdom of Lithuania and Poland (or the other way round).

One of the speakers, as he introduced the topic, described the kingdom as covering an area of “one million kilometres squared”.

Has the difference between “square kilometres” and “kilometres squared” changed since I was at school? (or similarly square miles and miles squared).

To me the phrases “one kilometre square(d)” and “one square kilometre” indicate identical areas, but for any larger amount, the difference between the two will only increase as the numbers get bigger. So, “two kilometres square(d)” is equal to “four square kilometres” (because “2 kilometres square(d)” is equivalent to saying “an area which stretches 2 kilometres along the x axis and 2 kilometres along the y axis”). By my calculation, using this logic, “1 million kilometres squared” is the same as “1 million million square kilometres”. The land surface area of the earth is said to be about 150,000,000 sq km according to Science Desk Reference American Scientific, so presumably the expert speaking this morning meant to say “one million square kilometres”. If an expert can get a figure wrong by this magnitude (which makes the area of Poland and Lithuania about 6,660 times bigger than the total land area of the earth), what hope have we for the rest of the population?

Unless, of course, the meanings of “square kilometres” and “kilometres square(d)” are now identical. In which case, how do we know how to convert an areal measure in miles to its equivalent in kilometres? (4 square miles is 2 miles in each direction, but as 2 miles is equivalent to ca 3.2 kilometres, 4 square miles is 10.24 square kilometres, while 4 miles squared is 16 square miles, or 40.96 square kilometres.)

If these two expressions have now coalesced, then the language has lost a valuable distinction, and may well cause confusion to budding mathematicians, to say nothing of architects and land surveyors.

September 2, 2021
by Graham

/s/ – apical or laminal

I’ve been asked about the pronunciation of /s/ in initial strings of /str/.

I know that it is common to pronounce it with a post-alveolar, apical articulation in Glasgow and London (David Abercrombie was talking about its occurrence in Glasgow at least forty years ago, and I have heard it from many Londoners myself). I’m now being asked how prevalent it is in English as a whole, and as none of my pronouncing dictionaries mention it (why should they?), and John Wells’ Accents of English doesn’t either (unless I’m just not seeing it), I’m hoping that someone can throw more light on it. It’s not a variant I use myself, but that might also be a feature of my age.

Presumably, those who have the apical allophone use it also in their pronunciation of words such as syringe, when said in a single syllable: /srɪndʒ/.

August 26, 2021
by Graham

A new development in English phonology?

With the increasing number of BBC journalists who have South Asian heritage, we are hearing an ever greater number of examples of a non-traditional pronunciation of the orthographic symbol {t} in words of South Asian origin.

I’m thinking in particular, but not solely, of the word Taleban. The initial T is pronounced with a dental articulation rather than alveolar by such renowned presenters/reporters/correspondents as Mishal Husain and Rita Chakrabarti, as well as those whose accents betray a South Asian upbringing. Interestingly, some Afghans who speak extremely good English are using the traditional alveolar place of articulation in the same context. How long before those of another tradition take to imitating them (if they can both recognise the difference, and reproduce it without special phonetic training)?

Will this come to initiate a change to English phonology, with the two articulations beginning to develop minimal pairs, or will it disappear again as the present generation is replaced by their children who will probably have less connexion with the sub-continent?

Time will tell.