Friday 16 March 2012

English places

Comments on yesterday’s blog addressed the fraught question of proper names in pronunciation dictionaries. I thought it might be useful if I tried to say what my policy was in LPD, at least as concerns place names in England.

I must confess that I did not set up a set of principles before starting work. Rather, what follows is a post-hoc attempt to express the principles I think I generally followed.

Let’s start from the difficult fact that in England everything is complicated by social class factors. A hundred years ago, certainly fifty years ago, and still to a large extent today, most English people spoke and speak with a local accent. Broadly speaking, the lower your social class, the more your pronunciation diverges from RP; the higher your social class, the closer to RP. Whereas RP speakers can be found in all parts of the country (or could when I were a lad, when not only the local landed gentry but also the vicar and the doctor probably spoke RP or something very close to it), “local” implies non-RP. The local accent typically includes various features that are regarded as non-standard and have traditionally been considered unworthy of mention in normative reference works such as dictionaries. (Note to nonNSs: when I were a lad is a stock phrase with non-standard were for was, used for comic effect.)

So let’s agree, for the purposes of argument, that most people who live in Hull call it ʊl. But in RP it’s unquestionably hʌl. We can leave it to the sociolinguists to determine the precise details of who uses which of these pronunciations and under what circumstances, and to what extent there are also intermediate forms such as hʊl, həl and perhaps also ʌl.

I think there is very general agreement in England that we don’t want dictionaries to tell us about h-dropped pronunciations. In any case, they can immediately be inferred once we know that in working-class England all hs are subject to being dropped.

I think it’s also generally agreed that we don’t want to be told about the use of ʊ in all names in which RP has ʌ; again, this can be inferred by rule, once we know that in the north of England the FOOT-STRUT split does not apply, which means that there is no /ʌ/ and which makes Hull a perfect rhyme for full (as against RP etc in which hʌl has a different vowel from fʊl).

Those of us who, like me, grew up in relatively high-status families in the north have been aware of this variability since childhood. In the Lancashire village where I lived until I was a teenager, our neighbours drank from kʊps and ˈdlasɪz (ˈɡlæsɪz); but in our house we had kʌps and ˈɡlɑːsɪz.

(As an aside, it wasn’t until I went to boarding school in the south that I discovered that fuck has ʌ. We didn’t swear in our family, and the only people I had heard using this word until then had pronounced it fʊk.)

The name of the village was Upholland. (See the photo. Nowadays people seem to write it as two words, Up Holland. In those days we didn’t.) Yes, our neighbours called it ʊpˈɒlənd. But we, of course, called it ʌpˈhɒlənd. It is the latter that you would expect a dictionary of place names to show; the former can be inferred from it, but not vice versa.

Our nearest town was Wigan. We called it ˈwɪɡən, although quite a few of its inhabitants called it ˈwɪɡɪn (which caused some amusement and was part of a comical exaggerated local accent).

So it is with the BATH words. Our neighbours might have a baθ (actually, many had just a zinc tub in the kitchen, brought out as needed); we had a bɑːθ. (Recall that a is the local form of the TRAP vowel, in RP classically æ.)

One of my uncles lived in Grasmere, in Cumbria. His wife, my aunt by marriage, also happened to be aunt to the Attenborough brothers, the actor Richard (Lord A.) and the TV naturalist David. (You’ll have heard how they speak: both are native RP speakers and grew up in Leicester, in the linguistic north.) They, and we, called the place ˈɡrɑːsmɪə. For many local people, though, the first syllable had the TRAP vowel.

That’s the background from which I felt confident in saying that the RP name of Castleford, Yorks., is ˈkɑːsl̩fəd, though the great majority of locals certainly give it the TRAP vowel in the first syllable. For Doncaster, on the other hand, all three possibilities -kəs-, -kɑːs-, -kæs- seem to me to be at home in RP, though probably in that order of preference.

Moving to London, I naturally gave the pronunciation of Wapping as ˈwɒpɪŋ, ignoring the ˈwɒpʔɪn you hear from many locals. Likewise Harlesden: ˈhɑːlzdən, not ˈɑːozdən.

And so to Newcastle. The RP form for all places with this name (in my view) is ˈnjuːˌkɑːsl̩. However, the size and importance of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne is such that I felt it appropriate to mention in LPD that locally it is -ˈkæsl̩, with a different stressing and different second vowel. (Here, of course, æ subsumes a.) There is a similar note at Carlisle.
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This blog will now be suspended until the end of March. I may see some of you in Kyiv/Kiev, where I shall be speaking at a conference at Kyiv National Linguistic University and also visiting the Taras Shevchenko National University — or at BAAP in Leeds. Next posting: 2 April.


  1. You've pronounced it kʰɐps or kʰʌps? Though, you do say in your book Accents of English, page 281, vol. II, that U-RP plosives have "surprisingly little aspiration".

    Doesn't U-RP also habitually omit the initial h? Which would make Harlesden and Upholland not have it? What about w – was it w or ʍ?

    1. 1. Aspirated.
      2. Formant values for my STRUT vowel can be seen in my MA thesis or measured in the various voice clips of mine that are on-line, eg here.
      3. No kind of RP "omits" initial h in STRESSED syllables.
      4. No ʍ.

  2. I'm sorry to question further on this, but I'd like to clarify the distinction between Castleford and Doncaster. Are you saying that Castleford is a BATH word but Doncaster is not? Does the plausibility of a schwa in Doncaster mean that it cannot be considered a true BATH word?

    From my informal experience of southerners who have moved to this part of Yorkshire, I'd estimate that it's more common for them to use /æ/ in Castleford than in Doncaster, which I would attribute to its widespread nickname "Cas" /kæs/.

    I wonder if there is an upper-class person in Castleford whose pronunciation can be tested.

    1. I think if I moved to Castleford I might well do the same. It all depends on circumstances. I have mentioned elsewhere that my brother, who became a businessman in Birmingham, has switched to /æ/ in BATH words. (My other brother, who has lived in Lancashire all his adult life, and became a school teacher, retains /ɑː/.)
      But I have described here my actual childhood/adolescent experiences of the matter.

      Yes, I am implying that -caster names are not regular BATH words. They are, however, comparable to items such as circumstance, where RP has not made up its mind between /ə ~ æ ~ ɑː/.

    2. Thanks very much for the response. I had not thought of the parallel with "circumstance".

  3. I was brought up in St Albans. Not sure which "side of the tracks", so to speak,but it wasn't the side that spoke RP. If I mention the home town in writing to my brother, (emails etc) we refer to it as "Snorbans", or "Snorbals", both of which are very close to how we pronounce(d) it (my brother doesn't do IPA).

  4. Jack Windsor Lewis writes:
    As to "I did not set up a set of principles before starting work" I suspect your memory isnt exactly serving you well. You must surely've had a general idea and been aware of what the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names had done in its
    editions of 1971 and 1983 (respectively edited my G. M. Miller and G. E. Pointon). You'd probably seen what they did for Newcastle upon Tyne saying "The second
    [nju`kӕsl], being the local pronunciation, should normally take precedence over the other. Here, however, is a case where the first [`njukɑsl] is firmly established national usage". I vividly remember, when advising Elizabeth on behalf of OUP,
    having quite a tussle with her to persuade her to put them in that order. It was a shaky principle which Graham didnt observe in 1983 when he added Castleford even tho he left her Newcastle comment undisturbed.

    Regarding your "Note to nonNSs: when I were a lad is a stock phrase with non-standard were for was, used for comic effect." This is a phenomenon I call Linguistic Slumming. Readers who'd like to see other
    examples of it may care to look at my Blog 009.

  5. I was thinking about this as I listened to Ian Dury and the Blockheads' "Plaistow Patricia" on the way to work this morning.

    I don't have a copy of LPD to hand, but Wikipedia (,_Newham) has /ˈplɑːstoʊ/. Dury's pronounciation is more or less ˈplɑːstəʊ I think, but in any event the first vowel is definitely ɑː.

    I don't know how I should pronounce this place name. My accent is middle-class Manchester; for 'path' I have paθ rather than pɑːθ.

    It feels weird for me to say ˈplɑːstəʊ, like I'm imitating RP or Southern English. But it feels equally weird to say ˈplastəʊ, I'm not sure why. And according to Wikipedia, ˈpleɪstəʊ would definitely be wrong. I'd be interested to hear any other Northern English speakers' intuition about this!

    (Incidentally, if anyone doesn't know the song and wants to listen to it on Spotify or whatever, be aware that the first line is very sweary, for dramatic effect).

    1. I have the same feeling, but I think I'd settle on a.

    2. The spelling suggests ['ple:sto:] to me. However, I do believe that locals' views on pronunciation should be respected and it wouldn't be too much effort for me to say [plɑ:stɔʊ] as an approximation to their pronunciation, so I'd probably choose that.

      I would try to imitate the local pronunciation as long as it didn't require a sound that I don't use in everyday English.

  6. There are of course a couple of differences between the BATH issue and h-dropping. For one, h-dropping forms are predictable from the non-h-dropping forms, whereas this is not true of BATH (either way). For another, h-dropping is much more of a basilectal feature than TRAP=BATH. If I met a doctor or vicar (etc.) in the north of England with a long BATH vowel, I'd guess that either they had moved from further South or been to boarding school; I might of course be wrong but at least with people born after 1960 or so I'd be a bit surprised. Whereas I'd also be rather surprised if I met a doctor or vicar with consistent h-dropping.

    FOOT-STRUT is like h-dropping in that it's predictable but somewhere in between in the sociolinguistics.

    I don't think, however, that dictionaries treat "Castleford" any differently from "castle" or other BATH words; I think they should give both vowels.

    One thing I've noticed is that the computerised announcements at Sheffield station use TRAP in "Doncaster" and "Newcastle" but PALM in "class" and "staff", and also "Glasgow". I can't remember what they do to "Castleford".

    1. Correction: I don't think, however, that dictionaries should treat "Castleford" any differently from "castle" or other BATH words; I think they should give both vowels.

    2. Oddly enough, has castle with [ɑ:] and Castleford with [a]. I do actually know people who make this distinction.

    3. P.S. I agree with you that the BATH issue is different from h-dropping. There are a lot of people in Hull who do not drop the H in the name, whereas there are very few (if any) people in Castleford who pronounce it with [ɑ:]. I think that we Northerners do not usually consider our BATH vowel as a "local feature", since almost everyone uses [a] and this extends over a very large area of England.

      It is interesting that there has been no shift in generations from [a] towards [ɑ:]. If anything, [a] has gained words such as "master" and "Nazi". My father said [mɑ:stə] and [nɑ:tsɪ] whereas I say [mastə] and [natsɪ].

    4. "Oddly enough, has castle with [ɑ:] and Castleford with [a]. I do actually know people who make this distinction."

      That doesn't seem so strange, on the basis of pronouncing place names as most of the locals do. I know a speaker from Yorkshire who distinguishes "bath" and "Bath".

  7. You haven’t changed your policy in LPD, i guess. The present form is fine there but many linguists are, yes, do change things continually. The risk factor here is that many do make a fast copies of good English teachers without any further thought, thus the changes are not noticed or questionable to them.

    I don’t do IPA, or analyze local varieties with the standards for something appears to be correct, rather than looking at something that is apparently redundant. Certainly it is a field of linguistics to see how a hypothesis can come good out of a certain illustrations ideas.

    Yes, for example, ‘the local accent typically includes various features that are regarded as non-standard and have traditionally been considered unworthy of mention in normative reference works such as dictionaries.’--but how about then an example like the same diphthong /eɪ/ for ‘EIGHT’ and ‘AIDE’ or ‘PAID’ or the /eɪ/ for ‘MAIL’ and ‘MALE’ as the homophone?

    I am sure one can distinguish the varieties even in dialects, and in RP, perhaps arguably not stated as in Cambridge or Oxford dictionaries—but a subsumes of the /ɜːɪ/ or /ɜː/ usually.

    With the different vowel on /æ/, I think the Canadian variety, unlike British, still subsumes a higher formant--to a closer /a/ variety.

  8. John, you need not have added, I think, the explanation 'for the benefit of a nonNS' to your 'when I were a lad', I think every NS who is competent and interested in English enough to read your blog will immediately have understood the comic effect and the origin of this phrase. Maybe it's being a 'stock-phrase' could not have been so immediately obvious (only on reflection).

    1. sorry, I meant to say 'every non-NS speaker...' of course.

      On the other hand, that uncalled-for (I'd insist) glossa gave you an opportunity to build in a link to 'slumming', which I have found quite interesting and entertaining.

      Other than that---do you chaps know many examples of such problems and qui pro quo's from other languages? One example I can very vaguely seem to remember is Schiller's using somewhere (I forget where) the name of Itzehoe, a town in N. Germany, in such a way as to suggest the pronunciation [ø] of the last vowel while in reality it is an [o]. Low German spelling, not known to S., plus probably Frisian origin of the name, witness -tz-, otherwise unexplainable in Low German.

      I often perplex my students with the no less than five pronunciations of 'Featherstonehaugh', none of which is 'feather-stone-haw' as the spelling might suggest, quoted by John in his immortal Dictionary. I wonder, though, if these 'fairsharnhays' and what not are still in current use by anyone, and if yes, for how long yet.

    2. There are I believe quite a number of cities in Middle West and North West Germany like Itzenhoe that have for /o:/. The one that springs to mind is Soest (/zo:st/).

    3. Yes, they reflect the old Low-German and Dutch of way of marking vowel-length. Same hardly ever fails to confuse the uninitiated, witness 'de Waelhens', usually pronounced with an 'epsilon' vowel by those who don't know or ignore the Old Netherlandic spelling device.

  9. "I must confess that I did not set up a set of principles before starting work. Rather, what follows is a post-hoc attempt to express the principles I think I generally followed."

    I find those general principles quite reasonable.

  10. I have a late addition to this conversation. On this article, which you can see for free, Gupta says on page 25 that the number of northerners who use [ɑ:] is so small that he disagrees that the BATH vowel is a sociolinguistic variable. He also found that many Northerners strongly dislike [ɑ:].

    This is reminiscent of Petyt's research in West Yorkshire in 1970-1. He found only two people who used [ɑ:] in BATH and they had both been to public schools in the south of England. Again he found a large number of people who strongly disliked [ɑ:].

    Personally I don't think that [ɑ:] can be considered non-regional. There might be one or two people in the north who use it, but note that Gupta also found a few people in the south who use [a] in BATH and that there's bound to be variation in the Midlands.

  11. Howard Boss - I too have a strong dislike of the a: for words like bath, pass etc.

    If you look at the exercises used when learning to type, one of the first is "the cat sat on the mat".

    This is not pronounced ka:t or sa:t or ma:t

    Why then a: in bath or pass?


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