Wednesday 28 September 2011

Duke of York sound changes

You’ll have heard of the grand old Duke of York. As you know, he had ten thousand men. He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again.

It’s thirty-five years since Geoff Pullum wrote an article entitled ‘The Duke of York gambit’, about derivations of the general form A→B→A, that is derivations in which an underlying representation is mapped on to an intermediate form distinct from it, and then on to a surface representation which is identical with the earlier stage. Whether such derivations can be justified synchronically is an issue on which I express no opinion. But there certainly seem to be historical sound changes that proceed in just this way: something changes to something else, then changes back again.

Take popular London English. If Dickens is to be believed, London working-class speakers in the nineteenth century tended to confuse v and w: bevare of vidders! (beware of widows). They certainly don’t now. Historically, wvw.

Another well-known, nay stereotypical, Cockney feature is h-dropping. Remarkably, current London yoof — despite the supposed influence of Jamaican English, which shares this feature — generally don’t drop h. So, in the appropriate lexical contexts, hØh.

Londoners have diphthong shift, no? That is, the PRICE vowel has shifted in popular London speech from to something in the area of ɑɪ, ɒɪ? And the FACE vowel has gone from to ʌɪ, æɪ? Not any more. Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and associates have shown that in inner-London Multicultural London English (blog, 2 July 2010) PRICE has reverted to and FACE to (or even ). So we have ɒɪ and æɪ.

If you’ve got the odd twenty minutes to spare, I’d like to recommend this brief talk by Paul Kerswill on just this topic of MLE, given at a TEDxEastEnd event in the wake of the recent rioting.

We like to think of sound changes as typically originating in the working-class speech of big cities, then spreading out socially and geographically. Many of the BrE sound changes of the last 500 years can be explained in this way, with working-class London as the point of departure. But that’s clearly far from the whole story.


  1. Would it make sense to make a difference between actual, possibly gradual "inner" developments and plain replacement with corresponding sounds in a more prestigious register?

    H dropping obviously is an example of the latter; a case of the former might be /a/, with ME [ä] -> older U-RP [ɛ] -> today's mainstream [a] -> today's progressive [ä].

  2. Was this post inspired by my comment yesterday that H-dropping seems to be on the way out?

    I would suggest that the reason why a lot of linguistic changes are attributed to London may be because the media have always paid more attention to London. Page 27 in this paper shows an argument that London is too frequently cited as a source of new trends.

    If a pronunciation changes in Stoke, nobody notices. If it changes in London, the media report on it. There is a publication bias.

  3. An excellent and well-documented historical example is er > ar > er. The earliest words to undergo the first shift, like ferme > farm and sterre > star, have retained it. But those where the spelling did not change, as service > s[ar]vice and sermon > s[ar]mon, have almost uniformly reverted. Since words with original ar have not become er, we can explain this either with reference to the spelling (which surely is the only available explanation for the vagaries of initial h), or as a matter of competing dialects, where unshifted dialects eventually out-competed the shifted ones. The only survivors I can think of are clerk and derby (cf. the related proper names Clark, Darby, and note that AmE reverted here), sergeant, and the unwritten name of the letter R.

  4. Berkely, Berkshire, Hertford, and some with -ear-. And the later pronunciation of (Deborah) Kerr.

  5. Proper names certainly did not undergo the reverse shift in general, but common words? A search of CAAPR-B, an online version of an old version of EPD, shows no others.

    In -ear- I can find only hearken, heart, hearth. The town of Kearny, New Jersey, has ar, after an American Civil War general from New York City who pronounced his name so, and there likely are other such proper names.

  6. That is an interesting note on the w > v confusion in 19th century English.

    My husband and I have noticed that German (and other) speakers of English tend to have a /w/ > /v/ problem that isn't explained by the German > English shift (that is, a direct application of sounds should lead to a /v/ > /f/ rather than a /v/ > /w/, but for some reason, we still hear "indi/w/idual," "/w/isa," "in/w/ite," etc.).

    I wonder if there is a connection between the historical shift from /w/ to /v/ to /w/ in London English and the production of /v/ as /w/ in English by some non native speakers.

  7. Ad Rebekah Palmer

    this is probably because the German phoneme spelt (in German) 'w' or sometimes 'f' ('was', 'Wasser', 'invigilieren', 'Verdi') is somehow articulatorily and accoustically mid-way between the English 'w' and the English 'v', at least in some variants of German. The phenomenon you are referring to is well-known. But not all foreign learners of English have it. Only those in whose mother-tongues there is a sort of 'close affinity' between 'v' and 'w', for instance in German or in Slovene, where afaik both phones are variants of the same phoneme.

  8. ...sorry, I meant '... or sometimes "v"' in the second line from the top above.

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  10. Speaking of the "subtler v" (ie. labial approximant /ʋ/), this ghostly 19th-century report gives me the impression of some hypothetical trans-linguistic isogloss laid across European Germanic languages that governed the pronunciation of "w" as either /w/ or /ʋ/. I think of Dutch too.

    Is it reasonable that this presumed /ʋ/ in English petered out as the isogloss line shifted over time? And if it shifted, where has it shifted to now? Are there not European English dialects that still use /ʋ/ instead of /w/ like their Germanic-speaking neighbours? If not, why not?

  11. @Lipman:

    What do you mean by "mainstream" [a] in TRAP words? I would associate [a] with the North of England, some of the Celtic countries and the Caribbean: these aren't usually considered mainstream accents.

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  13. Can't "Duke of York" shifts be explained by the persistence of alternative dialects that never underwent the change in question?

    That would appear to explain the history of some RP CLOTH words such as

    1. CLOTH = LOT
    3. CLOTH = LOT

    There were a number of varieties that never went through step 2 and eventually (in the late 20th century) outweighed the innovative varieties that had undergone the change.

  14. John Cowan, right, of course.

    Rebekah Palmer, woiciech, I don't think one has to involve dialectal or regiolectal realisations of German /v/ which are in between English w and v rather than the same as the latter. I think the point is that German has only one sound where English has two which are phonetically close to each other. In addition, English words with either /v/ or /w/ often are cognates of German words, all with /v/. So you get the usual replacement of a foreign-language sound by one from the speaker's native language, and then you have hypercorrections in the other direction. (Related.)

    vp, by [a] I mean the (current) English a, as acknowledged by the newer pronunciation dictionaries. By [ä] I mean the European, plain or straight a (though some European languages have an e-tinted one, too, here and there). This is also the one used in Northern accents.

    Concerning the CLOTH development, I shouldn't see that as a third group but a case of what I called "plain replacement with corresponding sounds in a more prestigious register" above.

  15. @Lipman:

    vp, by [a] I mean the (current) English a, as acknowledged by the newer pronunciation dictionaries

    But surely even Clive Upton wouldn't maintain that the current non-Northern English TRAP vowel is _phonetically_ [a]?

    Concerning the CLOTH development, I shouldn't see that as a third group but a case of what I called "plain replacement with corresponding sounds in a more prestigious register" above.

    I'm not sure I'm following you. Surely the late 20th-century RP development consisted of replacing the CLOTH=THOUGHT of then-current RP with the CLOTH=LOT of a _less_ prestigious register?

  16. Hm, I don't know. Maybe it's time to appeal to the blogmaster to enlighten us.

    I'm not sure what prof. Upton has in mind (haven't the pertinent books at hand to see whether it's described in an unambiguous way), but my personal impression is that the current TRAP vowel is open enough to be spelt [a]. Still a front vowel, due to the fact that the trapezium and the signs were based on English, so that the much more common central open vowel has to be spelt with diacritics, [ä] or [a̠].

    Yes, I'd say at some time, mabye in the mid 1960s, CLOTH=LOT came to be more prestigious just as a decade or two ago, in certain positions, glottal stops came to be more prestigious than alveolar stops.

  17. For anyone reading this hereafter:

    Peter Trudgill's work has now clearly established the following:

    The veil-wail merger did exist in 19C London English, as memorialized by (among others) Dickens, and there is compelling evidence of its existence beforehand.

    People who did not have the merger heard its speakers as saying /w/ for /v/ and /v/ for /w/, a pattern common when a merger resolves to an intermediate sound, like the CHOICE-NURSE merger in NYC (now moribund) that caused people to write thoid for third and per contra erster for oyster, though the actual sound was more like [ʌi].

    A variety of small-island Englishes and English creoles retain, or did retain until recently, this merger, which they realize as [ʋ].

    It is reasonable to suppose, then, that old-time Cockney also realized the merged /v~w/ as [ʋ].

  18. An intermediate sound is certainly possible (another recent example would be the un/in merger in most Standard French registers). But a merger into one full side likes to come with hypercorrections, especially towards speakers of a non-merging accent of higher prestige.


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