Monday 17 September 2012

repertory repartee

I’m looking forward to reading David Crystal’s latest, Spell it Out, ‘the singular story of English spelling’.

Meanwhile, although I haven’t yet seen the book, I have seen a review, published in Saturday’s Guardian.

I was disappointed that the strapline for the review read “Sam Leith on a lively exposition of how language changes”. Sam Leith, or perhaps rather the Guardian’s subeditor, ought to know that “language” is more than spelling; and that the book, being about our spelling and how it got that way, barely touches on how the language as a whole has changed over the centuries. What about the gradual changes in English syntax, morphology, lexis and phraseology? They are of much greater import than the superficialities of spelling.

David Crystal himself would never have been guilty of such loose terminology.

Perhaps I can at this point recycle something from my blog of 14 April 2008. I had been reading an on-line interview with David. In answer to a question about what it’s like writing and performing with other members of the family, David was quoted as saying

Ben (his son) trained as an actor, I've been in an amateur repartee company for many, many years...

The question is whether this was an intentional witticism by David, or a straightforward mishearing by the interviewer. Repertory, repartee.

Repertory is phonetically quite an interesting word. It’s OK for the Americans, since they maintain a strong ɔː vowel in the -ory ending. But we Brits weaken it to schwa, which leaves weak vowels in three successive syllables: ˈrepətəri. As usual, the penultimate schwa is subject to possible disappearance through compression, giving just ˈrepətri.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that it sometimes gets misheard.


  1. I think the compressed schwa only causes mishearing where the hearer lacks oral familiarity with the word. No such problem with lavatory - any schoolboy knows it has three syllables.

  2. This always reminds me of a conversation in the 6th form at school (so 1987ish - an independent school for what it's worth). I was talking to a classmate and said something like "You have a very wide repertoire".

    He laughed at me dismissively and quite patronisingly informed me that "it may be spelled 'repertoire' but it's pronounced 'repartee"."

    I don't recall if I ever convinced him otherwise.

  3. Alan: That is, any fule except a Yank fule: four syllables. Extraordinary may have five (my usage) or even six.

    1. John: point taken, though in context there's no reason to suspect that the interviewer(s) who misheard repertory weren't themselves British, so I just put the problem down to an unfamiliar word. Personally I hadn't heard of repertory, and although it's fairly clear to me from the spelling what it means and how I would pronounce it, if I'd heard that same pronunciation before encountering the above post I would probably have been wondering what on earth *repatry means.

  4. So, how many syllables for 'secretary' or 'February'? I often hear two for them!

  5. I'm a Mexican 15-year-old, but I have lived in the United Stated for 7 years. Extraordinary can have anywhere from three to five syllables for me, depending on speed. /ɛksˈtɹɔːɹd(ᵻ)n(ɛ)ɹi/.

  6. @Fernando: a 15-year old using IPA is extraordinary in its own right. Hat tip to you!

  7. And in Auden's poem, O Tell Me the Truth About Love, the meter doesn't work unless extraordinary has five syllables, so Auden's pronunciation was presumably /ˌɛkstrə(r)ˈɔːdənri/.

    1. Indeed. But to clarify, I say extr'ordinary (five syllables), not extraordin'ry (also five syllables) as Auden did here. When it's a calque for extraordinarius, as in extraordinary professor in a German context, I pronounce all six vowels; some Americans do this in all contexts.

  8. David Crystal gave a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival,and so Spell It Out was on sale (and thus available for signing by the author) well in advance of publication.

    It's a thoroughly enjoyable read, and Sam Leith's review is actually very pertinent. He makes an excellent point about the non-evolutionary nature of spelling change I don't really think many readers would have thought he was referring to language change in general. After all, the book is exclusively about spelling, so why should the review be any different?

  9. @kɪliən hɛkhœʏs: aɪ stɑːɹɾɘd əbaʊt sɛvɛn jiəɹz əɡoʊ, lʊkɪŋ θɹu ðɜ væɹiɘs skiːmz juːzd ᵻn dɪkʃɜnɛɹiz, ɜntᵻɫ ɐɪ faɪnɫ̩i dɘsaɪdɘd tɜ lɹ̩ːn prɒpɹ̩ aɪ piː eɪ. ðɪs ɪz ðə bɹɒːɾɛst ɜv maɪ tɹænskɹɪpʃɜnz.

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