Thursday, 22 July 2010


A few days ago the Guardian crossword included a word clued in such a way as to require crux to be a homophone of crooks. I remember noticing it at the time I solved the crossword and thinking that I have a distinction between krʌks and krʊks, whereas the compiler, Rufus, presumably did not. But it did not occur to me to write a letter to the editor about it.

Others did not hesitate. Two days ago there was a letter saying that Rufus must be a northerner (and by implication not properly educated) because he pronounces the two words the same. Today someone writes from an address in Greater London as follows.
…whereas “crux” as pronounced oop north rhymes with crooks as pronounced in t’ south … it does not rhyme with crooks in t’ north, where it approximates to “crewks”.

Clear? Let me explain. Popular northern speech merges the STRUT and FOOT sets, making dull rhyme with full and cut with put. (Hence the eye-dialect joke spelling 'oop' for up in the comment.) However among the FOOT words (i.e. words that have ʊ in RP and in ‘General American’) there is a variable subset in which some northerners (and also some Irish people) use a long vowel . This subset includes several words spelt -ook, such as book, cook, look… and crook.

This is why you have to be careful when selecting minimal pairs to test for the STRUT-FOOT merger. Cut vs. put is fine; but luck vs. look is not. Nor is crux vs. crooks, the pair at issue here.

  crux crooks
most speakers of English krʌks krʊks
some northerners krʊks krʊks
other northerners krʊks kruːks

(As usual the notation ʊ can cover a multitude of qualities for northern speech, ranging from close to mid and from back to central. Some people use a kind of ə for both STRUT and FOOT. The point is not the exact phonetic quality involved but the sameness or differentness of the vowel qualities in particular lexical sets or subsets.)

It’s difficult even for those who understand this situation to explain it in simple terms in a line or two of a letter to the editor.


  1. krʌks isn't just the Northern pronunciation but also the one of choice for people who consider it more correct for a Latin word (or have grown up with it by now, of course), be it from school, or because words that are suspected of being not really English get European vowels by default, or from newer church use, or by half-analogy from the vowel of the plural cruces.

  2. Lipman, I think you must mean krʊks... The point is that northern speech has no ʌ.
    I would say krʌks in English, meaning "the most important part of a problem etc", but krʊks in Latin meaning "cross".

  3. Sorry about that "isn't just" - rather, it's only that.

  4. (Cross-commented.)

    Yes, I've heard that difference. Fascinating how a language gets richer through things like that.

  5. Thanks - yes I meant krʊks, of course, minus the "just".

  6. a lot of the time, readers of the guardian reveal themselves to be bigotted, unobservant idiots - ironic, non?

  7. I assume it was clear from the crossword that the intended meaning of crux was 'the most important part of a problem'?

  8. Richard Steller22 July 2010 11:55

    I lived oop north for a while, and it seems to me that the pronunciation of words ending in -ook as /u:/ is dying out now.

    I think for speakers born after ~1960, words ending in -ook are pronounced /ʊ/, as in most other dialects of English.

  9. Rob Drummond22 July 2010 12:40

    Richard, it depends where you go. Still plenty of /u:/ for -ook in Bolton, even amongst young speakers. I imagine the same is true for other parts of Lancashire.

  10. In between the original letter and the one that JW quotes from today, there was another one, from a man in Newcastle, also asserting that "crux" and "crooks" do not rhyme in his part of the north.

    Now, I assume he is referring to the same thing as JW, i.e. he's saying that "crooks" is [kruːks] (rather than [krʊks]) where he comes from, but it's hard to be sure.

    He also says "nobody says 'oop', either" [in Newcastle]. I take this to mean that nobody says [uːp], even though the point of the cliche "oop north" is that northerners say [ʊp] rather than [ʌp]. There is no unique spelling for /ʊ/-words, so "oop" is ambiguous between [ʊp] and [uːp]. Again this is just a guess.

  11. According to the results of an online survey I ran last year (, the GOOSE vowel is still the norm in -ook words in most of northeast England and is still common in the northwest (although research by Kevin Watson suggests it is in decline in Liverpool). It's also the norm in Scotland and in northern parts of Ireland. The relevant map isn't on the website but I'll maybe put it up there soon.

  12. @Warren Maguire, given that Scottish English tends to merge GOOSE and FOOT, it's impossible to ask which one of them that is used in 'crook'.

  13. Warren Maguire22 July 2010 14:02

    OK, let me rephrase - It's also the norm for words such as 'book' and 'crook' to have the same vowel as words such as 'spook' and 'Luke' in Scotland and northern parts of Ireland.

  14. Off topic, I know, but I used to enjoy seeing a particular double-decker bus in Durham City when I lived there about 15 years ago. It was painted in an all-over advertisement for some crime prevention scheme. The bus company must have enjoyed putting it on the route to Crook (which was [kɹuːk], to heave myself back on topic).

  15. There is actually an area of Sheffield called "Crookes". When I moved to Sheffield from West Yorkshire, I thought that it would be pronounced /kru:ks/ but it was actually /krʊks/.

    I find the use of /oo/ for ʊ very irritating in writing Northern dialects. These people want /u/ to represent ʌ, but that sound does not occur. As /oo/ is widely interpreted to represent /u:/ as well, it causes confusion between /ʊ/ and /u:/. This is particularly annoying for words where the pronunciation has changed over time; for example, "come" was said as /ku:m/ in older Yorkshire dialect but it is now /kʊm/.

  16. @ Rob Drummond: Yes, you're right. It seems to become more common the further west you go within the North. Interestingly, I find that /u:/ is more common in "look" than in the other words, which might be to maintain a contrast with "luck".

  17. Clayton Burns22 July 2010 20:19

    "A few days ago the Guardian crossword included a word clued in such a way as to require crux to be a homophone of crooks."

    I am not sure that it is appropriate to mention "crooks" here. Someone might think that it is an allusion to Tracy Goodwin.

    Can it be OK to say "crossword included a word clued"? Seems almost paraphonic. I was not aware that John Wells was a card-carrying poet.

    [C]rossword. [I]ncluded. [C]lued. [C]rux. Chiasmus. /kr/ split by /kl/. Gives an odd twist to "crooks." Harping on that again.

  18. John, I had planned some cryptic comments of my own on this, but after the debate on your blog for yesterday I've decided I need to exercise more discipline and get an early night!

    What I must say is that I was pleased to see that your point about "the notation ʊ" and "a kind of ə" comes very opportunely for my last point about transcription-specific definitions of IPA symbols in yesterday's discussion.

    I used to do the Guardian Crossword as well as the Times Cryptic ones. One of the reasons I have stopped doing the Guardian ones is that the greater prevalence of carry-ons like this will hasten my death (I have to die of something, but a fit of apoplexy would be a bit infra dig), and another is that the non-anonymity of the compilers is itself a clue to their little tricks as well as their lects. The Times Crossword was my first love. Does it not feature in your love-life?

  19. @mary:
    a lot of the time, readers of the guardian reveal themselves to be bigotted, unobservant idiots - ironic, non?

    And ... Southerners. Rather ironic for the newspaper formerly known as the Manchester Guardian.

  20. Interesting, I'm learning slowly about European English dialectology reading this blog. Very helpful when I watch BBC, lol. I'll be like "He's from the north, and she's from the south and that one's from Dublin and...".

    Just for the record, I guess I have the "normal" dialect then: /kɹʌks/ 'crux' and /kɹʊks/ 'crooks' (or /kɹəks/?).

  21. VP - I know. It feels in recent years that the Guardian's acknowledgement of the existence of 'The North' lies in jolly nice artisan food producers, affordable secondary housing, and misleading crossword clues.

  22. @António: I don't really think we do have a conceptual or terminological misunderstanding here. I think it's just a matter of what degree of allophony we can agree to mark for different purposes.

    I did ask what "superficial and predictable instances of coarticulation in phonetic implementation" were if not allophones, intending it of course to be a rhetorical question, but you have answered it to my satisfaction. I realize "systematic phonetics" has historically been a term for phonemics or phonology, variously defined or not properly defined in different schools and that "phonetic implementation" is an uncontentious term for an allophonic level of analysis. It was just that not having yet read your book, I did not find that this characterization of what I would call allophones in the examples you gave as such an "instance of coarticulation in phonetic implementation" enlightened me very much. And I am agog to discover what you do mean by phonology in “Introdução à Fonologia do Português Europeu”. In a recent blog entry John Wells said of French nasalization "Back in the days of generative phonology, people analysed bon bɔ̃ as underlyingly #bɔn# and bonne bɔn as underlyingly #bɔn+ə#. The masculine form then underwent a rule changing Vn into a nasalized vowel: Vn → Ṽ / _{#,C}. How this is handled in these days of Optimality Theory someone else will have to tell us." And someone did. I thought I was reading aright between the lines of all that, but I am keeping an open mind about your work in progress.

    There is of course no tradition or legacy, however otiose, of marking the k allophones in your examples QUILO [ˈkiɫu], AQUELE [ɐˈkeɫ(ɨ)], AQUELA [ɐˈkɛɫɐ], CURA [ˈkuɾɐ], COR [ˈkoɾ], CORA [ˈkɔɾɐ], CARA [ˈkaɾɐ], and it would make no more sense than marking that degree of allophony in English, for example. For as you say, allophones are discrete segments, i.e. phonetic categories, which phonetic transcription is supposed to capture, but it can only do this by bringing this discreteness into being within the framework of the relationship between phonology and phonetics, which are themselves systems of relationships between relationships. But it can go on to make ever more precise refinements of the observations of the purely realizational phenomena, as appropriate to the purposes of particular analyses. And I wouldn't include diachronic ones any more than you apparently would.

    And again like you, I see no need to represent types/degrees of velarized/velar [ɫ], and I never have seen any, because by "need" you appear to mean "absolute need", or what I would call functional necessity. Of course the minimal differences in frontness or backness of the lateral are a function of the following vocoid. I would add "and of the preceding one", but not to the same extent, I suspect.

    And by saying you adopted a narrow comparative solution in this context, I can only think that you mean cross-linguistically, to reflect the fact that a significant range of the allophones of this phoneme (though not I think all of them) are significantly darker than in comparable languages, rather than adopting a language-specific solution. I still haven't heard back from any NS informant other than you about all this. I think your solution may have caused some consternation further afield than on this blog!

    Thanks for the entertaining note about Portuguese children who use [ʋ] as a convenient get-out! I wonder if any parents whose children use it for English r take them to speech therapists. I can hardly believe any ever did. Though if they took them for anything else, I'm sure there would have been speech therapists who would have had a go at the [ʋ] as well!

    I think we can all celebrate the fact that for all practical purposes we filter/interpret our data in a different manner than the admirable Vianna.