Friday 29 January 2010


My late aunt lived in a village on the edge of Doncaster called Bessacarr. You’d think it would be pronounced ˈbesəkɑː. But you’d be wrong: it’s ˈbesəkə.
The weakening of unstressed vowels is one of the trickiest areas in the pronunciation of British proper names. Those who first encounter them in writing tend to make them strong, while those who have local/personal familiarity with them know to weaken them.
The town of Todmorden in the Pennines (pictured) is most usually ˈtɒdmədən or just tɒd, though you can also hear ˈtɒdmɔːdən. (According to Wikipedia it can also be ˈtɔːmdn, though I rather suspect that this is no more than a Wikipedia contributor’s joke, particularly since English phonotactic rules would require an extra schwa, ˈtɔːmdən.)
In North Yorkshire there’s a village called Dishforth. It has an RAF station generally known (I think) as ˈɑːr eɪ ef ˈdɪʃfɔːθ. But the locals call their village ˈdɪʃfəθ.
I was at school with a chap called Spofforth ˈspɒfɔːθ. But the village of Spofforth near Harrogate is ˈspɒfəθ, which according to the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary is also for that matter the usual pronunciation of the surname.
Most English villages called Marden are of course ˈmɑːdn. But the one in Kent is also sometimes mɑːˈden.
Spelling pronunciation is a powerful influence. The place I know as ˈæskət, Ascot in Berkshire, is often heard as ˈæskɒt.
Even in America things are not necessarily as you might expect. Think of Poughkeepsie pəˈkɪpsi.

Thursday 28 January 2010


Kevin Tang asked me about the pronunciation of the name of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
I pronounce it with the stress on the first syllable, ˈærɪstɒtl, and that is the only stress pattern I show in LPD.
Kevin, who is a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong, says he has always pronounced it with the main stress on the third syllable (-tot-), and has discovered that an on-line pronunciation dictionary, howjsay, seems to agree with him.
I should explain that the website in question is “A free online Talking Dictionary of English Pronunciation” in which you can call up a sound file of any of some 128,000 words. They are all spoken, I think, by the author of the website, Tim Bowyer, who is clearly British. Jack Windsor Lewis blogged about this site a few days ago.
And it’s true: Tim pronounces ærɪsˈtɒtl. Listen!
What can I say? I told Kevin
My reaction would be that this is simply an error, or more politely an
idiosyncratic pronunciation.
People who have not been taught classics or philosophy by a live teacher can easily create idiosyncratic pronunciations on the basis of the spelling, because (as you well know) English spelling does not clearly indicate pronunciation.
Classicists and philosophers, believe me, stress Aristotle on the first

At least Tim Bowyer pronounces epistle, apostle and pestle the way I do.
It is not 100% clear to me just why Aristotle is pronounced the way it is. Given his Greek name Ἀριστοτέλης Aristotélēs, you would expect him to have the same name in English, Aristoteles, and for it to be pronounced ˌærɪˈstɒtəliːz. (Compare Praxiteles.) Like other Greek names, it would have passed through Latin and become subject to the Latin stress rule (light penultimate syllable, therefore antepenultimate stress).
But this must be one of the rather few classical names that has taken on a distinctive English form rather than keeping the Latin form. Other examples would be the Roman/Latin names Livy ˈlɪvi for Livius, Ovid ˈɒvɪd for Ovidius, and Horace ˈhɒrɪs for Horatius and the Greek names Homer ˈhəʊmə for Ὅμηρος, Hómēros (Latin Homerus), Hesiod ˈhiːsiəd for Ἡσίοδος Hēsíodos (Latin Hesiodus), and Pindar ˈpɪndə for Πίνδαρος Pindaros (Latin Pindarus). I don’t know why we have these special English forms: for most classical names we just stick with the Latin.
To get back to Aristotle: given the underlying representation ærɪstɒtl with a final non-syllabic l, Chomsky and Halle’s SPE rules would predict that the main stress would indeed fall on the heavy final syllable (i.e. on the ɒ), but that the word would then be subject to the Alternating Stress Rule moving the main stress back to the initial syllable (i.e. stressing the vowel æ). Result!
So the pronunciation favoured by Kevin and Tim would constitute an exception to the ASR, in just the same way as words such as final-stressed guarantee, macaroon, chimpanzee etc. are exceptions to it. The pronunciation favoured by everyone else would be the regular one.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

language manglers

People who write to the papers about language issues do get awfully confused.
There’s been a good deal of discussion in the media recently about teenagers’ supposed limited vocabulary. People have been saying and writing a lot of nonsense about it, as ably exposed by David Crystal.
Now someone writes to the Sunday Times to defend teenagers… by blaming “captains of industry”.No, Mr Allen, your examples fone, fayre, lite, snax, bitz and center are not “words”, still less words that have just been made up by marketing departments. They are spellings.
Spellings are different from words. You are not complaining about words, and your comments are not relevant to the question of vocabulary size. You’re complaining about spellings.
The words we conventionally spell fair, light, snacks, bits and (BrE) centre have been in English for many centuries. Even the word conventionally written phone is more than a century old, being dated by the OED to 1880 — long before “the mighty supermarkets” existed.
As for the word you would like everyone to write as centre, I think you should bear in mind that well over half the native speakers of English in the world spell it as center, a spelling that has been around since the sixteenth century. The sky has not yet fallen in.
Nor is anything whatsoever threatened by people sometimes spelling naɪt as nite. (According to the OED, they’ve been doing that too since the 16th century.) Supermarkets indeed have to make a commercial judgment about whether using common-sense spellings of this sort will attract more customers than it will repel. But there is no moral issue involved.
And I can’t see how it could affect anyone’s vocabulary size.

Tuesday 26 January 2010


There are words that we read before we hear. We guess their pronunciation on the basis of the spelling. Unfortunately, the indications given by the spelling are quite often inadequate. Here’s part of what I said about “spelling pronunciation” nearly thirty years ago, in AofE.What I do find surprising, though, is that people are often unaware of very robust sub-regularities in our spelling system.
What do we know about words with the spelling -stle? Think of nestle ˈnesl, trestle ˈtresl, wrestle ˈresl. Think of castle, thistle, whistle, epistle, bristle, gristle, jostle, apostle, bustle, hustle, rustle. In all of these the t is silent. There are no exceptions: no words with this spelling in which it is usual to pronounce t. (Compare pistol ˈpɪstl, crystal ˈkrɪstl, etc., with a different spelling.)
So how is it that Neil MacGregor, presenting a BBC R4 series entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects, thinks that the thing that goes with a mortar to grind up grain and spices is a ˈpestl? (You can listen to the programme here, but only for the next few days.)
He is not the only one. Rather reluctantly, I included the -t- form as a secondary variant for pestle in LPD, as do some other dictionaries.
Nevertheless, as the spelling pestle indicates to anyone who is sensitive to this subregularity, it’s usually a ˈpesl . The word rhymes with vessel. Indeed, in the Neil MacGregor programme one of the interviewees, the food writer Madhur Jaffrey, uses the expected pronunciation ˈpesl .
In pre-Gimson editions of EPD you can read DJ’s tactful comment
Note.—The form ˈpesl is usual among those accustomed to make frequent use of a pestle and mortar.

Is this the only case of -stle spelling pronunciation? Or are there people out there who think that Jesus had twelve əˈpɒstlz and that Paul wrote ɪˈpɪstlz?

Monday 25 January 2010

Öxarfjörður, not Øxarfjørdur

Eighteen months ago (blog, 26 Aug 2008), I congratulated the Guardian newspaper on its newfound ability to cope with the typographical complexities of Czech orthography. It was nice to see accented letters such as ě and ř correctly printed in the paper.
Yet the “Grauniad”, once upon a time notorious for its then abundant misprints, still does not always get it quite right. Its travel supplement recently carried a piece about an Icelandic destination it identified as “Øxarfjørdur”.
Er… I thought it was only Danish and Norwegian that used the letter ø in their orthographies (oh, and Faroese).
Yes indeed. The correct spelling of the place in Iceland is Öxarfjörður.
Which brings me to the question of typing such letters when you need them in a document.
Users of Word very often have no idea how to type them when they’re not immediately available on the keyboard. They don’t know about Word’s “keyboard shortcuts for international characters”.
In Word you do Ctrl-', a to get á, Ctrl-', e to get é, and so on. With Ctrl-: plus the vowel letter you get an umlaut (diaeresis, trema), as in ä, ö, ü. With Ctrl-ˆ you get circumflexed vowels, with Ctrl-` grave accents. Even less well-known, I suspect, are Ctrl-/, o for ø and Ctrl-', d for ð. Every phonetician should know these last two, together with Ctrl-&, a for æ and Ctrl-&, o for œ.
In this way you can get all the accented letters needed for West European languages (including Icelandic but not including Welsh), without resorting to Insert Character or customized shortcuts. (I was appalled to see an article in a recent issue of the Linguist explaining how to create elaborate macros just to get the letters you need for French, German and Spanish — entirely unnecesssary.)
It’s a pity that the Microsoft programmers stopped there: why can’t we have the Ctrl-' trick not just for áéíóúý but also for ćńŕśź? Why can’t we use Ctrl-^ for ĉĝĥĵŝŵŷ? And so on?

The Windows operating system itself offers some further posibilities. In the UK we all know that to get the euro symbol, , we do AltGr-4. We can also use the AltGr key to get acute accents on vowels: for example AltGr+a gives you á. In other locales there are other possibilities (see here). These keyboard shortcuts are determined by the operating system, so work in any application (whereas the Word ones only work in Word).

Friday 22 January 2010

aw, shucks

Phonetic symbols are not magic. And there is no super-phonemic system somewhere in the sky, consisting of universal sounds in one-to-one relationship with IPA symbols. Rather, the IPA (or any other symbol system) offers us a battery of rather vaguely defined symbols on which we can draw in order to refer to human speech sounds in the real world, or to abstractions from them.
Faced with an unknown language, or in the phonetics classroom with general-phonetic nonsense words, we produce an ‘impressionistic’ transcription that makes no prior assumptions about phonemic categories. We can, if we choose, use all manner of unusual letters and diacritics to record subtleties that we may have observed. On the other hand we may start out pretty unsubtle and then subsequently need to refine our transcription (make it “narrower”) if we find that we are overlooking subtleties that turn out to be important in the language concerned.
But when we want to use IPA symbols in a dictionary or language textbook, that sort of thing won’t do. There, we need a simple straightforward system that is not burdened down by unnecessary complications. In transcription systems there is always a trade-off: we can either show subtle details in the “text” (the dictionary entries, the transcribed passages), which makes the text complicated and difficult to follow — particularly for language learners who do not wish to be phonetics specialists — or we can reserve these details to the “conventions”, the rules for interpreting particular symbols in context in the language in question.
That is why pedagogical transcriptions are normally phonemic rather than allophonic.
Jerry Friedman wrote
I hope you can answer a question that I've asked unsuccessfully on
linguistics forums. Is there an IPA symbol for the General American realization of /ɔ/ that distinguishes it from RP /ɔ/, not to mention French and other versions? (My pronunciation of THOUGHT-class words and some others is pretty close to GenAm.)
while Bao Zhi-kun, a Chinese teacher of English, wrote
We know that the vowel in the words like “talk”, “call”, “law”, “bought” is pronounced differently in BrE and AmE: /ɔː/ in BrE but /ɒ/ in AmE. Why is this difference not shown in your LPD?

So the answer to Jerry Friedman is that there are several possible symbol choices that would bring out this difference. (Let’s overlook the problem of defining what exactly might be meant by “the” General American realization of the THOUGHT vowel. And let’s ignore the fact that about half of all Americans use their LOT vowel in THOUGHT words.) We could attach a diacritic to the RP symbol to show that the vowel is closer or more rounded than the GenAm: we could write ɔ̝ː or ɔ̹ː. Or we could even decide to write it . Or we could attach a diacritic to the GenAm symbol to show it as opener or less rounded: ɔ̞ or ɔ̜. (It is not typographically practicable to place two inferior diacritics toɡether on this symbol.) Or we could decide to write it ɒ (though that would create confusion for those accustomed to the use of this symbol for the intrinsically short vowel of RP LOT). If we were concerned only with AmE, we would use no length marks, since the length distinctions of RP are irrelevant in GenAm.
In the first edition of LPD I actually represented the AmE THOUGHT vowel as ɒː, differently from BrE ɔː, which would have pleased Bao Zhi-kun. But in the second edition I decided to use the symbol ɔː for both varieties. Apart from anything else, this makes for simpler entries, since the same transcription of words like thought θɔːt and law lɔː will do for both BrE and AmE.
So the same symbol e will do for the very different qualities of the DRESS vowel that we find in various kinds of BrE and AmE. The same symbol æ will do for very divergent qualities of TRAP. And the same symbol ɔː will do for different kinds of THOUGHT.

Here’s a rather different kind of example: we use the symbol l for the lateral approximant of many different languages. But in reading a transcription of German you have to remember to make it very clear; in French clear, but not quite so clear as in German; for most kinds of English it is generally darker, and may vary in colouring according to position; in Korean it has a noticeably retracted place of articulation; in some languages it is dental rather than alveolar. We don’t want to be bothered with such detail at every relevant dictionary entry: it’s better to just learn and remember that such-and-such a language or variety has such-and-such a quality of sound.
OK, Jerry, the French open-mid back vowel is rather centralized. But in a pronunciation dictionary of French it still makes sense to write it ɔ, rather than fussing about with ɔ̈ or the like.

If you want to speak RP-ish BrE you need to learn to use the actual sounds that are appropriate. It’s not sufficient to draw on some general-phonetic battery of universal sounds. Likewise if you want to speak network-standard GenAm. You have to establish an entire setting for the sounds of one variety or the other, and then operate within that setting — not faff around with transcriptional complications.

Thursday 21 January 2010

everyday (?) IPA

Philip Swan, an SIL-trained Australian phonetician, has put up a nice video on YouTube. It consists of three parts: using the IPA to transcribe what a toddler says, using phonetic description for clarity in identifying letters of the alphabet over the phone, and transcribing paralinguistic interjections.
I became aware of the existence of this video from postings on the email list of VASTA, the (American) Voice and Speech Trainers Assn. Inc. Some of the commentators there were sceptical about the accuracy of the transcriptions.
I think that writing the Australian FACE vowel as [æi] is not unreasonable. I have to say, though, that superscripting the [i] symbol to show the less prominent part of a diphthong, as Philip Swan does in his [æi], is not an IPA-approved notation. (If you want to explicitly show “non-syllabic” in IPA, the correct diacritic is meant to be U+032F, a COMBINING INVERTED BREVE BELOW, thus [æi̯].) I am less than enthusiastic, though, about transcribing the Australian PRICE vowel as [ʌɪ], or as Swan has it [ʌɪ]. I would have thought that the first element was usually nearer to fully open cardinal [ɑ] than to open-mid cardinal [ʌ], let alone the Australian STRUT vowel. (Is this the baleful influence of Clive Upton’s unfortunate choice of symbol for the PRICE vowel in the OED/COD?)
I have no idea what the toddler is saying, or trying to say. Has anyone?
To disambiguate letter names in noisy conditions, articulatory descriptions would only work if both parties are well trained in phonetic terminology — which they normally aren’t. That’s why we use keywords: “S as in Sugar, not F as in Freddie”, or “sierra whisky alfa nectar November”.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

phonetic sundries

When I took over from A.C.Gimson as director of the UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics, one of the new ideas I had was to design and sell a course t-shirt. The t-shirts proved very popular among the course members, and over the years we produced a number of different designs, all with the transcribed text ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ fəˈnetɪks. One of my pictures shows a dark blue one modelled by Josette Lesser.

Masaki Taniguchi has a large collection of them, often bearing the signatures of the tutors.

A company called Cafepress now offers not only t-shirts but also mugs, stickers, and other gifts with a phonetic theme. Offering someone coffee in a mug bearing the words “nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trills” would certainly furnish a talking-point (and perhaps lead your guest to snort and choke over their coffee).

* * *

In response to several requests, notably among yesterday’s comments, I have now uploaded copies of the .ttf files of the Lucida Grande font to my website. You can find the font here, and the bold version here. To download the fonts, save to your own computer, then install. I don’t think there’s a problem of copyright in this file-sharing, since the font’s author, Charles Bigelow, says he is delighted if as many people as possible use his fonts.

Tuesday 19 January 2010


For our next show the choir I sing in is rehearsing a number of new songs for which we have commissioned bespoke arrangements. One of them is Jacques Brel’s Carousel, aka La Valse à Mille Temps, with English words by Eric Blau.
Carnivals and cotton candy,
carousels and calliopes.
Fortune tellers in glass cases,
We will always remember these.
To be honest, these lyrics are somewhat opaque to British ears. In BrE we would speak of funfairs rather than carnivals, candy floss rather than cotton candy, roundabouts rather than carousels, and steam organs rather than calliopes.
Because we’re not familiar with the word calliope, we also don’t know how to pronounce it. The chorus’s assistant musical director has made rehearsal tracks of the music for us (tenor 1, tenor 2, baritone, bass) — an excellent thing to do, and very time-consuming for him, but something which makes all the difference for those of us trying to learn our parts despite shaky sight-reading skills. He pronounces kæliˈəʊpeɪz.
So I have written to the musical director
I have been researching the word “calliope”, which features in our new chorus item Carousel.
All the dictionaries I can lay my hands on (including my own Longman Pronunciation Dictionary) give the pronunciation as having the stress on the second syllable, -li-, which is like “lie”. The final syllable is like “pea”. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is represented as kəˈlaɪəpiː (see the attached scan from the big Oxford English Dictionary). The vowel sounds and the stress placement are comparable to those of the word “variety”.
In the lyrics of the song, it is clear that the “-pes” syllable is meant to rhyme with the word “these” at the end of the next line. So if we pronounce it “pays” we are missing that intended rhyme.
Obviously, your decision is final for the chorus: we will pronounce the word in whatever way you lay down. But I thought you might like to know these findings.

Calliope was, yes, one of the nine Muses, in fact the chief of the Muses, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, mother of Orpheus, and inspirer of Homer. In Greek her name was Καλλιόπη (‘beautiful-voiced’). The -op- part has nothing to do with vision: it represents the noun ὄψ ops ‘voice’, cognate with the ep- of epic.

Like other Greek names, this one too passed through Latin on its way to English, thereby becoming subject to the Latin stress rule. Latin stress is sensitive to the weight of the penultimate syllable: since the o is short, stress falls on the preceding i. Being prevocalic, this i has to become long in English. The GVS turns it into the modern diphthong . Coming upon calliope, Calliope as a written word for the first time, you can’t predict its pronunciation without knowing the classical quantity of the o.

There seems to have also been a vulgar AmE pronunciation ˈkælioʊp (perhaps it still exists) — but that wouldn’t fit the music, which requires a four-syllable word.

Monday 18 January 2010


The terrible events in Haiti mean that both the name of the country and the name of its capital, Port-au-Prince, are repeatedly in the news.
Dictionaries agree in recommending an anglicized pronunciation of Haiti itself, namely ˈheɪti. This has not stopped occasional reporters offering variants such as ˈhaɪti and even hɑːˈiːti (and LPD, CPD etc duly report these). Many educated English people will be aware of the French pronunciation aiti, and possibly even of the French spelling Haïti. Although French is one of the two official languages of Haiti, the other one, and the language of most of the inhabitants, is Haitian Creole (a dialect of French Creole). The Creole spelling of the name of the country is Ayiti.
I think the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation is on solid ground when it states firmly that in English the country is called hay-ti /ˈheɪti/ and labels this the “established anglicization”. The adjective Haitian is correspondingly given as ˈheɪʃən. (The French haïtien is aisjɛ̃.)

Similarly with the name of the city that now lies in ruins. OBGP, LPD and CPD all record the anglicization of Port-au-Prince as ˌpɔːt əʊ ˈprɪn(t)s (or the corresponding AmE ˌpɔːrt̬oʊ-). OBGP, however, while recognizing that as the established anglicization, “also common in Haiti”, comments further that
A French pronunciation, por-oh-pra(ng)ss, and a French Creole pronunciation, port-oh-pra(ng)ss, are also both in current use.
This is very true: plenty of TV reporters say ˌpɔːt əʊ ˈpræn(t)s.

They are probably not aware that in standard French the name is actually pronounced pɔʀopʀɛ̃ːs. There is normally no liaison in the case of the word Port: compare Port Arthur pɔʀaʀtyʀ, Port-Royal pɔʀʀwajal, and Port-sur-Saône pɔʀsyʀsoːn.

In Haitian Creole, however, the name of the city is Pòtoprens, presumably pɔtopxɛ̃s.

* * *

I’ve put another video up on YouTube, about the pronunciation preference polls in LPD.

Friday 15 January 2010

Ruyton how many?

Q: Which English placename contains a Roman numeral?
A: Ruyton-XI-Towns, a village in Shropshire.
The Ruyton part is ˈraɪtn. The rest is pronounced as if written eleven towns. Indeed, the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (Oxford, 1971) spells it Ruyton-Eleven-Towns, and supplies the stress pattern ˌraɪtn ɪˈlevn taʊnz. As Wikipedia tells us,
The village acquired its unusual name in the twelfth century when a castle was built, and it became the major manor of eleven local townships. The Roman numeral for eleven is included in its name. Some of the eleven ancient townships, mostly situated to the north and west of Ruyton, still survive as hamlets today.

Since we’ve been discussing Welsh recently, I can’t help mentioning that among other villages in this area are places called Llynclys, Henlle, Rhosygadfa, Hengoed, Pentre Clawdd, Gronwen, and Trefonen. And this is not Wales but England! (Admittedly, close to the Welsh border.)
There are also mixtures of Welsh and English such as Maesbrook (Welsh maes = field).
Many years ago, when driving down the A483, I needed to buy petrol and stopped at a petrol station in Llynclys. I couldn’t resist asking the pump attendant, “What’s the name of this village?”. Back came the answer: ˈlʌŋklɪs. And, I repeat, this was in England.
Trefonen is trɪˈvɒnɪn. As for the others I mention above, I can find no information on how their pronunciation is anglicized, as presumably it must be.

Thursday 14 January 2010

detecting errors

When proof-reading it can sometimes be an advantage to be a non-native speaker of the language in which the document in question is written. In our own language, we are often too dazzled by our familiar expectations to notice occasions on which they are not fulfilled. Faced, for example, with They want to to arrange payment we too readily normalize the text and perceive just the correct They want to arrange payment. But a NNS is more likely to be brought up short by the puzzling grammar of repeated to, and hence to detect the error.
Furthermore, it is typically NSs, not NNSs, who get confused about spelling problems such as there – their – they’re, your – you’re and its – it’s. As NSs we know what a word should sound like but may be uncertain how to represent it in writing. NNSs, on the other hand, are likely to be very aware of translation correspondences between the L2 and their native L1, where the English confusables are quite distinct.
I think I have already previously expressed my thanks to Masaki Taniguchi for repeatedly detecting various minor careless errors that I have committed in my blog postings over the years — typically, elementary typos or repeated words (often from when I have changed my mind about the best wording and end up with fragments of two different versions). As a NNS he can look at my effusions more objectively than I can myself.
These thoughts were prompted by a job I was doing yesterday. I was checking the draft of a document in Welsh, written by a Welsh native speaker. I am of course not a NS of Welsh, but learnt the language as an adult, by self-study and in evening classes in London.
The long and the short of it is that yesterday I was able to detect a fair number of errors of grammar and spelling that the author had overlooked in his own composition.
From my days in the classroom when I was learning Welsh I can remember one misguided teacher who chose to drill us learners on the distinction (in writing) between yw ‘is’ and i’w ‘to his’. This may be a tricky point for native speakers of southern Welsh, for whom the two expressions are homophonous. But it was not a problem for us NNSs: it would have never occurred to us to confuse them, since their translation equivalents are quite distinct. On the contrary, for some of us it might have come as a revelation to be told that the two are pronounced identically and could be confused by less-than-fully-literate NSs.
This is a special case of the more general principle that we can see other people’s mistakes more easily than our own. Get someone else to proof-read anything you write for publication. Ideally, perhaps, get two people to do it: one a NS and one a NNS.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Bristol liquids

The British Library website has an extensive collection of sound recordings — more than 25,000 of them that anyone can listen to on-line. They include nearly three hundred digitized recordings of accents and dialects made for the questionnaire-based Leeds Survey of English Dialects carried out over half a century ago. Over the following 25 years fieldworkers revisited many of the sites to record further interviews in the form of unscripted and unrehearsed narratives. There are also numerous other recordings made subsequently, often by local radio stations. The sound clips, from all over England, are supported by commentaries on the lexis, phonology and grammar of the recorded passages. What a resource for us all!
The current “recording of the week” is from Bristol. It bears the headline “Ever heard the Bristol ‘l’?”, a reference to the intrusive l for which the area(l)’s accent is known. You can duly hear area pronounced as ˈɛːɹjəɫ just over two minutes into the recording, and piano as piˈanəɫ right at the end.
I discuss this phenomenon in Accents of English (CUP 1982), vol. 2, p. 344, where I mention the Bristolian father whose three daughters were supposedly called Evil, Idle, and Normal.

You can compare the BL recording (Knowle, speaker born 1937) with a more recent YouTube one made by Terry the odd job man (Filton, born 1970; blog, 12 Oct 2007). Terry has now progressed to offering “Bristolian language lessons”. It might be difficult to detect putative intrusive l with him, because he tends to vocalize dark l anyway. Notice his massage with “hyperrhotic” r, ˈmasɑːɻdʒ (discussed in AofE, p. 343).
I suspect he’s actually an actor playing a character, but if so it’s a good act.

Tuesday 12 January 2010


The other day I heard another strange pronunciation of a placename by a BBC radio announcer who had evidently failed to consult the Pronunciation Unit or anyone else. It was Merthyr (Tydfil), which he pronounced as ˈmɜːðə rather than the usual ˈmɜːθə.
The English spelling th is completely ambiguous as between θ and ð in this position. On the one hand we have Arthur, McCarthy, Martha and Bertha with θ; on the other we have Carmarthen and ordinary-vocabulary words such as swarthy, worthy, northern, further and farther with ð. Some of us still remember the farthing ˈfɑːðɪŋ. With earthen(ware) some say one, some say the other.

Welsh spelling, in contrast, is unambiguous. Where the spelling is th the pronunciation is θ; where it is dd, it is ð. So if read as Welsh the spelling Merthyr can only signal θ. (Compare Caerfyrddin, the Welsh for Carmarthen.)
Although merthyr is the ordinary Welsh word for ‘martyr’, deriving via Latin martyr(-em) from Greek μάρτυς mártys (stem μάρτυρ- mártyr-) ‘witness’, it is also the Welsh form of Latin martyrium, from Greek μαρτύριον martýrion ‘testimony’, a word which came to be used to refer to a shrine consecrated with a saint’s bones. It is the latter that we have here and in other placenames: Merthyr Tydfil was named after the shrine of St Tudful. (It is a great pity that the Owen-Morgan Dictionary of the Place-names of Wales, from which I took this information, does not show pronunciations.)

Monday 11 January 2010

uitsmijter met kaas

On Saturday I made a quick there-and-back-in-a-day trip to the Netherlands, to attend a ceremony in celebration of Humphrey Tonkin’s seventieth birthday. He and I have been friends and then colleagues since we were both teenagers, and I was delighted to be able to contribute to the festschrift we presented to him.
For my lunch at an eetcafe in Rotterdam I ordered one of my favourite Dutch specialities, an uitsmijter ˈœytsmɛitər. Literally a ‘chucker-out’, this is a kind of hot open sandwich with fried eggs. The diphthongs in its name can be a challenge to NNSs of Dutch without phonetic training. You can have uitsmijters either with ham or with cheese, and I chose the kind with melted cheese, met kaas mɛt ˈkaːs. You have to remember not to aspirate the k of kaas. Dutch voiceless plosives are unaspirated. There is a bit of a mystery here, since in all other Germanic languages (as far as I know) the voiceless plosives are aspirated before a stressed vowel, just as in English. So how is it that those of Dutch are not? I have not come across any historical account of why this should be so. Is it the consequence of all those years of Spanish rule of the Low Countries?
(I’m not sure what voiceless plosives are like in Frisian.)

Friday 8 January 2010


Victor Mair asked me if I’d ever encountered the pronunciation of with as wɪt.
The answer is yes, though I find it difficult to pin down with any precision who would use this form. As Victor himself suggests, it tends to have overtones of “some types of gangster or punk talk” (in AmE or in people imitating AmE). I think I’ve often heard it in the demotic American English you get in Judge Judy or reality shows. The rapper Nelly has a hit called Ride Wit Me. But does it go wider than this?
You can also get yod coalescence in with you wɪtʃə, with an affricate resulting from the plosive plus underlying approximant.

In different parts of the English-speaking world with can be pronounced in several different ways. First, if the word is said with a conservative dental fricative, this consonant can be either voiceless wɪθ (most AmE, Scottish), or voiced wɪð (remaining kinds of BrE, including RP). It rhymes with myth and smith for many Americans, but not for me.
Secondly, the dental place of articulation can be changed to labiodental (TH Fronting). For the voiceless sound, this gives wɪf (mainly American black?); for the voiced, wɪv (popular southeastern England). Texting Londoners often write wiv. Dizzee Rascal has a hit called Dance Wiv Me.
Thirdly, the fricative manner of articulation can change to plosive (TH Stopping). This gives voiceless wɪt (the one we started by discussing) and voiced wɪd (Irish, West Indian, Newfoundland?, African, Indian).
Lastly, the final consonant can be lost altogether, leaving just . This is still found in north of England traditional dialect, and is also typical of Jamaican Creole and Caribbean English Creole generally. There is a literary spelling wi’ (e.g. Scots).
Just this intersection of voicing, place, manner and deletion gives us 2×2×2+1=9 principal variants among NSs.
NNSs with TH problems supply two further variants: wɪs and wɪz.

The video of which there is a cropped screengrab alongside is entitled, as you see, tha got beef wi me (“you got a complaint against me?” in the dialect of Sheffield — or is it Barnsley?).

Thursday 7 January 2010

getting it wrong

Look at this chart of phonetic symbols for English (RP type). It is a pop-up that appears if you go to the BBC World Service learning English site and click on Listen to the sounds of English. Do you notice what is wrong? Compare it with the correct chart found on that page itself.

There are two discrepancies. One is that the MOUTH vowel is written as ɑʊ rather than , which is something that could perhaps even be defended as a preferable notation for the diphthong in question (though here it is unquestionably just a mistake). The other is a straightforward error: ɭ (retroflex lateral) instead of l (alveolar lateral).

Thanks to Ludwig Tan for this.

In printed materials and web pages, as well as in students’ essays and the like, the following symbol errors seem to be particularly prevalent.
ɵ (rounded schwa, U+0275) instead of θ (voiceless dental fricative, U+03B8)
ɤ (close-mid back unrounded vowel, U+0264) instead of ɣ (voiced velar fricative, U+0263)
ɘ (close-mid central unrounded vowel, U+0258) instead of ə (schwa, U+0259)
ɬ (voiceless alveolar lateral fricative, U+026C) instead of ɫ (dark l, U+026B), or vice versa.

Many years ago I put together a help page about these and other confusables.

The price of using phonetic symbols is eternal vigilance, particularly where people without phonetic training (publishers, website designers etc) are involved.

Wednesday 6 January 2010


This morning Sky News TV has despatched an intrepid reporter to Marlborough in Wiltshire to report live on the snowy weather conditions there. Since early morning he has been interviewing a string of locals about the disruption the snow is causing. Without exception they have pronounced the name of their town as ˈmɔːlb(ə)rə. Despite this, the reporter has persisted in using the spelling pronunciation ˈmɑːlb(ə)rə, and he uses it every few minutes.
Perhaps he is a smoker, or ex-smoker, and is influenced by the American brand of cigarette, Marlboro, which does usually seem to be pronounced with ɑː.

Mind you, just why the usual BrE pronunciation of Marlborough — town, duke, college, street or house in London — has ɔː rather than ɑː is a question to which I don’t know the answer. Etymologically it was the hill or mound either named after a man called *Mǣrla or because gentian grew there, OE meargealla.

* * *

A correspondent who shall remain nameless has sent me a number of emails in recent weeks asking various fairly elementary questions. I have been patiently answering him, but yesterday I finally ventured to suggest that instead of sending me emails he should buy LPD, since the information he is looking for can easily be found there or in other published works. Indignantly he replies today that he has the CD version of the dictionary, and asking if the printed book contains something that the CD doesn’t. The answer is no: but a more important point is that the CD is not sold independently of the printed book. That means that if he has the CD but not the book then his CD must be a pirated copy. By using a pirated copy he is indirectly depriving me, the author, of income. I shall not waste any more time answering his emails.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Rees, Rhys

Lord Rees was interviewed recently on the Today programme (BBC R4). The presenter addressed him as Lord riːz. This surprised me, since every bearer of this name that I have ever come across pronounces it riːs, and I’ll bet Lord Rees does too.
The spelling admittedly leads you to expect /z/, as in bees, fees, knees and trees. That is the default for word-final -ees. But this is a Welsh name, so the usual rule does not apply (compare Davies ˈdeɪvɪs).
The origin of the name is the Welsh Rhys r̥ɨːs, r̥iːs. The spelling Rees is only halfway anglicized: compare the fully anglicized variant Reece. The name also came into English as the surname Rice raɪs, which shows it as having been borrowed so early that (in that variant) it underwent the Great Vowel Shift. (The forms did not undergo the GVS, so attest a more recent borrowing.)
Latterly, Rhys (with that spelling) seems to have become rather popular as a first name throughout the English-speaking world.
I have the impression that the surname Rees is not nearly as common in the US as it is in Britain. I wonder how it is pronounced there.
The Welsh patronymic of this name, ap Rhys, has given us English Price (borrowed pre-GVS) and Preece (post-GVS).
There are villages in Shropshire called Prees, Prees Green, Prees Heath etc, but I do not know how this Prees is pronounced. According to Wikipedia, its origin is not ap Rhys but a word meaning “brushwood”. That would be Welsh prysg prɨːsɡ̊, which has a voiceless final consonant cluster. (This part of England, Maelor Saesneg, has plenty of Welsh toponyms.)

Monday 4 January 2010

accents map

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried an article entitled “Regional accents thrive against the odds in Britain”.
(To come to the aid of a bemused Canadian correspondent, let me explain that Geordie, Scouse, Mancunian and Brummie are the local accents of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham respectively.)
The journalist had interviewed the sociolinguists/phoneticians Paul Kerswill, Dom Watt and Clive Upton, which means that the article is strikingly well-informed as press reports go. Paul, however, writes that he was annoyed that they didn't mention his group’s London work, despite a long conversation about it.
One thing that tickled me was a reported conversation between two high-profile Geordies, Cheryl Cole and Joe McElderry (məˈkeldəri, apparently). Note the intrusion into British demotic (“me and Cheryl were having”) of the valley-girl quotative be, like.
“When me and Cheryl were having conversations in full Geordie, people would be, like, ‘It’s like a different language’,” McElderry said recently.

Perhaps the most interesting thing, which is unfortunately not included in the on-line version of the report, was this map of British accent areas predicted for the year 2050.
Paul Kerswill writes
Not bad considering it’s the result of me making it up as I was talking to the journalist over the phone!
I’m wondering what name we should attach to the unlabelled chunk of territory stretching from Lincolnshire on the east coast to the edge of the Birmingham/Coventry area. I’m also not convinced that north Norfolk people can properly be grouped together with Southampton and Bournemouth as “Southern”, nor Cardiff and Swansea separated from “Southern Welsh” and put in “Southwest”.
The “City accents” shown, reading from north to south, are those of Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle (Tyneside), Middlesbrough (Teesside), Leeds, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, and Bristol. London is taken for granted, as the centre of so-called Estuary English.

Friday 1 January 2010


And a Happy New Year to you too.
The evidence is already all around us that NSs readily pronounce 2010 as twenty ten. This is a change, given that the year just ended was two thousand (and) nine (BrE with and, AmE I think without).
You can see that *twenty nine would not have been a possible way of saying 2009, since it would be heard as 29. But why not twenty oh nine or even twenty hundred (and) nine?
My father was born in 1909, which we call nineteen oh nine (at least, that’s what I call it). But my mother was born one year later, in nineteen ten.
On a related topic, let me record for posterity the following small linguistic change from the first half of the twentieth century. If you asked them the time and it was 11:25, my parents would both have said five-and-twenty past eleven. But like everyone else nowadays (I think), I have always said twenty-five past.
This was the only context in which they would use the old Germanic formula x-and-twenty, apart from in the nursery rhyme where we all do.
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye;
Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing;
Now wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before a king?

For the young, and even now the early-middle-aged, sixpence ˈsɪkspəns belongs to Britain’s pre-decimalization currency. From 1971 it became 2½p. Now, after the demise of the half-p, it is no longer expressible as a precise sum of money that you can handle.