Friday 29 March 2013


The village of Atherton in Greater Manchester (formerly, in Lancashire) has recently been in the news. It is quite near where I grew up, so I am confident in saying that it is pronounced ˈæðətən.

As we know, the spelling digraph th regularly corresponds to two distinct phonemes in English: θ as in thin and ð as in this. (For the moment we can forget the occasional irregular correspondences, as for example to t in Thomas.)

The rule is easy in word-initial position. In LPD I expressed it like this:

Word-medially, it generally depends on whether or not the word is of Germanic origin:

Since Atherton is obviously of Germanic origin (‘farmstead of a man called Æthelhere’), it is indeed expected that the fricative would be voiced, as also in Brotherton, Netherfield, Rotherham, etc.

As a surname, however, Atherton is often pronounced with a voiceless fricative. I have to wonder how the places of this name in California, Indiana, Ontario and Queensland are pronounced.

Even more surprisingly, Atherstone in Warwickshire, according to the BBC Pron Dict of British Names, has θ (though Wikipedia says it has ð). So does Athelney in Somerset. Athelstaneford in Scotland is a law unto itself, being ˈaθl̩stenfɔrd or even ˈɛlʃənfərd. Scottish Atholl is ˈæθl̩. And the Athenry whose fields are commemorated in song by Irish nationalists is ˌæθənˈraɪ; but then the origin of this name is not Germanic but Celtic (Irish Átha an Rí ‘the king’s ford’).

Wednesday 27 March 2013

snow joke

The Eastern Daily Press, published daily in Norwich, is the largest-selling regional morning newspaper in the UK.

Peter Trudgill, the UK’s leading sociolinguist, comes from Norwich and is of course the author of The social differentiation of English in Norwich (CUP, 1974). He is also President of Friends of Norfolk Dialect. From time to time he contributes articles on language to the EDP.

I reproduce the most recent, entitled “Our vowel habits set us apart from the rest”. (As usual, you can click to enlarge.)

Thanks to input from Peter, I was able to cover this point in my Accents of English (vol. 2, p. 337).

Monday 25 March 2013

Ansatz von Senilität

One of the joys of continuing to try to educate oneself throughout life, even as one grows old, is that you’re for ever extending your vocabulary.

My maths education ended at fourteen, when I had done my O levels and entered the classical sixth. I’d had a good grounding in arithmetic, algebra and geometry, extending to trigonometry and calculus. But I have always felt a bit ignorant about, for example, such matters as exponentials and complex numbers and calculations involving them. I can’t process e and i as easily as I can π, sin θ, and x-1.

Recently, beguiled by Prof. Brian Cox’s eloquent and engaging television programmes, I embarked on his recent book, coauthored with Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe (subtitle: everything that can happen does happen).

So I was looking forward to some challenging new ideas that I might struggle to understand. I hadn’t quite expected, though, that within the first dozen pages I would come across a word I had not met before: ansatz, explained as an ‘educated guess’.

Now Ansatz is the sort of German word that I know passively, though I would not claim that it belongs to my active vocabulary. I would take it in my stride if I encountered it in the middle of a German text, perhaps einen neuen Ansatz (zu etwas) machen, ‘make a fresh attempt (at something)’. On looking it up I find that it has a whole range of specialist and technical meanings that need not detain us here.

But as an English word, how would I pronounce it? The trouble with knowing German is that I immediately think to myself ˈanzats. I map a onto a and syllable-initial prevocalic s onto z. This is not appropriate for English, where a maps onto æ and syllable-initial s onto s. I have to force myself to anglicize the pronunciation to the ˈænsæts that British mathematicians would probably say (or possibly the ˈɑːnsɑːts that I imagine American math (sic) specialists might prefer).

The only English dictionary I have to hand that contains the word is the on-line OED. which confirms ˈænsæts as the pronunciation. There’s a Wikipedia article on the subject, but it shows no pronunciation.

And what would we say if there were more than one ansatz? What is its plural? Again, my German is good enough to expect it to be Ansätze ˈanzɛtsə (yes, I’ve checked, it is). But when we borrow occasional German words into English we don’t usually at the same time borrow their plural forms: though we may sometimes refer to a wunderkind ˈwʌndəkɪnd in English (cf German ˈvʊndɐkɪnt), we never speak of wunderkinder, and we get embarrassed about what to call the Länder of the Federal Republic. So I suspect that if you make more than one ansatz in mathematical discourse they’ll be ansatzes ˈænsætsɪz.

A few more pages later in the book, I did have to skip over Schrödinger's equation. (In calculus I didn't get as far as partial differentials.)

I don't even know how to read it aloud.

Friday 22 March 2013

met a what?

On BBC4 TV recently there was an interesting programme entitled Metamorphoses. It was about animals that change their shape and/or lifestyle dramatically in the course of their lives: caterpillars turning into butterflies, tadpoles becoming frogs, and so on.

Metamorphosis, the singular form of metamorphoses, is one of those classical-derived words in which English speakers may hesitate about stress placement. In LPD, following Daniel Jones’s EPD, I give the main pron ˌmetəˈmɔːfəsɪs, with a secondary pron ˌmetəmɔːˈfəʊsɪs. M-W Collegiate and K&K give just the first stressing, as does ODP, although the Concise Oxford gives both, as does the OED (2001, for BrE; just the first for AmE).

On the TV programme all the scientists who took part, with just a single exception, gave it antepenultimate stress.

So why do some Brits, at least, want to stress the penultimate? Mainly, no doubt, because of other scientific words in -osis such as psychosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, cirrhosis, symbiosis, meiosis, tuberculosis, osmosis, hypnosis, sclerosis, all of which have penultimate stress, -ˈəʊsɪs.

Those few who know Classical Greek will know the etymon μεταμόρφωσις metamórphōsis, and in English will know as usual to ignore the classical Greek accentuation in favour of the Latin stress rule. In the Greek spelling the omega (ω, ō) in the penultimate syllable shows that the vowel is long and therefore, by the Latin stress rule, stressed.

Classicists and grammarians, though, may know the word apodosis əˈpɒdəsɪs (Greek απόδοσις apódŏsis) ‘then-clause’, paired with protasis ‘if-clause’ and having an omicron (ο, ŏ) followed by a single consonant in the penultimate syllable, giving a Latin and English antepenultimate stress. But then they’ll also know apotheosis (Greek ἀποθέωσις apothéōsis), which has an omega and therefore penultimate stress like the scientific words. Nowadays those of us who do know it say əˌpɒθiːˈəʊsɪs; but apparently that was not always the case in Enɡlish.

Under -osis the OED comments “The older pronunciation of at least some of these words had the stress on the syllable preceding the suffix: see, e.g., the etymological note at apotheosis n.” Under apotheosis we read (OED of 1885) “The great majority of orthoepists, from Bailey and Johnson downward, give the first pronunciation [sc. æpəʊˈθiːəsɪs], but the second [sc. əˌpɒθiːˈəʊsɪs] is now more usual”.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

villages possessed

Writing about apostrophes in place names led me to realize that I haven’t ever discussed in my blog the question of the spelling of placenames in Montserrat, the West Indian island my partner comes from, which we visit every year.

Many of the former sugar estates or cotton plantations on the island were named after their (former) owners, and many of the villages are named in turn after the estate or plantation where they are located. So a centuries-dead owner called Brade is perpetuated in the village of Brades; the village in which I stayed on my first visit to the island, Tuitt’s, keeps alive the name of the Tuitt who once owned the nearby estate.

Etymologically, then, these are possessives, and accordingly they are sometimes (though inconsistently) written with an apostrophe. See, on the first map, Brades but Trant’s and Tuitt’s.

There is the usual problem in cases where the former estate owner’s name ends in a sibilant. Near Bethel, just to the south of the dotted red line marking the limits of the exclusion zone (access forbidden because of continuing danger from the volcano), you will see a village labelled Harris. However this village, sadly destroyed in the volcanic disaster of 1997, is/was known as ˈhærɪsɪz (well, ˈharɪsɪz). I feel inclined, therefore, to spell it Harris’s. The local school teachers, anxious to be correct, tended to write Harris’. But as you can see, the map makers wrote Harris, apostrophe-free, and this is/was the predominant spelling.

Here’s another map. Again, we have Harris, but also Harris’ Lookout. More interestingly, this map shows another village, labelled Farm. But everyone calls/called it faːmz.

A recent government report reported on plans for geothermal drilling “between Weekes village and Garibaldi Hill”. I can tell you that the name of the village is pronounced ˈwiːksɪz.

There’s another village, one still unaffected by the volcano, called frɪts (actually, Upper and Lower). How is it spelt? Either Friths or simply Frith. (Bear in mind that in Caribbean English you tend to get t for standard θ, so frɪθs simplifies to frɪts.)

Monday 18 March 2013

apostrophes again

It’s apostrophe-moral-panic time again. (For previous episodes, see for example my blog for 7 Dec 2011. )

As you may know, I am something of a campaigner AGAINST the possessive apostrophe. I am on record as saying

People, even literate ones, get very confused about apostrophes. Let's abolish them.

I have pointed out the absurdity, on the London Underground, of having adjacent stations officially called Earl’s Court (with an apostrophe) and Barons Court (without one).

Before reading further, see if you know, or can guess, which of the following Underground stations are written with an apostrophe, and which not. Then check with the official tube map.

  • Parsons Green
  • Kings Cross
  • Colliers Wood
  • Carpenders Park
  • Queens Park
  • Canons Park
  • Golders Green
  • Gallions Reach
Oh, and are any of these possessives plural? If so, the apostrophe, if required, ought to go after the s, not before it. Yes, you need to know whether Queens Park is like Queen’s College, Oxford, commemorating one queen, or Queens’ College, Cambridge, commemorating two.

Suppose you are on a shopping trip, and want to visit the ˈbeɪkəz. Should that be the baker’s (‘the shop of the baker’) or the bakers’ (‘the shop of the bakers’)? Or is it just the bakers you want to visit, i.e. the people who bake, rather than their shop?

The possessive apostrophe has no phonetic correlate. You can’t hear it in speech. Therefore we could perfectly well get along without it in writing.

Ah, you will say, but sometimes it has a real usefulness, to distinguish between a singular and a plural possessor. The Guardian Book of the English Language (2007), edited by my former student David Marsh, puts it like this:

Nonsense. You can’t tell these apart in speech. In speech, if ambiguity threatens, we disambiguate by paraphrasing. It makes sense to do the same in writing: the investments made by

  • my sister and her friend
  • my sister and her friends
  • my sisters and their friend
  • my sisters and their friends.

On the BBC1 TV news yesterday my colleague Rob Drummond insisted, correctly I believe, that whether or not a street sign has an apostrophe is really no big deal, and that many apostrophes are ambiguous at best and unnecessary at worst.

But I believe he didn’t go far enough. I would argue myself that the possessive apostrophe gives people such problems and is of such little importance that we would do better simply to abolish it.

It would be absurd to force Boots the Chemist to introduce an apostrophe into their name, even though Boots started as the shop of one John Boot. With the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s (sic) there is even an issue over what apostrophe would logically be required. The company was indeed founded by one Sainsbury (and his wife — that makes two), but there are now several Sainsbury family shareholders, not to mention many non-Sainsburys, of whom the largest is the Qatar Investment Authority.

American readers can meanwhile meditate about Bloomingdale’s (sic) and Barneys New York (sic).

There is one circumstance in which a possessive apostrophe does have a phonetic correlate (and might reasonably therefore be retained): after a stem ending in a sibilant with no following letter e, as in church’s. Even here, however, the possessive singular is pronounced identically with the plural (and possessive plural): church’s is homophonous with churches and churches’, and could therefore be identically spelt. The only really awkward cases are proper names like Ross’s, complementing the already awkward Jones’s (or Jones’), this possessive being homophonous with the Joneses we may be tempted to keep up with. There’s no problem in writing St Georges or St Johns.

At least if we officially abolished possessive apostrophes then those who worry about such things would no longer be tormented by superfluous “greengrocers’” apostrophes and by people who write it’s when they ought to write its.

Friday 15 March 2013

carrying dogs

English intonation is at the interface of phonetics and pragmatics. To describe the tunes you have to be able to analyse the changing pitch of the voice and the associated stress patterns, which is phonetics. To describe their meanings you have to be able to account for language use and contextual meaning, which is pragmatics. I feel confident about the phonetics, less so about the pragmatics.

Yesterday as I came up the escalator at Vauxhall tube station the man in front of me was carrying a medium-sized dog. He was complying with the instruction displayed at the foot of every escalator on the London Underground.

Eighteen months ago Language Log carried an interesting posting by Mark Liberman on this topic — in fact an expansion of one he posted as long ago as 20 Aug 2006

I've never figured out a really convincing explanation for why stressing "dogs" seems to encourage the interpretation "everyone must carry a dog", while stressing "carried" encourages the interpretation "if you have a dog, you must carry it".

Nor have I. I think this puzzle was first pointed out to me by Michael Halliday in about 1964; he didn’t have a satisfactory explanation, either.

If spoken, to carry the intended message this sentence must have the nuclear accent (“phrasal stress” for Liberman) on the verb:

  • (ˈ)Dogs must be ˈcarried.

If you say it with the nucleus on Dogs, you encourage the interpretation “you can't use this facility unless you are carrying a dog", rightly characterized by Liberman as absurd:

  • ˈDogs must be (ₒ)carried.

But why?

Please, pragmatics people, do go ahead and expatiate on the ‘implicit universally quantified agent’ by everyone and on the deontic modal must, because I don’t know how to, or at least not how to tie them up with the presence/absence of sentence accents.

In section 2.21 of my English Intonation, the section entitled Topic and Comment in the Tone chapter, I wrote

The topic is typically said with a non-falling tone (a dependent fall-rise or rise), the comment with a falling tone (a definitive fall).

OK, dogs is the topic, must be carried the comment; and we get the correct interpretation if we say

  • \/Dogs | must be \carried.
  • /Dogs | must be \carried.

— but this doesn’t explain why

  • \Dogs must be ₒcarried.
pushes us towards the absurd interpretation.


  • \Safety boots must be ₒworn.
or the injunction below — where the corresponding interpretation is not absurd at all, but the intended one.

Thursday 14 March 2013

ineptness in Rome

I was not impressed yesterday evening by BBC TV’s live coverage of the long-awaited announcement from St Peter’s Square. Wouldn’t they have done better to send a commentator with at least just a very elementary knowledge of Latin, so that he would have been able to tell us, live, that the new pope had chosen the name Francis? And wouldn’t it have been better to have chosen as our commentator’s Italian interpreter someone who at least knew the words of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary in English, rather than one who had to stumble through them as if he was hearing them for the first time?

I’m not usually a fan of the Daily Mail, but this time they’re right. (Thanks, Alex Rotatori.)

The radio arm of the BBC, on the other hand, had excellent coverage with an informed commentator.

Wednesday 13 March 2013


”If you’re tempted to use a fancy word, make sure first that you know what it means,” is excellent advice from the English teacher to the teenager writing an essay in school, but also a sensible maxim for any journalist.

Here’s Aidan Foster-Carter, in Saturday’s Guardian. I should say that he’s billed as “honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance writer, consultant and broadcaster on both Koreas”, though the University of Leeds website seems to have no trace of him.

According to LDOCE, jejune means ‘too simple’ (of ideas) or ‘boring’, and is pronounced dʒɪˈdʒuːn. The OED expands on this:

Perhaps Mr Foster-Carter does indeed find the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un kim dʑʌŋ ɯn, simple and boring, intellectually unsatisfying. I’ve an awful suspicion, though, that he merely wants to characterize him as young and callow.

The OED indeed notes a further, etymologically unjustified, sense (first citation 1898):

Etymologically, we classicists know, jejune comes from the Latin jējūnus ‘hungry; empty; scanty; dry,meagre’. For Cicero, someone who is jējūnus hasn’t had their breakfast. This meaning is preserved in the French jeûne ʒøn ‘fast’, whence the familiar (petit) déjeuner ‘breakfast’. Nothing to do with jeune ʒœn ‘young’, from Latin jŭvĕnis.

Now we see why people can occasionally be heard pronouncing the word in a sort-of-French way, as ʒəˈʒuːn. I wonder if perhaps Mr Foster-Carter is one of them.

In anatomy, the jejunum dʒɪˈdʒuːnəm is part of the small intestine.

Monday 11 March 2013

a prophetic patronymic?

The minor prophet Hosea is known in BrE as həʊˈzɪə, rhyming with nonrhotic oh dear əʊ ˈdɪə. So is the eponymous book of the Old Testament and the corresponding (rare) forename.

In LPD I gave the AmE version as hoʊˈziːə, following K&K though ignoring the variant ˈhoʊzɪə that they also mention.

I now see that Wikipedia claims that it is pronounced hoʊˈzeɪə, and indeed the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate gives both -ˈzeɪ- and -ˈziː-, in that order. I have never heard the -ˈzeɪ- form in BrE, and assume that in AmE it is a recent spelling pronunciation, perhaps influenced by Spanish names and involving contamination from José.

Just as the forename Richard has given us the patronymic surname Richardson, while David, Robert, and John have given us Davidson, Robertson, and Johnson, so Hosea has evidently given rise to the (again, rather rare) surname Hoseason.

Or so I assumed when I first encountered this surname. The BBC Pron Dict of British Names, however, gives no fewer than three possible pronunciations, none of which is the həʊˈzɪəsən that the putative etymology would imply. They are həʊˈsiːzən, ˌhəʊsiˈeɪsən, and ˌhəʊsiˈæsən.

The Oxford Names Companion confirms the etymology, locating it as originating from Shetland: a patronymic from Hosea, which was “probably originally Osie, a dim. of Oswald”, but “later altered by association with the name of the biblical prophet”.

Be that as it may, the name has now acquired a much higher profile in BrE because of the holiday company Hoseasons, which operates throughout the UK and advertises widely on television. The ads call it həʊˈsiːzənz, as if the name was a compound of season, and so I think do its employees and its customers.

Their website protests, to no apparent effect:

The Hoseasons we know and love today began with one small boatyard on the southern broads owned and run by Oulton Broad harbourmaster Wally B Hoseason. (So no, it isn’t a made up name, it’s from the Norse “Son of Hosea”.)

Interestingly, we seem to have no surnames that are patronymics of other minor prophets: no *Amosson or *Joelsson, still less any *Nahumson or *Zephaniahson. Presumably during the period of surname formation there were not many men around called Amos or Joel (though there are a few now, and have been for a few hundred years).

Friday 8 March 2013

what were all the row?

I’ve had a song running tiresomely and unseasonably through my mind over the last few days, a song I don’t think I have heard or sung for sixty years or more, not in fact since we learnt to sing it when I was at prep school.

The snatch I remember starts out as Good King Wenceslas but then morphs into something else.

"Good King Wenceslas looked out," sings we with splendid power:
Several neighbours looked out too, to see what all the row were!
We sings forte (sounded like a hundred),
Even in the soft bits how we thundered!

With the modern resources of Google and YouTube I was able to track it down. It proves to be a comic song entitled ‘The Carol Singers’, by T. C. Sterndale Bennett and Charles Haynes.

The full text is to be found here, and there is a performance of it here.

As you can see, it is written in a style that Jack Windsor Lewis calls ‘linguistic slumming’, with non-standard -s endings on non-third-person-singular verbs, were for was, ˈhʌndə(r)d for hundred and the like.

…And some rather tortured rhymes. There is no w in power ˈpaʊə when spoken rather than sung. This is for the same reason as applies to the lesser of two weevils joke (blog, 31 Aug 2010), and no matter how much you resist the tendency to smooth aʊə towards aə ~ aː, it can never really rhyme with row were ˈraʊ wɜː. Note that were has to take its strong form wɜː here, with the long/strong vowel, not just because it is sung but also because it is ‘stranded’ (followed by a syntactic gap — see blog, 28 May 2008).

Wednesday 6 March 2013


The news we heard two or three weeks ago about the human remains identified as those of Richard III meant that several newscasters and commentators made use of the word skeletal. Those I heard on BBC R4 all pronounced it with penultimate stress, as skɪˈliːtl̩. There is, though, an alternative pronunciation, with initial stress, ˈskelɪtl̩.

So this is a word like palatal, in which uncertainty about the quantity of the penultimate vowel leads to rival pronunciations, one having the antepenultimate stressing and penultimate vowel reduction predicted if the penultimate is short (ˈpalətal, ˈskelɪtal), the other having the penultimate stressing to be expected if that vowel is long (paˈleɪtal, skeˈliːtal). In the case of palatal, phoneticians and linguists have settled for the first, although anatomists prefer the second (blog, 21 March 2011).

Since skeleton is derived from the Greek σκελετόν, where the epsilon spelling of the penultimate vowel indicates a short vowel, the regular pronunciation according to the Latin stress rule is indeed the usual one, ˈskelɪtn̩.

Actually, the adjective-forming suffix -al is normally disregarded for purposes of the stress rule: we keep the stress on the adjective in the same place as it has for the naked stem, thus from ˈperson we form ˈpersonal (despite the long ō in Latin persōna). From ˈuniverse we have ˌuniˈversal, because the extra syllable in the adjective means that Chomsky and Halle’s Alternating Stress Rule comes into play. So in skeletal, which does not involve an extra syllable compared with skeleton, it would be expected that the stress would be located on the same syllable as in skeleton.

And please don’t ask about adjectival, because I don’t understand why it’s ˌædʒɪkˈtaɪvl̩, either.

Monday 4 March 2013


I’m about to have one of my front teeth crowned, and my dentist asked me to visit the dental technician for him to determine the appropriate colour match. I did so, and was impressed by his evident mastery of his subject. He took a whole series of photos of my face and teeth, first taking me into the natural daylight outside the building, and explaining to me how the replacement would be built up from multiple layers of porcelain of different translucencies and shades.

What struck me, however, was that he pronounced the word canine as kəˈnaɪn. For this word I’m only familiar with ˈkeɪnaɪn and ˈkænaɪn (the former, I think, predominating); so his version was new to me. Yet for him this is an everyday technical term of his professional speciality.

I see the OED gives all three pronunciations without comment, so perhaps he’s not alone. (Merriam-Webster Collegiate gives ˈkeɪ-, adding ˈkæ- for BrE only.)

This word is one of several that we have taken from Latin, all meaning ‘X-related’, where X is the name of an animal: aquiline, feline, asinine, vulpine and so on. Canine teeth are ‘dog-like’ teeth (Latin cănis ’dog’). It is regular in these adjectives for the suffix to be pronounced aɪn and for the stress to go on the stem. In some cases the Latin vowel length in the stem is preserved: ˈækwɪlaɪn (Latin ăquĭla ‘eagle’), ˈfiːlaɪn (fēles, fēlis 'cat’), ˈæsɪnaɪn (ăsĭnus ‘donkey, ass’), ˈvʌlpaɪn (vŭlpes ‘fox’) and so on — but in other cases, not: bovine ˈbəʊvaɪn (bōs, but stem bŏv- ‘ox, cow’), ovine ˈəʊvaɪn (ŏvis ‘sheep’). Hence the hesitation in canine ˈkeɪ- ~ ˈkæ-, which we also see in equine ˈiːk- ~ ˈek- (ĕquus ‘horse’).

The only case I can think of in which a Latin adjective in -īnus gives an English adjective with final stress does not have a stem designating an animal: marine məˈriːn (măre ‘sea’). It is also the only one in which the suffix is pronounced iːn rather than aɪn.