Monday 23 November 2009

iron or...

In Saturday’s Guardian Simon Hoggart commented, not for the first time, on Gordon Brown’s “strange pronunciations”.
The prime minister has been making much of the Conservative party leader David Cameron's "cast-iron" promise, now abandoned, of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.…
It's rather spoiled, though, by the fact that he seems to be the only person in the English-speaking world who pronounces the letter "r" in "iron", thus: "cast eye-ron promise." It brings you up short and makes it hard to concentrate on what follows.

Gordon Brown is of course far from being ‘the only person in the English-speaking world who pronounces the letter “r” in “iron”’. All rhotic speakers do.
What is unusual about Brown’s pronunciation, as Simon Hoggart says, is that he pronounces the word as spelt, i-ron ˈaɪ rən. So for him it rhymes with Byron and involves the same sequence as tyrant. The usual pronunciation of iron, ˈaɪə(r)n, must result from a historical metathesis by which ī rən becomes ī ərn. The r then as usual coalesces with the preceding schwa in rhotic accents to yield ɚ, ˈaɪɚn, while in non-rhotic accents, being preconsonantal, it undergoes the usual deletion, giving ˈaɪən.
The OED gives a rather more elaborate account, involving “diphthongation” (by which I think it means the Great Vowel Shift) and “syncopation”, but saying essentially the same thing.I don’t know whether Brown’s pronunciation of this word is shared by some or all Scots. Perhaps someone will tell us. It does have the advantage of making the word clearly distinct from ion.


  1. I don't know whether you'll have the Scots down on you quite like a ton of bricks, but it seems to me that Brown’s pronunciation of this word is shared by an awful lot of Scots.

  2. Hoggart's already taken the flak:

    Doesn't say where the r in iron goes, but it's good to know that a standard feature of my accent is "awful".

  3. It looks to me as if your hypothesis is not essentially the same as the OED one but completely different from it. The OED says that the “diphthongation” of the Great Vowel Shift appears to have happened before the “syncopation”, i.e. the dropping of the second syllable:

    "In the standard Eng. īren, īron, syncopation app. did not take place until after diphthongation of the ī, whence through a phonetic series (ˈiːrən), (ˈaɪrən), (ˈaɪərən), (ˈaɪər(ə)n), (ˈaɪə(r)n), came the existing (ˈaɪən); cf. the syncopated pa. pples. born, borne, torn, worn, boln, swoln, and Sc. fal'n, fawn, from earlier boren, toren, woren, bollen, swollen, fallen. The 15-16th c. dial. spellings iern, yern, yirn, are ambiguous: in some cases they may have meant (ˈiːərn), (ˈaɪərn), in others yern, (jərn); the latter prob. from Norse jarn, Da. jern."

    They appear to think (ˈaɪən) still needs a stress mark, and they don’t have one on 'ire' or anything, but that's hardly likely to be a gesture in the direction of endorsing Gord's disyllabicity – probably just an oversight.

    And the reference to the ambiguity of the 15-16th c. dial. spellings iern, yern, yirn does sort of hedge their bets about the sequence of events.

  4. I of course meant JW's hypothesis is not "essentially the same" as the OED's, not any hypothesis of yours, Leo.

    Missed your post because I was locked in mortal ˈkɒmbæt (see discussion of HMQ's pronunciation of that on 'royal enhancement') with the task of converting the OED's grubby graphics to make them legible!

  5. As a non-native I used to use exactly Brown's spelling pronunciation.

    I don't think anyone ever called me on it, though. This despite my then being a chemist working on - wait for it - Iron ions.

  6. How ironic!

    I wonder how Simon Hoggart thinks Americans say iron.

  7. I've had a quite look at an SED and have found two places in Lincolnshire that said ˈaɪrən: Saxby and Old Bolingbroke. So, this pronunciation had some use in England fifty or sixty years ago.

  8. My copy of Chambers gives an explicitly two syllable pronunciation, in their non-IPA notation ī'ərn. I'd have expected the one syllable īrn; "ire" is shown as īr.

  9. Thank you Ed. I knew I'd heard non-Sc northerners use the form. In fact I can hardly believe the restricted geographics of the SED on this.

    JHJ, so does mine (1993). BTW I should have made it clear that the only pronunciation given for the entry itself was also (ˈaɪən). It does look a bit as tho there's some sort of feeling around that this should be a disyllable, doesn’t it?

  10. ...that the only pronunciation given in the online OED for the entry itself was also (ˈaɪən)

  11. @Leo

    Simon Hoggart, probably like most speakers, doesn't realize that his own phonemic system isn't the only one around.


    I (near-RP) have always pronounced "ion" with a strong second vowel: /ˈaɪ.ɒn/. I looked in the LPD and saw that you gave this only as a variant: "in RP mainly to avoid confusion with iron".

  12. In Shakespeare's Henry IV part ii, there is a play on words between "Hiren", "iron" and "siren", suggesting a pronunciation of /ˈaɪ.rən/.

  13. Although I don't pronounce the "r" in "iron", the vowel sound remains the same as in "Byron" or "siren" - [ɛi] - rather than that in "ion", "lion", "zion": [aɪ]

  14. @mallamb: I only have the SED book for the eastern counties on me. There may be some more cases of ˈaɪrən in the northern counties.

  15. VP: Sorry, it probably wasn't a very helpful comment for me to make. I'm just surprised that the author of a book called "America: A User's Guide" apparently hasn't noticed rhotic accents. I find the man annoying.

  16. @DCF

    Where are you from, if you don't mind my asking?

  17. Sili said:
    "As a non-native I used to use exactly Brown's spelling pronunciation."

    My impression is that very many non-native speakers use the same pronunciation.

    Also, this reminds me of that Blackadder joke:

    Blackadder: Baldrick, have you no idea what /aIr@ni/ is?
    Baldrick: Yes it's like goldy and bronzy only it's made out of /aI@n/.

  18. I think it means he can spell, and is familiar with the spelling, but has never understood the word any better than the answer he so readily gives.

    Spot on, vp! And I think we may assume that's not an eye pun! OED's date of 1613 for Henry IV part ii is claimed elsewhere to be too late, but it's everywhere apparent in Shakespeare that the Great Vowel Shift was in full spate, so this evidence of əirən or whatever vindicates OED's argument that the syncopation did not take place until after diphthongation of the ī.

    DCF, do you have aɪ for I and ɛi for eye? Or can you give us any other minimal pairs? Other northern dialects have this opposition.

  19. And Leo, why would your comment be unhelpful? Hoggart's ignorance is deeply shocking. He needs to be reading User's Guides, not writing them.

    You point out that the flak deflected from JW Doesn't say where the r in iron goes, but the interesting thing for me is that the writer apparently can't imagine it going anywhere else:

    'all Scots pronounce the "r" in iron. I'd like to know why not to pronounce it when it's there?'

    In my first comment on this blog I only said Brown’s pronunciation was shared by "an awful lot of Scots", but this has given me more confidence that all of them not only pronounce the "r" but parallel his pronunciation with respect to its position as well.

    Have you ever heard a Scot say aɪərn?

  20. Hmm. I imagine that all rhotic speakers would appeal to the fact that the r is "there", even those who say 'aɪərn. But the fact that the writer doesn't criticise 'aɪrən does suggest that he's happy to attribute it to all Scots.

    I haven't heard enough Scots to judge! There might be some clips of Neil Oliver saying it though - he covers Scotland's Iron Age history, doesn't he?

  21. For what it's worth, this Scot says [aɪəɹn].

  22. Yes Leo, I realized you imagined that all rhotic speakers would appeal to the fact that the r is "there", even those who say 'aɪərn. But it's not just that the writer doesn't criticise 'aɪrən – Hoggart was making a big fuss about the "place and manner" of its pronunciation (i.e. as in "eye-ron"):

    'the only person in the English-speaking world who pronounces the letter "r" in "iron", thus: "cast eye-ron promise."'

    And the flakker protests that not only do all Scots pronounce the "r" in iron, but that he'd like to know why not to pronounce it when it's there. (i.e. where it is!) The more I think about it the more I think my earlier observation that "the writer apparently can't imagine it going anywhere else" was too diffident – it simply doesn’t occur to him that anyone else could imagine that his protest wasn’t a full endorsement of the full eye-ron!

    – There might be some clips of Neil Oliver saying it.

    But he's straight out of Monty Python! I wouldn’t be able to stick it even long enough to catch a specimen!

    Andrew, you are scrupulously circumspect in only reporting your own pronunciation. But I guess you have heard other Scots say [aɪərn]. Is it as unusual as I think? Could you be one of those near-RP dialect speakers we have been talking about, like Andrew Marr, for example?

  23. Sounds like you don't need my help then, Mallamb. Unless you wish me to interrogate my father, a long-exiled Scot, on this matter.

    Meanwhile, if you think Neil Oliver is out of Monty Python, you might like this clip:

  24. "I don't think anyone ever called me on it, though."
    People are usually too polite to call non-native speakers on weird stuff (at least here in Italy -- YMMV). I had a professor from Poland who told us of when he used to say "gravidanza" (pregnancy) when he meant "gravità" (gravity), and to wonder why people would look at him amusedly. Nobody had explained that to him until years later.

  25. Thank you both for the laughs, probably equally apocryphal.

    How do you find these things, Leo? Who is the impersonator?

  26. I just searched YouTube for "Neil Oliver". That clip actually comes higher up the search list than the real Neil. No idea who it is - everyone's a performer these days. And being the most Scottish man in the world, he's an obvious choice for impressionists.

    By the way, my dad reports "eye-ron" for Scots (sorry, I can't get the IPA to work) and specifies an actual trilled [r] for the "really hardcore". Although I gues Groundskeeper Willie could have told you that.

  27. David Marjanović26 November 2009 at 00:27

    As a non-native I used to use exactly Brown's spelling pronunciation.

    As another non-native, I was taught explicitly that (and how) the spelling is misleading, and went on to interpret the -ro- part like the -re of BrE theatre, centre and so on, that is, as [ɐ ~ ə], in an attempt to line up the spelling with the pronunciation in some way.

    The only problem is I would have extended it to Byron till a few minutes ago. Fortunately I never had to pronounce that name, I think.

  28. David, how do you pronunce environment?

  29. In view of your study of Reepubcan ideas of tehr-rists (thanks for leading me to it and all the other delights) I take that to be a serious question!

  30. No, I was entirely serious. I've heard Germans pronounce the relevant part as [aɪən] as in iron.

  31. Yes I knew you were. I get the impression you read "I take that to be a serious question" as "I don't take that to be a serious question"! I assure you I too have heard Germans as well as Reepubcans pronounce the relevant part as [aɪən], [ˈaɪɚn] etc., but [ˈaɪɚn]etc. are more probably because of JW's metathesis (see the above blog entry) than by analogy, I think.

  32. The tehr-rist thing made me think you used irony (NPI). (By the way, that had been a bit unfair, I probly drop lots of sylbles mself, and I don't usually mind a Texan accent. But Dubbya brought out the worst in us.)

  33. Now the NPI makes me think youre going all hyperironic.

    But it was quite a coup to get me to read "I probly drop lots of sylbles mself" without at first noticing any dropped syllables! I am usually a good proofreader.

    Quite a way to prove your point!

    A conundrum for you: Is Dubbya in or out of the punning and irony?

  34. I always thought he couldn't be serious.

  35. Hoggart doesn't know when to stop digging:

    "Many, many cross Scottish readers have written in to say that's how it's said north of the border, and that it is a perfectly valid pronunciation, you English bigot.

    Well, no. Scots do pronounce the "r" but it's a soft, almost imperceptible rolled "r", sounding, if anything, like "I-urn". The prime minister says "eye-ron", two distinct syllables, as if Ron Atkinson was starting to take the oath."

  36. Oh Gawd, Leo, you did give me a turn. You had no quote marks at the beginning of the second para, and I thought it was your own funny joke.

    But it's OK. I checked your link, and it's not so much that he doesn't know when to stop digging: he does get himself in deeper, but by wriggling. Like a worm.

  37. Sorry, didn't mean to confuse. I wish you could edit your own comments. I need an editor.

  38. David Marjanović28 November 2009 at 21:11

    I've heard Germans pronounce the relevant part as [aɪən] as in iron.

    And I do likewise... and I've seen the spelling enviornment so often (by native speakers) that I wonder if some people actually mean it.

    I do keep the /r/ in irony, though.

    Reepubcan ideas of tehr-rists

    No, no, no. Terrrists /tɛr.r̩.rɪsts/ with three (short) syllables and one impressively long [ɻ].


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