Wednesday 10 April 2013

listen once more

When my three-volume Accents of English (Cambridge University Press, 1982) was published, it was accompanied by a cassette with recorded specimens. The same tape was also published by BBC English under the title In a Manner of Speaking. Both cassettes have been unavailable for many years.

From time to time, though, I get queries about them. Now, with the agreement of the publishers, I have had the tracks converted to digital form, and plan to make them freely available on the web.

It will take me some time to edit the sound files, but I hope to make them all available within a few weeks. I have thrown together a quick-and-dirty web page to link to them. So far only two sound files are available, out of the twenty or so that will complete the set. Please bear in mind that the recordings all date from 1982 or a few years earlier.

The first is the specimen of RP, a test passage read by my former colleague Susan Ramsaran. (I use the same test passage for specimens of General American, Scottish, and New Zealand speech, to follow later.) The cassette inlay for it reads as follows.

RP is the standard accent of English in England, and the accent taught to overseas learners of English in many countries.

Some of its phonetic characteristics are as follows, with examples from the test passage.

  • LOT has a rounded vowel, [ɒ]: o’clock, stopped, vodka.
  • Non-rhotic distribution of /r/, historical /r/ having been lost except before a vowel: work, hour, later, started, earth tremor, utterly [ˈʌtl̩i].
  • Linking /r/, though, before a vowel: after I’d had, quarter of; also intrusive /r/ between /ə/ and a following vowel: vodka or.
  • Centring diphthongs in NEAR , SQUARE, CURE: steering, air, fury, experience, there, during.
  • Weak suffix in -ary: momentary /ˈməʊməntrɪ/; but not in -ile: hostile /ˈhɒstaɪl/.
  • Broad vowel, /ɑː/, in BATH: after, past, vast, ask.
  • The vowels of THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE are all identical: awesome, horse, force.
  • GOAT is a diphthong with a central starting point, [əʊ]: drove, local, momentary.
  • ”Smoothing” may make a diphthong monophthongal when before another vowel: throwing /ˈθrəʊɪŋ/ [θrəɪŋ], diabolical [daə-]; // and // may become [ɪ, ʊ] before a vowel: two o’clock [ˈtʊəˈklɒk].
  • The yod semivowel /j/ is retained after /t, d, n/, sometimes after /s, z/: during, new, supernatural.
  • Words such as really, fury, utterly, fiery end in [ɪ]. (Compare [i] in many other accents.)

The second track is my discussion of RP, and in particular of the specimen offered. Here is what I say. (Phonetic transcriptions are in accordance with the printed book, iɡnoring the abbreviatory conventions etc. of LPD.)

Here [in the spoken specimen] you can note [...] the rounded vowel in words of the standard lexical set LOT, for example in the words o’clock əˈklɒk, stopped stɒpt, vodka ˈvɒdkə. This is a non-rhotic accent, i.e. historically it has undergone the innovation of R Dropping, so we have the pronunciations for example work wɜːk, earth ɜːθ, tremor ˈtremə, hour ˈaʊə, later ˈleɪtə, started ˈstɑːtɪd, horse hɔːs, and so on; in the word utterly ˈʌtl̩ɪ, so pronounced, you even hear a syllabic l that results from a dropped r. But we retain linking r before a following vowel, as in the phrases after I’d had, a quarter of an hour; compare a quarter past, where there’s no r. And we have intrusive r in the phrase a double vodka or two.
We have separate centring diphthong phonemes in the lexical sets NEAR, SQUARE and CURE. Examples in the passage are the words experience ɪkˈspɪərɪəns, steering ˈstɪərɪŋ, there ðɛə, air ɛə, fury ˈfjʊərɪ, and during ˈdjʊərɪŋ.
Suffix vowels: we have a weak suffix vowel in momentaty ˈməʊməntrɪ, but a strong one in hostile ˈhɒstaɪl. Words of the lexical set BATH have the ‘broad’, that is the long back vowel, ɑː, as in the words after ˈɑːftə, past pɑːst, vast ˈvɑːst, and ask ɑːsk. That’s the same vowel as in the word calm kɑːm, as you can hear, but different from the vowel of gas ɡæs. As far as the set CLOTH is concerned, we have the same vowel in off ɒf, as in lot lɒt, but this speaker says rɔːθ where I personally would say rɒθ wrath. We have variability within RP, as you know, for this.
We’ve got the same vowel in the sets THOUGHT and NORTH, as you can hear by comparing awesome ˈɔːsm̩ with horse hɔːs; and the same vowel in words of the set NORTH as in those of the set FORCE, as you can see by comparing horse with force fɔːs.
The diphthong in GOAT has a central or even slightly front starting point; examples in the words local ˈləʊkl̩, momentary ˈməʊməntrɪ; and then we have the characteristic RP feature of “smoothing” in the phrase ˈtʊə ˈklɒk, that is two o’clock, and in ˈθrəɪŋ throwing, though this speaker didn’t smooth in the word quiet ˈkwaɪət, which she pronounced like that rather than as ˈkwaət. In the word diabolical daəˈbɒlɪkl̩, on the other hand, she did smooth.
We have historical yod j retained in the words new njuː, and during ˈdjʊərɪŋ, and for this speaker even in the word supernatural ˈsjuːpəˈnætʃərəl, which I should call ˈsuːpəˈnætʃərəl.

You can’t leave comments on the recordings on the UCL site — but you can here, if you wish.


  1. When I load the page in Chrome, both recordings start playing simultaneously! However, I realize the page is only temporary, and I assume the permanent page won't have this problem.

    I look forward to hearing more recordings!

    1. Nothing plays for me at all (Firefox on Ubuntu), yet I can play BBC News and Youtube videos fine. After a slight delay, a black rectangle appears for each video, and that's all.

    2. I did say it was "quick-and-dirty". I tested it on my own setup (Firefox on Windows Vista) and it worked OK. When I have time I'll try it on other browsers and tweak as necessary. But I'm not going to experiment with Linux etc, which I know nothing about. Evidently, JC, your browser doesn't understand the attribute "autoplay: false", which I carefully included.

  2. Your precis on this page doesn't mention, as you do on the tape, the CLOTH set and the fact that this speaker puts wrath in the THOUGHT set instead. (This seems to be a pretty variable word: for me it is in TRAP=BATH, and I suspect for some Americans, at least, it is in PALM=BATH.) Also, the tape doesn't seem to begin at the beginning, the first words being "Here you can note, for example" which doesn't sound like a discourse start to me: there is nothing corresponding to your introductory passage above. Finally, the comment on the lack of happy-tensing is not on the tape, whether because you didn't point it out then or because the recording cuts off too soon is not clear.

  3. intrusive /r/ between /ə/ and a following vowel

    I realise that that comment relates to a particular sound sample, but would it be fair to say that in general there could be intrusive r after any non-high vowel (high vowels lending themselves using an approximant instead), and that it's just chance that ə accounts for most times when this occurs word-finally without an existing <r>? I'm sure I'd have one after spa or paw, keeping them homophonous with spar and pore respectively in all positions. (I look forward to the day when the automated train announcements have the sophistication to put one in "calling at Bath Spa and Bristol Temple Meads"!)

    1. Yes, of course, as explained and documented extensively in the text of the three volumes, not to mention from time to time in this blog.
      See also here.

  4. The web page loads very slowly in IE due to the embed of the mp3s. I can play them normally afterwards though.

    1. I'd welcome advice on better HTML coding. My expertise in web page coding dates from before the audio-clip era.

    2. I would be happy to help with this side of thing, John; at the moment it appears to require the Apple Quicktime plugin which is rarely required these days and which I prefer not to install, and I would strongly recommend that you use the new <audio> element introduced with the HTML5 draft specification (for which there is excellent browser support) as used in (for example) my "Synchronised audio" demonstration page :

      I will liaise with you off-list if you might be interested in this offer.

      Philip Taylor

    3. I've tried adding the line
      <audio controls="controls">
      Your browser does not support the <code>audio</code> element.
      <source src="1-RP.mp3" type="audio/mp3">
      -- but it produces no effect on my browser's rendering. I really don't want to get into Javascript and so on.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Yes, support for mp3 is not good at the moment, which is why the synchronised audio page uses .wav format. I have taken a copy of the relevant files, and will put up a demonstration page on my own server to demonstrate the possibilities.

      Philip Taylor

    6. Now here, John.

      Pleas bear in mind this is coming from a 384Kbps uplink, so the speed will be nothing like your UCL server.

      Philip Taylor

    7. Thanks... I think. Please note: the .wav files of these specimens are too big for me to upload, which why I've converted them to .mp3 format.

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    9. Is this any better, John ? It offers the audio (transparently to the end user) in two formats : mp3 and ogg-vorbis; in my Seamonkey, which uses the same rendering engine as Firefox, it plays the Ogg-Vorbis version just fine. I have compressed the Ogg-Vorbis files so that they are the same size as the original MP3s.

      Philip Taylor

  5. I only just noticed: "when I was driving back to work after I'd had lunch (...) merely that I'd drunk a double vodka or two during my lunch"

    That's something that wouldn't go down too well in the modern day, I guess :)

    1. It's a read-aloud invented test passage, designed to include examples of interesting phonetic phenomena!

    2. Indeed. However, I was just pointing out that such an invented test passage would probably not have included the aformentioned "drink and drive" (or "drink while working") phrases if it were written today.

  6. This is good news. Thank you very much, John. I hope that we're all grateful that you're taking the time to do this.

    I've never heard the cassette. I have read (in a review of Accents of English) that it contains a poem in Lallans dialect and a sample of the Scunthorpe accent.

  7. This is incredibly wonderful news. And for me, everything works fine with Vista+Firefox.

  8. It might be an idea to provide a download link (<a href="xxx.mp3">) as well. Firefox on linux does not support embedded mp3s yet.

    Listening to the recordings, her voice sounds very "U" to me, much more so than for, say, a BBC announcer.

    1. Is she speaking with a bit of lisp?

  9. So in your view, question for everyone, what is the best way for someone to acquire an accent or to bring his own / her own pronunciation to as close as possible to a native one, for any language? Is it imitation, lots of sound clips and so on, is it ariculatory descriptions (put your tongue here, open your mouth like this, don't touch your teeth), leaning on the sounds from one's native language to describe the sounds of another?

    1. Immitation of native speakers is, I think, a prerequisite to acquire a near-native accent. The problem is that just as some people are tone-deaf, some people are phone-deaf as well. Some people will automatically adjust their speech to the speech of the people around them (when speaking their native language with other people speaking the same language as their native language), regional accent and all. Others will never do that (automatically), somehow the mechanism for copying an accent seems to not exist (whether the problem lies at the input or output). So for the former group, listening to native speakers (and themselves) is best, for the latter more direct coaching is needed.

      Then of course there's the problem, even for the first group, of not perceiving certain differences in the speech of natives (lumping phones that represent different phonemes in the target language together because they are both (close enough to) a single phoneme in the native language). In those cases careful instruction will always be needed.

      All the above imho and based on personal experience and observation. For those interested, I consider myself to be in the group of automatic copyers. But BrE is still a nasty tongue twister.

  10. So to more directly answer your questions:
    - imitation: definitly, but not everyone seems (personal observation) capable of doing so
    - articulory descriptions: yes, but imho the less-technical ones tend to be pretty useless; may be indespensable in case of languages further removed from one's native one
    - native to target sound description: close to useless for all but the very casual learner (think travel guides and the like)

  11. Very nice! Perhaps you could upload them to Youtube and avoid the hosting problem?

  12. This brings back old times. I bought Accents of Engish not long after it was published and had to go to some trouble to get the cassette in those pre-Internet days. (I think I had it sent overseas from Blackwell's in Oxford.) I think I still have it somewhere, but haven't listened to it, or to any of my other remaining cassettes, in many years. I remember being impressed by Professor Wells's feats of phonetic mimicry in the narrative parts of the recording, and I experienced a sort of provincial delight in learning that the speaker whom he used to represent a GenAm accent came from my own home town of Seattle. I sent Professor Wells a letter containing observations on some details of Seattle speech and got a nice reply by aerogram. That was nearly 30 years ago.

  13. Both files work fine in Safari 6.0.3 under Mac OS Mountain Lion 10.8.3.

    The text was extremely familiar, although I haven't heard it in recent years. I must have the cassette stowed away somewhere

  14. I'd perhaps add that the GOAT-diphthong has sometimes a rather backish first component, before a dark 'l', hold, roll. This at least my impression. Wrong?

    Also, the intrusive 'r' after non-high vowels, the idea riz, America rand Russia, Laura Norder, take your sword and draw rit, --- I think Alan brought this up --- well, some cultured Englishmen warned me against that, under the pretext that it was 'vulgar' or something to that effect. But frankly, I can't help saying 'the idea riz' and so on myself! (Perhaps I am an 'imitator' in Kilian's sense, see above.)

    Full name -- see profile (google)

    1. Wojciech

      some cultured Englishmen warned me against that, under the pretext that it was 'vulgar' or something to that effect

      Bad advice. There's still a handful of ill-mannered people who stigmatise the intrusive R, BUT

      1. They only ridicule people who threaten their perceived position as elite educated speakers. As a foreigner, you pose no such threat.

      2. The mockery is hardly ever meant to be aggressive. They just think they're being cleverly amusing.

      3. They're generally inconsistent. They recognise obvious instances but miss the majority. There are even cases of people who stigmatise the feature but unwittingly use it themselves in low-profile contexts.

      4. There are also a few people who will compliment your authenticity if you produce an intrusive R. This happened to my wife barely a year after she left the Soviet Union.

    2. Αh, very well then, I'll go on being 'vulgar' in this way. To speak with the vulgar and think with the learne`d, not the other way 'round...

      Englishmen often (orphan) pull a foreigner's leg, this is my observation. For instance, by insisting one should say (in English) "orchestre revolutionnaire eTTT romantique" which makes me shudder at the very mention of sir John Gardiner's name. The foreigner ends up saying a lot of nonsense in the assumption only thereby to sound palatable to English ears. And then? Do the mockers have a big 'har har har' somewhere?

      Full name --- see profile

    3. Alas, the often/orphan pun, so memorably used in The Pirates of Penzance just before the first-act finale, depends on a non-rhotic accent with a CLOTH=THOUGHT merger, a rare beast nowadays (RP speakers have the first only, most AmE speakers have the second only).

      However, it is not true that a pun needs to be perfect to "work". The ranch run by three brothers that's called "Focus", because that is where the sun's rays meet / sons raise meat, is phonologically flawless in practically every surviving accent. But it's not nearly as funny (to me at least) as the little furry fellow who says "What do you mean, I'm not a bear? I have all the koalafications!"

    4. often=orphan, I learnt when I first learnt English, many a decade ago, in th'olde dayes of that Kynge Arthoure

      Full profile --- see Name

    5. which is why they tell'im: you do koala- all right, but yet not quali-fy.

      I agree that puns need not be perfect, in fact they mostly aren't.

  15. Hello,Prof Wells,

    I just tried to listen to the web page:

    This page now does not seem to work properly. All the sound files start at the same time!! Would you fix it because it is a very valuable collection?

  16. tadmrt, try a different browser. It works perfectly for me in Firefox.

  17. I have firefox and cannot even see the sound files.. :(

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