Friday 10 December 2010


The second sleep-inhibiting pronunciation (yesterday’s blog) turned out not to be as odd as I at first assumed.

The shipping forecast, with its hypnotic litany warning of gales in Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight… — the Norwegians spell the name of their island Utsira, which is also what you will find in LPD, rather than Utsire — was well under way when the announcer started forecasting ˈwɪntəri showers. Hold on a minute, ˈwɪntəri? Surely this word is spelt wintry, so you would no more pronounce it ˈwɪntəri than you would pronounce angry as ˈæŋɡəri? We say ˈwɪntri, don’t we?

The point at issue is the treatment of fossilized, lexicalized cases of compression. Recall that among the candidates for compression (= loss of a syllable) are those sequences where ə is followed by r or l plus a weak vowel. The schwa can be lost (arguably via an intermediate stage involving a syllabic consonant, but we can ignore that here), reducing by one the number of syllables in the word.

So, for example, we have the option of saying ˈdʒenrəl rather than ˈdʒenərəl general, or ˈpræktɪkli rather than ˈpræktɪkəli practically.

The compression rule is, however, very variable in its application.
  • Americans don’t apply it as much as Brits do: so, for example, federal seems usually to be ˈfedərəl in AmE but ˈfedrəl in BrE.
  • In many words it is variable. You can say history as ˈhɪstəri or as ˈhɪstri, or at least I can.
  • Some words that meet its structural description nevertheless resist it. So cookery remains ˈkʊkəri in isolation (though you might get ˈkʊkri in BrE cookery book).
  • Some words undergo compression always, or nearly always. We say ˈevri every not ?*ˈevəri. Do you ever pronounce separately as four syllables? I don’t think I do. What about basically?
  • There are some words in which compression is so well established that it is shown in spelling. In pronunciation it is obligatory. A case in point is angry, mentioned above, which morphologically and historically is obviously anger plus -y. Another is remembrance, clearly remember plus -ance, but pronounced as three syllables not four. Yet another is simply, the disyllabic output of disyllabic simple plus -ly.
My half-asleep assumption was that wintry is like angry and simply, i.e. involving a lexicalized, and therefore categorical, compression. If so, pronouncing it as three syllables would be as inappropriate as saying -ˈmembərəns instead of -ˈmembrəns in remembrance. You might hear the uncompressed version from the uneducated, but surely not from a radio announcer. The principle involved would seem to be that if a compression is shown in the spelling it is obligatory; if not, not.

It turns out, though, that dictionaries reckon I’m wrong. The Concise Oxford and LDOCE both show wintry with the alternative spelling wintery, with the possibility of a trisyllabic pronunciation. So that’s alright (or all right), then.

For what it’s worth, the OED has the spelling wintry from Spencer (1590) onwards, but wintery only from the nineteenth century.


  1. In the case of adverbs in -ically, the dropped syllable -al- is often not part of the original adjective, which is why it’s never pronounced. For example basically is from basic; romantically from romantic.

    So I think in these cases the dropped syllable was never there; it’s just a spelling convention. The rule is that the adverbial suffix -ly is spelt -ally when applied to an adjective ending in -ic. The only exception I can think of is publicly.

  2. Sorry - I should have said, in the case of some adverbs in -ically! Obviously there are lots of adjectives that end -ical (and even in these cases the -al- seems to be compulsorily dropped).

  3. "You might hear the uncompressed version from the uneducated, but surely not from a radio announcer." Is this tantamount to saying that that particular pronunciation is only obligatory in one particular dialect of English?

  4. John, you, too, acknowledge "wintery" /ˈwɪntəri/ in your LPD3 (p.903).

    As far as /rəˈmembərəns/ is concerned, I'm sure I've heard the BBC weather forecaster Peter Cockroft use this pronunciation on a number of occasions. (I noticed that about a month ago too, when he was talking about "Remembrance Sunday"/ "Remembrance Day".)

  5. From an AmE perspective, BrE-speakers over-compress their words. Compressed history sounds very odd to me, and so does cookery; of course, we don't have cookery book, using cookbook instead. There's a theory that AmE under-compressions are not survivals but the result of ten-dollar words (as we call them) crossing the Atlantic in written form only, and then being given spelling pronunciations when they landed here.

    Similar remarks can be made about words that lack vowel reductions in AmE: a well-known example is necessary, which has four full syllables in AmE without much, if any, reduction in the third. We do know that throughout the 19th century, American spelling books and dictionaries emphasized the importance of clear articulation amounting to over-articulation, and school children practiced such words thus: "n, e, c, ness, e, s, s, ess, a, a, r, y, ry". This probably had a lot to do with the need to assimilate a lot of non-native speakers.

    Pete: Though publically is much rarer than publicly (about 1 out of 60 Google hits employ it), both AmE and BrE dictionaries recognize it as a standard spelling variant.

  6. An interesting case is "cent(e)ring", a word beloved of phoneticians.

    LPD1 gives a trisyllabic pronunciation for both AmE and BrE, but an optional derived disallybic form for BrE, /sentr ɪŋ/. How would the disyllabic form be realized? Would it have the possible affrication that usually attends a /tr/ cluster?

  7. @John Cowan:

    Why is any special explanation needed for the AmE lack of compression and preserved secondary stress in words like "secretary"? AmE is simply preserving the historical form here. I see no reason to suspect that 19th-century instruction manuals have anything to do with it.

  8. tr affrication - I think it does, in fact.

  9. I'm not sure it's true to say remembrance is 'clearly remember plus -ance'. The word comes to us from (Norman) French, and the OED considers it to be the stem of a French verb remembrer plus the French ending -ance.

  10. @ John Cowan: I have an old Collins dictionary that only gives a transcription of "necessary" with three syllables. Maybe things have changed over time, but the version with four syllables is widespread now.

    Words like this cause all sorts of problems in charades.

  11. I've always said and spelt it 'wintery'.
    Sod the dictionaries: 'wintery' is more warming and soothing a word than the tinny and unpleasantly iconic 'wintry'

  12. There have been complaints that Wiktionary is UK-centric because its logo gives a trisyllabic pronunciation [ˈwɪkʃənrɪ] of its own name. (To be fair, that also has lax happY.)

    Although in fact, Wiktionary has no entry for "Wiktionary".

  13. @ mollymooly: I think having a "lax happY" makes it even more UK-centric. You rarely if ever hear that in North America.

  14. As an American myself, I have no perception that the compressed pronunciations are less common here. I apply compression in "federal" and in most (but not all) similar Latinate words - "general", "confederacy", "memorable", even "admiral" with a rare syllable-initial [mr].

  15. I've been listening out to how I pronounce these words over the past few hours, and I've noticed that there might be an alternation between when these word are uttered alone compared to when they are used as a modifier.

    This alternation might explain "wɪntəri showers".
    So far I've noticesd "day of remembrance" versus "rememberance service", and I found myself re-reading the phase "legendary Essential Mix", with the schwa anunciated (in my head).

  16. @ Lazar: Really? I never compress any of those words. They sound very English (the country) to me when compressed.

  17. @Phil: Yes, sorry: I did not mean to say that Wiktionary was being fair by balancing one UK-centric feature with one US-centric one; "to be fair" was me being fair to the critics by mentioning a second UK-centric feature.

  18. @ mollymooly: That's fine. This is the wrong topic though, but I'm nitpicking.

  19. Terry Pratchett in Monstrous Regiment uses the spelling milit'ry to suggest *demotic speech. When the officers say it, the spelling is military.
    * NOT as I previously posted 'demonic'!

  20. Bettany was on TV tonight, a repeat of her Helen of Troy programme. Mycenae was ˌmai'si:ni:. Cranae, where Helen and Paris consumed their affair was 'kræˌnai.

    As to the question by anonymous, it seems that Bettany is from West London, so there's nothing regional in her accent. I have a friend from a similar background with a similar accent. I think it's the result of a youthful decision to sound middle class but not posh. Both went to Oxford, where RP was associated with a public school background. So some middle class speakers form grammar schools chose not to copy that style of RP. Today, I suppose, the choice would be mild Estuary.

  21. @David Crosbie:

    So "regional" = "not from London"?

    That's an interesting perspective :)

  22. Is the Mycenae/Cranae comment in the wrong thread?

  23. vp

    In Britain we are all familiar with a range of London accents, whereas few of us would recognise every local feature from every other UK accent. (OK, John no doubt could, and a handful of other specialists.) Bettany's accent has a number of features that many would consider not RP and yet are not recognisably Londonisms.

    Steve Doerr

    John actually raised the question as to how Bettany might pronounce Mycenae. This is a well known place, often spoken of by non-clacissists, so it's no great test. But Cranae is about as obscure as Potidaea. John (and I) would say 'kræˌni:

  24. Steve Doerr

    Ah, now I see! Yes, it should be in the previous thread called Potidaea.

  25. Hello David
    I'd be interested to hear which features of Bettany's speech you think many would consider not RP?

  26. @David Crosbie:

    I'm still confused. Are you saying that it is impossible for someone from West London to have regional features in her accent? If that were true then it would never be possible to identify a person as a Londoner from her accent, which seems ridiculous.

  27. vp

    I had previously concluded that Bethany'c accent had some subtle regional features that I was too ignorant to recognise. But because we meet so many people from London and because they are so hugely represented in radio and other sound media, we tend to have a sense of what speakers of the region around London sound like. I just feel I can't detect any London-type features. I could be entirely wrong.

    Middle class speakers who don't identify with the public school version of RP do tend in the process of 'de-poshing' to take on features of their local region. As far as I can tell, that's what happened to my own accent. In that Bethany's accent — and the similar accent of one of my London friends — differ from 'posh' RP, it's not a matter of drift towards any London accent of which I'm aware.

    I've never read any account of de-poshed RP that didn't involve a shift (not large) in the direction of a local working class accent. (Harold Wilson was the first high-profile example to be widely discussed.) Perhaps I've not been reading the right works.

    I must own to a personal interest. My accent is probably best explained as de-poshed RP. I rely on other people's ears to tell me that the non-posh features are from Nottingham where I was a boy. They may not be right.

    I don't believe that RP is always or exclusively a purely social accent. Many RP speakers don't sound as if they attended public schools. But some do, and in an environment such as Oxford some years ago (I don't know about now) they could appear to be a majority.

    Please don't take me to mean that people 'de-posh' out of hostility to public school speakers. Maybe some do, but what I have in mind are speakers who decide I'm not going to pretend to be one of them. I wouldn't feel comfortable.

  28. @ David Crosbie: It's interesting that you're from Nottingham and say this. In the BBC Voices survey a few years ago, I recall that people from both north and south of England found recordings of people from Nottingham impossible to locate.

    It seems to me that there is not much diversity of accent in the East Midlands. The Handbook of Varieties of English had chapters for every English region except the East Midlands, presumably because it differed only slightly from Northern RP. (Upton defined RP in this book)

    As someone from there, can you ever identify a person as definitely from Nottinghamshire as you might identify a person as definitely from Liverpool or Tyneside or Hull? If not, then isn't Nottingham much the same as London as being an accent not unusual to British ears?

  29. Ed

    I have no difficulty on recognising a working-class Nottingham accent. By the same token, I could tell where the actors in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning didn't quite get it. Middle-class Nottingham accents just sound 'normal' to me.

    I'm not sure I could easily tell a Nottingham accent from a Derby accent, and I certainly can't tell rural or small-town Nottinghamshire from Derbyshire. But Leicester sounds very different.

    Mind you, I haven't lived in Nottingham for thirty years.

  30. That's very interesting. Most people struggle to identify a Nottingham [or Derby] accent.

    I thought about what features are indicative of the East Midlands after the recent post about David Attenborough. The only one I could think of was that the PRICE vowel is often far back. Slightly further south, I have heard ɔɪ for PRICE around Peterborough.

  31. Ed

    I suspect you have a better ear than me. See what you make of the Nottinghamshire accents on this page.

    As I write, Just A Minute is playing. It was recorded at the Evolving English Exhibition at the British Library — the people who put out the website above, and also some nice CDs of Voices of the UK.

    Ian MacMillan has just observed that the accent of Derbyshire makes it a place where you can get double glazing in your a:s.

  32. @ David Crosbie: I've listened to the two recordings from Nottingham, and noticed a lot of non-RP features. That's changed my view of the Nottingham accent.

    Most notably, I remember that Joan Beal wrote that West and South Yorkshire had an opposition dine/ down as dɑːn / da:n. I think that she got the geography too far north. Both of those Nottingham clips have /ɑː/ in PRICE and /a:/ in MOUTH. I am originally from around Wakefield (west-south Yorkshire border): you hear /a:/ in MOUTH (recessive) but never /ɑː/ in PRICE.

    Also noticed yod-dropping, /ɛ/ for happY and nasalisation. Thanks for posting those to me! It's nice to learn about a new accent.

  33. vp: The question is, when did collapsed necessary and its friends arise in BrE? If after the 18th century or so, then mere conservatism is the correct (most parsimonious) explanation, but if not, as I suspect, then some other explanation is called for. Furthermore, you'd expect the Eastern Seaboard cities, which are inside certain British isoglosses, to have at least a few of these pronunciations.

    Lazar Taxon: You astonish me.

  34. Talking of Radio 4 programmes playing in the background, I see that Kirsty Young, presenter of Desert Island Discs, inserts an epenthetic vowel into words like ramb-a-ling and strugg-a-ling (Sunday 19 December, repeated Friday)
    Presumably she doesn't have two vowels in ramble and struggle, instead of the normal syllabic l. (Actually, does anyone? Not sure.)

  35. In Canada, Calgary is Calg'ry, and according to MW's Learner's dictionary, the recommended American pronunciation of ''family'' is: fam'ly.

  36. ประเด็นเด็ด ดราม่าข่าวกีฬา พร้อมข่าวปันเทิง อันโตนิโอ นักเตะยอดเยี่ยม


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