Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Rees, Rhys

Lord Rees was interviewed recently on the Today programme (BBC R4). The presenter addressed him as Lord riːz. This surprised me, since every bearer of this name that I have ever come across pronounces it riːs, and I’ll bet Lord Rees does too.
The spelling admittedly leads you to expect /z/, as in bees, fees, knees and trees. That is the default for word-final -ees. But this is a Welsh name, so the usual rule does not apply (compare Davies ˈdeɪvɪs).
The origin of the name is the Welsh Rhys r̥ɨːs, r̥iːs. The spelling Rees is only halfway anglicized: compare the fully anglicized variant Reece. The name also came into English as the surname Rice raɪs, which shows it as having been borrowed so early that (in that variant) it underwent the Great Vowel Shift. (The forms did not undergo the GVS, so attest a more recent borrowing.)
Latterly, Rhys (with that spelling) seems to have become rather popular as a first name throughout the English-speaking world.
I have the impression that the surname Rees is not nearly as common in the US as it is in Britain. I wonder how it is pronounced there.
The Welsh patronymic of this name, ap Rhys, has given us English Price (borrowed pre-GVS) and Preece (post-GVS).
There are villages in Shropshire called Prees, Prees Green, Prees Heath etc, but I do not know how this Prees is pronounced. According to Wikipedia, its origin is not ap Rhys but a word meaning “brushwood”. That would be Welsh prysg prɨːsɡ̊, which has a voiceless final consonant cluster. (This part of England, Maelor Saesneg, has plenty of Welsh toponyms.)

19 comments:

  1. I'm a college age male from the US West Coast, and while I don't know anyone named Rhys, I've met quite a few Reeces around or slightly below my age.

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  2. John sez: “The spelling admittedly leads you to expect /z/, as in bees, fees, knees and trees”. True! But every word in the language so ending is a plural (except one obscure mining term) and Rees isnt. He continues: “But this is a Welsh name, so the usual rule does not apply (compare Davies ˈdeɪvɪs)”. I don’t think this is a valid comparison because Davies is no more a Welsh name than Jones is. The names Amis ~ Amies, Harris ~ Harries, Hollis ~ Hollies are not particularly Welsh. Davi(e)s and Jones are both Biblical (Hebrew) names that have taken those forms independently of the Welsh language. They’re certainly very common in Wales. John might have mentioned that plenty of people spell their name Reece too. It’d be a bit surprising if the places in Shropshire were not /priːs/. The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names gives, unsurprisingly, /priːzl/ for the Lancashire name of the same origin Preesall. The present Welsh ‘prysg’ is no dou’t the descendant of the older ‘pres’ or ‘prys’ that Ekwall’s Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names gives for these names which were both in the Domesday Book.

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  3. To my conscious knowledge I've never met anyone with the name Rees, but when I saw the title of this post, I assumed it would be [ri:s] and not [ri:z]. I think I associate word-final [z] not with word-final -s, but with plurals (as Jack Windsor Lewis observes).

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  4. So would you and Jack expect Surtees to end in /s/?

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  5. I would expect "prys" /prɨːs/ to derive from "prysg" /prɨ̞sg/, rather than the other way around (whatever Ekwall thinks). It's just far easier to explain the two phonetic changes as:
    1) the simplification of a consonant cluster; followed by:
    2) the adjustment in vowel quantity to fit the rule that monosyllables ending in "-s" are long (unless they have a grave accent on them, which usually screams loan-word).

    (There's actually an even more complicated form "prysgl" /ˈprɨ̞sgɨ̞l/, which is the basis of the adjective "prysglog" /ˈprəsglɔg/ ("shrubby"), but there may well be some back-formation going on there.)

    A similar argument can be made for "pres" /preːs/ (or "près" /prɛs/) being derivative, not least because that word normally means "brass" or "money" (and several other related senses). "Pres" meaning "prysg" is marked as 18th-19th Century in the GPC: whilst I instinctively disbelieve this dating (I'd bet it's in some mediaeval manuscript that the lexicographers missed or misinterpreted as the "throng" sense of "pres"), it seems extremely unlikely to be an older form.

    And there is of course the issue that it's "prysg" that appears in Welsh toponyms. The Roman Barracks in Caerllion were found in Prysg Field. And there's a village near Bridgend called Penprysg.

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  6. Re the phonetic transcription of prysg, James: I thought vowels were long before sg in North Wales, even though they're short in the south. That's why I wrote prɨːsɡ̊. Cf cwsg 'sleep'.

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  7. "(compare Davies ˈdeɪvɪs)."

    Davies is always pronounced ˈdeɪviz in the US, at least in my experience. Not to do so can lead to accusations of affectation. Difficult to cope with when one knows that the person in question pronounces their own name ˈdeɪvɪs. After all, they should know, shouldn't they? But there it is.

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  8. Isn't that much more a matter of the vowel than of the consonant?

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  9. I've met an American named Rhys (and his brother was Bryn), but their dad was from Wales of course.

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  10. Ryan Denzer-King: "I think I associate word-final [z] not with word-final -s, but with plurals (as Jack Windsor Lewis observes)."

    There are tonnes of Greek names like Archimedes and Ulysses so /-z/ in names shouldn't be an issue or cause confusion for a native English speaker.

    Looking at the spelling of Rees at face value, I would myself pronounce it with /z/ in ignorance because, whether /s/ or /z/, neither causes my brain to sweat and the spelling does indeed evoke "bees' knees" regardless of what's historically correct.

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  11. Havinɡ been born and bred in Wales I 'know' that Rhys and Rees is /ri:s/ just as I know that 'yes' is said /yɛs/ even though the 's' follows a voiced sound. I feel there is an onus on a speaker to try to learn how the bearer of a name prefers to be addressed. If one's name is Mainwaring, knowing that this is sometimes pronounced /mænəriŋ/ does not help if you actually prefer to be called /meinwɛːriŋ/. As yet I don't 'know' how Anglina Jolie pronounces her name!

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  12. I do know that it's spelled "Angelina". I also know how to be nitpicky.

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  13. Glen Gordon said...
    > There are tonnes of Greek names like Archimedes and Ulysses so /-z/ in names shouldn't be an issue or cause confusion for a native English speaker.

    My point is that JW's statement “The spelling admittedly leads you to expect /z/, as in bees, fees, knees and trees” is a perfectly reasonable one irrespective of Jack W L's objection that "every word in the language so ending is a plural (except one obscure mining term) and Rees isnt". (Scil. it can't be expected to be pronounced with /z/??) Ryan seems to agree with him, but I have already given the counterexample of Surtees.

    But names aren’t exactly "words in the language", are they? They are extrasystematic in all sorts of ways, and the point here about the particular name Rees is that it's an Anglicization of something that is actually in another language!

    The same applies to your Greek names, which do not even have the spelling –ees which JW is referring to.

    Does anyone wish to support me in a campaign to stop the robotic spelling 'tonnes' (OED only acknowledges "The French word for ton, adopted in English use to denote a metric ton of 1000 kilogrammes") for the colloquial 'tons' (OED ton1, 4b,c)? The newspapers etc all seem to have some software to put in the compulsory bracketed equivalents of SI values which is not idiot-proof, e.g. "the temperature fell by 2˚C (35.6˚ F)." Does it interfere with 'tons' in the transferred sense as well?

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  14. Well, Imperial tons (2240 lb, 1016 kg) and metric ton(ne)s (2205 lb, 1000 kg) are fairly similar, enough to make it okay to blend them in informal contexts, but U.S. tons (2000 lb, 907 kg, and based on the old 100-lb hundredweight rather than the 112-lb, 8-stone hundredweight) are very different beasts, so in AmE we end up saying "ton" and "metric ton".

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  15. Everyone I know with the surname Rees, both here in the United States and elsewhere, pronounces the final letter as a standard S not a Z. But many non-Reeses, at least here in the U.S., seem to want to pronounce the name with a Z and/or to spell it "Reese". I used to think this was because of the peanut butter cups,but then I noticed that in the journal of the first Louisiana state legislature in 1812 the name of David Rees -- a Welshman from Pennsylvania who had moved to the Attakapas District of Louisiana in 1803 -- was spelled "Reese" for the first few months, presumably until he got the chance to correct the error. And while Rees seems to have been the most common early American spelling of the name, over the centuries the superfluous final "e" seems to have become more common.

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  16. I thought the correct pronunciation of "Rees, Rhys" was actually riːz and not riːs since there is a vowel before the s. Thanks for enlightening me again with your analysis

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  17. As a Rees, I can tell you that it can go either way. My family is originally from Yorkshire, and it is pronounced Reez for the most part. Having grown up in Canada, I have always pronounced it like the "american" version of Reece. When spending time in my early 20's in Wales, I was informed it was more English to pronounce it Reez.

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  18. Gelling (Place-names of Shropshire) agrees with Wikipedia for the parish of Prees in Bradford North Hundred: 'a pre-English name from PrW [Primitive Welsh] *pres "brushwood", which became Modern Welsh prys 'copse, thicket'. She also says the vowel in PrW was lengthened in the 6th century. No pronunciation is given.

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  19. I am a Rees, and my grandfather, who emigrated to Australia from Wales always pronounced it riːs. However, my father, born and raised in Australia, pronounced it riːz, because he felt it was a better phonetic interpretation. I follow my grandfather's example and use riːs. I now live in the US, where the prevailing custom is to spell it as "Reese" (but at least they pronounce it correctly).

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