Thursday, 4 June 2009

corpus preferences

At the moment I am in France for an international conference on English Pronunciation: Issues and Practices, held at the Université de Savoie in Chambéry. Quite apart from everything else, it is good to see so many former students and old friends again.
One of the most interesting presentations I have attended was by José Mompean, who has done a corpus-based study of words with variable pronunciation. Among these words are several for which I did preference polling, as reported in LDOCE. His study was based on BBC correspondents and news presenters, as represented in the sound files available on the BBC website, and involved counting up the number of times a word was said this way or that.
Most of his statistics agree reasonably well with mine. Where they don’t, this can be readily understood given that he is looking at the performance of people from a very specific professional background, while I was looking at the opinions of people of various social backgrounds from all over Britain.
For example, my 2008 polling figures for the word poor were pʊə 26%, pɔː 74%. Mompean’s are pʊə 32%, pɔː 68%. Allowing for sampling error, these are virtually identical.
For stress placement in the word controversy, on the other hand, my 2008 survey had initial stress ˈkɒn- 40%, second syllable stress -ˈtrɒv- 60%; Mompean found initial ˈkɒn- 73%, second syllable -ˈtrɒv- 27%. The explanation for this discrepancy may be that BBC announcers have been explicitly trained or encouraged to use initial stress in this word, whereas the general public are under no such pressure.


  1. Is there an argument for initial stress in 'controversy'?

    Why are the BBC so eager to encourage it?

  2. Because it's the way sensible people (i.e. Yanks) say it. :-)

  3. As you probably know, the elephant statue at the top of today's blog is commonly known as les quatre sans cul /le katʁə sɑ̃ ky/ or informally /le kat sɑ̃ ky/ -- a punning reference to the phrase (faire) les quatre cents coups /le katʁə sɑ̃ ku/ or /le kat sɑ̃ ku/(roughly "to raise hell/sow your wild oats"). Les Quatre Cents Coups is a well-known film by Truffaut.

    Phonetically, the pun is interesting in that /u/ and /y/ are too distinct in French to lend themselves readily to puns. In this case, however, the rest of the phrase is sufficient to make the pun work.

  4. PS For any readers unfamiliar with colloquial French, I should explain that les quatre sans cul means "the backside-less / arseless / assless four" (only the fronts of the elephants are visible on the monument).

  5. @ S.C. Anderson: I couldn't possibly describe this as an argument in favor of initial syllable stress in "controversy"; but as a matter of interest, that is the only pronunciation Daniel Jones listed in his first pronouncing dictionary (1917). By the fifth edition (1943), he listed first-syllable stress first, and second-syllable stress as an alternate pronunciation. Unfortunately, I don't have editions 2, 3, or 4, so cannot give you a reasonable date range for when the second-syllable pronunciation came into vogue.

  6. Apropos Nigel Greenwood's comment on the elephant statue, it may be worth noting (mainly for the benefit of those too young to remember the '60s) that the title of Kenneth Tynan's revue "Oh Calcutta!" was also a pun on the french "cul" (O, quelle cul tu as!).

  7. My father (Japanese, aged 86) says that when he was a university student in Japan, /kən'trɒvəsi/ (or maybe /-sɪ/ in those days) was the only pronunciation taught for "controversy". When I was a university student (about 30 years ago), /'kɒntrəvɜː(r)si/ was referred to as American. Today, I always tell my students the former is on the way out.
    In my father’s days, teachers of English in Japan got delighted when they found an English word whose pronunciation was difficult to guess from the spelling. Thus "forehead", for example, was always their source of happiness, because the knowledge that it was pronounced /'fɒrɪd/ was a kind of scholarly privilege they were proud to have. They chuckled with satisfaction when a learner of English pronounced the word /'fɔːhed/. They would lament the fact that what they proudly pointed out as an example of layman’s mispronunciation is now preferred by the majority of the native speakers of English. But, like it or not, language is constantly changing. That’s why it is interesting to study, isn’t it?