Monday 8 November 2010

David Attenborough

The only well-known public figures with whom I have a personal family connection are the Attenborough brothers, the actor Richard (Lord Attenborough) and the naturalist and television presenter Sir David. Their late aunt, née Clegg, was married to my late uncle Gilbert. So both they and I called her Aunt Margaret.

I have just been watching the first part of David Attenborough’s new television series, First Life. Brilliant, like all his work. (And what an example to us all, still to be so productive at over 80 years of age!)

As you might expect, Sir David speaks RP. (If you didn’t already know, you surely wouldn’t be able to place him as coming from the east Midlands.) He also has an excellent clarity of diction. I find him a real pleasure to listen to. Given this, here are some notes on his pronunciation that I jotted down as I viewed the programme.

fungi ˈfʌŋɡaɪ
glacier ˈɡlæsiə
paleontologist ˌpæliənˈtɒlədʒɪst (not -ɒn-)
stromatolite strəˈmætəlaɪt
kilometre ˈkɪləˌmiːtə
believes bəˈliːvz (not bi-)
virtually ˈvɜːtʃəli (not -tʃuə-)
sexually ˈseksjuəli
manufacture ˌmænəˈfæktʃə (not -nju-)
circulatory ˌsɜːkjəˈleɪtəri
possible ˈpɒsɪbl̩ (not -səb-)
Newfoundland ˈnjuːfəndlənd, ˌnjuːfəndˈlænd (inconsistently)
Ediacara ˌiːdiˈækrə (not -kərə)

Plus one very unusual pronunciation: unless my ears deceived me, he pronounced for the first time as fɒ ðə ˈfɜːst ˈtaɪm. I know that in for it, for us we sometimes get fɒr (see LPD), but I hadn’t previously registered the possibility of rather than fɔː, fə in for the.


  1. John Wells said:

    fungi ˈfʌŋɡaɪ

    Yes, now that the traditional pronunciation of Latin is less familiar, the idea of using a different consonant in the plural doesn't occur to most people, so the traditional ˈfʌndʒaɪ is falling out of use. Interesting, though, that Italian has always preserved the hard g: fungo ˈfuŋɡo makes funghi ˈfuŋgi in the plural.

  2. That pronunciation of 'fungi' with a hard G (which I suppose comes from analogy with the uncontroversial singular 'fungus' /ˈfʌŋɡəs/) is vitrually the only one I've heard from my biologist friends.

    I've always said /ˈfʌndʒaɪ/ but I know I'm in a minority.

  3. Also, /ˈseksjuəli/ (along with similar words like 'issue' /ˈɪsjuː/) is a classic marker of URP (i.e. a posh accent).

  4. Posh yes, but only some forms of URP.

  5. John Wells said...

    > I know that in for it, for us we
    > sometimes get fɒr (see LPD),
    > but I hadn’t previously registered the
    > possibility of rather than
    > fɔː, in for the.

    OED1 had (fǭɹ, fǫɹ, fəɹ), which could be interpreted as allowing this possibility.

  6. >John Wells said...
    believes bəˈliːvz (not bi-)

    I'm a bit surprised by your bi-: for me, believes is like Bill Eaves, so I'd have expected bɪ-.

  7. Steve Doerr: in bi- (LPD notation) the i symbol represents the weak vowel that varies phonetically over the area [i ~ ɪ]. So there is no call for you to be surprised.

  8. I can't watch the series from overseas, but I can watch and download the trailer. At the very beginning of that, Sir David says: "It's possible to bring those first animals to life for the first time in half a billion years."
    Here he clearly pronounces for as /fə/.

  9. Ah, right. I've only just bought the 2008 edition to replace my trusty old 1990 edition, and I'm not up to speed on the notation yet.

  10. John Wells said...
    > stromatolite strəˈmætəlaɪt

    Which accords with LPD: strəʊ ˈmæt ə laɪt. But disagrees with the OED: ˈstrəʊmətəʊlaɪt.


  11. John Wells said...

    Steve Doerr: in bi- (LPD notation) the i symbol represents the weak vowel that varies phonetically over the area [i ~ ɪ]. So there is no call for you to be surprised.

    The symbol i is illustrated in LPD3 by the three words happy, glorious, and radiation. This much accords with CEPD and in LPD1. However, both of those have bɪ- in believe (and rɪ- in remember). Meanwhile, seduction has sɪ- even in LPD3.

  12. Steve Doerr said…

    …the traditional ˈfʌndʒaɪ is falling out of use. Interesting, though, that Italian has always preserved the hard g: fungo ˈfuŋɡo makes funghi ˈfuŋgi in the plural.

    That very analogy is what has only comparatively recently reconciled me to the traditional ˈfʌndʒaɪ falling out of use. And the Italians went to the lengths of respelling the plural (which of course we have no way of doing) for those words in which g and c spellings keep the [ɡ] and [k] of their stems in the plural, as opposed to those which replace them with [dʒ] and [tʃ] (which of course we unfortunate non-NSs have no way of predicting the vagaries of).

    If they can do it, I belatedly reasoned, so can we. But of course the rot has set in all over, with 'longevity' etc long since compromised and 'longitude' decomposed.

  13. @John Wells:

    You are indicating the happY vowel in the first syllable of "believe". However, I would expect the rabbIt vowel there. I believe that this may have been what Steve Doerr was talking about. In my speech they are distinguished, with happY being qualitatively like FLEECE and rabbIt being qualitatively like KIT.

  14. For the first syllable of believe, please read my blog entry for 29 Jan 2007, where I explain my reasons for changing the LPD notation for this and similar prefixes.

    Perhaps I'd better devote another posting to this issue.

  15. Most of the time in british TV, BBC shows etc. I hear *for* as /fɜˑ/.
    Not very often /fɔː/I feel it's not very natural (probably it's just me).
    Sometimes /fə/ but I feel the only thing i hear and feels natural is /fɜˑ/...
    what do you think about this?

  16. John Wells said...

    Steve Doerr: in bi- (LPD notation) the i symbol represents the weak vowel that varies phonetically over the area [i ~ ɪ]. So there is no call for you to be surprised.

    I note you only mention bi-. I supposed this was for the prefix be- which is pretty consistently treated this way in LPD, and that similar prefixes would have been so treated, and you have confirmed this with the link to your archived blog entry.

    In the meantime I had been checking it out, and I think there must have been blips in the notation change for the prefix, for example:
    beholden bɪ ˈhəʊld ən
    belabouring bɪ ˈleɪb ər‿ɪŋ

    and for the non-prefix:
    beneficence bə ˈnef ɪs ənts bɪ-, -əs- not being treated the same as
    benevolence bə ˈnev əl‿ənts bi-

    And is there any rationale for
    Belize bi ˈliːz bə-, be- not being treated the same as
    Belizean bɪ ˈliːz i‿ən bə-, be-, -ˈlɪz-?

    When it came to de-, I duly bore in mind that there are both fossilized and productive cases and a lot of allosemy to contend with. Moreover although I usually resolutely cleave to ɪ in these prefixes where it comes naturally – not for example in 'deflower' etc. (v.inf.), at any rate for me – I have adopted the spelling pronunciation diːˈfjuːz myself, as a token gesture against the increasingly universal confusion with dɪˈfjuːz, which quixotic affectation you refer to in LPD.

    It looks as if words which are perhaps not fully naturalized may be treated differently:
    debrid|e di ˈbriːd də-, deɪ- not being treated the same as
    debridement, débridement dɪ ˈbriːd mənt də-, (ˌ)diː-, deɪ-, •ˌ•ˈmɒ̃

    (Though I have only ever heard surgeons say diˈbraɪd or dɪˈbraɪd, which you don't recognize.)

    And there are some other inconsistencies:
    declare di ˈkleə də- ǁ dɪ ˈkleər -ˈklæər
    de|flate ˌdiː |ˈfleɪt dɪ-, də- etc

    Most astonishingly:
    deflower ˌdiː ˈflaʊ‿ə dɪ-, də- ǁ -ˈflaʊ‿ər
    deforest ˌdiː ˈfɒr ɪst dɪ-, də-, -əst ǁ -ˈfɔːr- -ˈfɑːr-
    defrost ˌdiː ˈfrɒst dɪ-, də-, -ˈfrɔːst ǁ -ˈfrɔːst -ˈfrɑːst-

  17. /fɒ/ is a regional (perhaps dialectal?) pronunciation for north-central England. Perhaps he's not so RP.

    See, for example, page 165 here The example for "pawse" is saying "I'll kick your arse for you".

    What would betray an East Midlands accent? I can't think of much that's distinctive about that area. I recall hearing a lot of yod-dropping on a visit to Peterborough, but that may count as East Anglia rather than East Midlands.

  18. mallamb, never mind these minor inconsistencies in a large work.

    I was astonished to see that for words such as efficiency or entire, the OED online has nothing but [e] for the first vowel, while Macmillan online has nothing but [ɪ], both as British and American. (LPD has both, if I remember correctly, and more.)

  19. @John Wells:

    I _think_ I understand what you are saying, but I still disagree (along with Steve Doerr).

    happY and rabb-I-t are distinguished in my speech (and both are distinguished from schwa). I have my rabb-I-t vowel, not my happY vowel, in the first syllable of "be-lieve". My understanding is that, in the LPD system, i represents the happY vowel, and ɪ represents the rabb-I-t vowel as well as the KIT vowel. So I agree with the LPD1 representation of "believe" as bɪ-

    It would only make sense to use bi- for "believe" if there are people who both
    * distinguish happY from rabb-I-t, and
    * use their happY vowel, not their rabb-I-t vowel, in the first syllable of "be-lieve".

    Are there many such people?

  20. I find this use of i in "believe" etc. quite counterintuitive, although I guess it does match my own pronunciation, as LPD i before a consonant consistently comes out as [ɪ].

    @Ed: the TRAP-BATH split, which Attenborough does have but Leicester accents don't. I get the impression from old recordings that he used to have a much more "1950s RP" accent, with a raised TRAP, for example.

    I also have the impression that someone from Leicester with his sort of background in my generation would be less likely to speak RP (unless the TRAP-BATH split isn't regarded as an RP shibboleth).

  21. Having more to say on this blog and some of its comments than I wisht to say here, I sed it in my Blog 312 qv.

  22. Lipman,
    But are they inconsistencies? There are on the whole so few in what is as you say a monumental work. I have been trying to descry any principles at work here. Steve's 'seduction' is clearly not an inconsistency, as it doesn't include an active prefix.

    I had established that it treats variants of the prefix dis- in the same way as 'diffuse', even giving dɪˈl(j)uːt as a variant for 'dilute', and expected to find that it treats your example 'efficiency' similarly, but since you apparently don't have it to hand, it has:
    efficienc|y ə ˈfɪʃ ənᵗs |i i- with eˈf- in the sound file, and
    effect əˈfekt i-, the first variant being identical with 'affect', and no ɪ- variant.

    Of the first, which is the usual treatment in LPD, like iˈfeɪs and iˈfiːt, I would not really see the point in allowing for people saying iːˈfeɪs and iːˈfiːt, and would agree with vp in asking "Are there many such people?" I think there are quite a few who do say iˈfekt though, to emphasize the distinction with 'affect'.

    For your other example 'entire', it has:
    entire ɪn ˈtaɪ‿ə en-, ən-, §ˌen-, §ˌɪn- ǁ -ˈtaɪ‿ᵊr

    I think we do need to ask John what's going on here.

  23. JWL,

    /bɪn/ for been is conservative?

  24. @Lipman:

    Dobson ("English Pronunciation 1500-1700", vol. ii p. 451, translating the phonetic notation) says:

    "Been p.p.: the orthoepists are almost unanimous in recording the week form /bɪn/".

    (In context, it is clear that this means that they recorded the weak /bɪn/ as opposed to any strong form /*bi:n/).

    I have always assumed that the majority BrE form /bi:n/ is a spelling pronunciation and that the AmE form /bɪn/ is more conservative.

  25. @ JHJ: Yes, you are right on that. That's a very small thing to differ from RP on though, given that /a/ in BATH can indicate anywhere from Bristol to Orkney. Is there any shibboleth for the East Midlands? (I don't recall one from JW's "Accents of English")

  26. I absolutely LOVE listening to Sir David!

  27. In the three specimen words (happy, glorious, radiation), the vowel we are concerned with is in a 'special' phonetic environment: not only is the syllable open, but there is no immediately following consonant within the same word. (In two cases there is hiatus, in the other the vowel is word-final.) These are all cases where I, at least, would not quibble with the idea that the predominant quality of the vowel in modern standard English (i.e. the slightly less narrow variety than that associated with Daniel Jones's 'RP') is that of the long vowel . Thus, I would assume this i symbol to represent that specific vowel quality in a short vowel. In the absence of further explanation, I would not deduce that the symbol meant 'ɪ or i or anything in between'. I feel that, in believes, the vowel is predominantly ɪ, with i representing a relatively rare variant. Hence my surprise at bi-. Seduction was maybe not the best choice of word for a counter-example. Perhaps rather contrast the treatment of the words despair (dɪ ˈspeə) and destroy (di ˈstrɔɪ).

  28. vp's reply to Lipman's querying of my reference to /bɪn/ for been as being 'conservative' in my blog 312 article
    ans'erd him perfectly. I cou'd add that 18th-century orthoepists and beyond seem to've had the same opinion at least judging from Walker 1791. By the late 19th & 20th centuries we see Murray in OED1 in 1887 and Jones in 1917 have arrived at the present British preference for /biːn/.
    It's my hunch too that spelling influence caused this change so completely avoided in the USA.

  29. Sorry about the failed x-ref to my Blog312 Blog312

  30. Steve,

    >> the Italians went to the lengths
    >> of respelling the plural (which
    >> of course we have no way of doing)

    We do. The silent 'u' is English's way of showing a hard 'g' before 'i', 'e' or 'y'. It's used in words like 'guy', 'guide', 'guess', 'guest', 'Hague', 'vague', 'league' and the more recently-coined 'pogue'.

    So we'd have 'fungus' and 'fungui'. Doesn't look very nice, and it breaks with the Latin spelling so I'm not sure I like it

  31. Thanks. Quite exceptional, a spelling pronunciation of such a common word, starting so early, and in England rather than in America, though the very commonness makes it easier to understand why it stayed as it was there.

    Maybe it's not a plain spelling pronunciation, but a former functional distinction, and only one variant prevailed in a given accent or idiolect.

    Are there accents that distinguish biːn and bɪn functionally, eg depending on whether it's stressed or not, or whether it's a main verb or an auxiliary?

  32. Pete,
    That was a comment of mine addressed to Steve, so I will answer your point.

    You suggest 'fungus' and 'fungui', and say it doesn't look very nice, and breaks with the Latin spelling so you're not sure you like it.

    What's not to like? It would produce more hilarious pronunciations like fʌŋgwaɪ and fʌŋɡjuaɪ, but it would probably also revive the moribund ˈfʌndʒaɪ! Here is the LPD evidence for this:
    unguent ˈʌŋ ɡwənt ˈʌŋ ɡju‿ənt, !!ˈʌndʒ ənt.

    People might well attempt to justify fʌŋgwaɪ and fʌŋɡjuaɪ on the basis of confused memories of the dative singular of the Latin fourth declension, which they might succeed in convincing the punters was another fancy plural like 'octopodes', set to trap the unwary.

    My point was that we have no such conventional way of respelling the plural in cases like this, or indeed any other cases. You might say we have a random assortment of semi-fixed conventions for some of them, but this isn't one such.

    Moreover we have no reliable way of spelling or respelling the pronunciation of anything. Italian gh can only be [g], but I haven't even begun to exhaust the possibilities for gu in English, even if we restrict them to its use before e, i, and y.

  33. Lipman,

    Are there accents that distinguish biːn and bɪn functionall...?

    RP is one, for a start, if you ask me. LPD doesn't assert this, simply saying "Some British English speakers have biːn as strong form, bɪn as weak form," and doesn't have any preference poll results for it by age or anything, though it does give results for the strong form alone in BrE.

    (I take "accents that distinguish biːn and bɪn" to mean accents in which there is a potential distinction, or in which a significant number of people distinguish. I have been aware of doing so myself for as long as I can remember being aware of such things.

  34. Steve,
    I feel that, in believes, the vowel is predominantly ɪ, with i representing a relatively rare variant. Hence my surprise at bi-. Seduction was maybe not the best choice of word for a counter-example. Perhaps rather contrast the treatment of the words despair (dɪ ˈspeə) and destroy (di ˈstrɔɪ).

    I feel the same, but in that context I thought for a moment you meant you agreed with the difference in treatment, but you do agree it's a bit hard to imagine it's intentional, as with a lot of the examples I had given earlier?

  35. So I'm not the only one who pronounces "kilometre" that way? I'm relieved. For some reason I can't get myself to say /kɪˈlɒmɪtə/, despite almost all the people I talk to using that pronunciation, and despite the only possibility in my native language being /kiˈlɔmetro/.

  36. I'm reminded of the scene in episode two of "The Human Face" (documentary presented by John Cleese, on which David Attenborough makes some appearances), where Attenborough explains how sight is more important than smell for an animal that walks on two legs and illustrates by bending down to sniff the ground and saying, "That was Auntie Margaret."


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