Tuesday, 13 April 2010

a weritable willain

Mrs GampScanned image by
Philip V. Allingham


It appears that the Londoners of a century or two ago sometimes interchanged or confused the sounds v and w. Dickens certainly portrays this in his literary representation of Cockney: Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit says on the one hand “wery best” and “[the] walley of the shadder [of death]” and on the other hand “vich” for ‘which’.
In Pickwick Papers we find
Ve got Tom Vildspark off..ven all the big vigs..said as nothing couldn't save him.
and
I may trust you as vell as if it was my own self. So I’ve only this here one little bit of adwice to give you!
(Notice that in this second passage “I’ve” and “give” presumably had the usual v and “one” the usual w.)
Writing in 1936, H.C. Wyld recalled the use of [w] in place of [v] as a jocular usage among middle-class speakers in the nineteenth century. It is utterly unknown in Cockney today. (Accents of English p. 333)
The OED (second edition, 1989) says
In south-eastern English dialects the change of v- to w- does occur, and older representations of Cockney speech exhibit a converse change of w- to v-, which recent investigators have been unable to verify as still existent.

In present-day English such occasional interchange of the two consonants has been reported from parts of the Caribbean, particularly the Bahamas (Accents of English, p. 568 and 589).

I was accordingly delighted when a workman in Montserrat, exchanging gossip about local events, told me that in his view a certain person was a ˈwɪlən (villain).
I had never previously encountered this in Montserrat, although George Irish (see yesterday’s blog) does list one such entry.
warmunce - vermin; a mean or base person

With the dubious exception of Bahamian, where the two sounds may conceivably be in complementary distribution, all core native varieties of English, including Cockney and Caribbean, appear to have a firm phonemic contrast between v and w. (In parts of Jamaica and perhaps elsewhere there may be some confusion between v and b, but that is another story.)
Indian English is notorious for often lacking this phonemic contrast, with the two consonants being merged as ʋ (a labiodental approximant). This is often perceived by non-Indians as w, so that for example a maths teacher of Indian origin in a British school acquired the nickname “Mr Wortical” because of the way he pronounced vertical.
In the EFL world Hungarians are notorious for being deaf to this contrast and for using v in place of w. This is also part of the popular stereotype of a German accent, although nowadays most German speakers of EFL seem to have mastered the contrast.

34 comments:

  1. Jack Windsor Lewis13 April 2010 at 12:07

    The quote from OED taken from the 1989 edition must be treated with some caution as regards the interpretation of "recent investigators have been unable to verify as still existent". This was simply a repetition 73 years later of Craigie's remark (at the introduction to letter V) of 1916. The evidence from novelists also may well have to be taken as possibly exaggerating for comic effect. The East Anglian data in the Leeds University Survey of English Dialects has some relevant transcriptions eg 'voice' with /w/ noted in Norfolk speakers.

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  2. Among advanced Hungarian learners of English, e.g. English majors, hypercorrect pronunciations of the kind "wery well" are extremely common.

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  3. Here's a recording from 1899 which has /w/ for /v/ ("it really is a wery pretty garden"):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1GmDA8FU9w

    This also has a trill for /r/ in a few places, which I have an idea is characteristic of older Cockney - does this ring a bell with anyone else? (Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins had a series on R4 a few years ago with a character who really relished the /r/ in "brisket of beef" - funny as hell).

    Paul

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  4. I suppose this is just speculation but isn't it very possible that the Cockney situation was just the same as the Indian one today, with both phonemes merging into that labiodental approximant?

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  5. Have a look at this, which suggests exactly that:

    Trudgill, P., Schreier, D., Long, D. and Williams, J. (2004) "On the reversibility of mergers: /w/, /v/ and evidence from lesser-known Englishes". Folia Linguistica Historica, Vol. XXIV/1-2, 23-45.

    Anderson (1987) "A Structual Atlas of English Dialects" has a nice map summarising /w/ for /v/ in the SED, showing that it was found in Norfolk, Suffolk, north Essex and parts of Buckinghamshire.

    The recording was amazing, but it is of course possible that the singer was using stereotyped and stage pronunciations.

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  6. The recording was amazing, but it is of course possible that the singer was using stereotyped and stage pronunciations.

    My first thought, too, but then again, it's Gus Elen, who was as Cockney as they come, not Dickens or Dick Van Dyke. Also, I shouldn't assume the alveolar trill [r] is due to stage tradition.

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    1. I have just stumbled upon this discussion. I am the author of Gus Elen's biography "A Cockney at Work. The Story of Gus Elen and His Songs"

      Although as the book's title suggests, Gus was a Cockney on stage, he was not born an eastender. He was a stickler for detail and authenticity however so we can be confident that despite his pedigree, the use of 'v' for 'w' was in everyday use at the time.

      The book comes with a CD of Gus Elen's original recordings, when purchased from www.guselen.co.uk, where full details of the book are given.

      Please feel free to contact me via the website rather than the blogspot which I will be closing

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  7. I can certainly confirm that I tend to mix them up unless I'm consciously monitoring my pronunciation.

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  8. Perhaps it was due to immigration to London by eastern Europeans whose native languages lacked a /v/-/w/ contrast?

    It seems that a /v/-/w/ contrast is somewhat rare among the languages of the world. Apart from English, the only languages that come to mind for me are French, Italian and Polish, although I am sure that there are many others.

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  9. My impression of the _paradigmatic_ Indian merged consonant is [βʷ]: basically a [w] sound where the initial lip rounding is close enough to produce a voiced fricative. This is definitely a great way to do impressions of Indians speaking English, and has the benefit of sounding equally like an English /v/ or /w/!

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  10. @John:
    "This is also part of the popular stereotype of a German accent, although nowadays most German speakers of EFL seem to have mastered the contrast."
    Don't be too optimistic - I've been teaching English phonetics to German students of English (about half of them trying to become teachers of EFL) for more than 3 decades. They still have a hard time not mixing up the two sounds.

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  11. A colleague of mine teaching English in Germany (She's American, I'm British) had a strict policy of not allowing beginners to see words written down. One day she elicited from a student that he was from a small place and taught him the word village. While she was out of the room, the student got a friend to write the word down. So when Karen came back into the room, she was startled to hear him say willage.

    I believe her story totally, but it's not obvious how the writing came to interfere. Willage isn't a straight spelling pronunciation; that would presumably be fillage. Rather, it seems to be a hypercorrection of a spelling pronunciation -- a misguided effort to avoid fillage.

    That alone can't explain Karen's experience. It would seen that the phonological error is (or was then in the 70's) so widespread that some Germans with a minimal knowledge of spoken and written English absorbed the false spelling-to-sound rule from more advanced speakers.

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  12. Willage isn't a straight spelling pronunciation; that would presumably be fillage.

    Don't quite understand, frankly. German written v is [v] in most cases, ie words of French origin such as Vase [ˈva̠ːzə]. Only in some Upper German regions are even those words conventionally pronounced with an [f]. Words of Germanic origin that continue the MHG fancy of spelling [f] with a v, such as Vater, aren't so many, and usually the latter are regarded to be the exceptions from the rule, not the former, I think.

    So, if students aren't used to English orthography or more probably confuse [v] and [w] in hearing and pronunciation anyway, they might spell [v] as w. Then the next student sees the written w in an unfamiliar English word and "correctly" pronounces it [w].

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  13. Words of Germanic origin that continue the MHG fancy of spelling [f] with a v, such as Vater, aren't so many

    Yes, but they are much more frequent than the Latin/French/English loans where v stands for /v/. viel, von, vor, ver- are ubiquitous, and consequently the letter itself is called [faʊ] when spelling.

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  14. Thank you for this post. I read "Paul Clifford" a few months ago and was puzzled by the dialect...people I was sure were meant to be Cockney sounded (to my inner ear) like they had German accents.

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  15. luke, I don't know the statistics, and with the prefixes alone, you're probably right.

    Nevertheless, except for the dialects mentioned, hardly any speaker of Standard German would think of pronouncing a word with a written v with an [f] unless it was clearly both German and an erbwort. This doesn't only concern loans from French, Latin or increasingly English, but even in case the speaker can't identify the language and hasn't seen the word before.

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  16. @Paul Hopkins:
    The alveolar trill for /r/ does ring a bell with me. Though I associate it more with very old RP accents. For example, I believe Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes would sometimes use an alveolar trill or tap for /r/ and I quite sure that character wasn't meant to be Cockney.

    I think I have heard an alveolar tap for /r/ in older Cockney though. If you listen to the way the narrator says "Harry" in the following clip you can hear what I mean (it's a bi' dir'y though):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fRY6J6lD7k

    He also says "horrible" with an alveolar tap (and a dropped /h/) in another part. As an American, I truly thought he was saying "audible", but I digress.

    Another unrelated but interesting thing about the clip is how Harry says, "Well, if you got it, you got it", using a different variety of /t/ between "got" and "it" each time (an alveolar tap and an alveolar plosive, respectfully).

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  17. "I quite sure" --> "I'm quite sure"

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  18. Among advanced Hungarian learners of English, e.g. English majors, hypercorrect pronunciations of the kind "wery well" are extremely common.

    Much like the fact that if I'm not very careful I often use [ð] for /d/ or vice versa. (My native Italian has d̪ which is the sound most Italians would use for both English /d/ and /ð/.)

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  19. Lipman

    So, if students aren't used to English orthography or more probably confuse [v] and [w] in hearing and pronunciation anyway, they might spell [v] as w.

    Well, they might. But that's not what happened in my friend's case. The student who knew a little English spelled village correctly. He may also have pronounced, but didn't have the time or skill to teach the pronunciation the way that Karen had just recently done.

    My guess is that the 'helpful' student triggered a memory that the 'helped' student didn't know he had. The written form somehow confirmed his mistaken judgement.

    It's not unusual for beginners to acquire a pretty good pronunciation while still imitating sounds -- only for it to deteriorate as they acquire some fluency and some sort of internalised phonology.

    What's unusual in this case is that progress brought on not just poorer approximation to target sounds but actual phonological error.

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  20. @David Crosbie:
    It's very interesting how you say beginners tend to pronounce the language better than more advanced learners. That means my Spanish pronunciation has probably gotten worse despite what my teachers have told me!

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  21. Anonymous

    What I said was that it wasn't unusual for beginners to get worse.

    Whether this happens or not depends on the teaching procedure. Some courses begin with intensive teaching of pronunciation -- with great results that prove unsustainable.

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  22. David Marjanović15 April 2010 at 13:45

    I wonder if a complementary distribution ([w] with back vowels, [v] with front vowels) ever emerged, as it has in Hawaiian.

    Native speakers of German often simply don't figure out on their own that English has both /w/ and /v/ (a combination very few languages have) and instead think [w] is the English /v/ the same way [ɹ] is the English /r/. My sister almost refused to believe it when I explained this to her – after she had already had several years of English lessons in school and was pretty fluent.

    The alveolar trill for /r/ does ring a bell with me. Though I associate it more with very old RP accents.

    ...which still get imitated, though more and more incompetently: Emperor Palpatine uses the alveolar flap.

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  23. David Marjanović15 April 2010 at 13:54

    Phonology isn't taught anywhere near enough in ESL or elsewhere.

    in Hawaiian

    Not Hawaiian English as far as I know, but the actual ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i.

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  24. I was a unilingual speaker of German till age 7, but I've been living in English for over 50 years. I know perfectly well which words are pronounced with V and which with W.

    I have no trouble with individual occurrences of either sound. But if there's a string of Vs and Ws in close proximity I will still occasionally produce the wrong one unless I consciously monitor my speech.

    The probability of confusion, while quite low, increases with the number of Vs and Ws in the string I am producing. To me, it's a sort of tongue-tiedness, as if the sentence were a tonguetwister.

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  25. I can only support what David Marjanović said:
    It came as a great suprise to me and most of the other students in the advanced English course in our eighth (!) year of English at school when our English teacher told us that there was a difference in pronunciation between "v" and "w". Being advanced students, we used [w] for both, because that's the obvious foreign sound (and , unlike the "th"s, not hard to pronounce).
    The problem is also that in German, especially in the south (where I'm from), [v] usually has less friction than its English counterpart and often is only an approximant, so German [v] tends to be intermediate between English [v] and [w].

    @Lipman: In general "v" is pronounced [f] more frequently in the south of the German speaking area, especially in Switzerland, that's right. But never in "Vase"!

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  26. I'm not sure about the Vase, maybe you're right. At least it's easy for me to imagine a Swiss or proudly Bavarian speaker say [fɑ[ː]z̥(ə)]. The more you're right, the more my original point stands that in case of doubt, a German will pronounce [v] in foreign languages.

    German Wikipedia has these examples for Standard German [v] and South German [f]: Vikar, Viktor, Viper, Ventil, vulgär.

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  27. @Stefan: "The problem is also that in German, especially in the south (where I'm from), [v] usually has less friction than its English counterpart and often is only an approximant, so German [v] tends to be intermediate between English [v] and [w]."
    Very good observation! The replacing sound is the one Brits use when they can't pronounce the /r/ (e.g. Woy Jenkins, Lord Montgomery).

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  28. Harry and Warren,
    I had always guessed that the Cockney situation was just the same as the Indian one today, with both phonemes merging into that labiodental approximant, with the (sporadic) Dickensian inverse representation of them being purely perceptual. So it's interesting to see the reference to Trudgill et al, but if Anderson's map only shows /w/ for /v/ we can't conclude anything about the inverse or a merger.

    The recording was indeed amazing, and it is of course indeed possible that the singer was using stereotyped and stage pronunciations, but I agree with Lipman about the authenticity of the alveolar trill, which Elen trills more than somewhat even in non-orthographic liaison in another song (1906) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQrEmRBN5kw&NR=1):
    wɒts ðə jʊws ə ˈkɪkɪn ʌp ə *raːr* ɪf ðər ɛɪnt nʌʊ wɜːk əbaːt

    Also in yet another song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiMI5Gp9sZg) he has [ɔʷɐ] for final –aw in saw as well as –ore in more etc., which I think must have already been authentic.

    How do you know he was as Cockney as they come, Lipman? I found a claim on the Web that his Cockney was "assumed", and he normally had "a cultured accent", but I don’t believe that. More likely it was the latter that was assumed, as would still have been expected of him in broadcast talk for example.

    I was a bit taken aback by David Marjanović's suggestion that native speakers of German often simply don't figure out on their own that English has both /w/ and /v/, as I had on the whole espoused the "trying too hard" hypothesis, as in θɑʊs for ‎'south'. But Stefan's support for it certainly made me think again. And he is right that German [v] tends to be intermediate between English [v] and [w], and not just in the south. Amazingly my first German textbook (aged 7 and trying to teach myself from a book in Fraktur which had no notion of any such idea, but as well as teaching the script version of Fraktur gave useful guidance on pronunciation out of sheer native wit) said German w was more English-like in clusters like schw and zw. And I soon heard vp's [βʷ] in such clusters (and intervocalically in words like Löwe).

    nycguy, you are also definitely onto something, but do you perhaps find that you can do tonguetwisters perfectly well until you are taken unawares by one that occurs naturally? My son's first language was Japanese, and he has been bilingual since a bit earlier in life than you, so for your w and v read l and r. He has no difficulty with red lorry yellow lorry yellow lorry red lorry etc., which his mother won't even attempt, but is occasionally thrown by chance strings of mathematical jargon featuring that dread opposition.

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  29. An interesting finding:

    From the book: Biography of Cardinal Mezzofanti

    CHAPTER XV (1841-1843) p.404
    "You have many patois in the English language,' said the Cardinal. ' For instance, the Lancashire dialect is very different from that spoken by the Cockneys; [he used this word ;—] so much so, that some Londoners would find considerable difficulty in understanding what a Lancashire man said. The Cockneys always use v instead of w, and w instead of v : so that they say ' vine' instead of 'wine;' [he gave this example.] And then the Irish brogue, as it is called, is another variety. I remember very distinctly having a conversation with an Irish gentleman whom I met soon after the peace, and he always mispronounced that word, calling it 'pace."

    http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/e/mezzofanti/biography/index.html
    http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/e/mezzofanti/biography/15.4-english-dialects.html

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  30. I think these all are all core native varieties of English, including Cockney and Caribbean, appear to have a firm phonemic contrast between v and w.

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