Monday 28 February 2011

comparable niches

Comments on Friday’s blog somehow managed to segue into the pronunciation of the word niche and the matter of whether BrE is becoming Americanized (and whether therefore AmE is ‘destroying the language’).
Here you see the LPD entry for niche. My poll shows that the French-style pronunciation is now overwhelmingly preferred in BrE, while (as far as I know) remaining virtually unknown in AmE.

The OED comments
N.E.D. (1907) gives only the pronunciation (nitʃ) /nɪtʃ/ and the pronunciation /niːʃ/ is apparently not recorded before this date. H. Michaelis & D. Jones Phonetic Dict. Eng. Lang. (1913), and all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. up to and including the fourteenth edition (1977) give /nɪtʃ/ as the typical pronunciation and /niːʃ/ as an alternative pronunciation. The fifteenth edition (1991) gives /niːʃ/ in British English and /nɪtʃ/ in U.S. English.
So it’s BrE that’s done the innovating here.

In one of my talks about pronunciation preference polls I show three slides to illustrate the point that the evidence is that — contrary to what many people suppose — in some cases change spreads from AmE to BrE,in other cases from BrE to AmE,while occasionally we find that both are moving in tandem.
(Sorry about the Comic Sans. This is a very old talk. I’ve moved on typographically since then.)


  1. It's hard to see how a British innovation could be carried over into AmE (since Americans don't regularly watch our TV or films).

    Could changes like the stress shifts in comparable and exquisite be a sort of convergent evolution, where unexpected pronunciations are independently regularised on both sides of the Atlantic?

    I'm not sure about exquisite, but the older pronunciation of comparable (as 'kɒmpərəbəl or /'kɑːmpərəbəl/) is certainly unusual in having the stress four syllables from the end.

  2. Also, AFAICT the verb compare is always stressed on the second syllable, the “new” pronunciation of comparable might just be remodelled on it.
    But I wouldn't think of BrE -> AmE influences to be nearly impossible. (Have got was originally British but now it's used in America as well, wasn't it?)

  3. @John Wells,
    For once I think all my marathon posts on Friday were on topic, and my only contribution to the 'niche' debate concerned the pronunciation nɪʃ:

    "LPD3 doesn’t list it. I think that must be by an oversight, as it lists the plural with nɪʃ- for BrE."

    This can now be seen from your jpg of that entry, but you don't pick up on the nɪʃ pronunciation not being given for the singular but being given for the BrE plural, or on the fact that AmE speakers contributing to the 'niche' debate on Friday contradict your assertion that AmE has only nɪtʃ. This may still be true for all practical purposes, but it's a bit difficult to believe that there's a BrE plural in nɪʃ- which has no corresponding singular pronunciation. What would it be a plural of?

    I see nɪʃ doesn't feature in the pie chart for your pronunciation poll, so it looks rather as if you thought it so marginal as to be beneath notice, and it was therefore the plural in nɪʃ- which was not intended to be there. Is that it?

  4. mallamb: Point taken. I had nɪʃ as third choice in the first edition (1990), and must have forgotten to remove it in the plural when removing it from the main entry in the light of the 1998 poll.

  5. ˈnɪʃɪz in the absence of nɪʃ doesn't seem all that improbable to me. ‘One niːʃ, two ˈnɪʃɪz’, just like ‘one briːtʃ, two ˈbrɪtʃɪz’?

    Perhaps I could be the first to make this thread veer off-topic by noting that Moët & Chandon are currently running ads on TV in the UK where the voice-over artist carefully pronounces the (abbreviated) name as məʊˈɛt - presumably they got fed up with the pseudo-French ˈməʊeɪ!

  6. Steve,
    You do make me laugh, but I think I have long since run out of the requisite brownie points for virages, so I will try to earn a few by only taking up your irregular plural hypothesis: mi no less facetious one would be that the singular is nɪtʃ on the analogy of 'texes' (tho usu verbal) and 'breakfases', vouchsafed by Martin Ball. See John's blog entry of 23 October 2009 on 'tex(t)ing'.

    Did nɪʃ actually score zero in the 1998 poll, for you to have removed it? John Cowan says NID3 and its descendant at give /nɪʃ/, and so do other online dictionaries. Wiktionary and Wikimedia have a US sound file for it.

  7. I can't immediately lay my hands on the raw results of the poll, but the rounded figure was certainly 0%. That implies less than .05%, anyhow, and may be a true zero.

  8. Thanks, John. I'm a true zero myself, so /nɪʃ/ will do for me.

  9. Where's /niːtʃ/ pl /niːtʃəz/?

  10. Michael E: in the vast swirlinɡ world of conceivable but unused or little-used possibilities.

  11. I agree with army1987: BrE-to-AmE is not impossible. Language change isn't effected by television alone, and anyway, they do watch British TV in the US, albeit less than the amount of American TV we watch. And there are Britons on American TV: Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, Simon Cowell and Hugh Laurie are all familiar over there.

    Bill Bryson's famously error-strewn, but also fact-strewn, Mother Tongue has a list of words that spread from BrE to AmE: "smog, weekend, gadget, miniskirt, radar, brain drain, and gay in the sense of homosexual".

  12. /niːtʃəz/ is the plural of Nietzsche!

  13. I have to say, I find this quite interesting. I'm an American, and I remember learning about niches in elementary school. At the time, if I remember correctly, it was pronounced /niːʃ/. It was only later in life that I remember hearing others say /nɪtʃ/.

  14. @Pete, these forms of 'comparable' are surprising. I was under the impression that the variants with initial stress often have an elided schwa (before the rhotic). So, something like /ˈkampɻəbl̴̩/ is produced.

    Although, perhaps these are more dictionary-style transcriptions. Dictionaries (or perhaps simply lexicographers) have long avoided the reality that English has syllabic sonorants. Hence, a schwa is inserted before /l/ in your transcription.

  15. I think, Christian, that if you were to study the treatment of "compression" and syllabic consonants in LPD you'd approve. Most sequences of ə plus a liquid or nasal alternate with a syllabic consonant, which can frequently then be reduced to a non-syllabic consonant.

  16. @Christian: I was using broad transcription (i.e. indicating only the phonemics and omitting the irrelevant phonetic details). Hence the slashes around /'kɑːmpərəbəl/ (which admittedly I left off /'kɒmpərəbəl/ by mistake).

    I was actually experimenting with JW's style of using boldface without any delimiters, which is how I ended up with slashes around one of my transcriptions but not the other.

  17. I'm sure I've always said /niːtʃ/. Perhaps I'll try to remember to frankify to /niːʃ/ now.

  18. Now I (as a speaker of Canadian English) wonder how Canadian English fits into all of this? Somewhere in the middle, but with a large French influence... I, myself, use /ni:ʃ/ (the French style), but then again, I do speak French, as well.
    We are somewhere between American and British English, and I wonder if (though we are a small player...) the change could pass through us, sometimes? I mean, when we choose a language setting to use on a technological device or online, if Canadian English is not available, most people choose American English--but we also sometimes use British. (My e-mail account is set to British English, for example. I love putting things in the "bin"!)


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