Monday, 22 April 2013

click farewell

How come, you might ask, that a word spelled with -c- comes to be pronounced with an l? Why this gross discrepancy between spelling and sound, orthography and pronunciation?

Blame the 1989 Kiel Convention of the IPA, which replaced the click symbols then in use, ʇ ʗ ʖ, by the current ǀ ǃ ǁ.

Because the second syllable of this word is pronounced in Zulu with a voiceless dental click. Unfortunately in some fonts the currently official IPA symbol for this sound looks indistinguishable from a lower-case L.

For further discussion, together with a number of sensible readers' comments, see my blog for 9 Sep 2009.

_ _ _

…In fact over recent months I have increasingly been feeling that in this blog I have by now already said everything of interest that I want to say. And if I have nothing new to say, then the best plan is to stop talking.

So I am now discontinuing my blog.

Thank you, all those readers who have stayed with me over the seven years that I have been writing it. If you still need a regular fix, there are archives stretching back to 2006 for you to rummage through.

Goodbye, au revoir, tschüss, hwyl, cześć, tot ziens, до свидания, さようなら, ĝis!

ˌðæts \ɪt

Friday, 19 April 2013


We can’t agree on how to spell the name of the famous Dutch/Flemish painter(s): were Pieter B. the Elder and his relatives Breughel, Brueghel, Breugel or Bruegel?

As is often the case with foreign names in English, we’re not entirely sure how to pronounce them, either.

In Dutch this name is pronounced ˈbrøːɣəl (subject to the usual regional variationː possible diphthonging of the stressed vowel and devoicing of the velar, not to mention the variability in the second consonant), which is what you would expect for a spelling with eu. In turn, you would expect foreign-language ø(ː) to map onto nonrhotic English NURSE, as happens with French deux mapped onto BrE dɜː or German Goethe ˈɡøːtə onto BrE ˈɡɜːtə.

Yet on the whole we call the painter not ˈbrɜːɡl̩ but ˈbrɔɪɡl̩. Why?

I can only suppose that our usual pronunciation is based on the spelling with eu interpreted according to the reading rules of German. If Deutsch is English dɔɪtʃ and Freud is frɔɪd, then Breug(h)el must be ˈbrɔɪɡl̩.

For the same reason, even though Wikipedia prefers the spelling Bruegel (which would prompt us towards a pronunciation ˈbruːɡl̩), most of us, I suspect, tend to spell the name with eu.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013


I had a phone call a few days ago from someone trying to get in touch with David Rosewarne. The caller thought I might have his contact details. I was unable to help, since as far as I remember I have only met Rosewarne once, and that briefly; the last I heard of him was that he was working in Malaysia, but I do not know where he might be now.

David Rosewarne’s great claim to fame is that in October 1984 he coined the expression “Estuary English”, in an article published in the Times Educational Supplement.

In doing so he gave expression to the widespread perception that Daniel Jones-style RP was gradually losing its status as the unquestioned standard accent of educated English people. Or, putting it a different way, that RP was changing by absorbing various sound changes that previously had been restricted to Cockney or other non-prestigious varieties.

Two years earlier, in my Accents of English, I had written

Throughout [London], the working-class accent is one which shares the general characteristics of Cockney. We shall refer to this accent as popular London. […] Middle-class speakers typically use an accent closer to RP than popular London. But the vast majority of such speakers nevertheless have some regional characteristics [emphasis added]. This kind of accent might be referred to as London (or, more generally, south-eastern) Regional Standard.

I added the warning

It must be remembered that labels such as ‘popular London’, ‘London Regional Standard’ do not refer to entities we can reify but to areas along a continuum stretching from broad Cockney (itself something of an abstraction) to RP.

So Rosewarne’s observations in a sense contained nothing new. He muddied the waters unhelpfully by referring to details of vocabulary and grammar (which have nothing to do with “a new variety of pronunciation”). But the name he coined, Estuary English, was taken up quite widely, gaining resonance eventually not only with journalists but also with the general public, to such an extent that we can now expect to be readily understood if we describe someone’s speech as “estuarial”.

The estuary Rosewarne was thinking of was of course the Thames estuary, which in a geographical sense might be interpreted as extending from Teddington near Kingston upon Thames (the point where the river becomes tidal) down to Southend-on-Sea (where the Thames enters the North Sea). Rosewarne’s original article says “the heartland of this variety lies by the banks of the Thames and its estuary, but it seems to be the most influential accent in the south-east of England”; though later writers, particularly Coggle in his Do you speak Estuary? (1993) implied that it covered the entire southeast of the country. It was left to my colleague Joanna Przedlacka to demonstrate that it did no such thing (see her 2002 book Estuary English? and this summary). Przedlacka demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently.

Rosewarne’s suggestion that EE “may become the RP of the future” led to credulous excitement in the EFL world, particularly in central Europe and South America.

It was in response to media and academic interest in the topic that in 1998 I set up a website “to bring together as many documents as possible that relate to Estuary English, as a convenient resource for the many interested enquirers.”

One thing I did myself was to consider how we might agree on a phonetic transcription scheme, which would be needed for pedagogical purposes if we seriously wanted to teach this putative new accent. See this article. But no one followed this up by criticizing my proposals or suggesting anything better.

All the excitement gradually died down. I last had cause to update the website in 2007. By the time I retired, in 2006, this was my one-page summary of the issue. EFL teachers, meanwhile, mostly know that we just need to update our pedagogical model of RP in the minor ways outlined in LPD.

Monday, 15 April 2013

London place names

Londonist, a website “about London and everything that happens in it” offers a page of advice on London place names.

Some of the advice is a little surprising.

These names are normally ˈɔːldwɪtʃ, ˈbʌrə, kəˈdʌɡən, ˈtʃɪzɪk, ˈklæpəm, ˈdeʔfəd, ˈdʌlɪdʒ. RP usually distinguishes ˈɔːl from əʊl and ɒl (so that Paul ≠ pole ≠ Poll(y)), and Aldwych has ɔːl or possibly ɒl, but not əʊl. Of course many speakers have the GOAT allophone ɒʊ when dark l follows, as here; and Londoners tend to vocalize dark l, making cold kɒod; but I had thought that most would not merge the result with the ɔːo of l-vocalized called. Hence I am surprised to see Aldwich explained as “old witch”; though I suppose “all’d witch” or “auld witch” would be orthographically awkward. (Anyhow, the main point is that -wych stands for wɪtʃ, not wɪk.)

With Clapham, the basic ˈklæpəm can of course be reduced to ˈklæʔm̩ by the regular processes of syllabic consonant formation and glottalling.

The final consonant in Dulwich is, in my judgment, more often than , though both are possible; it’s odd that the anonymous author should prescribe the voiceless affricate in Dulwich but the voiced one in Greenwich and Woolwich, where the same hesitation between the two possibilities for -ch applies.

That’s ˈhəʊbən, ˈhɒmətən, ˈaɪzəlwɜːθ, with the usual syllabic-consonant options, plus possible glottalling in ˈhɒməʔn̩ and weakening in ˈaɪzl̩wəθ (or, of course, a more London-y ˈɑɪzowəf). Initial h is just as likely to be dropped/retained in Holborn as in Homerton.

So, ˈplɑːstəʊ (though I’ll allow people from the north of England and the Americans to say ˈplæstəʊ if they prefer), ˈrɒðəhaɪð, ˈraɪslɪp,ˈsʌðək, ˈstretəm, ˌθeɪdənˈbɔɪz, ˈtɒtənəm, ˈwɒpɪŋ. Regular optional processes generate the variants ˈrɒvəhaɪv, ˈstreʔm̩ and ˈtɒʔnəm; there is also an archaic variant ˈredrɪf (Redriff) for Rotherhithe; and if you drop the h in the usual form you'll get an internal linking r, ˈrɒvəraɪv. The Cockney tube train driver on my AofE recording pronounces his part of London, Wapping, as ˈwɒpʔɪn.

Friday, 12 April 2013

money tree policy

Puns that work for some do not necessarily work for all.

Here’s a witticism from a letter-writer to the Guardian a month ago. But I suspect that this pun doesn’t exactly work for anyone at all, though it is close enough for us to get it.

The Bank of England has a Monetary Policy Committee, which is in the news from time to time.

As we all know, money does not grow on trees, though if it did the tree it grew on would be a money tree.

The pronunciation of monetary is ˈmʌnɪt(ə)ri, with variants ˈmɒn-, -ət-. We can disregard the question of the vowel in the first syllable, which for some (most?) is the same as that of money, while for others it has the spelling-pronunciation vowel of monitor (which immediately destroys the pun). Let’s concentrate on the weak vowels. Is the rest of monetary pronounced as in money tree ˈmʌni triː?

Not for those who have a lax happY vowel, phonetically similar to KIT rather than to FLEECE (like me). For me, monetary ends with trɪ, which feels and sounds different from my tree triː. On the other hand my money also ends with ɪ, which I can readily identify with the second syllable of monetary. If, though, in the second syllable of monetary I had a schwa ə (as many do), rather than my weak ɪ, then that too would destroy the pun, because this schwa could not be mistaken for my happY vowel.

To make the pun work you need a tense happY (so that -tary = tree), but you also need a lax happY (so that money =mone(t)-). And you can’t have it both ways at once.

A strong, AmE-style suffix vowel in -ary destroys the pun, too, since tɛri could not be mistaken for tree. To save the pun you need not just to weaken but actually to delete this vowel, since təri could not be mistaken for tree, though tri might.

All in all, then, standup comics wanting to tell people a joke depending on this pun would have to be remarkably careful in their ‘diction’.

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.

Monday, 8 April 2013

I must haplologize

The other day I noticed a reporter on the BBC TV news pronouncing deteriorate as diˈtɪərieɪt. This pronunciation is a variant to which I attach a warning triangle in LPD (“pronunciation considered incorrect”), thereby grouping it with such other mispronunciations as ˈɡriːviəs and prəˌnaʊnsiˈeɪʃn̩.

Googling around, I find people puzzled not only about the correctness or otherwise of “deteriate” but also about why this (mis)pronunciation should have become popular.

Deteriorate vs deteriate?
I have checked the dictionary and I can't seem to find this word 'deteriate', but I hear all sorts of people say it and I assume (from what they are talking about) this word really is deteriorate.
So why do you think these people think deteriate is a word?
—I think it's probably just their accent or how they were raised to say it, because you're right "deteriate" definitely isn't a word. A lot of people I know say it and it's really annoying. You should just show them this link [to an on-line dictionary entry for “deteriorate”].
I forgive anyone making mistakes ..., but this pronunciation is not a mistake. It seems to be what a lot of people think is correct. What I wanted to know was, why?

So in this view a word “exists” only if it’s in standard dictionaries. And the word is its spelling.

And obviously the correct pronunciation is the one which follows the spelling.

There are difficulties with this popular view. No one would claim that we ought to say ˈkʌpbɔː(r)d for cupboard, although that is what the spelling suggests. No one argues that we ought to pronounce a w in wrong or a k in know. And what about words that have only just come into use, whether spoken or written, but are not (yet) recorded in dictionaries? How can we follow their established spelling, if they haven’t yet got one? (I imagine all would agree that the onus is rather on the lexicographers to bring their dictionaries up to date.) What about words such as the BrE scarper ‘run away, escape, make off in haste’, where it is pretty clear that the usual spelling reflects the (non-rhotic) pronunciation, rather than the other way round?

As for why people tend to simplify diˈtɪəriəreɪt to diˈtɪərieɪt, the answer must lie in the tendency to eliminate one of two adjacent identical consonants — the same tendency we see in ˈprɒb(ə)li for ˈprɒbəbli probably, ˈlaɪb(ə)ri for ˈlaɪbrəri library and so on. See my blog for 7 March 2007 concerning ˌsfɪɡməˈnɒmɪtə, and that for 1 Mar 2011 about ˈkwɒntətɪv.

This phenomenon is not dissimilation; the only term for it seems to be haplology.

Friday, 5 April 2013

from Toledo to Laredo

In view of one commenter’s indignation this week about the Ohio placename Lima, pronounced differently from the identically spelt capital of Peru (see screenshot above of the LPD entry), I thought it was time for another repeat. Here’s a blog entry from 2007.

_ _ _

Driving to Gatwick Airport a few days ago to meet an arriving passenger, I passed through the village of Burgh Heath. As on previous occasions when I have travelled that route, I wondered idly how it’s pronounced. Is the first word bɜː or ˈbʌrə?

When I got back home I looked it up in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (G. Pointon, 1990), which says it can be either. Just not bɜːɡ.

I further learnt that Burgh in Norfolk is ˈbʌrə, but Burgh in adjoining Suffolk is bɜːɡ. Things are different in the north of England: Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria is metathesized to brʌf, which must mean that for many locals it’s more like [brʊf].

It’s worse than -ough.

Tomorrow I have to go to Birmingham. To reach my destination the map says I have to look for the road leading to Alcester. Er... what was that? I checked with my brother, who lives not too far away, and he says it’s ˈɔːlstə. Then I looked in LPD and found that I agree.

And there’s no call for Americans to feel superior to the wacky British. In the States you never know what will happen with Spanish names. I remember passing through Salida, Colorado. That’s the Spanish for ‘exit’, and it was at the mouth of a canyon, so I thought that in English it would be səˈliːdə. But the local radio station announcers, who should know, pronounced it səˈlaɪdə.

Even English-derived names can be surprising. I remember driving through Placerville, California, and discovering to my surprise that it was not ˈpleɪsɚvɪl but ˈplæsɚvɪl.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

bravo lima oscar golf

In an on-line forum discussion about what language teachers need to know about pronunciation, one unusual suggestion made was this, from David Deterding:

We should teach them the Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta alphabet. Then, when they cannot be understood [when spelling a word out aloud], they could easily solve the problem. (And it would also be brilliant for telling someone your name.)

I agree that this is something that it is useful to know. I was taught it in my teens, as part of “corps” at school (= officer cadet training corps, playing at soldiers). I use it from time to time, particularly when giving information over the phone to travel agents, airline call centres and the like.

It is particularly useful for distinguishing letters whose traditional names are easily confused, such as F ef and S es or T tiː and D diː. How much clearer to say foxtrot and sierra, tango and delta.

That’s why in LPD I decided to include the relevant “communications code name” at the entry for each letter of the alphabet. Before we had the web it could be difficult to lay your hands on the list, though nowadays of course you can quickly access it on Wikipedia. For avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers say, it goes Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Although it’s often known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, it is neither an alphabet (it’s a list of letter names) nor particularly phonetic, and NATO is only one of a number of international organizations that have adopted it.

The list on the Wikipedia page includes a column headed “phonic (pronunciation)”, which explains the intended pronunciation of each letter name by respelling it in accordance with English spelling conventions, with all the ambiguity that can imply.

So, although Delta is keyed to “DELL-TAH”, it is normally pronounced by speakers of English as ˈdeltə (rather than the ˈdeltɑː that could be implied by this respelling). There is no indication of stress in the list given (though there is here), so while anglophones will say Uniform (“YOU-NEE-FORM or OO-NEE-FORM”) as ˈjuːnɪfɔː(r)m, francophones, for example, are apparently free to stress it anywhere or nowhere, in accordance with their native habits. On the other hand we English speakers are supposed to stress Papa with final-syllable stress and to say Quebec with no w. No one seems to take any notice of the instruction to pronounce Golf as if it were Gulf. The Wikipedia page has an analysis of the various versions to be found in officially recommended recordings.

The choice of letter names has changed slightly over the years. When I learnt them in the 1950s, N was called Nectar. Clearly, November is an improvement, being less likely to be confused with Victor.

Monday, 1 April 2013

a new sound

I thought that for today I’d recycle a blog entry from seven years ago, seeing that it may well still be of interest.

_ _ _

My colleague Olaf Lipor tells me that the International Phonetic Asssociation is considering recognizing a further new symbol, in order to cater for the voiced linguolabial trill, a sound-type recently discovered to be used contrastively in Caslon and Ki-Flong, languages spoken on the island of San Serriffe.

Linguolabials, articulated by the tongue tip against the upper lip, are very rare in the languages of the world. Nevertheless linguolabial plosives, fricatives, and a nasal are known to occur in a cluster of languages in the island state of Vanuatu. Among these languages are Tangoa and Vao. But until now there had been no report of a linguolabial trill.

The way in which the IPA would symbolize the new sound is with the ‘combining seagull below’ diacritic, U+033C, thus [].

Incidentally, we are hoping to have the Serriffean phonetician Dr Charis Doulos, a native speaker of Caslon and the person who first described the linguolabial trill, come to UCL Phonetics & Linguistics as an academic visitor at this time next year. She will no doubt be willing to act as a language consultant for our practical phonetics class, so that the students can have the opportunity of observing the sound first-hand and of learning to perform it to the native speaker’s satisfaction.

The island of San Serriffe sprang to world fame as a consequence of a feature article in the Guardian newspaper, published on 1 April 1977, the tenth anniversary of its independence. But at that time its native languages had not been thoroughly investigated.

_ _ _

Since writing the above, I have come across a report of an Amerindian language, Santo Domingo Coatlán Zapotec, in which this sound is now, excitingly, further attested, though disappointingly not as part of the phonemic inventory:

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.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

exotic spices

That’s what a journalist wrote in the Guardian’s cookery supplement a few days ago (incidentally, getting the number concord wrong in elevate).

Speak for yourself, I thought. Far from their changing the way we cook, “many of us” have surely never even heard of za’atar, ras-al-hanout and harissa. Nor do we know how to pronounce them.

For the author of a pronunciation dictionary aiming inter alia to document the state of the language, keeping up with trendy exotic foodstuffs is nearly as impossible as keeping up with the names of the footballers from all over the world who now play in the English leagues.

When I was a boy we didn’t even have avocados, green peppers, courgettes, or kiwi fruit, still less kumquats or brie. Now you can find them in every high street and shopping centre. We shall never know how Daniel Jones would have pronounced courgette in English, let alone its American version zucchini: in his day EPD was silent on the matter.

I’m quite pleased to have got quinoa in LPD, though I’m not aware of ever having eaten it and I wonder how many people in Britain really pronounce it ˈkiːnwɑː. I also managed to add acai in the third edition, with the pronunciation əˈsaɪ (the only one I’ve ever heard); though I think it would be nicer if we preserved its diacritics and spelt it açaí, and again I wonder just how many people pronounce it əˈsaɪiː, ˌæsaɪˈiː in BrE, əˈsaɪi in AmE, as the OED claims. (I’ve de-Uptonized its transcription.)

I also found room for goji, with its unetymological j (“does not conform to any of the major transliteration systems [of Chinese]”, says the OED sternly).

How did I come to overlook za’atar and harissa? How many users of the dictionary search for them in vain? They’ll just have to consult Wikipedia instead.

Monday, 25 February 2013


In my first year at secondary school, which I entered at age 12½, we were given taster classes in science: an hour a week each of chemistry, biology, and physics. I remember that when the physics teacher had explained to us how an electric bell worked I asked him what determined the frequency of the beats in the ringing. But instead of giving me a serious answer, perhaps involving either the dimensions and elasticity of the vibrating clapper or the characteristics of the current applied, he sarcastically replied, “Why don’t you count them?”. This rather put me off physics. The chemistry teacher, on the other hand, showed us sodium, manganese, potassium, and other elements, and did experiments involving explosions and brightly coloured flames. He even demonstrated a Geiger counter and sources of alpha, beta and gamma rays. When I let slip that I knew that the lead (Pb) resulting from the radioactive decay of thorium has a different atomic weight from that of ordinary lead, he was so excited that he made a serious effort to recruit me to study science. But I had just started classical Greek, and I decided to stick with that, while continuing (as I do to this day) to read popular science books in my spare time and try to be reasonably well-informed about scientific subjects.

So you will understand that when I came to make a dictionary I took it as obvious that the headword list should include, for example, the names of all the chemical elements. I noticed with amusement that Daniel Jones’s EPD had ytterbium and yttrium, but not the other two elements named after the ore mines at Ytterby in Sweden, namely erbium and terbium. Naturally, LPD has all four (as does the current Cambridge EPD).

…which brings me to the question of element number 51, Sb, antimony. At school I acquired the pronunciation ænˈtɪməni for this element, with antepenultimate stress. This is also the pronunciation recorded in Daniel Jones’s EPD, at least up to and including the twelfth edition (1963). However, when Gimson took over the editorship for the fourteenth edition (1977), he added (and prioritized) the initial-stressed ˈæntɪməni. The on-line OED gives only this latter; whether this is the pronunciation recorded in 1885 or one reflecting a more recent editorial decision I do not know. After informally consulting colleagues in the chemistry department, I also decided to go with this in LPD. Merriam-Webster shows the same initial stress, but with a strong (‘stressed’) penultimate vowel, ˈæntəˌmoʊni, so bringing it into line with such words as testimony, alimony, ceremony. For what it’s worth, the -mony part of antimony does not seem to derive from the classical Latin -mōnium that we see in these words (nor from the ‘anti-monk’ origin given by Dr Johnson, which the OED calls an ‘idle tale’). The OED thinks it is ‘probably, like other terms of alchemy, a corruption of some Arabic word, refashioned so as to wear a Greek or Latin aspect’.

Nor is this chemical term to be confused with the philosophers’ antinomy (though it sometimes is).

When I was young relatively few transuranic elements had been named. As Tom Lehrer sang in 1959, the 102 elements then known were “the only ones of which the news has come to Ha’vard | and there may be many others, but they haven’t been discavard”. So in LPD I’ve got lawrencium, rutherfordium and dubnium, but not seaborgium, bohrium, hassium, meitnerium, or darmstadtium, still less such exotic newcomers as roentgenium and ununtrium. According to Hugh Aldersley’s recent book Periodic Tales, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the organization in charge of ratifying chemical nomenclature, requires each new element to have a name ‘that is easily pronounced’. It’s not clear to me what that means in the last three cases I have mentioned, in each of which there is more than one possibility in English that could be supported by the spelling.

Friday, 22 February 2013

a Dutch and Afrikaans vowel

Thirty or so years ago I was staying for a few days with a friend who lived in Antwerp, when I was struck down by illness. I was admitted into a local hospital and operated on for appendicitis.

I have no complaints about the treatment I received, which was prompt, successful, and of course free of charge. But linguistically it was an interesting experience. The surgeon who operated on me spoke English with me. With the hospital chaplain I had to talk in French. But the nurses only spoke Flemish. Flemish is of course the same language as Dutch. My Dutch, though not nonexistent, is not very good. I remember being struck by the way the nurses pronounced the word for ‘soap’, zeep. I knew that this was basically zeːp, though in the Amsterdam-Rotterdam pronunciation to which I was accustomed the vowel tended to be realized as a closing diphthong, zeɪp. But in Antwerp the diphthongization was in the other direction, a Swedish-like zeəp. (See the Wikipedia account of Dutch phonetics.)

Afrikaans is like Flemish in this regard (though in that language the word for ‘soap’ is spelt seep). According to Wikipedia, in Afrikaans

/oə øə eə/ are also transcribed as long monophthongs /oː øː eː/, though it's not accurate to do so. /oə/ and /eə/ are also commonly realized as [uə] and [iə] respectively, and such pronunciation is already considered standard. In Western Cape /oə eə/ can also be pronounced [uː] and [iː] respectively.

I was thinking about this in connection with the Pistorius case currently in the news. The victim of the shooting was called Reena Reeva Steenkamp. Her surname is obviously Afrikaans (steen = ‘stone’), though I have no idea whether her first language was Afrikaans or English; apparently the family comes from the Western Cape. But I did notice one or two BBC newsreaders pronouncing her name as ˈstɪənkæmp rather than the spelling pronunciation ˈstiːn-. I think that the Afrikaans vowel in question is quite often mapped onto English NEAR ― perhaps someone can elaborate on this. The writer J.M. Coetzee, according to Wikipedia, is kʊtˈsiːə or kʊtˈsiː, though I’m sure I have also heard kʊtˈsɪə.

Monday, 18 February 2013

answering queries

Unlike some people, I have never been reluctant to allow my contact details to be available to anyone and everyone. Back in the days before email and the internet, you could find me in the phone book and on the electoral register; and if you knew that I worked at UCL you could always write to me or phone me there.

As an academic, it was obviously in my interest to make it easy for students, colleagues, prospective collaborators, publishers, and journalists to find me.

Fortunately no one has ever wanted to stalk me.

At the instigation of our departmental internet guru, Warwick Smith, I set up my homepage on the web as early as 1995, hosted on the UCL site with the same url as it has today. It has always shown my email address and my telephone number.

These details are also to be found in reference books such as Who’s Who.

So I was happy to agree to my publisher Longman’s suggestion that the CD accompanying LPD should put on the user’s screen an “Ask Professor Wells” button bringing up an email client with my email address in the “to:” field. And I regard it as one of my authorial duties to attempt to reply promptly and helpfully to the queries that readers send me.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out from what they write the actual question that they really want to ask. And experience shows that I sometimes get it wrong.

Dear Mr. Wells,
I'm very interested in pursuing a course on phonetics. I'm already a teacher of english as a foreign language in Argentina. I know this time of the year must be busy for you, lecturing and travelling. I'd very much appreciate your advice on something I've been wondering about. I'm supposed to teach stduents who would become teacher themselves to define and consolidate the sound system of the target language. Yet, one of my coordinators told me not to stick to a particular phonemic system, which I think would be confusing since I can't teach all the possibilities available. Then I don't know how to proceed.
Kind regards,
After some hesitation I replied
I'm not sure what you mean by "a particular phonemic system". Do you mean a particular variety of spoken English (a particular accent, e.g. RP)? Or a particular transcription scheme?
In any case you are constrained by what is to be found in the dictionaries and textbooks available to your students.
There is a book you might find useful: "Practical Phonetics and Phonology: a resource book for students", by Beverley Collins and Inger Mees. It includes brief accounts of a number of different spoken varieties of English, with recorded samples.
You need to stick to one variety for in-depth study (in Argentina, presumably "BrE", i.e. RP broadly defined). But students also need to be exposed to a wide range of dfferent spoken varieties, so that they -- just like native speakers -- can cope with understanding varieties that differ from the variety they actively use themselves.
In the other direction, if I were teaching Spanish here in England, I would teach European Spanish pronunciation, including the phonemic contrast between [θ] and [s], but would not hesitate to expose my students to American Spanish, where you do not make this contrast.
This elicited the enigmatic response
Thanks for answering. I was referring, as you said, to a particular transcription scheme. What other varieties apart from RP, would you recommend? Where can I get some online material?
What I meant by “transcription scheme” was things like Upton’s OED notation as compared with the one that most dictionaries, including mine, use (see here), or non-IPA respelling systems, or a Kenyon and Knott-style system for AmE.

My correspondent’s response showed that we were still at cross-purposes. Rather than say that the obvious non-RP variety to introduce her students to in addition to RP was some kind of American English, I decided to leave the matter there.

_ _ _

Next posting: 22 Feb.

Friday, 8 February 2013

animal accents

I should never have accepted the call from that cheese company’s PR people (blog, 25 August 2006). Now, alas, I’m regarded as an expert not so much on phonetics as on animal communication.

I have been approached by a UK charity to contribute to a book in which “high-profile experts and celebrities” answer real questions from children. They want me to provide an answer, “as if chatting with a bright and curious eight-year-old”, to the question “Do animals, like cows and sheep, have accents”?

Here’s the draft I have offered. Comments (preferably helpful) welcome.

Unlike human beings, animals don’t have languages. They do produce ‘vocalizations’ (dogs bark, cats miaow, sheep bleat, cows moo, birds chirp), but these are not language, even though they are a means of communicating.
As you will know if you’ve ever watched sheepdog trials, we can teach dogs to understand quite complicated spoken instructions. But they can’t speak to us. If you’ve been out, leaving your dog in the house, you can’t ask him when you get back, “Did anyone phone while I was out?”, and he can’t tell you “The phone did ring, but I didn’t answer it. And someone knocked at the door, too.”
Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school ― which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.
Scientists have found that whales in different oceans make different kinds of vocalization, while the calls of some species of birds similarly vary from one location to another. So we could perhaps say that whales and birds can have local ‘accents’ or ‘dialects’. But domestic cows and sheep are different. Where they grow up and live is decided by the human beings that own them.
A few years ago newspapers carried a story saying that cows in Somerset moo with a distinctive West Country accent. But the story was untrue. It had been thought up by a public relations firm working for a company selling cheese. As far as we know, Somerset cows moo in just the same way as cows in Yorkshire or Norfolk.

_ _ _

Health update: On Friday I was admitted to hospital for a hernia repair, and expected to be discharged the next day. However there has been a minor complication, and I will have to stay in hospital for a few days. So I am suspending this blog until 18 Feb (probably).

Thursday, 7 February 2013

John Trim 1924-2013

While I was away I was saddened to hear that John Trim had died.

He was the teacher who first taught me phonetics and the one who advised me to pursue a master’s degree in phonetics and linguistics with Gimson, Fry and Fourcin at UCL.

Despite his modest and unassuming nature. he inspired me and many other Cambridge undergraduates to pursue the subject. My colleague (and predecessor as head of the UCL Dept. of Phonetics and Linguistics) Neil Smith says that it was because of Trim that he became a linguist.

You can read obituary notices here and here.

For such a key figure in my own career and that of many others it is remarkable that he leaves behind very little in the way of publications: for EFL just his much loved English Pronunciation Illustrated (CUP 1965, second edition 1975), and for general and English phonetics really nothing more than his brief but brilliant 1959 article ‘ˈmeidʒər | ənˈmainə | \tounɡruːps | in\iŋɡliʃ ||’ (Maître Phonétique 112:26-29).

Despite being the founding Director of the Department of Linguistics at Cambridge, he was never promoted beyond the rank of lecturer. His main intellectual memorial is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, in the decades-long development of which he played a leading role (though he is not mentioned in the Wikipedia article).

Here is a scan of part of my notes from the 1959-1960 introductory phonetics course he taught at Cambridge: a fair copy of an ear-training test he gave us, in which you will see I succeeded in recognizing 83% of the tones, exotic consonants and cardinal vowels.

For us neophytes his most alarming mannerism was his silences. If you asked an apparently straightforward question, he would say nothing in reply. For five, ten, fifteen seconds you might look at him expectantly. Was your question so stupid that it didn’t deserve a reply? Had you made some terrible faux pas? Then at last the answer would come: carefully considered, beautifully expressed, full of insight.

You can see videos of a recent interview here.