Wednesday 3 November 2010

non-spelling pronunciation

The inconsistencies of English spelling and the indeterminacies of its relationship to pronunciation mean that in English we frequently get the phenomenon of spelling pronunciation.

Spelling is, with rather few exceptions, fixed, while pronunciation varies. (That is why a high proportion of words in a pronunciation dictionary have more than one pronunciation shown.)

A speaker who is familiar with the written form of a word but not with its spoken form may, on the basis of the spelling, infer a pronunciation different from the traditional or generally used one. This is spelling pronunciation. Well-known examples include often with a t-sound and clothes with -ðz. In the case of backwards the spelling pronunciation with w has entirely displaced the earlier ˈbækədz, ˈbækɚdz. In the case of falcon, formerly ˈfɔːkən, my own pronunciation ˈfɔːlkən and the newer ˈfælkən represent successive stages of spelling pronunciation, as first the letter l and then the letter a receive their usual ‘value’.

There is an extensive discussion, with many other examples, here.

I particularly relish the Italian spelling pronunciation of Colgate toothpaste as kolˈɡaːte.

There are two related phenomena. One is pronunciation spelling, in which a new spelling is applied, reflecting the pronunciation better than the traditional spelling does. Popularly this is sometimes called phonetic spelling. An example would be the proper name Leicester ˈlestə, ˈlestɚ respelt as Lester. Another is though respelt as tho. Jack Windsor Lewis uses nonce respellings such as he’rd for heard and dou’t for doubt. Spelling reform projects typically involve systematic application of the principle of writing as we speak.

The other related phenomenon has no generally agreed name, but we could perhaps call it ’non-spelling pronunciation’. This is the adoption of a new pronunciation that does not match the traditional spelling. An example is the mɪsˈtʃiːviəs variant of mischievous that we discussed last week and that so upset the Daily Telegraph’s feature writer. Another is the widespread pronunciation of Westminster with -ˈmɪnɪstə instead of -ˈmɪnstə. Non-spelling pronunciation does particularly upset purists, and even from me tends to receive a warning triangle in LPD.

I suppose that if such pronunciations become established they are likely to lead to correspondingly changed spellings, thus mischievious and Westminister.

Non-spelling pronunciation followed by respelling is readily seen in the case of the word pronunciation, traditionally prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃn̩. Morphological regularization, ɡiven the base form pronounce prəˈnaʊns, produces prəˌnaʊnsiˈeɪʃn̩, which in turn gives rise to the unorthodox spelling pronounciation.

I have frequently had on-air conversations with radio presenters asking me about “pronounciation”, and I must confess that in reply I tend to pronounce pronunciation with extra clarity and care.


  1. I've never heard westˈmɪnɪstə, but I'll be listening out for it now.

    Slightly OT - there is a sort of spelling pronunciation that can trip us up when we study foreign languages with English loanwords. I've heard students say teˈni for "tennis" in French, and ɪˈmaːɡə for "Image" in German, and I'm sure I've made similar mistakes myself.

  2. I pronounce often as ˈɒftən, but I didn't realize it was a spelling pronunciation until recently. I've never heard kolˈɡaːte, which makes sense because I don't talk to Italians too ˈɒftən. The topic of toothpaste never came up when I did talk with Italians in the past.

  3. Older Spanish cinema-goers used to pronounce the surnames of American actors like Danny Kaye, Bob Hope or Jack Palance as /ˈkadƷe, ˈɔpe, paˈlanƟe/ and Tyronne Power was /tiˈrɔne ˈpɔber/ (Sorry for my shoddy phonetic "fonts"). And of course Colgate is also /kolˈɡate/ nowadays.

  4. Isn't /kɔlˈɡaːtə/ the usual form in Germany, too? My favourite is Sensodyne, which gets indigenised pronunciations all over the world, from /zɛnzoˈdyːnə/ in German to /sɛnsɔˈdɨnɛ/ in Polish to /sẽĩsu'dʒini/ in Brazil (excuse my Braz-Port transcription).

  5. What's your verdict on the apparent increase among younger people of "should of" as a spelling of the contracted "should've" form of "should have"?

    It looks to me like an example of pronunciation spelling, where the nearest similar sounding word is inserted instead of the contracted 've form. Does this fir with what you say above?

  6. *fit, sorry.
    (There should be another category too, for random keyboard spelling.)

  7. "Should of" is more a grammatical reanalysis than a pronunciation spelling. It also appears in speech, where the contraction /ˈʃʊdəv/ is expanded to /ˈʃʊd ˌɒv/ instead of the expected /ˈʃʊd ˌhæv/, so it's not a purely orthographic effect.

    On a loosely related note, I once overheard some Italians on an aircraft landing in London pronouncnig "one2one" (in those texts you get when you use your phone abroad) as /ˈoːne ˈdue ˈoːne/ (instead of /ˈwʌn tə ˈwʌn/).

  8. @Pete I can understand the grammatical reanalysis you mention, but (as I'm rubbish at phonological stuff) I don't follow the pronunciation point. Isn't /ˈʃʊd ˌɒv/ and example of something like h-dropping from the original /ˈʃʊd ˌhæv/ rather than an expansion?

  9. @Dan: No, because these people don't otherwise pronounce have as ɒv, e.g. 'You can't ɒv your cake and eat it'.

  10. @Steve thanks, yes, I see what you mean

  11. Interesting about kləʊz for clothes. I hadn't realized it was once the 'correct' pronunciation; long before the time of OED1 though, which gives only klōᵘ·ðz in its headword pronunciation (though discussing ð-less pronunciations in its etymological note). Strange that they give a tonic stress mark on a monosyllabic word!

  12. What category would we put 'Xmas' in? Don't tell me I'm the only one who could happily write 'an Xmas card', betraying how I hear the word in my head when read it. But growing up in an ungodly era, how was I to know that 'X' stands for 'Christ'? And if I had known that, I might have ended up imagining it with the PRICE vowel. And what about pronunciation of i.e. and e.g.? Maybe I shouldn't be confessing to these things. Got to keep our pronunciation pure and uninfluenced by spelling.

    A spelling pronunciation that I don't usually see in such lists is 'bade' and 'forbade' with the FACE vowel. I hardly ever hear it with TRAP these days. Oh, and what about 'inherent' with DRESS, not NEAR? Is that a pure spelling pronunciation? The spelling is a bit ambiguous, after all.

  13. I frequently type "pronounciation" and have to go back and fix it, but not because I ever say it with the MOUTH vowel. It's just that my typing habits lead me to follow "pron" with "ounc" instead of "unc", probably because I type "pronounce(d)" more often than "pronunciation". Similarly, I often leave out the second "n" when typing, but that is not evidence that I omit it in speech.

    I do say /fɔːkən/ with no /l/ at all, perhaps influenced by the name Faulkner /fɔːknɚ/(originally written Falkner by the author, but accidentally changed by his first publisher), which is indeed historically < falconer /fɔːkənɚ/.

  14. Oh, I love this discussion. It makes me think of my (Chinese) Auntie Helen, who figured the Osage House hotel at Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks, named after an AmerInd tribe, was "O-Sah-Gay," as if it were Japanese.

    And my (Chinese) Uncle Kenneth, who would say "C-A-R, car. R-O-T, rot. C-A-R-R-O-T, CAH-rot."

    Both, by the way, were fluently bilingual Hong Kongers - when it was still a BCC and not an SAR - and liked to play with words. And Uncle Kenneth, being Shanghainese by heritage, spoke that dialect as well.

  15. "I have frequently had on-air conversations with radio presenters asking me about “pronounciation”, and I must confess that in reply I tend to pronounce pronunciation with extra clarity and care."
    You're a better man than I. I'd take care to pronounce pronounciation with extra care.

  16. I find this very interesting. I remember first learning about Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List and then being amazed that his name is pronounced "rafe." In the US, a lot of spellings follow more pronunciation conventions. Instead of Jonesborough, Arkansas, for instance, it's Jonesboro. Then there's analyze, color, and favor, along with many other more phonetic spellings.

  17. As a Washington, DC resident, I hear the word "judiciary" (as in our metro station Judiciary Square) on a regular basis; a vast majority of the time our train operators say /ʤudɪʃuɛri/. Like "shoe." And yes, it drives me bonkers.

    If they don't say that, they invariably say /ʤudɪʃiɛri/ which doesn't bother me though I'd say /ʤudɪʃəri/ personally.

    (...And as a complete amateur in the field I hope I haven't made any embarrassing mistakes in the IPA! If I have, thanks for bearing with me.)

  18. My Chinese friends used to talk about a strange clothing brand: San-sprit. Turns out they were talking about Esprit, but since Esprit writes the "e" withouth a line on the left, it looks just like the Chinese character for "three," which is pronounced "san".

  19. Anonymous said...

    'In the US, a lot of spellings follow more pronunciation conventions. Instead of Jonesborough, Arkansas, for instance, it's Jonesboro.'

    It's still Arkansas though!

  20. Ingenioso hidalgo4 November 2010 at 00:22

    In the fifties, in Italy, there was a television commercial where a choir sang (more or less): "[kol'ga:te] si scrive, ['kɔlgeit] si legge, i denti protegge..." ("It's spelt 'Colgate', it's pronounced ['kɔlgeit], it protects your teeth...")

    These days, nearly everybody says [kol'ga:te].

  21. John Cowan: "I do say /fɔːkən/ with no /l/ at all..."
    Really? I've never heard it that way from an American. If I heard one of my friends pronouncing it that way I would have to make fun of him. Of course I wouldn't do that to you though.

  22. Sili: Thanks for your honesty. That's my natural way of pronouncing the word. I'm a NS though and I don't think you are if I remember correctly.

  23. Sili: Thanks for your honesty. That's my natural way of pronouncing the word. I'm a NS though and I don't think you are if I remember correctly.

    You're correct, I'm not. But I'm very contrarian, and if people were to be pendantic and moan about the fall of Proper English as she is spoken, I'd be sure to ham it up and use as much nonstard grammar and pronunciation as possible.

    For instance I'm more likely to use "woulda", "shoulda", "coulda" in response to a prescriptivist rant.


    My most consistent spelling pronunciation has been "salmon" with an ell. Same problem as with "falcon" I s'pose.

  24. Phil: All my /l/s in English, in whatever position, are very very dark and not at all labialized. When I order milk in a restaurant, if I say the word in isolation it's common that I'm not understood or even heard. So with a back vowel preceding and a velar or even postvelar stop following, the /l/ of falcon just disappears.

  25. I learned to read at a very young age, and as a result, I've spent a lot of my life unlearning spelling pronunciation.

    I did learn "mischievious" at home. I noticed the spelling discrepancy early and corrected my pronunciation after spending some time with the Random House unabridged.

  26. David Marjanović5 December 2010 at 16:12

    Isn't /kɔlˈɡaːtə/ the usual form in Germany, too?

    No. The C marks it as way too foreign. :-)

  27. Really? I thought commercials and the general public have /kɔlˈɡaːtə/ in Germany.

  28. Spelling pronunciation taken to extremes, or What Happens When You Lie To Children About Speech-Sounds:

    Something for your Phonetics Blog: sad examples of What Happens When You Lie To Children About Speech-Sounds ...



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