Tuesday 3 August 2010

Guardian mishearings

Over the past ten days letter writers to the Guardian have been entertaining us with various mishearings and misunderstandings supposedly caused by regional/social pronunciation differences.

They all depend on phonetic overlap: where a sound [x], intended by the speaker as a token of lexical set /A/, is perceived by the hearer as representing the different lexical set /B/.

It started with crux (blog, 22 July) and the joke about a northerner in a hotel asking for a double rum and being offered not a drink but a room. Then...
So English pɜːnəʊ was heard as French pryno pruneaux. A northern monophthongal GOAT vowel was heard as a southern NORTH vowel.

…Geordie NURSE as non-Geordie NORTH; provincial FACE as Cockney FLEECE; and the problem that the sequence fʊks is taboo in the north of England but not in the south.
…southern STRUT heard as northern TRAP (take courage, Spanish and Japanese learners of EFL!).

…Ulster KIT (which can be very open) heard as LOT; New Zealand raised DRESS heard as non-NZ KIT (this is different from the corresponding American southern confusion, which operates only before a nasal).

…U-RP MOUTH heard as PRICE, and back to New Zealand DRESS heard as KIT……where TRAP is evidently getting so close nowadays that it can even be heard as FLEECE (or perhaps rather just as DRESS, with an unusual pronunciation of semen).


  1. Very interesting article! I was not aware that there are so many misunderstandings due to different pronunciation (among native speakers of the same language).
    Greetings from Argentina!

  2. A little googling turns up Net consensus that that's the Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is known to be a raconteur, and there's contemporaneous evidence that the Guardian has published this story before, on November 16, 1999, just after Fuchs's death. That version was attributed to Denis Healey, also a raconteur, and gives the story a date of 1958, just after Fuchs's return from his overland crossing of Antarctica.

    Other Google hits for "Sir Vivian Fucks" are few (there are way too many if you leave off the "Sir", as you can imagine), so if the story is true, it has seemingly been circulating orally for more than fifty years. There is also this Amazon.com entry, presumably inserted by a puckish or careless third-party bookseller.

  3. John Cowan - I have always assumed it's him. If my name was Richard Dawkins and I lived in Oxford, I would specify that I was "not that one" when writing to the Guardian.

  4. Re: American Southern confusion, there are also dialects that diphthongize lax vowels, so that "hill" becomes something like [hi(j)əl], with tense [i], perhaps also with a schwa onglide. If my intuition is correct, these dialects do preserve the pin/pen distinction, but it would be [pi(j)ən]/[pe(j)ən] (both with tense vowels).

  5. "Founded by Baden-Powell" - shouldn't that be "finded by Baden-Pile"?

  6. No, Powell is pronounced p[GOAT]l.

    (EDIT: Word verification, though, makes the same mistake. I'm asked to enter "prevedne", which is rougly "overlooked" in Serbo-Croatian.)

  7. You're right - my mistake. I'm 93% sure that I've sometimes heard Powell as p[MOUTH]l though.

  8. I'm sure, as with all spelling pronunciations. In this case of a name, it's not only possible but probable that there are families who pronounce it this way.

  9. It must be the combined labialization in the context tʃ-p that makes Ulster chips into chops, as fish and chips is fush and chops, and chicken and chips is chuckun and chops.

    We still need to be told why the Skites and Brinies were not finded by Baden-Powell.

  10. Re the "smoked semen:"

    By an amazing coincidence, the very subject (almost) has just come up at the excellent Language Log, where many of the comments refer to "Accents of English" (Wells):

    ELF test? "Geoffrey the subtle salmon" August 3, 2010 @ 9:47 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Variation

    TLO said,
    August 3, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    @Chris Travers-I don't think that Wells is saying the w's (and u's) were never pronounced; only that their pronunciation was reintroduced
    (based on the etymological spelling) after having been lost. Are you disputing that /w/ was ever lost in these words?

  11. I share an office with someone from New Zealand. He once said, "Talking to me can be harrowing." I thought he'd said, "Talking to me can be heroin."

    The way he says "pair" is exactly how I say "peer", which caused a misunderstanding once.

    There is a comedy named "Flight of the Conchords" about New Zealanders in New York. One of the main characters is called Brett, and it's an onrunning joke that the Americans think he's saying "Brit".

    In an odd similarity, the New Zealand pronunciation of "where" is the same as the Yorkshire dialect pronunciation. It's not often the two dialects agree.

  12. @ Leo: there are an awful lot of people who pronounce "Powell" that way. Colin Powell's surname was always said with the MOUTH vowel.

  13. Very fun stuff.

    @ Ryan: I usually hear them merged as [pi(j)ən]/[pi(j)ən] in South Carolina at least. I remember reading that the Pin-Pen merger is close to being universal in the South. Of course there are always going to be some people who don't have it, maybe because of schooling or wanting to make a distinction between two words that they learn are spelled differently. On a different note, I find the neutralizations of "heel"/"hill" and "sell"/"sale" to be the greatest source of confusions when it comes to that accent.

    I'm an American Midwesterner with the "Pin-Pen merger" (both are pronounced like "pin" [pɪn]) and Kiwi "pen" doesn't sound quite the same as my "pin/pen". Kiwi "pen" sounds a bit more fronted and/or raised to me (almost like "peen" [pin]). It could be that the pre-nasal environment causes even more raising and/or fronting of the vowel. Plus there's no KIT [kət] vowel to get in the way as everyone knows.

    @Ed: I've never heard "Powell" with anything other than MOUTH.

  14. This is interesting. The funny thing is though, these confusions happen surprisingly little in my experience. It's amazing how well we understand each other.

  15. Phil, it's not that they occur on a regular basis, it's just that when you do spot one, you go about telling it to everyone you know and remember the anecdote for the rest of your life.

  16. I have a rather specialised bookstore one from nearly 30 years ago. I was in Gower Street Dillons in London in the Social Sciences department and overhead a woman who'd been sent to buy some textbooks for her university-bound son ask the staff where she could find "books about eunuchs". The staff were at a loss and the woman explained that she'd been sent there (the top floor, in fact) by the main information desk.

    As I was then a rep for a big college publisher, I barged in to ask if the son was doing computer science (he was) and if so she'd find the UNIX books in the Science and Technical department in the basement. In this case - and probably many others - it is maybe not just the accent per se that confuses hearers, but their expectations.

    I was once in LA at a restaurant with another English friend; she asked for some "water" in an RP English-rose fashion and the waitress said "What? Ya want mustard?"

  17. Lipman: I'd say that MOUTH in Powell is bog-standard throughout North America, except conceivably when talking of Baden-Powell himself. I was never a Scout, so I don't know how they say it.

    Similarly, my grandfather John Cowan pronounced his name with GOAT (and often wrote it "John Coen"), but it became MOUTH in my father's time and remains so: allegedly my father was peremptorily renamed by his high-school football coach, and it spread to his younger siblings. Curiously, while my wife married a Cowan, her sister married a Powell, and had a son who married an unrelated Cowan (all of them MOUTH).

    Cowan < Mac Eoghain, so it's not surprising that many unrelated families bear it, as with any patronymic surname. The name Eoghan, of which Eoghain is the genitive, has an /o/ vowel, so that GOAT (in Ireland or America) is the best available representative, but too late now.

    Armitaj: To anyone with the weak vowel merger, Unix and eunuchs will be identical. This was in fact part of the intention of its creators. Bell Labs had recently withdrawn from participation in the Multics (< MULtiplexed Information and Computing Services) operating system, and while Unix drew on some of its ideas, it was at the time of its creation both single-user and crippled with respect to its prototype. The original spelling was in fact "Unics".

  18. Guys, I know that C[GOAT]lin Powell and most other Powells in America have the MOUTH vowel, but the point above was about Baden-Powell. :-)

    John C, interesting - I thought that the Irish name of Cowan was pronounced the same as Cohen, with or without a schwa. (Or rather I never much thought about it.)

  19. I've been reading Cowan in my mind with a GOAT vowel all this time, and I've only said Colin with a LOT vowel.

    But I've only used the MOUTH vowel for Powell. I wonder what this says about me.

  20. That you've some common sense.

    A. General Powell pronounces his family name as you thought,
    B. I'm not sure I met or heard of a Colin who wouldn't pronounce it with the LOT vowel, except from Colin Powell, and especially
    C. You were wrong about Cowan, but so was I.

  21. @ Lipman: Oh I see. Well my dad was a scoutmaster and he says /ˈbeɪdnˈpaʊəl/. But then again, we're "Yanks" so I don't know if we're saying it "right".

  22. @Armitaj:

    "Water" sounds notoriously different in British English vs. North American English. It's probably the first word that most visiting Brits have to modify to make themselves understood. I very soon learnt to say [waɾɚ], although I have now worked out that I can usually get away with a compromise of [wɒːtɚ], which leaves me feeling a little more like myself.

  23. @vp: Or [wʊɾɚ], like BOOK, in Philadelphia. :)

  24. I'm American, and I know how we pronounce 'water'. I thought I knew the British pronunciation, but I can't figure out how it can possibly be mistaken for 'mustard'.


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