Friday 29 October 2010

spreading the word

Yesterday’s explosion of public interest in pronunciation was triggered by a press release from the British Library announcing a new project to “track the changing sounds of modern English pronunciation”. The BBC arts correspondent, David Sillito, had made a short introductory video.

I first got wind of it on Wednesday, when the BBC phoned to ask if I would be willing to take part in the Today programme on Radio Four the next morning. The plan was that I should sit in the studio for half an hour as Evan Davies and Justin Webb presented the live broadcast, and then discuss with them any matters of pronunciation interest that I had observed. (Listen here.)

I agreed. An hour or two later BBC Radio Five Live rang to say would I do a quick interview with them first. I agreed to that too, though it meant getting out of bed half an hour earlier. They would send a car for me at 06:30.

I duly arrived at the Television Centre in Wood Lane, White City, which is where BBC radio is temporarily housed during the refurbishment of Broadcasting House. I did the R5 interview, and was waiting in the green room for R4 when an emissary from the World Service waylaid me to get me to do an interview with them too. OK.

I don’t generally give out my mobile phone number, but I did supply it to the BBC in case of emergencies. They must have circulated it within the organization, because by now there were text messages asking me to do interviews for BBC local radio in (a) Belfast and (b) Wales. Nothing came of the first, but the second turned into a 45-minute phone-in.

That was the point at which I started turning down further invitations, though I did accept one further one, television rather than radio, for the BBC World News with Zeinab Badawi (which necessitated a second visit to the Television Centre). Fortunately Britain has plenty of other competent phoneticians. Michael Ashby wrote
I think I was the only phonetician in Britain who wasn't on one or other radio or TV channel this morning—in fact, I was asked to be, but had an Exam Board to chair.
Three of UCL’s first-year linguistics students were interviewed, proud to be treated as experts. Paul Kerswill told me
I was to have been the linguistics talking head on C4 news tonight, but Lancaster U's studio has broken down! All good stuff though. 'Impact'.
…which is true, and is what justifies all the hassle these things put us through. It heightens people’s awareness of phonetics, and helps (I hope) dispel some of the prejudice and ignorance surrounding popular views on pronunciation.

The BBC is notoriously mean over payment to contributors, while also being strangely lavish in the use of chauffeured cars. I explained to them that for me to get from my home to the Television Centre it was quicker to use the Underground than to struggle by car through the traffic on London’s roads, but they insisted. By Underground it takes me sixty minutes door-to-door, including the fifteen minutes’ walk to my local station. The chauffeured car took up to an hour and twenty-five minutes and for the four journeys must have cost the BBC something like thirty times the price of a one-day travelcard. I would rather have travelled on public transport and augmented my meagre fee by the sum they paid the taxi company. It would have been better for the environment, too. Ah well.


  1. Any idea when we Andalusians can see you being interviewed by Ms Badawi?

    PS. It's a shame that the only acceptable English TV channel that can be seen (via satellite) in Spain is the BBC World News. You (ie whoever is in charge of the matter) could at least think of all those British citizens marooned here, especially in the South!

  2. For the time being this should work — even in Andalucia.

    Go to

    View from 21.11/28.20

  3. Memories of
    ˈlɑs ˈtaɪm ðə ˈbi ˈbi ˈsi ˈsɛnt ə ˈkɑ tə kˈl̩ɛkt mi, ɪt ˈɔlməʊst ˈkæptʃəd ðə ˈrɒŋ ˈmæn.

  4. The taxi company is a regular vendor they want to keep happy. You are a one-off vendor. If they have a choice between paying you and paying the taxi company, they will certainly plump for the latter (been there, had that done to me).

  5. Anonymous

    Sorry to misspell your home region. I spotted it too late and didn't have time to re-post. The broadcast is still available four hours later. I hope you manage to see it before it's replaced.

  6. Many thanks David, and you wrote the name of the region as a lot of Spaniards (including Andalusians) do. In fact I think that, unless you are learning the language, the marking of stresses in current orthograhpy can become a real nuisance for normal people.

    Southern Anonymous

  7. ...orthogra-PH-y...

  8. I was interested to hear Zeinab Badawi's pronunciation of "pronunciation" seemed to have LOT rather than STRUT in the second syllable. Is this common or was she trying too hard to avoid MOUTH? Unlike "one", "frontier", etc the spelling has U, not O.

  9. I hope they at least didn't ask you about cows this time.

    Really nice to know that they talk to real experts (even first year students), rather than just airing - and I quote - "prescriptivist poppycock from mendacious old windbags".

  10. I think the cars are mostly about maximising the confidence that guests will arrive on time.

  11. "I think the cars are mostly about maximising the confidence that guests will arrive on time.

    By making people half an hour late?

  12. By making people half an hour late?
    Indeed, last year a car sent for me got me to the TV studio with only thirty seconds to spare. Some years ago, the car could not find the studio at all, and I missed half the programme.

  13. David: it wasn't possible to watch the program:
    "Sorry, this programme is not available to watch again" (al least from Madrid)

  14. Toño

    That's time, not geography. I looked again yesterday and got the same message.

  15. This is completely OT but I'm hearing an awful lot of people say "Halloween" with. LOT/THOUGHT/PALM rather than the expected TRAP vowel here in Northern California. Is this a well known pronunciation?

  16. vp: I give it in LPD as an alternative pronunciation, for AmE only. It's also given in most American dictionaries, e.g. Webster's Collegiate.

  17. For more on the word "Hallowe'en", you can read my blog at

  18. vp - I was under the impression that Americans nearly always have PALM (etc) rather than TRAP in "Halloween". I gather this almost entirely from watching TV.

  19. A little comedy for everyone.


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