Thursday 3 June 2010


The tragic news of the Cumbria shootings introduced me to a place name I hadn’t previously come across. The gunman lived in the village of Rowrah ˈraʊrə.

This name is not in any of my reference books. It joins cowrie, along with Maori and perhaps for some Nauru, as an example of the possible sequence -aʊr- within a morpheme. I say ‘possible’ sequence, because I at least feel a very strong pressure to insert a schwa before the r and then smooth the result, giving ˈra(ʊ)ərə, ˈka(ʊ)əri.

This is because of the rareness or impossibility of having any of the stressed long vowels / diphthongs that end in or tend towards the close front or back areas immediately before r within the same morpheme. (The items I’m referring to are iː eɪ aɪ ɔɪ uː əʊ aʊ, i.e. FLEECE FACE PRICE CHOICE GOOSE GOAT MOUTH.)

For example, the only instances of -iːr- in RP and similar accents are cases such as key-ring, where a morpheme boundary intervenes. Otherwise, anything that would historically have had -iːr- (and still does in some accents) has -ɪər- instead, as in period ˈpɪəriəd and weary ˈwɪəri. (Obviously, in accents like south Walian, and for that matter Cumbrian, this historical development failed, so they still have the long monophthong.)

Similarly, what would otherwise have been -eɪr- has turned into -eər-, as in Mary, various. What would otherwise have been -uːr- yielded -ʊər- (fury, mural), and what would otherwise have been -əʊr- yields -ɔːr- (glory, moron). So far, so categorical.

When we come to the wide diphthongs, there seems to be more variability. In words like spiral and virus some speakers have ˈspaɪrəl, ˈvaɪrəs. Not me: I have to use aɪə here, or its smoothed reduction, thus ˈspa(ɪ)ərəl, ˈva(ɪ)ərəs.

Which is where we get back to cowrie and Rowrah.


  1. It's interesting that you give the name Rowrah with the MOUTH vowel John; Huw Edwards pronounces it with the GOAT vowel:
    (06:20 in this link):

  2. There's also LS Lowry.

    I'm bothered by the morpheme boundary. Historically, it's an objective reality, but in subjective perception is it the chicken or the egg?

    I'm pretty sure I knew the word dowry long before I was aware of dower. And I used to think that the New York Bowery was spelled Bowry. I pronounce both to rhyme with cowrie — although I do use pronuciations like ˈflaʊəri, where the flower + ystructure is readily apparent.

  3. if Wikipedia is to be believed, I'm not as wrong as I though about Bowery. The morpheme boundary can be seen to be in Dutch, not English. And the local pronunciation is said to be ˈbaʊ.ri.

  4. Ekwall (4th ed., 1960) says ‘Rowrah (-o͞o-)’, i.e. with a double macron, but I cannot decipher the pronunciation key. It may be the vowel of boot, soon, through, if I read Wikipedia right.

  5. John, you filled me with shame that I had never noticed that I pronounced 'cowrie' ˈkaʊrɪ, whereas like you I would expect to say ˈkaʊərɪ and compress and smooth it, though not as much as you. And although I'm afraid I've made it very obvious that I don't like spelling pronunciations, I think this must be one for me. And the psychology of spelling pronunciations being as mercurial as it is, I thought this one must be because of the -ie, since I did seem to do the schwa-insertion, compression and smoothing thing with 'dowry'. (Maori doesn't bother me, because it's forn. I even seem to say ˈmɑori for that. Sorry.)

    I then thought of Maurice Bowra /ˈbaʊrə/. Well -a is pretty funny too.

    Then David covered me with confusion by coming up with Lowry. I realized I had still not got it right, at least for my own idiolect. I say something like ˈlaɵrɪ for that, rather than ˈla(ʊ)ərɪ, and now think I do that with 'dowry' as well. So does that mean that for me that's the form that schwa-insertion, compression and smoothing take in this context? The association with 'dower' seems to support that, although it alerts one to the fact that 'dowry' is not monomorphemic. Some chicken, some egg, this morpheme boundary conundrum of David's!

    So David, are you telling us that you pronounce 'Bowery' in 'the New York Bowery' ˈbaʊri to rhyme with 'cowrie' ˈkaʊri because it's only analyzable in Dutch, but 'bowery' in 'bowery nook' ˈbaʊəri to rhyme with 'flowery' ˈflaʊəri, because "the flower + y structure is readily apparent" in English?

    I can't see myself going to those lengths, but it does seem I say ˈflaɵrɪ for 'flowery', parallel to your ˈflaʊəri, and again I suspect this of being a morphology pronunciation rather than a spelling pronunciation, as fortunately I am not enticed by the spelling to pronounce it any differently from 'floury'! Or is that because I am aware of their identical etymology? Nah, I'm not that barmy!

  6. Mallamb

    Thank you for reminding me of Maurice Bowra, that legendary anecdote-magnet.

    No I haven't been pronouncing Bowery as ˈbaʊri all these years because of something I only read this morning. Either I've heard the 'local' pronunciation at some point, or I just never saw any connection with bower.

    I thought the spelling of flowery might have some bearing, but then you reminded me of floury. Any sense of how I pronounce this word is now thoroughly compromised and contaminated. It's possible that I've been in the habit of saying ˈflaʊri, but I can't trust my instinct now.

  7. I think words like "virus" and "spiral" are a point of difference between mainstream AmEng and BrEng (or at least GA and RP). I'm from Massachusetts, and when I made an effort to learn to do RP, I was quite surprised to see that "Irish", for example, was /ˈaɪərɪʃ/ rather than /ˈaɪrɪʃ/.

    In my own speech, I draw a distinction between words with no morpheme boundary, like "Irish", "virus", "spiral", "pirate", in which I use /aɪ.rV/; and words with a morpheme boundary, such as "hiring", "firing" and "wiry", in which I use /aɪ.ɚ.V/.

  8. Ah, but you thought the Dutch morphology vindicated you in the Bowery~bowery stakes, didn't you, David?

    As for our instincts, they're so easily compromised, aren't they. You had just seen mine compromised before your eyes. You may not have seen just how compromised: I see it is almost impossible to see that I had gone to the lengths of representing some of my -aɵrɪ's with a barred o rather than a schwa, in case that's what you thought it was. Even with hindsight I don't think it was delusional to believe that I had a potentially functional opposition with -aʊrɪ in ˈkaʊrɪ etc. such as you think you might have had with flowery~floury, but sometimes the whole enterprise seems hopeless, doesn't it?

    Are you soliciting an anecdote? Dare I go off-topic just long enough to mention the first that comes to mind? He was engaged for a while to Audrey Beecham, the niece of Sir Thomas, saying "buggers can't be choosers". I thought she would have been a wonderful choice, not just because she was lesbian, but because she was a laugh a minute, especially on the whisky.

  9. No morpheme boundary in "Irish", Lazar?

  10. @mallamb: Well I was grasping for a non-problematic way of describing things - I suppose what I mean is that there's no base word "Ire" from which "Irish" is transparently derived, so I consider it more similar to "pirate" than to "hiring".

  11. @Lazar: But RP "Irish" isn't /ˈaɪərɪʃ/, it's /ˈaɪrɪʃ/. "Eye-rish", not "ire-ish".

  12. What about the village of Lamplugh? Was I dreaming or did I hear someone on the news pronounce it /ˈlæmprə/?

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I live half a block from the Bowery, and I can confirm the two-syllable /ˈbaʊri/ pronunciation. To make sure I had not been contaminated by the comments above, I polled my wife and daughter, who both produced the above pronunciation.

    In my own AmE speech, a morpheme boundary is neither necessary nor sufficient: key-ring does not rhyme with spearing, but spiral has a glide despite being spir- plus -al.

  15. @Harry Campbell: The Cambridge Online Dictionary has it as /ˈaɪərɪʃ/, as do all my Oxford bilingual dictionaries.

  16. Lazar,

    I take it you feel the bound morpheme 'Ire' in 'Ireland' is totally opaque. Seeing the way we've been appealing to other languages here, for a free morpheme I could mobilize Dutch again, (Ier Irishman, Iers Irish Ierland, Ireland) or better German (Ire Irishman, Irisch Irish, Irland Ireland). Our morpheme just seems to have lost its freedom, but let's not go into the symbolism of that!

    Or I could resort to another ghastly pun, and say it's free even in English: ire > irish, cf PARTRIDGE Words, Words, Words! I. 9 "Both Irish and the colloquial Paddy are used for anger." OED recognizes it at Irish 5. "Temper; passion. orig. U.S. and dial."

    Anyway it seems to me that the phonology follows the morphology: aɪə as 'Ire' in 'Ireland' + ɪʃ with linking r. And I don't need to be psychologistic about it!

    So I'm as baffled as you are as to where Harry's claim for RP eye-rish comes from. There's no problem for me: all these aɪə's have the schwa, and therefore the tendency to compression and smoothing with or without the linking r.

    >I draw a distinction between words with no morpheme boundary, like "Irish", "virus", "spiral", "pirate", in which I use /aɪ.rV/; and words with a morpheme boundary, such as "hiring", "firing" and "wiry", in which I use /aɪ.ɚ.V/.<

    I believe in your distinction, and its phonological correlate is that the r belongs to the following syllable in the first group and the first (or both, functioning as Janus segment) in the second group – JW could use his syllable marker to distinguish them, and treat the ə (or the linking r, as appropriate) as epenthetic: ˈvaɪ.rəs but ˈwaɪr.ɪ, and ˈvaɪ.rəs but ˈwaɪə.ɪ would work for BrE speakers who make the distinction, though he would no doubt put the r in himself.

    However I think you may find others who have the same distinction do not put Irish in the first group, and that for your grouping we do have to appeal to some psychologistic explanation.

    John C,
    > spiral has a glide despite being spir- plus -al.<

    Welcome to the little band of delusionals who think we should sneak a peek at panglossic and panchronic morphology!

  17. Lazar,
    My first point in the post I have just addressed to you had the wrong chevrons and disappeared, but it refereed to your statement
    >there's no base word "Ire" from which "Irish" is transparently derived<

  18. All this talk of Irish reminds me of the unusual case of 'iron' ˈaɪ‿ən (UK) | ˈaɪ‿ərn (US). Based on the spelling, the /r/ must have existed in the past (in Middle English it was 'iren'). A hypothetical aɪ-r-Vn would presumably have produced ˈaɪrən or ˈa(ɪ)ərən in analogy with 'spiral' and 'virus'. If I were to take a wild stab at it, I would guess that ˈaɪərən was originally the dominant pronunciation which was further reduced to ˈaɪərn, giving rise to today's rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciation alternatives.

  19. @Jongseong: An interesting case is "irony". I pronounce it /ˈaɪrəni/, but some people here in the US pronounce it /ˈaɪɚni/, analogous to "iron".

  20. @Lazar: I'm trying to remember if I've heard the same pronunciation for 'irony' in the sense of something ironic. I myself pronounce it differently according to whether it is used in this sense or is the adjective derived from 'iron', and I see that this is also what the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary records.

  21. Oh, "irony" as an adjective didn't even cross my mind when writing the post. I had an English teacher in high school, for example, who pronounced the noun "irony" this way.

  22. My Father, John Atkinson, lived in Rowrah with his Uncle Jack Atkinson a local hound trail bookmaker, as a boy in the 20's. He was asked to make recording for the BBC in, I believe, the 50's as he was considered a fine speaker of the Cumberland dialect. He's still alive and living in Cambs now but he always pronounces Rowrah as in 'having and argument' rather than 'rowing a boat'!


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