Monday, 22 April 2013

click farewell

How come, you might ask, that a word spelled with -c- comes to be pronounced with an l? Why this gross discrepancy between spelling and sound, orthography and pronunciation?

Blame the 1989 Kiel Convention of the IPA, which replaced the click symbols then in use, ʇ ʗ ʖ, by the current ǀ ǃ ǁ.

Because the second syllable of this word is pronounced in Zulu with a voiceless dental click. Unfortunately in some fonts the currently official IPA symbol for this sound looks indistinguishable from a lower-case L.

For further discussion, together with a number of sensible readers' comments, see my blog for 9 Sep 2009.

_ _ _

…In fact over recent months I have increasingly been feeling that in this blog I have by now already said everything of interest that I want to say. And if I have nothing new to say, then the best plan is to stop talking.

So I am now discontinuing my blog.

Thank you, all those readers who have stayed with me over the seven years that I have been writing it. If you still need a regular fix, there are archives stretching back to 2006 for you to rummage through.

Goodbye, au revoir, tschüss, hwyl, cześć, tot ziens, до свидания, さようなら, ĝis!

ˌðæts \ɪt

Friday, 19 April 2013


We can’t agree on how to spell the name of the famous Dutch/Flemish painter(s): were Pieter B. the Elder and his relatives Breughel, Brueghel, Breugel or Bruegel?

As is often the case with foreign names in English, we’re not entirely sure how to pronounce them, either.

In Dutch this name is pronounced ˈbrøːɣəl (subject to the usual regional variationː possible diphthonging of the stressed vowel and devoicing of the velar, not to mention the variability in the second consonant), which is what you would expect for a spelling with eu. In turn, you would expect foreign-language ø(ː) to map onto nonrhotic English NURSE, as happens with French deux mapped onto BrE dɜː or German Goethe ˈɡøːtə onto BrE ˈɡɜːtə.

Yet on the whole we call the painter not ˈbrɜːɡl̩ but ˈbrɔɪɡl̩. Why?

I can only suppose that our usual pronunciation is based on the spelling with eu interpreted according to the reading rules of German. If Deutsch is English dɔɪtʃ and Freud is frɔɪd, then Breug(h)el must be ˈbrɔɪɡl̩.

For the same reason, even though Wikipedia prefers the spelling Bruegel (which would prompt us towards a pronunciation ˈbruːɡl̩), most of us, I suspect, tend to spell the name with eu.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013


I had a phone call a few days ago from someone trying to get in touch with David Rosewarne. The caller thought I might have his contact details. I was unable to help, since as far as I remember I have only met Rosewarne once, and that briefly; the last I heard of him was that he was working in Malaysia, but I do not know where he might be now.

David Rosewarne’s great claim to fame is that in October 1984 he coined the expression “Estuary English”, in an article published in the Times Educational Supplement.

In doing so he gave expression to the widespread perception that Daniel Jones-style RP was gradually losing its status as the unquestioned standard accent of educated English people. Or, putting it a different way, that RP was changing by absorbing various sound changes that previously had been restricted to Cockney or other non-prestigious varieties.

Two years earlier, in my Accents of English, I had written

Throughout [London], the working-class accent is one which shares the general characteristics of Cockney. We shall refer to this accent as popular London. […] Middle-class speakers typically use an accent closer to RP than popular London. But the vast majority of such speakers nevertheless have some regional characteristics [emphasis added]. This kind of accent might be referred to as London (or, more generally, south-eastern) Regional Standard.

I added the warning

It must be remembered that labels such as ‘popular London’, ‘London Regional Standard’ do not refer to entities we can reify but to areas along a continuum stretching from broad Cockney (itself something of an abstraction) to RP.

So Rosewarne’s observations in a sense contained nothing new. He muddied the waters unhelpfully by referring to details of vocabulary and grammar (which have nothing to do with “a new variety of pronunciation”). But the name he coined, Estuary English, was taken up quite widely, gaining resonance eventually not only with journalists but also with the general public, to such an extent that we can now expect to be readily understood if we describe someone’s speech as “estuarial”.

The estuary Rosewarne was thinking of was of course the Thames estuary, which in a geographical sense might be interpreted as extending from Teddington near Kingston upon Thames (the point where the river becomes tidal) down to Southend-on-Sea (where the Thames enters the North Sea). Rosewarne’s original article says “the heartland of this variety lies by the banks of the Thames and its estuary, but it seems to be the most influential accent in the south-east of England”; though later writers, particularly Coggle in his Do you speak Estuary? (1993) implied that it covered the entire southeast of the country. It was left to my colleague Joanna Przedlacka to demonstrate that it did no such thing (see her 2002 book Estuary English? and this summary). Przedlacka demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently.

Rosewarne’s suggestion that EE “may become the RP of the future” led to credulous excitement in the EFL world, particularly in central Europe and South America.

It was in response to media and academic interest in the topic that in 1998 I set up a website “to bring together as many documents as possible that relate to Estuary English, as a convenient resource for the many interested enquirers.”

One thing I did myself was to consider how we might agree on a phonetic transcription scheme, which would be needed for pedagogical purposes if we seriously wanted to teach this putative new accent. See this article. But no one followed this up by criticizing my proposals or suggesting anything better.

All the excitement gradually died down. I last had cause to update the website in 2007. By the time I retired, in 2006, this was my one-page summary of the issue. EFL teachers, meanwhile, mostly know that we just need to update our pedagogical model of RP in the minor ways outlined in LPD.

Monday, 15 April 2013

London place names

Londonist, a website “about London and everything that happens in it” offers a page of advice on London place names.

Some of the advice is a little surprising.

These names are normally ˈɔːldwɪtʃ, ˈbʌrə, kəˈdʌɡən, ˈtʃɪzɪk, ˈklæpəm, ˈdeʔfəd, ˈdʌlɪdʒ. RP usually distinguishes ˈɔːl from əʊl and ɒl (so that Paul ≠ pole ≠ Poll(y)), and Aldwych has ɔːl or possibly ɒl, but not əʊl. Of course many speakers have the GOAT allophone ɒʊ when dark l follows, as here; and Londoners tend to vocalize dark l, making cold kɒod; but I had thought that most would not merge the result with the ɔːo of l-vocalized called. Hence I am surprised to see Aldwich explained as “old witch”; though I suppose “all’d witch” or “auld witch” would be orthographically awkward. (Anyhow, the main point is that -wych stands for wɪtʃ, not wɪk.)

With Clapham, the basic ˈklæpəm can of course be reduced to ˈklæʔm̩ by the regular processes of syllabic consonant formation and glottalling.

The final consonant in Dulwich is, in my judgment, more often than , though both are possible; it’s odd that the anonymous author should prescribe the voiceless affricate in Dulwich but the voiced one in Greenwich and Woolwich, where the same hesitation between the two possibilities for -ch applies.

That’s ˈhəʊbən, ˈhɒmətən, ˈaɪzəlwɜːθ, with the usual syllabic-consonant options, plus possible glottalling in ˈhɒməʔn̩ and weakening in ˈaɪzl̩wəθ (or, of course, a more London-y ˈɑɪzowəf). Initial h is just as likely to be dropped/retained in Holborn as in Homerton.

So, ˈplɑːstəʊ (though I’ll allow people from the north of England and the Americans to say ˈplæstəʊ if they prefer), ˈrɒðəhaɪð, ˈraɪslɪp,ˈsʌðək, ˈstretəm, ˌθeɪdənˈbɔɪz, ˈtɒtənəm, ˈwɒpɪŋ. Regular optional processes generate the variants ˈrɒvəhaɪv, ˈstreʔm̩ and ˈtɒʔnəm; there is also an archaic variant ˈredrɪf (Redriff) for Rotherhithe; and if you drop the h in the usual form you'll get an internal linking r, ˈrɒvəraɪv. The Cockney tube train driver on my AofE recording pronounces his part of London, Wapping, as ˈwɒpʔɪn.

Friday, 12 April 2013

money tree policy

Puns that work for some do not necessarily work for all.

Here’s a witticism from a letter-writer to the Guardian a month ago. But I suspect that this pun doesn’t exactly work for anyone at all, though it is close enough for us to get it.

The Bank of England has a Monetary Policy Committee, which is in the news from time to time.

As we all know, money does not grow on trees, though if it did the tree it grew on would be a money tree.

The pronunciation of monetary is ˈmʌnɪt(ə)ri, with variants ˈmɒn-, -ət-. We can disregard the question of the vowel in the first syllable, which for some (most?) is the same as that of money, while for others it has the spelling-pronunciation vowel of monitor (which immediately destroys the pun). Let’s concentrate on the weak vowels. Is the rest of monetary pronounced as in money tree ˈmʌni triː?

Not for those who have a lax happY vowel, phonetically similar to KIT rather than to FLEECE (like me). For me, monetary ends with trɪ, which feels and sounds different from my tree triː. On the other hand my money also ends with ɪ, which I can readily identify with the second syllable of monetary. If, though, in the second syllable of monetary I had a schwa ə (as many do), rather than my weak ɪ, then that too would destroy the pun, because this schwa could not be mistaken for my happY vowel.

To make the pun work you need a tense happY (so that -tary = tree), but you also need a lax happY (so that money =mone(t)-). And you can’t have it both ways at once.

A strong, AmE-style suffix vowel in -ary destroys the pun, too, since tɛri could not be mistaken for tree. To save the pun you need not just to weaken but actually to delete this vowel, since təri could not be mistaken for tree, though tri might.

All in all, then, standup comics wanting to tell people a joke depending on this pun would have to be remarkably careful in their ‘diction’.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

listen once more

When my three-volume Accents of English (Cambridge University Press, 1982) was published, it was accompanied by a cassette with recorded specimens. The same tape was also published by BBC English under the title In a Manner of Speaking. Both cassettes have been unavailable for many years.

From time to time, though, I get queries about them. Now, with the agreement of the publishers, I have had the tracks converted to digital form, and plan to make them freely available on the web.

It will take me some time to edit the sound files, but I hope to make them all available within a few weeks. I have thrown together a quick-and-dirty web page to link to them. So far only two sound files are available, out of the twenty or so that will complete the set. Please bear in mind that the recordings all date from 1982 or a few years earlier.

The first is the specimen of RP, a test passage read by my former colleague Susan Ramsaran. (I use the same test passage for specimens of General American, Scottish, and New Zealand speech, to follow later.) The cassette inlay for it reads as follows.

RP is the standard accent of English in England, and the accent taught to overseas learners of English in many countries.

Some of its phonetic characteristics are as follows, with examples from the test passage.

  • LOT has a rounded vowel, [ɒ]: o’clock, stopped, vodka.
  • Non-rhotic distribution of /r/, historical /r/ having been lost except before a vowel: work, hour, later, started, earth tremor, utterly [ˈʌtl̩i].
  • Linking /r/, though, before a vowel: after I’d had, quarter of; also intrusive /r/ between /ə/ and a following vowel: vodka or.
  • Centring diphthongs in NEAR , SQUARE, CURE: steering, air, fury, experience, there, during.
  • Weak suffix in -ary: momentary /ˈməʊməntrɪ/; but not in -ile: hostile /ˈhɒstaɪl/.
  • Broad vowel, /ɑː/, in BATH: after, past, vast, ask.
  • The vowels of THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE are all identical: awesome, horse, force.
  • GOAT is a diphthong with a central starting point, [əʊ]: drove, local, momentary.
  • ”Smoothing” may make a diphthong monophthongal when before another vowel: throwing /ˈθrəʊɪŋ/ [θrəɪŋ], diabolical [daə-]; // and // may become [ɪ, ʊ] before a vowel: two o’clock [ˈtʊəˈklɒk].
  • The yod semivowel /j/ is retained after /t, d, n/, sometimes after /s, z/: during, new, supernatural.
  • Words such as really, fury, utterly, fiery end in [ɪ]. (Compare [i] in many other accents.)

The second track is my discussion of RP, and in particular of the specimen offered. Here is what I say. (Phonetic transcriptions are in accordance with the printed book, iɡnoring the abbreviatory conventions etc. of LPD.)

Here [in the spoken specimen] you can note [...] the rounded vowel in words of the standard lexical set LOT, for example in the words o’clock əˈklɒk, stopped stɒpt, vodka ˈvɒdkə. This is a non-rhotic accent, i.e. historically it has undergone the innovation of R Dropping, so we have the pronunciations for example work wɜːk, earth ɜːθ, tremor ˈtremə, hour ˈaʊə, later ˈleɪtə, started ˈstɑːtɪd, horse hɔːs, and so on; in the word utterly ˈʌtl̩ɪ, so pronounced, you even hear a syllabic l that results from a dropped r. But we retain linking r before a following vowel, as in the phrases after I’d had, a quarter of an hour; compare a quarter past, where there’s no r. And we have intrusive r in the phrase a double vodka or two.
We have separate centring diphthong phonemes in the lexical sets NEAR, SQUARE and CURE. Examples in the passage are the words experience ɪkˈspɪərɪəns, steering ˈstɪərɪŋ, there ðɛə, air ɛə, fury ˈfjʊərɪ, and during ˈdjʊərɪŋ.
Suffix vowels: we have a weak suffix vowel in momentaty ˈməʊməntrɪ, but a strong one in hostile ˈhɒstaɪl. Words of the lexical set BATH have the ‘broad’, that is the long back vowel, ɑː, as in the words after ˈɑːftə, past pɑːst, vast ˈvɑːst, and ask ɑːsk. That’s the same vowel as in the word calm kɑːm, as you can hear, but different from the vowel of gas ɡæs. As far as the set CLOTH is concerned, we have the same vowel in off ɒf, as in lot lɒt, but this speaker says rɔːθ where I personally would say rɒθ wrath. We have variability within RP, as you know, for this.
We’ve got the same vowel in the sets THOUGHT and NORTH, as you can hear by comparing awesome ˈɔːsm̩ with horse hɔːs; and the same vowel in words of the set NORTH as in those of the set FORCE, as you can see by comparing horse with force fɔːs.
The diphthong in GOAT has a central or even slightly front starting point; examples in the words local ˈləʊkl̩, momentary ˈməʊməntrɪ; and then we have the characteristic RP feature of “smoothing” in the phrase ˈtʊə ˈklɒk, that is two o’clock, and in ˈθrəɪŋ throwing, though this speaker didn’t smooth in the word quiet ˈkwaɪət, which she pronounced like that rather than as ˈkwaət. In the word diabolical daəˈbɒlɪkl̩, on the other hand, she did smooth.
We have historical yod j retained in the words new njuː, and during ˈdjʊərɪŋ, and for this speaker even in the word supernatural ˈsjuːpəˈnætʃərəl, which I should call ˈsuːpəˈnætʃərəl.

You can’t leave comments on the recordings on the UCL site — but you can here, if you wish.

Monday, 8 April 2013

I must haplologize

The other day I noticed a reporter on the BBC TV news pronouncing deteriorate as diˈtɪərieɪt. This pronunciation is a variant to which I attach a warning triangle in LPD (“pronunciation considered incorrect”), thereby grouping it with such other mispronunciations as ˈɡriːviəs and prəˌnaʊnsiˈeɪʃn̩.

Googling around, I find people puzzled not only about the correctness or otherwise of “deteriate” but also about why this (mis)pronunciation should have become popular.

Deteriorate vs deteriate?
I have checked the dictionary and I can't seem to find this word 'deteriate', but I hear all sorts of people say it and I assume (from what they are talking about) this word really is deteriorate.
So why do you think these people think deteriate is a word?
—I think it's probably just their accent or how they were raised to say it, because you're right "deteriate" definitely isn't a word. A lot of people I know say it and it's really annoying. You should just show them this link [to an on-line dictionary entry for “deteriorate”].
I forgive anyone making mistakes ..., but this pronunciation is not a mistake. It seems to be what a lot of people think is correct. What I wanted to know was, why?

So in this view a word “exists” only if it’s in standard dictionaries. And the word is its spelling.

And obviously the correct pronunciation is the one which follows the spelling.

There are difficulties with this popular view. No one would claim that we ought to say ˈkʌpbɔː(r)d for cupboard, although that is what the spelling suggests. No one argues that we ought to pronounce a w in wrong or a k in know. And what about words that have only just come into use, whether spoken or written, but are not (yet) recorded in dictionaries? How can we follow their established spelling, if they haven’t yet got one? (I imagine all would agree that the onus is rather on the lexicographers to bring their dictionaries up to date.) What about words such as the BrE scarper ‘run away, escape, make off in haste’, where it is pretty clear that the usual spelling reflects the (non-rhotic) pronunciation, rather than the other way round?

As for why people tend to simplify diˈtɪəriəreɪt to diˈtɪərieɪt, the answer must lie in the tendency to eliminate one of two adjacent identical consonants — the same tendency we see in ˈprɒb(ə)li for ˈprɒbəbli probably, ˈlaɪb(ə)ri for ˈlaɪbrəri library and so on. See my blog for 7 March 2007 concerning ˌsfɪɡməˈnɒmɪtə, and that for 1 Mar 2011 about ˈkwɒntətɪv.

This phenomenon is not dissimilation; the only term for it seems to be haplology.

Friday, 5 April 2013

from Toledo to Laredo

In view of one commenter’s indignation this week about the Ohio placename Lima, pronounced differently from the identically spelt capital of Peru (see screenshot above of the LPD entry), I thought it was time for another repeat. Here’s a blog entry from 2007.

_ _ _

Driving to Gatwick Airport a few days ago to meet an arriving passenger, I passed through the village of Burgh Heath. As on previous occasions when I have travelled that route, I wondered idly how it’s pronounced. Is the first word bɜː or ˈbʌrə?

When I got back home I looked it up in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (G. Pointon, 1990), which says it can be either. Just not bɜːɡ.

I further learnt that Burgh in Norfolk is ˈbʌrə, but Burgh in adjoining Suffolk is bɜːɡ. Things are different in the north of England: Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria is metathesized to brʌf, which must mean that for many locals it’s more like [brʊf].

It’s worse than -ough.

Tomorrow I have to go to Birmingham. To reach my destination the map says I have to look for the road leading to Alcester. Er... what was that? I checked with my brother, who lives not too far away, and he says it’s ˈɔːlstə. Then I looked in LPD and found that I agree.

And there’s no call for Americans to feel superior to the wacky British. In the States you never know what will happen with Spanish names. I remember passing through Salida, Colorado. That’s the Spanish for ‘exit’, and it was at the mouth of a canyon, so I thought that in English it would be səˈliːdə. But the local radio station announcers, who should know, pronounced it səˈlaɪdə.

Even English-derived names can be surprising. I remember driving through Placerville, California, and discovering to my surprise that it was not ˈpleɪsɚvɪl but ˈplæsɚvɪl.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

bravo lima oscar golf

In an on-line forum discussion about what language teachers need to know about pronunciation, one unusual suggestion made was this, from David Deterding:

We should teach them the Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta alphabet. Then, when they cannot be understood [when spelling a word out aloud], they could easily solve the problem. (And it would also be brilliant for telling someone your name.)

I agree that this is something that it is useful to know. I was taught it in my teens, as part of “corps” at school (= officer cadet training corps, playing at soldiers). I use it from time to time, particularly when giving information over the phone to travel agents, airline call centres and the like.

It is particularly useful for distinguishing letters whose traditional names are easily confused, such as F ef and S es or T tiː and D diː. How much clearer to say foxtrot and sierra, tango and delta.

That’s why in LPD I decided to include the relevant “communications code name” at the entry for each letter of the alphabet. Before we had the web it could be difficult to lay your hands on the list, though nowadays of course you can quickly access it on Wikipedia. For avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers say, it goes Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Although it’s often known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, it is neither an alphabet (it’s a list of letter names) nor particularly phonetic, and NATO is only one of a number of international organizations that have adopted it.

The list on the Wikipedia page includes a column headed “phonic (pronunciation)”, which explains the intended pronunciation of each letter name by respelling it in accordance with English spelling conventions, with all the ambiguity that can imply.

So, although Delta is keyed to “DELL-TAH”, it is normally pronounced by speakers of English as ˈdeltə (rather than the ˈdeltɑː that could be implied by this respelling). There is no indication of stress in the list given (though there is here), so while anglophones will say Uniform (“YOU-NEE-FORM or OO-NEE-FORM”) as ˈjuːnɪfɔː(r)m, francophones, for example, are apparently free to stress it anywhere or nowhere, in accordance with their native habits. On the other hand we English speakers are supposed to stress Papa with final-syllable stress and to say Quebec with no w. No one seems to take any notice of the instruction to pronounce Golf as if it were Gulf. The Wikipedia page has an analysis of the various versions to be found in officially recommended recordings.

The choice of letter names has changed slightly over the years. When I learnt them in the 1950s, N was called Nectar. Clearly, November is an improvement, being less likely to be confused with Victor.

Monday, 1 April 2013

a new sound

I thought that for today I’d recycle a blog entry from seven years ago, seeing that it may well still be of interest.

_ _ _

My colleague Olaf Lipor tells me that the International Phonetic Asssociation is considering recognizing a further new symbol, in order to cater for the voiced linguolabial trill, a sound-type recently discovered to be used contrastively in Caslon and Ki-Flong, languages spoken on the island of San Serriffe.

Linguolabials, articulated by the tongue tip against the upper lip, are very rare in the languages of the world. Nevertheless linguolabial plosives, fricatives, and a nasal are known to occur in a cluster of languages in the island state of Vanuatu. Among these languages are Tangoa and Vao. But until now there had been no report of a linguolabial trill.

The way in which the IPA would symbolize the new sound is with the ‘combining seagull below’ diacritic, U+033C, thus [].

Incidentally, we are hoping to have the Serriffean phonetician Dr Charis Doulos, a native speaker of Caslon and the person who first described the linguolabial trill, come to UCL Phonetics & Linguistics as an academic visitor at this time next year. She will no doubt be willing to act as a language consultant for our practical phonetics class, so that the students can have the opportunity of observing the sound first-hand and of learning to perform it to the native speaker’s satisfaction.

The island of San Serriffe sprang to world fame as a consequence of a feature article in the Guardian newspaper, published on 1 April 1977, the tenth anniversary of its independence. But at that time its native languages had not been thoroughly investigated.

_ _ _

Since writing the above, I have come across a report of an Amerindian language, Santo Domingo Coatlán Zapotec, in which this sound is now, excitingly, further attested, though disappointingly not as part of the phonemic inventory: