Monday 30 April 2012

did I hear you aright?

If you hear a word spoken, but then want to write it down, you may be in some uncertainty how to spell it.

At least in English, that is. If we had a thoroughly transparent spelling system, you might think, it wouldn’t be such a problem.

I remember some years ago when I was working as a pronunciation consultant on a dictionary project there was a young lexicographer who suggested that we ought to add the missing word apeth, since it was in general use in expressions such as ‘a daft apeth’. (She may have thought that it literally meant some kind of baby monkey.) We had to tell her, gently, that the established spelling of this word is ha’p’orth, or in full halfpennyworth, with the pronunciation ˈheɪpəθ, and that it refers to the British predecimal coinage, superseded before she was born. (Embarrassingly for her, her misapprehension also made it clear that she came from a social background that was not confident about which words are said with h and which not. We assured her it didn’t make an ‘apeth’ of difference.)

But it’s also clear that if you hear an unfamiliar word spoken you may not hear it in exactly the same way as the person who said it intended. That could lead to spelling it wrong (or differently) even in the most perfectly phonemic orthography.

The feck in feckless is, according to the OED, “apparently aphetic < effeck, variant of EFFECT n.”. Rather than ɪˈfekt, someone must have heard effect just as fek. They then spelt it correspondingly as feck, which subsequently was adopted by everyone in feckless.

I suspect there was a similar process in the development of flimsy from film(s) + -y (which the OED strangely labels an ‘onomatopoeic’ formation). In fact film is regularly pronounced flɪm in Jamaican Creole (as well as ˈfɪləm in Irish English, which is a different matter).

There is a tour guide in Montserrat who leads hikes into the rain forest. He is very knowledgeable about the local plants and animals, and particularly the birds. He has a Facebook page on which he regularly posts pictures of interesting things seen along the hiking trails.

Here’s something he posted a few days ago.

I’ve been on several hikes that he led, so I can confirm his skill and ability. He certainly knows the scientific terms fungus, fungi, and could probably tell you the full Latin name of the species here illustrated. So it’s interesting that he spells mushroom as mashoom. (“Reserve” is obviously meant to be “reverse”.)

It’s possible that this is just a joke, consciously reflecting the local pronunciation of the word. Or it might be that he really thinks that the word is ˈmæʃʊm, and spells it accordingly.

Actually, Montserratians don’t eat fungi. No restaurant will offer you a mushroom omelette, and you can’t buy mushrooms in the supermarket. Their word for a mushroom or toadstool is jumbie parasol, literally ‘ghost umbrella’. So mushroom, for a Montserratian, is presumably a word heard only from expats and visitors to the island. This could account for our guide’s uncertainty how to spell it.

The local STRUT vowel is typically back and rounded: we could represent it narrowly as ɔ̈. You can see that the AmE, and particularly the BrE, STRUT vowel might well be heard as the local TRAP vowel (= something rather more central than cardinal a). And you might well overlook the r in ʃr.

Mashoom soup, anyone? Sorry, that’s crème de champignons.


  1. "her misapprehension also made it clear that she came from a social background that was not confident about which words are said with h and which not"

    Was it really that clear? Personally, I've only ever heard the expression from the mouths of h-dropping comic dialect speakers on TV. Could it not be the same for her (and many other speakers)?

    Couldn't this be the same category of misunderstanding that led you to believe that 'fuck' was a FOOT word, not a STRUT word? Only ever being exposed to a particular word in a particular accent.

    1. I come from a social background in which it's very clear which words are said with h and which not. However, it was never clear to me what the second word in this expression was, or that it began with an h. In fact, I've always heard it (mainly from h-dropping comic dialect speakers on TV) as /eɪpəθ/. I am, however, embarrassed that I never made a more concerted effort to track the word down.

    2. Interestingly enough, the person who reads "ha'p'orth" in the "Wiktionary" drops the /h/, too (though the transcription is indeed /ˈheɪpəθ/):

  2. You're quite right about mishearing words. But mis-reading words is also a problem. My active vocabulary has included "epitome" since I was a a small child, but when I read it on the page I always pronounced it eppy-tohm. I understood the word, but never made a connection between epitome and eppy-tohm. One day I said the latter over drinks after work, only to be met with a moment of embarrassed silence from my companions. Needless to say, I learned from my mistake.

  3. That is one problem.

    Quite another then is getting the vowell and appropriate consonantal sounds right.

    For example, I could never in a million years recognize Strøget as [ˈsd̥ʁʌð̞ˀð̞̩]. Obviously, I cannot reproduce it, so I cannot write it down in IPA format. I'm also quite unsure if I can even pronounce [ˈsd̥ʁʌð̞ˀð̞̩] properly.

    Jutlandic apparently has [ˈsd̥ʁʌɪ̯ˀɪd̥], same case.

    1. But, Duchesse, does the pronunciation '[ˈsd̥ʁʌð̞ˀð̞̩]' really exist? If it did, it would be most unusual and unexpected. Perhaps it exists, if you say so... From what I understand, the 'standard' way of pronouncing this formidable word is with a [j] instead of the first [ð]. For aught I know, the letter 'g' is never read as 'ð' in Danish.

      A useful entry is this:øg, 'The Danish Dictionary' (Den Danske Ordbog),øg, which says on 'strøg': [sdrωi'] ell. [or] (nu ikke i rigsspr.) [sdrø?ɋ], that is: the pronunciation with a g-like fricative is no longer part of the standard language. That with 'ð' has never been, I'd venture to surmise.

    2. Would I lie to you? Check the article on Danish phonology in the English Wikipedia. It was written by a person who has a master's degree in Danish phonology so I'd say he knows what he is talking about. Or perhaps even a PhD.

      So basically how would you represent the DDO pronunciation in IPA? Because if I'm guessing right than the Forvo pronunciation makes sense and I can reproduce it.

    3. Lie surely not, but we often get something wrong, don't we?

      [ˈsd̥ʁʌð̞ˀð̞̩] still looks weird to me (a typing error?) I fail to make much sense of the relevant fragment of the Wikipedia article, I must say, especially of:

      (in the case of /v.əd/ normally, but not exclusively, with an indication of a rounding at the outset).

      It says, too, 'clarification needed', indeed.

      Maybe [ˈsdʁʌjˀð̞]? Ain't it precisely the Forvo pronunciation?

    4. Who knows, who knows.

      Prof. Wells might be the judge whether that corresponds to the Forvo pronunciation.

    5. How do you Poles pronounce the name of the Danish street?

    6. They seldom pronounce it at all, at least those Poles I hang out with. I say, or would say, [strøget], otherwise, if I aped what I think is the Danish pronunciation, no-one would get me.

      Danish is extremely tricky and difficult, its letter-to-sound rules I mean and sounds themselves, too.

    7. Hi guys. I'm one of the contributors to the the Danish phonology wiki page. I have my own talk page if you're interested in clarification on the matter. I'd be happy to answer any questions:

  4. I once sent a colleague a text using the expression 'par for the course', and it came as a revelation to him: all his life, he'd thought it was 'path of the course'.

  5. "We had to tell her, gently, that the established spelling of this word is ha’p’orth"

    That's my trivia point for the day. I thought that the only English word which has an established spelling with two apostrophes was fo'c'sle. I'll need to add ha'p'orth to the list.

    1. I think fo'c's'le has three apostrophes.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. While you're at it, add bo's'n too.

  6. Maybe 'apeth' exists, if only virtually, as an archaic form of 3rd person singular present tense indicative active of the verb 'to ape' (to imitate)? But if it exist, is it a two-syllable word like 'halfpennyworth', or a monosyllabic, as is its modern variant, 'apes'?

    1. It would have two syllables, like taketh (= takes).

    2. thank you. 'apeth'='taketh after'?

    3. John, you mean if you work with a normative spelling of taketh vs tak'th?

  7. -eth is reduced to -th only in doth, hath and perhaps a few others.

    1. Are we talking of a time when -(e)th was a living form, or of a standardised archaic register today?

    2. what about 'lyeth', lies, tells things (s)he doth not believe to be true? 2 syllables or 1 with a diphthong or possibly a triphthong?

    3. You all better start writing thesr things down in IPA, it's clearer that way. This is a tiny but ambiguous.

    4. Meaning, we're talking about ˈteɪkɪθ, ˈseɪɪθ, ˈeɪpɪθ? laɪɪθ?

    5. yes, about ˈteɪkɪθ, ˈseɪɪθ, --- wasn't there a reduced form, like [sez] for 'says'?--- ˈeɪpɪθ and laɪɪθ, or laɪθ, as the case---keɪs---may be, aɪ teɪkit. But you really have to be enamoured of IPA to write---raɪt---this way for longer stretches of discourse (dɪsko:s). I personally am not so enamoured thereof.

    6. I meant forms whith a mere elision, eg teɪkθ.

    7. Have you any evidence that 'teɪkθ' ever existed? I'm not saying it did not, just curious.

      Who knows if 'doeth' was pronounced 'du:ɪθ' or 'du:θ', with elision?

    8. Meters, and spellings like takth. Oddly enough, I can't google it in grammars on the quick.

    9. Examples from the OED:

      1855 C. Kingsley Westward Ho! (1889) 120 He've got a good venture on hand, but what a be he tell'th no man.

      1670 Milton Hist. Brit. iv. 186 Under a Thorn‥li'th poor Kenelm King-born.

      1601 S. Daniel Epist. to Sir T. Egerton 131 That Lesbian square, that building fit, Plies to the worke, not forc'th the worke to it.

      1800 J. Wolcot Horrors Bribery 6 ‘A Newgate bird liv'th there,’ the voakes will cry‥‘A jailbird!’

      a1794 M. Palmer Dialogue Devonshire Dial. (1837) 15 The leet windle ne'er blubbereth or weeneth, but look'th pithest and sif'th.

      1595 R. Parry Moderatus 151 She reiect'th my louing lasse to be.

      1766 A. Nicol Poems Several Subj. 50 The bridegroom winna' scruple To tell his bosom-friend what ail'th Him though he tak' the ripple On her some day.

      1598 J. Marston Scourge of Villanie i. iv. 190 And old crabb'd Scotus‥Pay'th me with snaphaunce, quick distinction.

      1598 J. Marston Scourge of Villanie ii. v, Codrus my well-fac't Ladies taile-bearer (He that‥play'th Flauias vsherer).

    10. But were they actually pronounced without a linking vowel? We spell 'Bush's' but pronounce 'bushizz'. Spelling in those times was, as we know, not quite consistent, so 'blubbereth and weeneth, but look'th'

  8. I once knew a British philosopher who mocked his German colleague Heidegger imputing to him the view that while nothing noths (something that H. actually says, in some of his English translations at least), thing --- ths. In the XVI c. it would have been: theth. But he (the British philosopher) did it well, his 'ths' was really convincing, phonetically.

  9. Although, I have to add that Prof. Wells's dictionary has "fo'c'sle", two apostrophes.

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