Friday 21 December 2012

nonrhotic respellings

Talking of confusing non-rhotic respellings (yesterday’s blog and comments), yesterday’s Independent newspaper had an interesting take on the correct pronunciation of German.

In German, Miele is pronounced ˈmiːlə, ending with a closish schwa. (German has a contrast between this close-mid schwa and the open-mid schwa ɐ, as in the minimal pair bitte ˈbɪtə ‘please’ vs. bitter ˈbɪtɐ ‘bitter’.)

Unfortunately, the English spelling ar, while indeed standing for schwa in nonrhotic beggar, particular, collar, standard etc, also stands for ɑː in cigar, pulsar etc. And of course rhotic readers will interpret it as implying a following r sound too.

Today’s Guardian, on the other hand, has an interesting mistake which presumably results from a nonrhotic reporter’s mishearing of what was said in court or at a press conference.

The term hermetic means (COD) ‘1. with an airtight closure. 2. protected from outside agencies. 3 of alchemy or other occult sciences, esoteric’. The word intended must have been anti-emetic.

_ _ _

Happy Christmas everyone. Next posting: 31 December.


  1. My mother always says ˈmiːli for Miele. Not sure if that’s just her, or a widespread pronunciation. LPD doesn’t record it.

  2. Never having heard the name of that vacuum-cleaner manufacturer pronounced, and knowing nothing of its national origin, I took it for the Italian word "miele" ('mjE:le)!

  3. John:
    Your post reminded me of "Winnie the Pooh." I always thought "Eeyore" a very odd name, until I finally realized, lo these many years, that it was meant to be pronounced nonrhotically.

    1. You think of that and not of Winnie-ther-Pooh? :-)

      (That's Winnie-THUH-Pooh in the American convention, to emphasise that it's not simply Winnie Pooh, as an alternative to Winnie-thee-Pooh.)

      (Phillip Minden.)

    2. Indeed, in the wonderful Scots translations of the Pooh books by James Robertson, the donkey's name is just what an American would expect: Heehaw.

      My brief appreciation of the books.

  4. I remember in the 1980s, British media informed us in Ireland that singer Sade's name was pronounced "Shar-day". S = /ʃ/ and e = /eː/ were fine, but where did that /r/ come from?!

    1. As a non-rhotic speaker, the "r" works just fine for me. But no doubt "shah" would work for us both. Then again, the Wikipedia article to which you link has "Sha-day", so now I'm thoroughly confused. Is that really supposed to be a pure short "a"? I have no idea how her name is really said, not having heard it pronounced to my recollection. (I'm so out of touch.)

    2. I notice it's since been edited.

      P.S. FYI, John Wells asks that we sign our real names when we post.

  5. I think I see the point of Mee-lar. The writer probably wants to suggest that the second syllable has what we would call secondary stress — which would not be so readily suggested by Mee-ler. And presumably he or she intended to avoid any suggestion of the NURSE vowel.

    I find MEE-luh works with most readers.

    1. Nice conjecture, but can we really talk about secondary stress with a two-syllable word? US pronunciation of 'primary, secondary and library' are my benchmarks for secondary stress on the 'a'.
      Your post also reminded of J.Fraser's example of a model for the four degrees of stress magnitude - 'Elevator-operator' = 4,1,2,1 - 3,1,2,1 (source 'Metre, Rhyme and Free Verse', J.Fraser, 1970)

    2. Jon, LPD too does indicate secondary stress for certain disyllabics like ˌsixˈteen and ₍ˌ₎anˈtique. You will understand why once you’ve read the article Stress shift.

      Charlie Ruland

  6. Out of context I tend to think that ɑː is the default non-rhotic pronunciation for ar, so yes, I'd find the meelar respelling confusing. I was, however, reminded just now of the phrase all the gear, no idea, no doubt intended to rhyme.

    I don't know what the "best" respelling for ə would be, but clearly none are satisfactory. I guess David's MEE-luh works for me, but only by realising by elimination that the respeller must be trying somehow to represent ə, as for any other vowel sound there would be some more obvious alternative respelling. I don't think it works for me by analogy with anything, as the only uh examples I can actually think of in English would be (for me) uh-oh! = ˈʌʔˌəʊ and duh! = dɜː.

  7. For me, uh-oh is definitely /ˈəʔˌoʊ/ (with a stressed /ə/, which also occurs in my speech in the prepositions but and just.

  8. I think that part of the problem with the respelling "Mee-lar" is the hyphen. With "Meelar" I'd probably have guessed that the stress falls on the first syllable and that the second syllable has no stress, thus leading me to reduce the second vowel to schwa (as in molar and pillar). The hyphen suggests that the second element should at least have secondary stress.

    I think "Meela" would be a good way to suggest the pronunciation with /ə/.

    1. I have always thought that the spelling 'fella' (fellow) is intended to suggest a colloquial pronunciation of that word, with /ə/. Is that wrong? If it is not, why would not 'meela' do the trick for 'Miele'? And yet, even if it would, there must be a reason why the Independent wrote 'Meelar'. What is it?

      Full true name --- see 'Profile'.

  9. Ah what non-rhotic speakers hear! I don't know why I have seen 'formerly' spelt as 'formally' in Australia loads of times. (But not in other non-rhotic areas. Those two are homophones for me too, but I've managed never to spell one as the other.)

  10. Wojciech wrote : "I have always thought that the spelling 'fella' (fellow) is intended to suggest a colloquial pronunciation of that word, with /ə/. Is that wrong?". I think it may be. I have always (i.e., for the last 50 years or so) understood that "fella" comes not from "fellow" but from Indic/Arabic "fellahin" (="peasant"). Am I also wrong ?

    Philip Taylor

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