Monday 27 December 2010

countless thousands

As soon as I watched the brief preview of the Queen’s Christmas speech on Sky News I noticed her pronunciation of the phrase countless thousands (blog, 8 December).

I was not the only one. Edward Aveyard writes
I noticed your recent post on whether the Queen really uses /ai/ for MOUTH or not. If you listen from 3:40 to the Christmas message, she says “countless thousands”. I hear in countless but in thousands. … It's almost as if she had been reading your blog and wanted to give you something to analyse.

On Christmas Day I tried to download the video of the speech from the BBC website, but without success: although you could watch it you couldn’t save it. I looked on YouTube, but it wasn’t there. Now, though, TheRoyalChannel has uploaded it to YouTube: thanks, Edward, for the link.

Listen here, at 03:45, for the phrase in question.

I agree with Edward’s judgment. Watch HM’s lips in each of the two MOUTH tokens.

Another interesting pronunciation is powerful, here at 03:17.

It appears to be fully smoothed and compressed, ˈpaːfl̩. This is how I often pronounce that word myself, though some people seem disinclined to believe me when I assert that this reduction is widespread in RP. In my analysis, the “smoothing” process removes the second element of a diphthong, in this case MOUTH, when before another vowel (aʊ ə → a ə — or, of course, it could equally well have been aɨ ə → a ə). Then the “compression” process reduces two syllables to one (a.ə → aə). Finally, the monophthongization process suppresses the second element of the resulting diphthong, with compensatory lengthening of the first element (aə → aː). Thus a possible ˈpaʊ əf l̩ is reduced to ˈpaːf l̩. All three processes are variable (optional) and rule-governed (systematic).

There was a Two Ronnies sketch about misunderstandings arising from PRICE-MOUTH confusion (ground misheard as grind, etc). Can anyone locate it on YouTube or elsewhere?


  1. That's not too different from a broad Lancashire pronunciation of MOUTH: it's more like /aY/ in Lancashire, distinct enough from PRICE to avoid confusion.

  2. @ Anonymous: You meant to put [aʏ] because you were describing the phonetic realization of a phoneme.

  3. The Two Ronnies sketch was called High Nigh and was written by the brilliant Ronnie Barker under his pen-name of Gerald Wiley. Can't find it on Youtube, alas, but you can see page one of the original script here, and buy the whole thing for a mere £499.

  4. It is interesting to hear her use sometimes an alveolar tap, e.g. in spirit (at 4:29) and very (at 6:33), but approximants in other words with /r/'s, e.g. in Christmas (at 6:33), or recovery (at 4:53), or inherited (at 0:45). Is there a pattern where she tends to use a tap rather than an approximant?

  5. I noticed it when it was broadcast on BBC1, but wondered if I had imagined it since I had read your blog on the subject. When I watched it on YouTube, I could confirm that she used different sounds in "countless" and "thousands". Even the Queen's speech is changeable.

    I think that some status-conscious people discourage smoothing because it seems too similar to working-class pronunciations, with monophthongs in MOUTH such as a: or æ:

    There are some non-RP people that seem to do the reverse. In South Yorkshire, you are much more likely to hear a monophthong a: in a simple MOUTH word than you are in power, shower, hour, etc.

  6. I think painter made a very interesting question. As a non-native speaker of English I would find it easier to use a tap whenever possible.

  7. Since you are Anonymous, you won't mind if I correct your English. You don't "make" a question in English, you "ask" it or "pose" it.

    My advice to foreign learners for /r/ is not to use a tapped r at all, even if the Queen sometimes does. Just as you would learn a uvular r for French, learn an approximant r for English. Likewise, British and American people must learn a tapped r for Spanish, Polish, Russian, Arabic, Japanese and many other languages. Otherwise you sound very foreign, which can detract attention from the content.

  8. @ John: I guess you're using "tapped r" to cover both alveolar taps and trills.

  9. @ John: Thanks! I was on the point of writting "posed" but somehow I let myself go even though "made a very interesting question" looked rather strange to me. I think vocabulary is the most difficult aspect of language learning, pronunciation being the easiest; I would put grammar in the middle.
    I apologize for being Anonymous -I know it's very impolite.

  10. ...but I'm writing (with just one "t") from my workplace, you know.

    Corrected Nervous Anonymous

  11. Andrej Bjelaković28 December 2010 at 20:20

    Am I the only one who thinks it's the other way round - the first MOUTH having less rounding than the second one?
    To my ear, the way she pronounces 'thousands' here is very similar to what can be heard at 0:40 in the Prince's Trust clip mentioned here and at phonetiblog some time ago:

  12. I wasn't sure whether to post this here or under the previous post on the mythical pronunciation of MOUTH using PRICE... but we have a good laugh in our family reading a book which was handed on to our kids. It's 'The Wind Blew', by Pat Hutchins, first published by Puffin in 1974 (tho' the Red Fox edition we have is dated 1994, interestingly). The first pages read:

    The wind blew.
    It took the umbrella from Mr White
    and quickly turned it inside out
    It snatched the balloon from little Priscilla
    and swept it up to join the umbrella
    And not content, it took a hat
    and still not satisfied with that...

    and so on. Note the unambiguous MOUTH-PRICE rhyme, and also that 'umbrella' presumably has KIT. It follows for us that 'hat' and 'that' have DRESS... Hours of fun for us parents, though our kids (5 and 2, growing up in West Yorkshire and at ease with the idea that we say 'bath' with TRAP while they don't) won't tolerate these 'weird' rhymes...

  13. Sorry, should be *they* say 'bath' with TRAP while we (soft Southerners) don't...

  14. The video you posted isn't working; it says it's private.

    (got it on the right post this time!)

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