Tuesday 9 June 2009


I’m aware of the danger of the “recency fallacy” that leads commentators on pronunciation to claim that a pronunciation is getting more common when it really isn’t.
But I do feel tempted to claim, though admittedly without proper evidence, that the strong form of Saint is becoming commoner, where I would expect the weak. I would never use the strong form in names of saints or in placenames based on them. For me St Matthew, St John, St Agatha, and likewise St Albans, St Helens, St Leonards-on-Sea all have sənt, or forms still further reduced such as sn̩t, sn̩. It’s sn̩ Thomas’s Hospital and sm̩ Paul’s Cathedral.
My impression is that people have recently (= in the last twenty years or so) started pronouncing these with the strong form seɪnt.
OK, I know Americans often do this. But I’m talking about Brits.

My late father used to like to recite a verse referring to pairs of apostles who share the same saint’s day in the calendar of the Anglican church (1 May and 28 October respectively, since you ask.)
Let us emulate the aims
of St Philip and St James
and be very very good
like St Simon and St Jude.

And all the Sts were reduced.
(His mispronunciation of good as ɡuːd instead of ɡʊd, to make it rhyme with Jude, was intentional.)

Do we blame the decline of religion, that we don’t talk about saints very much any more? Or do we attribute it to American influence?
Correction: we’re phoneticians. We don’t blame, we observe and seek a reason.


  1. I think the fall of the weak form is real, and reflects that we don't talk about saints as much any more. Weak forms can pretty much only be maintained by oral tradition, so those who know these names primarily in written form will not know anything but the strong pronunciation. Indeed, this also parsimoniously explains why the weak form is rare in American English: the U.S. was settled by mostly non-Anglican Protestants who often talked of the communion of the saints, but avoided mentioning particular historic saints by title.

  2. I'd assume it's due to lack of talk about saints, yes, but on the other hand they should still be communicated commonly in placenames of which there are many.

    My 'problem' is not having paid any attention in school past first year English (roughly), so most of my vocabulary has been acquired through books and as a result is riddled with spelling-pronunciations. After reading some of your previous posts (St. John's Wort, I thihk), I've tried adopting weak forms, but I don't speak much English at the moment.

  3. >His mispronunciation of good as ɡuːd instead of ɡʊd, to make it rhyme with Jude, was intentional.

    On my computer, at the font size that you stipulate in the layout for the blog, ɡuːd looked exactly like "GUID" (goo-id: sorry IPA not working on this computer), that is, the length mark came out as a small cap I. I was about to comment on this very odd pronunciation of Jude, but the font is made clearer in creating the comment, so I guess I'm wasting my time. (I wonder if others will see it as I did.)

    As a North American, I've always enjoyed the sn pronunciations I've encountered in British English speech, though I still don't get how names like St.John-Smith have a weak form even for JOHN. I guess it goes to show that we can create a weak form for just about ANYTHING...

  4. A. I'd say it's the usual mix that results in spelling pronunciations. Lack of familiarity with the word is one factor - though as buildings, St This or St That must be present almost everywhere - but then there's the feeling that anything reduced isn't correct, an insecurity especially when you changed from sub-RP to RP. Is this case really different from -shire, which is probably used as much as in 1950, but where more and more people pronounce [ˌʃɩə] in England?

    B. I always wondered why St John was so much commoner as a first name than St Paul [ˈsɩmpl].

    C. Of course, we descriptivists would never prescribe something as correct or incorrect. Faugh! We merely describe things objectively and scientifically as "substandard" or "uneducated". Occasionally as "known in the literature to be frequent among the conceited boors" when we have someone particular in mind.

  5. Regarding the long and short of saints, as songs often use long forms, it comes as no surprise that as far back as the mid sixties the Rolling Stones should sing, in "Play with Fire":

    Your mother, she's an heiress,
    Owns a block in /seint/ John's Wood.

    On the subject of songs, what about /ei/nother, heard in "The Wall" by Pink Floyd?

    Gordon Keitch.

  6. "OK, I know Americans often do this."

    For what it's worth I have never heard an American pronounce "saint" with anything other than the strong form. To my knowledge, the word does not have a weak form in the standard variety of American English. Even in the 1940s Kenyon and Knott recognized the weak forms as "chiefly British"; "exclusively British" would fit the bill now.

  7. @Eric: sorry about the way the length mark is displayed on your computer. On mine it's beautifully clear. But it's very difficult to get things to display well on all platforms and browsers.
    @Gordon: see the entry for "another" in LPD.
    @Amy: that's rather what I thought, but didn't like to say so firmly.

  8. Who says people use the word "saint" less often, or even talk about saints less often? But even if they do, why should this change the pronunciation of a straightforward word? You could see the trend as an Americanism or a spelling pronunciation or whatever you like, but I don't see why it should be a consequence of referring to saints less often. That must be another kind of fallacy surely. Isn't there just a general trend away from the traditional weak forms? If we are to "blame" it on something I'd have thought increased literacy might be relevant. Maybe that's simplistic, but it seems like a credible hypothesis at least, to me.

    I assume the American form is quite old. "Went down to the Saint James Infirmary" would just sound stupid in the traditional British pronunciation.

  9. Harry Campbell:

    Isn't there just a general trend away from the traditional weak forms?

    The weak forms of the, a, an, he, his, her show no such trend, because they are used constantly and therefore preserved. Saint is not used constantly in the U.S., for historical reasons as stated, and so its weak form has been lost.

  10. "The weak forms of the, a, an, he, his, her show no such trend, because they are used constantly and therefore preserved."

    Really? The weak form "me" for "my" is now endangered if not extinct in RP, and seems very old-fashioned (by Jove sir, I've lorst me leg!"), though strangely it survives in regional accents, funny that.

    Do people now refer to their fore-heads or waist-coats less often than when they called them forrids and weskits? To quote a comment made in a later thread (probably bad netiquette or something but who cares), is Harro(w)-gate now less spoken of than when it was Harrigut? Do Brits have more to say about bɜːmɪŋəm than people in Alabama about bɚmɪŋhæm? Do you have any evidence for your theory?

  11. I think a similar thing is happening with names that end in -gate (e.g. Moorgate, Margate, Harrogate): the strong /geɪt/ form seems to have taken over from the weak /gət/ form. I saw footage of the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest in Harrogate recently, and noticed how it was said as /hærɘgɘt/ throughout. Most people say /hærɘgeɪt/ now.

  12. I'd better post this to put Harry Campbell's comment into context. I had posted the above on the wrong day, then I deleted it on 10th and posted it again on the 9th, but didn't realise that someone had already noticed it.

  13. "The weak forms of the, a, an, he, his, her show no such trend, because they are used constantly and therefore preserved."

    People are using /eɪ/ for the article a (in front of consonants) more often than a decade or two ago, I think. TV speakers, interviewed politicians and the foreman all talk about /eɪ/ major breakthrough.

    I'm not sure if the historically nonsensical an plus glottal stop comes with a non-reduced vowel more more often. (As an aside, this sounds American to me, in spite of the fact that in AE, the n-less form is often used. Maybe the resulting lack of automatical choice is the reason, the n-form regarded higher level where appropriate, as is not to slurr the gottal stop at the beginning of a word.)

    Is there no trend of /ɪz/ -> /hɪz/ &c. in RP, be it through newcomers to RP or not?

  14. I can't think that referring to saints less has led to the revival of the strong form. Think of all those names of schools, buildings, places. I went to St John's school in Kuala Lumpur, I attend St George's Church in Singapore. I would never think of using the strong forms.

  15. Harry Campbell:

    The case of the two Birminghams is an excellent example of what I'm talking about. The U.S. Birmingham was named (in 1871) after the English one, but it was almost certainly named by someone who had never been to Birmingham and (crucially) did not actually know how it was pronounced: he got the name from some written source. The choice was deliberate: the new Birmingham was expected to be, and became, a major industrial city, being located at the intersection of two railroad lines and close to sources of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

    Consequently, the namer and those who followed him gave their city a spelling pronunciation. Some few Americans may have known enough to use something like the English pronunciation (adjusted for American accents), but there evidently weren't enough of them to affect the general trend, so /hæm/ it was and remains.

    (By the way, I do say forrid, which makes me odd locally, and I'd probably say weskit if I had occasion to refer to the article.)

  16. Yes i agree with you Nathan. These names have been present everywhere. In our place, the sectioning of the classrooms are with the names of the saints.

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