Monday, 22 June 2009

a gross violation?

Simon Hoggart, writing in Saturday’s Guardian, commented
Another of Gordon Brown's weird mispronunciations: he says "gross" to rhyme with "floss" or "dross". The word is in common usage, especially when taxes are being considered, so you wonder if he really does listen to what anyone says.

In fact all words in -oss have ɒs, i.e. the vowel of CLOTH or LOT, with this one exception. We have ɒ in boss, joss, loss, floss, gloss, moss, (a)cross, dross, albatross, toss. Only gross and prefixed engross have əʊ, the vowel of GOAT.
Unless you are Gordon Brown.
Note the inference that can be drawn if you produce a one-off spelling pronunciation: it means you don’t listen to what anyone says.

Words in -ost, though, are unpredictable in this respect. On the one hand we have cost, frost, lost with the CLOTH vowel, but on the other hand ghost, host, most, post with GOAT. Does hostage rhyme with postage? Or foster with poster? No.

It’s the same with -oth. CLOTH: cloth itself, and also Goth, moth; but GOAT: both, loth and, for most of us, sloth.
Not only EFL learners but native speakers too must learn the pronunciation of a word when they learn its written form. Otherwise people mock.

16 comments:

  1. I'd always pronounced "sloth" to rhyme with "cloth" -- apparently a spelling pronunciation! Oops.

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  2. Is "sloth" with the GOAT vowel a British thing? Because I've only ever heard people say it with the CLOTH vowel.

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  3. Probably most people learn sloth from books. English would have done better to retain one of the older spellings sloath or slowth, the latter of which also indicates the etymology, parallel to width, length, or height(h).

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  5. (Corrected post:)

    (1) Americans, apart from a few cranky ones like me, all but universally pronounce "sloth" with the vowel of "cloth" or that of "lot" (which for an increasing number of speakers are the same vowel). They also pronounce "wont" with that vowel, so that it is homophonous with "want." The first practice is inconsequential, but the second one has the dismal result that "unwonted" becomes indistinguishable in speech from "unwanted." Since both words are adjectives, and have a large overlapping range of possible application, it is virtually impossible to use the word without risk of misunderstanding. But if you pronounce it with the GOAT vowel, most Yanks will have no idea what you have said.

    (2) To judge from the photograph on this page, I would guess that the reason why your prime minister pronounces "gross" in an eccentric fashion is that he is not really a Scotsman but just Monty Python's Terry Jones pretending to be one.

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  6. Re "unwonted", my late father always insisted that the second "n" was silent, which would serve to differentiate between "unwanted" and "unwonted" even were the vowel sounds identical, as reported by Baritonobasso for <Am.E>. Sadly my O.E.D. (late 30's edition) fails to support my father's hypothesis, but it would be interesting to learn if others have encountered "unwonted" with silent second "n".

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  7. Re: slɔth vs. slowth, my American Heritage dictionary lists slɔth as the preferred pronunciation. I've always assumed that this was on analogy of tense/lax changes like wide/width: slow, with a tense /o/ that's diphthongized, vs. sloth, with a lax /ɔ/.

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  8. Not only EFL learners but native speakers too must learn the pronunciation of a word when they learn its written form. Otherwise people mock.

    Do you mean to say he first met the word in its written form?! For a foreigner, this might very well be the case more often than not, but for a native speaker? The word isn't so rare or highbrow, I'd say.

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  9. @Lipman: that's exactly the inference I drew. Could be wrong, of course - but I see a 14-year-old Gordon avidly reading about bookkeeping or taxation policy and coming across this word for the first time, and in writing. I did something similar myself with the word "inventory", as I mentioned in my Accents of English (CUP 1982), p. 107-108.

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  10. I'm from Massachusetts and I pronounce "wont" with the GOAT vowel, which I think comes from my mother, who was partially raised in England.

    Another interesting case is the surname "Jobs", which (I've read) is derived from the Biblical name "Job" and traditionally pronounced with the GOAT vowel, but the most notable bearer of the name uses the LOT vowel.

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  13. We've just had guests from Scotland, and I showed them this blog. They claimed that pronouncing gross to rhyme with floss was usual in various parts of Scotland, and happened to be their pronunciation as well. So is this a one-off spelling pronunciation or a regional variant?

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  14. Hi John,

    Some family history reaserch found two spellings of the same surname in North Staffordshire in the 1580's.

    The first, recorded in a will of 1586 was spelled Durust, the osecond, from a 1588 parish register entry for the grandchild of the first man, was Durose. What do you think might be the underlying vowel sounds which produced these co-existent forms?

    Terry Haslam-Jones, Rossendale, Lancasheere

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  15. Gordon Brown is acutally prouncing the word "Gross" correctly. It is gross that rhymes with floss. Take Ross for example there is a single vowel in it. Suddenly people think when you add a G it becomes a long vowel it doesn't. We teach our children to sound words out, and to use the words that they already know to find out how to pronounce a word. Gross is Ross with a G. Why is it some people change the letter sounds and vowels sounds around, when they shouldnt be. You cant go changing the s sound and the vowel sound of o. The actual spelling for the word that has the horrible meaning is spelled grossus this is from the original latin, the correct spelling has got lost over the years. Get it right people

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  16. I wish I had read this three years ago. Gross-like-floss is a common pronounciation amoung the older generations in Scotland. Young people are more likely to say gross-like-goat because they grew up watching American cartoons and kids TV shows, where characters often say "Eww, gross!" (rather than discussing finance).

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