Friday 21 August 2009

Kerry, Carrie and Cary

Nedecky Jason wrote
As a North American speaker, I have always struggled with the MERRY/MARRY/MARY set of vowels which are preserved outside of North America. Of course, mine are 100% merged. Your blog entry today has finally prompted me to use the shiny, red "Ask Professor Wells" button on the website. The confusion for me comes not in how the vowels sound, but how they are determined. Is there an orthographical rule that covers this effectively?
So I replied
Generally speaking, the MERRY set (with the DRESS vowel) are spelt with the letter e. The MARRY set (with the TRAP vowel) are spelt with a, in positions where you would expect a short vowel. The MARY set (with the SQUARE vowel) are also spelt with a, or ai etc., in positions where you would expect a long vowel.
Merry, very, terror, berry, bury, Jerry, Kerry have DRESS. Marry, carry, arrow, narrow, baron/barren, arid, charity have TRAP. Mary, vary, area, bear(er), fair(y), precarious, Pharaoh have SQUARE.

There are one or two words where speakers very vary, e.g. Charing Cross. Note the alternation in compare (eə) — comparison (æ). Although a baron is ˈbærən, some bearers of the surname Baron pronounce it ˈbeərən.
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There will now be another break in my blogging: back again on 2 September.

Thursday 20 August 2009


Kyle Steed writes
I'm a college student from Florida and native speaker of American English, and I've got a problem: I can't make an alveolar trill. I've heard tons of methods for acquiring it, like saying "tee-dee-va" or "ladder" over and over again, but I find myself eventually saying "tee-thee-va" and "lather," as if I've got a lazy tongue. I understand that the point of these exercises is to develop that flick of the tongue that usually happens with the d-sound, but I don't recall ever having been able to do that with my tongue. As of now, I'm making sounds that almost sound like I'm on the right track to trilling, but my tongue remains flat and I'm only using one side to vibrate. So what would you
say is wrong here?

It is notoriously difficult to learn to make an alveolar trill. It took me nearly a year to acquire this skill myself, even though I was a highly motivated postgraduate ambitious to become a proper phonetician, professionally required to be able to make all the sounds on the IPA chart. The teacher who finally helped me conquer this hurdle was Marguerite Chapallaz, and she did it by getting me to relax. I was lying supine in the bath at the moment I first succeeded, so it might be worth experimenting with different body orientations.
What it comes down to is that you have to hold the organs of speech in the right place, relax, and then produce an airstream. You don’t actively move anything to make the separate vibrations: it’s all done by aerodynamics. (Physicists will tell you it’s the Bernouilli effect.)
As Ladefoged and Maddieson put it (The sounds of the world’s languages, p. 217),
This is very similar to the vibration of the vocal folds during voicing; in both cases there is no muscular action that controls each single vibration, but a sufficiently narrow aperture must be created and an adequate airflow through the aperture must occur.

One useful hint is to start with trills you can make. Most people can make a voiced bilabial trill, brrr [ʙ], or its voiceless counterpart. Some can make a uvular trill (think Edith Piaf, nɔ̃ , ʀjɛ̃ də ʀjɛ̃…). Use these to get a feel of how trills work.
(If you can do a voiceless uvular trill [ʀ̥], it’s fun to do it while whistling. It makes you sound like a referee’s whistle.)
If you still can’t manage an alveolar trill, it may be a consolation to know that there are tens of thousands of native speakers of Spanish and Italian who can’t make one either, but replace it by something or other that is easier. Yet they manage to function in those languages.
If you can make [r], and want a further challenge, try the retroflex trill of Toda. Only the onset is retroflex; the actual trill is alveolar.
Like spɛkjələtɪv ɡrəmeriən, you could also attempt a nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill. Or not.
Sorry, Kyle: I haven't got a magic bullet.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

chequered speech-to-text

No time for a proper blog entry today, so here’s a silly piece of verse you can find in various versions on various sites around the internet.
Eye have a spelling chequer,
It came with my Pea Sea.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss Steaks I can knot sea.
Eye strike the quays and type a whirred
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am write oar wrong
It tells me straight a weigh.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your shore real glad two no.
Its vary polished in its weigh.
My chequer tolled me sew.
A chequer is a bless id thing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right all stiles of righting,
And aides me when eye rime.
Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The chequer pours o'er every word
Two cheque sum spelling rule.

Most spell checkers will find no mistakes here, because they check words in isolation. We can see the mistakes, because we can consider the context in which each word occurs. That’s why homophones are such a problem for automatic speech recognition (speech-to-text).
Some versions start not “Eye have” but “Eye halve”. That’s fine for Americans but doesn’t work for people like me who make a distinction between hæv and hɑːv.
I suspect that Americans don’t actually use the spellings cheque and chequer at all.
But there is one word even in this version which does not work for me. Can you see which it is? (And I’m not talking about jewel, nor about dodgy weak vowels.)

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Stephen Fry’s shame

The trailers weren’t exactly inspiring, but I thought I had better listen to Fry’s English Delight on BBC R4 this morning (“Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language: Speaking Proper”).
It was pretty dire. Harry Campbell put finger to keyboard before I did. He called it
a farrago of urban myths, old wives' tales and
"experts", mostly self-appointed, who proceed to discredit themselves as soon as they open their mouths. Never more so, you may imagine, than when the subject is phonetics. Scarcely a true word spoken at any point, with the usual confusion of the concepts of accent, dialect, voice tone, diction.

There was Joan Bakewell explaining how upper-class speakers don’t move their mouths and that in order to lose her northern accent she had to learn to do the same. And Deborah Hecht, the American dialect coach, explaining that to sound RP Americans have to learn to use more lip action and more muscularity. No one commented on the fact that they cannot both be right.
There was an elocution teacher from Rochdale who told us, in an unreconstructed Lancashire accent, about the importance of pronouncing all the letters correctly and enunciating the beginnings and ends of words. In her case this meant making all final voiceless plosives ejective.
My colleague Sophie Scott from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, who spoke good sense about the so-called foreign accent syndrome, must feel ashamed to have been associated with such a ragbag of a programme.
If you feel strong enough to listen to it yourself, it’s here for the next seven days.

Monday 17 August 2009


Today I’m afraid it’s another rant about people’s ignorance of how to pronounce words and names in foreign languages.
The other day the announcer on Classic FM told us that we were about to hear Wagner’s aria ˈliːbztɒd. In German Liebestod (`love death’) is pronounced ˈliːbəstoːt. German long vowels in spelling situations where they would be short in English cause particular difficulty to English learners: you hear der Mond moːnt (moon) mispronounced as mɔnd. Final obstruent devoicing, too, is a thing a lot of people don’t know about. A reasonable anglicization might ignore it. For the Wagner aria I’d be happy in English with ˈliːbəztəʊd.
Our radio and TV announcers do try. The sports commentators are used to the idea that the letter j can stand for a palatal approximant rather than — they have no difficulty with the tennis player Jelena Janković. But then they overdo it by referring to Azerbaijan as ˌæzəbaɪˈjɑːn. (In Azeri that’s Azərbaycan, with the usual Turkish spelling c =.)
They know that Polish sz can be equated to English ʃ. They make a brave attempt at Bydgoszcz. But then they turn Szeged, Hungarian ˈsɛɡɛd, into ˈʃeɡed. Just as Spanish spelling conventions don’t apply in Italian or vice versa, so it is with Polish and Hungarian.
Chinese Pinyin continues to baffle them. Most of the sports commentators know that Chinese x is to be pronounced like English ʃ (actually it’s more ɕ or even sj). But then Xie comes out as ʃaɪ instead of ʃe(ɪ). You can’t win.
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In today’s blog entry there is no font coding at all for the phonetic symbols, just colour. See how it works for you. (If necessary, play around with your browser’s font settings, and try different browsers.)

Friday 14 August 2009


At last week’s PTLC Beverley Collins gave an interesting paper about a phonetician none of us had probably ever heard of. A hundred years ago, several years before Daniel Jones, a Swedish textbook writer, Jon Arvid Afzelius (1856-1918), published his Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of Modern English (in Swedish Engelsk Uttalsordbok). This work comprised some 24,000 headwords transcribed phonetically, together with large numbers of inflected, derived, and compound forms. Like later pronouncing dictionaries, it gave no information about the meaning of the words, concentrating only on their pronunciation.
Collins says that the transcriptions are ‘overwhelmingly accurate’, though with certain weaknesses in place names and compounds.
Afzelius’ transcription system largely follows that of Henry Sweet. He writes þ rather than θ for the voiceless dental fricative; the vowels are written as shown in this table.

Jones published a short review of Afzelius’s dictionary in Le Maître Phonétique (1910), criticizing it for not using IPA but praising its realistic representation of actual pronunciation. But the dictionary seems to have had very little impact outside Sweden.
Collins comments,
In 1909, Jones was perhaps already pondering the possibility of producing something very much on the same lines as Afzelius’s effort – this was to emerge many years later as his English Pronouncing Dictionary. On its appearance in 1917, the EPD (as it is always known) was rightly hailed as a masterly achievement. It is nonetheless curious that amongst all the acknowledgements, sources and copious book lists that Jones includes in his preliminary material, one name is conspicuously absent – there is no mention of Afzelius.

Thursday 13 August 2009

fonts by George Douros

Ubbo Wiersema wrote to draw my attention to some new free fonts designed by George Douros. (See here.)

Ubbo was most excited by the fact that one of the fonts, Aegyptus, encodes over seven thousand hieroglyphs. If you’ve always wanted to word-process Egyptian hieroglyphs, as he has, now you can.
Download the fonts here.

Those of us interested in phonetics, on the other hand, will be interested to inspect the font named (rather confusingly) Unicode Symbols, in which the phonetic symbols are to be found.

I’m afraid, though, that we’re in for a disappointment. The ʊ symbol appears wrongly as a kind of curly v. Worse, the Spacing Modifier Letters range is almost entirely absent: this means that among other things the font has no stress marks and no length mark. So no serious phonetician will be satisfied with this font.
If only font designers like Mr Douros would consult phoneticians!

Wednesday 12 August 2009

jewellery, jewelry

Being British, I spell the -ery form of jewel as jewellery. But I pronounce it ˈdʒuːəlri. (Or I can smooth the vowels, giving ˈdʒʊəlri.) Some Brits, though, pronounce it ˈdʒuːləri, which I have labelled in LPD as “non-RP”: it certainly triggers in me adverse reactions as strong as those triggered by prəˌnaʊnsiˈeɪʃn̩.
Americans spell the word jewelry, which fits my pronunciation and presumably theirs too.
The -(e)ry suffix normally appears as -ery (potentially disyllabic) when attached to a stem that is monosyllabic or final-stressed, but as -ry (monosyllabic) when attached to a stem ending in an unstressed syllable. Thus we have bakery, fishery, slavery, buffoonery, machinery, but mimicry, rivalry, devilry, archdeaconry, weaponry.
So if jewel is pronounced as two syllables, ˈdʒuː.əl, we would expect jewelry ˈdʒuːəlri. If on the other hand it is pronounced as one syllable, dʒuːl (as in popular London speech), or as the derived dʒʊəl, we would expect jewellery ˈdʒuːləri, ˈdʒʊələri. But in this word, exceptionally, it doesn’t seem to work like that.
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Having just discovered how to do so, I have now changed the blog settings so that anyone can comment without being registered. If we get swamped with spam, I’ll change them back.
The font is now set throughout as <font face="Charis SIL Compact", "Charis SIL", "Doulos SIL Compact", "Doulos SIL"," Lucida Grande", "Lucida Sans Unicode">. I find that I get different results on different computers and with different browsers. Firefox works fine on my desktop computer, but produces a nasty pixellated result on my laptop (on which IE shows everything fine). I have no idea why that is.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

scratching the itch

The questions that no one can answer often involve why.
A Japanese student asked me, “Why do people pronounce sandwich with , given that the spelling is -ch?”
Not everyone does, of course. But in my BrE preference poll I found that 53% of respondents voted for -wɪdʒ and only 47% for -wɪtʃ. Given the biasing effect of the spelling, the true figure for -wɪdʒ is probably quite a lot higher. (In AmE, on the other hand, I think we always get -wɪtʃ.)
The same alternation seems to apply to all words ending in -wich. Thus Norwich can be ˈnɒrɪdʒ, Woolwich can be ˈwʊlɪdʒ, Dulwich can be ˈdʌlɪdʒ. More generally, we could say it applies to all words with possible final unstressed -ɪtʃ. (Or perhaps not. Dunno about Harry Potter’s quidditch.)
EPD has a note at sandwich to the effect that “some British speakers use -wɪtʃ in the uninflected form and -wɪdʒ in the inflected forms of this word”. I do not know if there is any evidence for this claim.
The OED does not record anything except -wɪtʃ.
So why does this voicing happen? You can hypothesize about lenition of the affricate in this weak position, but not very convincingly. (Why does which not lenite in the same way when unstressed? Why do plosives, as in gossip, rabbit, topic not lenite, nor fricatives as in sheriff, Lambeth, palace, radish?)
It is interesting, too, that the alternation does not work in the other direction. No one pronounces -ɪtʃ in Cambridge or cabbage.
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I am experimenting with setting the font differently for my blog. It ought to look best if you have installed Charis SIL or Doulos SIL, and still be readable if you have not. How do the IPA symbols look? Do you prefer this to what we had before?

Monday 10 August 2009

Questions, questions

Last week there was another Phonetics Teaching and Learning Conference at UCL, and I was invited to set things rolling with a talk entitled Dear Professor Wells. In it I discussed some of the questions sent to me by users of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary.
Some of the questions I received are unanswerable or bizarre.
my name is alan and I'm student in the collage of Arts.I want one subject about the phonotic and one subject about(how I can pronuounce the sounds of the palate).thank you professor.

Sir, I can't really make out as to how should be syllables made? I try to do that but fail.Can u explain it how we should pronounce a word in order to check its syllables?

*I like to ask you, ***
*how I can transcribe the nasal sound /ng/ and /nk/ in each of the middle and the end of a word as sing, singing, sink and pinky . and is there a relation between the stress and the transcription of this nasal sound ?

Are you a man?

Others are presumably serious, but nevertheless confused.
I am writing to you because I have a question about American English.
In the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, you talk about assimiliation, ten men-->tem men etc. I was just wondering if assimilation occured in US English too. I know that sometimes it's more like a glottal stop. If it does happen, would you say that it depends on the speakers?

And of course many others were serious and interesting, often dealing with the kind of topic we have discussed in this blog.
• Why don't you write ʔ instead of t where appropriate?
• What do these new symbols i and u mean?
• Why are some letters superscripted?
• Why do you write e instead of ɛ, and r instead of ɹ?
• Why don’t you show dark l?
• Why don’t you mark aspiration?
• Your dictionary entries don’t correspond to what people actually say in conversation.
Sometimes the appropriate answer is (politely) read the introduction and read the other explanations.