Wednesday 29 August 2012

the poet and the phonetician

Commenting on yesterday’s blog, Ed said
Some working-class people have the idea that a schwa [in certain places] is lazy and that "posh people" don't use them [but they do, in fact]. Believe it or not, I've come across people who think that you're supposed to say Garforth with final /fɔ:θ/ and Castleford with final /fɔ:d/. I wonder if some announcers have grown up with this idea of correct speech and that it's coming into BBC English now.

Truly, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Just over a hundred years ago, in 1910, Daniel Jones, then just setting out on his career as a phonetician and not yet widely known, was forcefully attacked by Robert Bridges, the recently appointed Poet Laureate and a founder member of the Society for Pure English.

Bridges was much exercised about standards of pronunciation. As Collins and Mees put it (The Real Professor Higgins, Mouton 1999, ch. 4.11)

Bridges believed sincerely that the pronunciation of English was gravely threatened by declining standards, and was therefore determined to fight to restore it to what he considered to be its proper state.

In Bridges’ view, its proper state was one that closely reflected the orthography. He was particularly concerned with what he termed “the degradation of the unaccented vowels” — by which he meant the use of ə in unstressed syllables.

Quoting Jones’s Phonetic Transcriptions of English Prose (Oxford, 1907), Bridges apostrophizes the reader as follows.

Now please observe, most gracious reader, that this is not a dream nor a joke. It shows the actual present condition of things, as formulated by an expert, promulgated by the University of Oxford, and recommender ter foreigners. Foreigners are really being taught that the pronunciation of to (tŭ), which is hundreds of years old, is now changed to ter (tə), and that in our “careful conversation” we say ter and inter for to and into.

Mountain and cabbage ought, of course, in Bridges’ view, to be pronounced with in the final syllable. Ambulance ought to have -æns. The poet continues

The only question can be whether Mr. Jones exaggerates the actual prevalence of degradation. Some will acquit him of any exaggeration. Others I know very well will regard him as a half-witted faddist, beneath serious notice, who should be left to perish in his vain imaginings.

’Vain imaginings’ is a peculiarly inappropriate characterization of Jones’s carefully observed and accurately reported descriptions of the educated pronunciation of his day.

Jones, by the way, reports that Bridges

didn’t speak with his reformed pronunciation; his pronunciation was very much like mine, except that he made rather freer use of the obscure vowel to which he took such strong objection.

In 1926 Bridges was appointed Chairman of the BBC’s Advisory Committee on Spoken English. Jones, by then Professor of Phonetics in the University of London, was one of its members.


  1. An excellent post. I'm honoured to have inspired this. It's very interesting. Bridges's comments about Jones were cruel, and Jones noted that Bridges was hypocritical on the subject of schwa. A similar story has continued to the present day, as those who depict the current state of speech are condemned as debasing the language by critics who barely understand what they are saying.

    To continue my anecdote, I used to know a Ms. McDermott from Castleford. Speaking to her colleagues, it would become Ms. [mək də:mət] from [kasl̩fəd], but it would become Ms [mak də:mɔt] from [kasl̩fɔ:d] when she was speaking on the phone to someone from another part of the country/world. It shows that ideas about what is "correct" and "well spoken" differ widely. Castleford is the sort of town where virtually everyone speaks in the local accent, which is still a long way from RP despite the decline of actual dialect.

  2. Few, if any, languages written in the Latin alphabet have this kind of problems, to this degree, and you-guys certainly imagine how much time and effort coping with them requires of foreign learners.

    Somewhat tangentially: does anyone know or have any beliefs on what Gerald Manley Hopkins (Bridges' friend) sounded like? Knowing his writings somewhat I can't recall him ever advocating spelling pronunciation, and, given that he was in love with the Germanic element in English, that is rather unlikely, but who knows...?

  3. Wojciech

    Pure speculation, but I'd guess that anybody with a feel for 'sprung rhythm' would make the conventional distinctions between stressed and unstressed vowels.

    At the Edinburgh Book Festival I bought a pre-publication copy of David Crystal's new book on spelling — Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling — and had it signed. I finished reading it with the conviction that with the particular histories of English governance, English cultural interaction, English phonology and English publishing — the complexity of English spelling is inevitable. And every attempt in history (well, many of them) to simplify the system has ended up making it more complicated.

    1. that was David Diringer's line, in his famous 'Alphabet' of forty-something. He says something like 'reforming English spelling is tantamount to belittling England's history'...

      Well, since the Anglophone often have no clear views of how a word should be pronounced (mounten or mountayn?) there is way of fixing 'it' (there is no 'it') in a however-well-improved spelling...

    2. Wojciech

      Well, since the Anglophone often have no clear views of how a word should be pronounced (mounten or mountayn?)

      Very seldom, in fact. I don't think I've ever heard a native speaker say 'mountayne' outside the context of verse or song.

      Well, since the Anglophone often have no clear views of how a word should be pronounced (mounten or mountayn?)

      Something missing here. The word no, perhaps? But whatever you mean, I question your use of fix.

      The spelling of mountain is 'fixed' in the sense we're not free to change it. The pronunciation is relatively 'fixed' in this sense; we can — but seldom do — vary the pronunciation to create a rhyme. But I presume you meant 'fix' in the sense of 'repair'. OK but what's the problem?

      Your example suggests that the essential problem is the difficulty of assigning a pronunciation to a spelling. Yes, this is a serious problem for foreign speakers who encounter a new word in their reading and would like to incorporate it in their active spoken lexis. For us native speakers, the odds are that any newly encountered spelling represents a word that we already know. All we have to do is register the correspondence so as to recognise it next time we see the spelling.

      The essential problem for native speakers is recalling the spelling of a word when we write it. Remembering is harder than recognition. Even so, it's not as bad as you might think; we learn each new spelling by analogy with spellings we already know. It's not elegant that we have so many analogical patterns, often without consistency, but the learning load is not unbearable.

      Yes, we could 'fix' the remembering-the-spelling 'problem' by a change to using the same letters consistently to represent the same sound units (phonemes or sequences of phonemes). But that would not be an unmixed blessing. Word recognition would be much harder if sight, site and cite, for example, were spelled identically — or if electric, electricity and electrician were spelled differently.

      Variations in pronunciation between native speakers are not a great 'problem' that calls to be 'fixed'. Readers with different pronunciations for NORTH and FORCE and vowels are not confused by the single spelling. Readers with the same consonant for Wales and whales are not confused by the two spellings. It's when reformed spelling relies exclusively on phonetic consistence that problems arise. The Initial teaching Alphabet project failed for a number of reasons, one of them that it only worked if the child learner's accent shared the phonology of RP.

      Variations in the form of 'spelling pronunciations' like mountayne cause no communicative difficulty with literate hearers. In some cases they may excite prejudice. In others (often, waistcoat etc) they become standard, or at least majority use.

    3. David,

      I meant 'fix' in the sense of 'capture in a consistent form', or something like that, not 'repair'.

      If we are to believe John, it was Bridges wanted the English to say 'mount-ay-n', see above, even if he himself said 'mounten' as Jones reports, see above. 'why can't the English learn how to speak'-- rather Bridges' than Jones' or Higgins'.

      I agree with most of what you say. We NNS don't have the problem with the spelling, most of the time. But we don't know how to pronounce English words on seeing them. We waste hours and hours, weeks, months, years, on learning just that. You certainly know the famous poem by a Dutchman, I forget his name, 'Dear creature in creation'.

      By 'we don't know how to pronounce English words' I mean, in the context of John's post:

      1. NOT the problem of the English phonology. This is something of a problem, since the E. phonology is extremely eccentric and idiosyncratic as compared to most European phonologies --- not even Danish is as bad, maybe Faroese. But I DO NOT mean that.

      2. NOT the problem of there being no 'the' English phonology (still less phonetics) but various segments, U and non-U, Scottish, American, New Zealand, Yorkshire, Mancuvian, Southern, Mid-West, Tasmanian and what not. This frustrates any attempt --- as you rightly observe --- at 'fixing' it (since there is no 'it') in my sense, i.e. capturing it in a consistent form, recognisably close to what the Latin letters originally stood for. I DO NOT mean that.

      3. NOT the problem that the English spelling is largely historical. OK,this is something of a problem, --- site, sight and cite, or so, sew, sow --- but there is a similar problem in French: sein, sain, saint, seing, ceint, all pronounced s-nasalised epsilon --- yet in most cases you will know how to pronounce a French word just on seeing it.

      but I mean much rather the problem defined in John's post above: irregular pronunciations, such as Garforth, Castleforth, Featherstonehaugh, Worcester, and so on, plus 'busy', and the examples from the above-mentioned poem.

      I agree that spelling pronunciation, reportedly advocated by Bridges, the Poet Laureate, is no solution, and frankly speaking have long despaired at finding any solution (not myself of course, but someone else's finding) and in a sense acquiesce in Diringer's judgment that who-so-ever durst reform the English spelling would be showing flagrant disrespect to England's history...

      One if I may say so modest postulate would be that English NS be more aware to how much labour we non-Anglophones invest in learning their largely unpredictable spelling-pronunciation relations.

      (One gets used to /[zd t] or [st t]? probably the former in this context/ much. I sometimes baffle my students with the observation that 'one', 'love' and 'come' should, by their spelling, be pronounced like 'own', 'loave(s)' and 'comb'. But I equally baffle them with the information that 'iron' is NOT 'I-rawn' or 'determine' 'debtor-mine'. This is you might say because Polish English instruction is bad enough not to cover these words. Yes. But for any ever so good instruction there will always be some English words, such as 'prayer' (prie`re, preghiera), that it does not cover. Germans, whose English instruction is good, don't know that 'prayer' is 'prair' not 'pray-er', in the sense of 'prie`re', 'Gebet', 'molitva'.)

      Sorry for being prolix. Sometimes even resignation needs many words.

    4. Wojciech

      I mean much rather the problem defined in John's post above: irregular pronunciations, such as Garforth, Castleforth, Featherstonehaugh, Worcester, and so on, plus 'busy', and the examples from the above-mentioned poem.

      This is easily the most trivial of the problems of English spelling. You seldom need to say these names aloud if you're not in the vicinity of the place or family. Most natives and the overwhelming majority of non-natives will never need to pronounce them. If you're very close, the locals will know which place you're talking about, and they'll have heard any non-local variants. Plus, the spelling pronunciation is always understood, whether or not anybody ever uses it. The one exception in your list is Worcester which we say all the time because of Worcester (wʊstə) sauce — which removes the difficulty.

      Moreover, there is no social awkwardness in asking How do you pronounce the name?. If it's different in any way, they'll enjoy letting you in on the secret.

      It can even be an advantage to the non-local. Dolly Parton recently came to Rotherham (to open a branch of her books for kids scheme) and charmed everybody by demonstrating that she'd learned not to use the American pronunciation rɑ:ðərhæm

      One if I may say so modest postulate would be that English NS be more aware to how much labour we non-Anglophones invest in learning their largely unpredictable spelling-pronunciation relations.

      I've taught English to speakers of many languages over many years. I never felt that this was a major problem. I wonder whether your particular problem is that you have advanced your English studies so much and for so long after your days of study under a teacher.

      Teachers prioritise. Teachers don't demand spoken responses to every written text. Teachers teach new vocabulary items as spoken words; the spelling is secondary and often subsequent.

      David Crystal makes the point that the key to learning spelling is understanding the conflicting principles at work. Have a look at his book — in might be useful for your particular problems. The relations are not nearly as unpredictable as spelling reformers claim. And if your worry is teaching spellings that you know but present difficulties to students, Crystal has some sound recommendations.

      I sometimes baffle my students with the observation that 'one', 'love' and 'come' should, by their spelling, be pronounced like 'own', 'loave(s)' and 'comb'.

      Great fun for you, but not very helpful to your students. There's an interesting story to be told of how the spelling of one etc was deliberately altered to improve legibility. And the story helps students remember the class or words affected.

      But I equally baffle them with the information that 'iron' is NOT 'I-rawn' or 'determine' 'debtor-mine'.

      Unbaffle them with the fact that the Scottish drink Irn Bru(made from girders) is pronounced with an r. There was a thread on the pronunciation here.

      Deter has the same stress pattern as the related noun deterrence — and a load of verbs like prefer, inter, etc. Debtor illustrates the well-meaning spelling 'reform' that was meant to make spelling easier(!) by inserting a marker of etymology. Crystal paints a memorable picture of two monks coming up with the wheeze — because everybody know Latin and always will. The joke is memorable, and so debt and are memorable by association.

      The silent E despite the short ɪ is unusual but not unique. We have compline, engine, bowline, give, live (v), costive, restive, festiveand for slightly different reasons hospice, coppice, poultice, Maurice. OK, give and live are truly exceptional, but they're very common words.

    5. David:

      You are saying, in a nutshell: it's all not so bad, thanks to those various circumstances, D. Crystal and John's Dictionary. I agree (after years of hard work...). But I'd say something like: See it in a different way: English IS difficult, more difficult than other languages, and the spelling-pron.tion relations are horrible. Yet that is its CHARM. Try to love it! I entertain my students with 'one', 'come' and 'love' precisely to achieve that effect. With some success. For instance, the 'Dear creature in creation' poem by that Dutchman they found very entertaining and ...well... charming.

      As to the rest, for instance when you really need Featherstonehaugh etc., I'd beg to disagree with you for reasons of let's say 'descriptive sociology', but this is no place to discuss it.

  4. @Wojciech: Will that help?


      many thanks, but whose voice is that? the channel's owner's?

    2. I thought it was Gerard M Hopkins's?

    3. Hopkins died in 1889, at least 50 years before a recording of such quality could be made.
      Also, can't you tell that the accent is demonstrably not of a person born in the 1840s?

    4. Well, Kraut was joking, gassalascajape.

      As for me, not being a phonetician, I can't really tell, the accent appears somewhat artificial, quaint, genteel, "gekünstelt" as the German says, what have you... but that is it. Yet all in all, the recording is not that bad. Ut desint vires, tamen magna est laudanda voluntas. It appears to be one of many recordings by that Jim Clark, the owner of the channel, whose hobby seems to be 'reviving' as he calls it voices of poets dead long since.

      So what do YOU say is the accent like?

      But I still am eager to hear opinions, if there be any around, on Hopkins' pronunciation, spelling- or non-spelling-.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Wouldn't some of Bridge's motivations be responsible for the use of the full vowel in American pronunciations of words ending -ory, -ary, -ery (/ˈtempəreri/ as opposed to /ˈtemp(ə)rəri/ for 'temporary']?

    1. I don't think that's anything to do with Bridge's motivation ... my amateur opinion (which could easily be wrong) is that Americans don't like to use more than two unstressed syllables in a row, and add secondary stress to words that have them.

    2. I remember having read somewhere that the characteristically American pronunciation of 'temporary', 'dictionary' and such-like is due to the efforts of generations of American teachers who did they best to inculcate into their pupils (especially immigrant children) what they thought to be _the_ correct English pronunciation. ('Correct' not necessarily in the sense of historically correct or such, but 'clear', 'distinct', 'functional', 'easy to understand' and so on.)

    3. Wojciech - if what you say is correct, then that would mean that Peter's suggestion is right.

      But I find it hard to imagine that that kind of innovation could catch on when introduced by a few eccentrics. This kind of change usually starts with younger people. So is the US pronunciation definitely the innovation? And the British pronunciation with the schwa is definitely the older form?

    4. 'So is the US pronunciation definitely the innovation? And the British pronunciation with the schwa is definitely the older form?'

      Yes. The American pronunciation, with its rhoticism, its TRAP-like BATH-vowels and so on appears on the whole rather more conservative than the British, but in this particular point---if what I have read is right---it's the other way 'round. Plus the legendary, real or invented, US spelling-pronunciations of various English tradition-hallow place names, such as 'Chelten-ham' instead of 'Cheltenem'. Some English folks even suspect the Yanks of saying 'wur-ce-ster' for 'Worcester'....

      In America, given its democratic nature, it's rather unlikely that some innovation invented by an eccentric could catch on... . For this reason, I find my 'generations of American teachers' more believable.

    5. Given the spelling, I would expect the American pronunciation to be older.

    6. @Wojciech:

      I don't believe this is correct. The US versions with secondary stress are more conservative. JWL had a post on his blog about this a while ago, but I can't find it.

    7. I find that there's often a combination of conservatism and innovation in (generic) American English - it's rhotic, yes, but it merges many sets such as "Mary-merry-marry", "serious-Sirius", "hurry-furry" and "Tory-torrent"; it resists the TRAP-BATH split, but embraces the LOT-CLOTH split and the LOT-PALM merger; it tends to avoid glottal stops (even at the ends of words), but it's got flapping and /nt/ reduction. My native speech is of an Eastern New England variety - LOT-THOUGHT merged, LOT-PALM unmerged, maintaining most of the pre-/r/ vowel distinctions - which presents the interesting question of which unreduced vowel to use in "-ary" words. I use the "merry" vowel in those, even though the "Mary" or "marry" vowels would seem more likely from the spelling.

    8. Wojciech et al, haven't you read my Accents of English? There, near the end of vol. 1, I show that in the -ry suffixes AmE is conservative, BrE the innovator. Strangely, though, with -ile (missile, docile, hostile), it is the other way round. So no facile explanations about Anmerican schoolteachers will do.

    9. As I said, the story with the schoolteachers was something that I had read somewhere, not something I believed. Relata retuli. I found it believable, especially that the American pronunciation made the impression of spelling-pronunciation on me. But if it's wrong, well, OK.

    10. I must correct myself, on 'it's wrong' above: the historical originality of the American pronunciations of 'temporary' etc. and the efforts of American schoolteachers are in perfect agreement: these latter taught what they thought to be _the_ correct pronunciation and --- in some cases it WAS the historically correct pronunciation. Isn't that quite a believable account? In some cases they taught spelling pronunciation (for 'forehead', e.g., or perhaps 'Worcester') but often (awfn) they did not.

  6. It can't be fixed but it certenly could be improoved.

    1. Sorry, is your 'can't' 'kent', 'caynt', 'cairnt', or 'cahn't'? And how would you sell yor (yoor?) improovements tuh fowks hoo insist that it be 'certay-nly' rather than 'certenly'? Or even 'sartinly'?

    2. I would leave can't alone, but I would change any to enny, according to the ways of the majority, rather than to inny or anny. The principle is that of chainging irregularly pronounced wurds, leaving a system about as complex as French.

  7. It doesn't surprise me that Bridges didn't use his reformed pronunciation. It would probably make him sound foreign if he did. The lack of schwa is of course a well-known characteristic of many foreign accents.

    1. I should have said , "The lack of unstressed vowels..." because cabbage and other words have ɪ as an unstressed vowel.

  8. Does saying /ʃaɪɚ/ for /ʃɚ/ as in Hampshire or /lænd/ for /lənd/ as in Queensland sound relevant here?

    1. Saying /ʃaɪɚ/ for /ʃɚ/ does. A lot of Scots do this and I was once told by a Scot that this was the "proper" way of saying it.

    2. @Ed: I wonder if that's one of the lingering results of Scottish English being (at least initially) a somewhat non-native dialect of English?

    3. Taxon, care to explain why.
      I too have thought of varieties such as Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Indian English as being at least partially non-native (as you said "initially"), but how's saying /ʃaɪɚ/ for /ʃɚ/ linked to this. I've heard /ʃaɪɚ/ from some (few but definitely existent) Americans as well.

    4. Americans are a nation of immigrants, most of whom were non-anglophone, initially...

      and I think the story that I told above, about the 'generations of American schoolteachers trying to inculcate what they thought to be the correct pronunciation into their pupils' contains a grain of truth. Correct pronunciation meant, in some cases (though by far not in all), spelling pronunciation.

    5. "Americans are a nation of immigrants, most of whom were non-anglophone, initially..."

      Well..yes. But, I don't think that's the (only) reason. After all no American pronounces 'think' as 'sink'. The real reason might be spelling pronunciation (which you mention in the schoolteachers argument) and the lack of -shires in America (compared to the UK at least). Australians, who are descended mostly from Brits, typically pronounce Queensl[ə]nd as Queensl[æ]nd.

    6. You'd have to go back a very long way in history to when Scotland was all Gaelic-speaking. In the Lowlands, a Germanic language has been spoken for centuries. There are some parts of England near the Welsh border that were slower to shed their Celtic words. The areas on the east coast were the first to be settled by Germanic speakers.

      I don't know whether /ʃaɪɚ/ is an innovation or the older pronunciation. Some archaic features persist in parts of Scotland, such as the use of initial [gn] and [kn] in words such as "gnaw" or "knee". See here!

    7. 'After all no American pronounces 'think' as 'sink'.'

      Many do! Those who are recently-made Americans, with a background in a th-less language... . But do many Scots say 'sink' for 'think'? Many English say 'fink' for 'think', ('Fings ain't wot vey yoosta be') and yet, they are as a whole not a recently-anglophone nation...

    8. @Ed Bear in mind that Scotland has a handful of "-shires" of its own (though some are a little Devonshirish). So your interlocuter may have been inferring from those exemplars, as well as possibly appealing to phonetic originalism. Be thankful you didn't come to blows over rhoticity!

      In order to find a time when Scotland was all Gaelic-speaking, you'd need to go to not just a much larger Gàidhealtachd, but a much larger Scotland: never mind the Northumbrians, a Brythonic language was being spoken in the SW (Strathclyde) until about the 10th century, and the jury's still out on what the Picts spoke. (Top theory seems to be, yet another P-Celtic.)

      That said, there does seem to be an element of innovations often starting from The Metropolis (or thereabouts), and diffusing out from there. So you could argue that the GVS, non-rhot, w/wh merger, etc, are indeed "non-native" to Scotland. But that would just be to say they were conservative features, and isn't really saying much.

      I've heard the odd person use velar fricatives in loanwords (Greek, for example), but possibly "odd" in more ways than one. That'd be a phonological holdover from Gaelic, albeit of a very marginal sort. Hiberno-English has much more clearcut such, which one may well think would correlate with it being less extensively Anglicised until much more recently.

  9. Iceland is a country or a supermarket depending on, respectively, whether the second syllable is a schwa or not. An interesting distinction, though not every BrE speaker observes it, and presumably no AmE speakers at all, as they would not use the schwa version.

    Tudor Hughes.

    1. I'm American, and I pronounce "Iceland" and "Greenland" with a schwa.

  10. OK. My experience of AmE speech is rather limited and I may have been invoking a stereotype.

    Tudor Hughes

    1. No worries, mate. I'd suggest that if you ever have a question regarding the American English pronunciation of a word, you should look it up at - it's not any kind of a phonetic authority, but it will tell you the standard phonemic pronunciation of the word. I've become pretty well acquainted with the nuances of standard British English by looking up words at, the British equivalent.

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