Friday 11 March 2011

controversy and Mr Tickle

“Mr Tickle proves British accents not becoming more American” is the headline introducing an article in today’s Guardian. (The version on the website, dated yesterday, is longer than the one published in the paper, which the subs must have cut rather severely.)

As is often the case with newspaper reports of scientific and scholarly research, you have to exercise a certain scepticism about the headline claims and try to discover what the research findings actually were and on what evidence they were based.

As far as I can see, the findings so far reported of British Library’s survey — admirable as it is, and constituting a great resource for present and future researchers into British speech — do not prove anything at all about what British accents might or might not be “becoming”.

What the reported research does demonstrate is that certain words have a prevailing BrE pronunciation that differs (in a non-systematic way) from that prevailing in AmE. The article mentions controversy, applicable, harass and scone. (The web version also adds garage and neither.)

These are some of the words included in my own preference surveys, reported in LPD. Of the four, the only one for which my own figures justify a claim of a change over apparent time (as detected by comparing results for different age groups) is harass, for which older speakers preferred initial stress, younger speakers final stress. The same change can be detected in both AmE and BrE, with AmE leading the way by a generation or two.

As for garage, my figures show a clear BrE trend from ˈɡærɑː(d)ʒ to ˈɡærɪdʒ, with a very small number of each age group opting for the American ɡəˈrɑː(d)ʒ. For (n)either, the youngest age group in my survey showed an increase in BrE iːð-, but only to 13%. For all BrE age groups, aɪð- easily prevails.

I'll naturally be interested to hear in due course whether the BL survey, when properly analysed by age group, confirms my findings or not.

* * *
I'm off to Sheffield now, to speak at their International Languages Festival.


  1. @John: You look quite young and handsome in that picture :). Could you (after the festival) disclose what "very entertaining lecture" you have given?

  2. I’m rather impressed that a Mr Men book includes words like controversy and applicable.

  3. Beatrice Portinari11 March 2011 at 11:59

    Hey, I agree with Kilian! If only I would have your looks when I'm your age, John -or even now I must confess.

  4. Steve

    It contains neither. But it does contain mischievous.

  5. That photo was taken only two years ago! must take my glasses off more often.

  6. I think the subtext here is opposing the apparently widespread British superstition that when anything changes in the language there, it is due to American influence. The fact that AmE is in many respects conservative does not seem to be understood.

  7. Because you are the emeritus professor of phonetics coordinating member of the International Phonetic Association and president of the English Spelling Society, I would like, if it is possible, that you implement the Siget alphabet in the languages primers, abecedaries.


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