Prostrate and known


Catching up on some TV programmes recorded while I’ve been away, I’ve inevitably found some usages to comment on.

First a common confusion of two words, but this time in the less usual way: prostate and prostrate. It’s quite common to hear about men of a certain age having trouble with their ‘prostrate’ (does this mean they like lying down a lot?) For instance, my successor as manager of the Pronunciation Unit thought this was the word for the male gland. However, in a programme about Anglo-Saxon art, Dr Janina Ramirez of Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education described a piece in which Romulus and Remus were lying ‘prostate’ beneath the she-wolf. Is this hyper-correction, or a slip of the tongue, or simply confusion of the two terms?

Second an unusual pronunciation. Professor Robert Bartlett, of St Andrews University, regularly pronounces the word known in two syllables as /ˈnəʊən/. Presumably he pronounces unknown and grown in the same way. Is this a regular feature of particular accents, or an idiosyncrasy on his part? And how about flown (not the same, as the infinitive is flyflow gives flowed (perhaps he says /ˈfləʊəd/ for this.


  1. The pron. /əʊən/ for all words ending in -own is (I guess) the norm in New Zealand. So, for example, “throne” and “thrown” are a minimal pair. I think the pron. is also found in the English spoken in the south of the Irish Republic. However, Bartlett does not sound as if he has any other features of either NZ or Irish pron. and the Wikipedia page on him simply says that he is English. It’s a mystery.

  2. /əʊən/ for -own is fairly common in NSW (Australia) too – definitely for people from Western Sydney. Although it only seems to happen for verb forms ending in -own – I don’t think “own” and “flowed” would have it. I haven’t done much actual research about it, but I get the impression that it’s used more when speakers are talking in more formal registers too. She’s not from Western Sydney, but I bet Julia Gillard would pronounce it that way when making a speech.

    (I’m an English person with a Linguistics degree who’s lived here for five years, working in Western Sydney when I first arrived, and I noticed it fairly early on.)

  3. It seems that far too many people do not know the difference between prostate and prostrate. If only they would prostrate themselves at the altar of The Queen’s English Society, they would find themselves at a place that could help with ‘slips of the tongue’, as you so nicely put it.

    Please do look at and feel free to join us. We all need to try to prevent these silly errors.

  4. Matthew,

    It seems that West Sydneysiders are pretty much like NZers then. The word “own” does not have /əʊən/ in NZ, and definitely not “flowed”. The only words affected that I can think of are: flown, grown, known, mown, shown, thrown. I wonder what people do with “hewn”, if they ever utter that word these days.

  5. Sown is presumably another word affected by this phenomenon, in which case what about sewn? Perhaps one of Robert Bartlett’s parents is antipodean.

  6. Amusing that “Rhea” posts an appeal to the prescriptivists English society considering the rightful critique of these folk in an earlier entry here!!

  7. I was struck by that pronunciation of Bartlett’s too (in the ‘Normans’ series). He certainly pronounced at least one other ‘-own’ word in the same way, because I was listening for more instances, but I’m darned if I can remember what it was. It might have been ‘shown’, I think. He pronounces ‘throne’ with the usual diphthong, so presumably ‘throne’ and ‘thrown’ are not homophones for him.

  8. The epenthetic schwa in Professor Robert Bartlett’s pronunciation of “known” certainly made me prick up my ears too. As Jn Maidment suggests it’s a bit of a mystery for us philologers. Bartlett was totally reticent supplying to Who’s Who nothing about his and his parents’ early locations or his schooling. Nothing before Cambridge. And his accent is apparently quite unremarkable General British apart from /nəʊən/ for “known” and the like. Google sez he’s “English” which isnt much. Graham doesnt say from which broadcast he made his observations. At the 28th of April I he’rd a repeat of the 2008 programme Inside the Medieval Mind in which he sed “known” with the schwa three times. I think he also did the same with “thrown” and “shown” (unnoted as to when). I dont usually take much notice of single hearings, but my hunch is that it’s a limited-currency Scotticism. I’ve he’rd such a schwa in such a word clearly once from Andrew Neil and, much less certainly, once from Gordon Brown. I’m not inclined to speculate about other possibilities.

  9. See also John Wells’s blog entry on prostrate-prostate of Tuesday 4, 2007 at

  10. And also my comments on his mention of ‘been’ and ‘being’ as homophones in his blog entry ‘never been there’ of Fri 24 September 2010, where quite coincidentally, having missed this discussion because you post so infrequently these days, Graham, I mentioned the Irish ‘shown’ and ‘showing’ as homophones, with the possibility of a slight epenthetic ə in ‘shown’, resulting in hypercorrections of ‘shown’ to ʃoʊin/ʃouiŋ etc. (avoiding the too-open Ulster ɪ variants).

  11. Since my Comment of the 23rd Sep I’ve he’rd (last night) Richard Wilson refer on tv to an area in East Yorkshire as ‘heather-strewn’ saying it with /struːən/. He’s best known as grumpy Victor Meldrew with the catchprase “I don’t believe it” in One Foot In The Grave. He has evident Scottish speech features.

  12. The way That Robert Bartlett pronounces thrown etc. is also a common trait in the accents found around the English Midlands.

  13. Just been listening to Professor Bartlett on feudalism. I have always loved the New Forest, not so sure about it now. The intrusive schwa is something I have only heard in a friend I first met in Southampton who had antecedents in Portsmouth. In fact it’s almost a W. And the only Bartlett I knew lived in Southampton.

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