Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Britain’s latest UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, north Wales.
The structure, built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop, is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain.

Pontcysyllte is such a lovely name that it would be a pity to let the occasion pass without mention.
Wikipedia tells us that its Welsh pronunciation is ˌpɔntkəˈsʌɬtɛ. Myself, though, I would transcribe it ˌpɔntkəˈsəɬtɛ (or more simply as ˌpontkəˈsəɬte). The Welsh schwa is indeed stressable, despite being mid central, and has the same quality in the penultimate syllable of this word as it has in the antepenultimate. There is no reason to use the symbol ʌ in transcribing Welsh itself. The reason some people do is that in Welsh English the equivalent sound is used in STRUT words.

The first part of the name is the Welsh word for ‘bridge’, pont, an obvious Latin borrowing (pons, pont-, hence French pont) dating from the time before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, when the Latin-speaking Roman urban population and legionaries interacted with an indigenous British-speaking (= early Welsh speaking) rural population. (That is why there are several hundred Latin loanwords in Welsh.)
What is the second element? It looks like a local dialect form of cysylltau, plural of cyswllt ˈkəsʊɬt ‘joint, junction’. This is related to the rather more frequently encountered verb cysylltu kəˈsəɬtɨ ‘join, connect’. So perhaps the name means something like ‘junction(s) bridge’.

The nearby village is called Froncysyllte, ‘junction brow’. Somehow it sounds less romantic when turned into English. Bron (when soft-mutated, fron) is the brow of a hill but the breast of a person or animal, hence the name Bronwen ‘white breast’.

The stem of cyswllt, cysylltau, cysylltu, too, is of Latin origin. It can be traced to the Latin word consolidus, which has given us English consolidate.

The aqueduct is only two hundred years old, so did not exist in Roman times. I wonder, though, whether there might have been a Roman bridge nearby, called pons consolida.

[I remember at the oral exam when I did a GCSE in Welsh the first question the examiner asked me was, Beth yw eich cysylltiad chi gyda Chymru? ‘What is your connection with Wales?’, to which I could only answer Dim ond diddordeb ieithyddol ‘just linguistic interest’. Sorry, that’s nothing to do with phonetics, it just relates to cysyllt-.]

Monday, 29 June 2009

The National Theatre of Wimbledon

Keith and Sybil Thomas, in a letter to the editor published in Saturday’s Guardian, ask
Are we the only people who, on saying they were going to see Phèdre, were asked whether we expected him to win at Wimbledon?

The tennis player Federer is ˈfeːdəʁɐ in German, ˈfedərə(r) in English. The schwa in the middle of his English name meets the conditions for combining with the following r to give a syllabic r, which in turn can become non-syllabic by the process of compression: ˈfedrə.
Racine’s play, Phèdre, is in French fɛdʁ(ə). I suppose in English that’s ˈfedrə or ˈfeɪdrə. So in an English context confusion with the tennis player is only to be expected.

Friday, 26 June 2009

That’s light. Eat it!

In EFL, mistakes in pronunciation may contaminate written English.
As we know, many people have problems with the pronunciation of r and l.

...and with and ɪ.

But this causes problems in spelling, too. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it causes problems in sorting out apparent homonyms (homonyms when mispronounced).
Oh dear.
(Authentic pictures from engrishfunny.com.)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

crystalline Shakespeare

Listen! Here’s Ben Crystal, David Crystal’s son and author of Shakespeare on Toast (blog, 14 April 2008), being interviewed about Shakespeare’s accent, complete with an attempt to recreate it.

I can’t go along with Ben’s claims that RP is “only about a hundred years old” and that is “man-made, not natural”. What can he mean? It may not be natural for him, but it is (and for well over a century has been) natural for those who speak or spoke it natively.
Ben told me once that he is longing for the day when instead of saying to him “Gosh, are you David Crystal’s son?” people say to his father “Gosh, are you Ben Crystal’s father?” He seems to be on his way.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Oi, Suomi

A choir I sing in is going to Helsinki (though without me) to sing in a festival. Naturally, out of respect to our hosts, we want to be able to sing Sibelius’s Finlandia hymn in Finnish. We had a speaker of Finnish to demonstrate the pronunciation, and fortunately singers are usually quite good at mimicry: so the results were actually very acceptable (I think).
Oi, Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa,
Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois,
Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa,
Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois.
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa,
Sun päiväs' koittaa, oi synnyinmaa.

Oi nouse, Suomi, nosta korkealle,
Pääs' seppelöimä suurten muistojen.
Oi, nouse, Suomi, näytit maailmalle,
Sa että karkoitit orjuuden,
Ja ettet taipunut sa sorron alle,
On aamus' alkanut, synnyinmaa.

After my many years of teaching informant classes at UCL, Finnish is naturally one of the fifty-odd languages about whose phonetics I am fairly well-informed, even if I can’t speak a word of it beyond hyvää päivää and kiitos. I was interested to note which particular aspects of Finnish pronunciation seemed to cause particular problems to this choir of English speakers.
Finnish orthography is very regular. Given the spelling, the pronunciation is predictable. So it’s mainly a matter of learning the letter values. Orthographic y ö ä are IPA y ø æ; everything else is pretty much what you would expect.
The front rounded vowels, orthographic y and ö, seemed not to be a problem — perhaps because people had some familiarity with French. As in the case of English people’s French, however, some singers overcompensated and tended to use an y-like quality even for back u.
The other umlauted vowel, ä, caused more difficulty, because people tended to equate it either with English e, eə (DRESS, SQUARE) or with an Italianate a. Although this vowel is usually transcribed æ and equated with English TRAP, it doesn’t sound entirely the same. I think it may be to do with the pharyngeal constriction that typically characterizes the English vowel but not the Finnish one.
The singers found it hard to maintain the difference between the front quality in että and the very back ɑ quality at the end of koittaa.
The opening diphthongs uo, yö were difficult for people, as was the closing diphthong äy and even the superficially easier äi. I had to bite my tongue not to intervene with a practical phonetics lesson: I wanted to explain that is simply ie plus lip-rounding.
Unlike the English voiceless plosives, the Finnish ones are strikingly unaspirated. The singers were mostly able to imitate this. To my surprise, it didn’t seem to cause difficulty. The big problem was the preconsonantal h in uhka. It’s the phonotactic differences that are trickiest.
Fortunately, the fact that we are singing to strictly timed music takes care of stress and segment duration.
Among the improbable comments overheard from chorus members were that Finnish pronunciation sounds (a) like Afrikaans and (b) like Klingon.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


BBC Radio 4 has a programme called Americana. (For the next few days it is available on the BBC iPlayer, or as a podcast, here.)
The various presenters and announcers cannot decide how to pronounce the title. They agree that it ends -ˈkɑːnə. But how does it begin? Is it əˌmerɪ-, with the secondary stress on the second syllable? Or ˌæmərɪ- (or even ˌæmerɪ-), with the secondary stress on the first syllable? The continuity announcer goes for the second syllable, just as in America, but the presenter Matt Frei goes for initial stress.
It reminds me of the difference not only in meaning but also in pronunciation between German eventuell ˌeːvɛnˈtu̯el and Enɡlish eventually ɪˈventʃuəli. Or (perhaps better) between the two meanings of English certification. According to Daniel Jones, and I tend to agree with him, the nominalization of to certificate is səˌtɪfɪˈkeɪʃn̩, but the nominalization of to certify is ˌsɜːtɪfɪˈkeɪʃn̩.

The uncertainty over secondary stress placement and possible vowel reduction in Americana is good news for EFL learners, since it suggests that for this and perhaps many other rather arcane words it doesn’t terribly matter \what you do.

Monday, 22 June 2009

a gross violation?

Simon Hoggart, writing in Saturday’s Guardian, commented
Another of Gordon Brown's weird mispronunciations: he says "gross" to rhyme with "floss" or "dross". The word is in common usage, especially when taxes are being considered, so you wonder if he really does listen to what anyone says.

In fact all words in -oss have ɒs, i.e. the vowel of CLOTH or LOT, with this one exception. We have ɒ in boss, joss, loss, floss, gloss, moss, (a)cross, dross, albatross, toss. Only gross and prefixed engross have əʊ, the vowel of GOAT.
Unless you are Gordon Brown.
Note the inference that can be drawn if you produce a one-off spelling pronunciation: it means you don’t listen to what anyone says.

Words in -ost, though, are unpredictable in this respect. On the one hand we have cost, frost, lost with the CLOTH vowel, but on the other hand ghost, host, most, post with GOAT. Does hostage rhyme with postage? Or foster with poster? No.

It’s the same with -oth. CLOTH: cloth itself, and also Goth, moth; but GOAT: both, loth and, for most of us, sloth.
Not only EFL learners but native speakers too must learn the pronunciation of a word when they learn its written form. Otherwise people mock.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Nigel Greenwood 5 April 1945 - 13 June 2009

I was so sorry to hear that Nigel Greenwood, a follower of and frequent commentator on this blog, was killed last Saturday in a gliding accident in Cheltenham at the age of 64.
By profession Nigel was a statistician, but took early retirement and devoted himself to languages and particularly to phonetics.
The funeral will be at Cheltenham crematorium on Thursday 25 June.
My condolences to his widow Eve.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

stressed out, or not

Jack Windsor Lewis has been discussing a question put by Tami Date, who was puzzled by the stressing of the phrasal verb in three sentences in a dialogue from People Speaking.
So I’m terrified of giving her something that’ll bring her out in spots.
səʊ aɪm `terəfaɪd | əv ɡɪvɪŋ hɜː ˏsʌmθɪŋ | ðətl ˈbrɪŋ ər aʊt ɪn `spɒts.

But I believe she comes out in a rash if she touches onions.
bət aɪ bəˈliːv | ʃi ˈkʌmz aʊt ɪn ə `ræʃ ɪf ʃi tʌtʃɪz `ˏʌnjənz.

For goodness sake! Ring up her house and ask them.
fə ˈɡʊdnəs `seɪk. ˈrɪŋ ʌp ə `haʊs ən `ɑːsk ðəm.

The phrasal verbs bring out, come out, and ring up are all lexically double-stressed, which means that we expect both the verb word and the following particle to be accented. Tami wants to know, therefore, how it is that out and up in these sentences are shown as unstressed.
My answer would be more succinct than Jack’s. I would refer Tami to the rule of three (English Intonation, p. 229). This says that whenever we have three potentially accented syllables we have the option of downgrading the middle one.
The option to downgrade potential accents is a pervasive characteristic of English rhythm. It tends to operate whenever an accent is located between two other accents in the same IP.

The potential accents are
…ˈbring her ˈout in ˈspots.
…ˈcome ˈout in a ˈrash…
ˈRing ˈup her ˈhouse.
In each case we can apply the rule of three and suppress the middle accent. Hey presto! we have exactly the very natural-sounding version that Jack transcribes. (I don’t think there is any specific maximum of successive unstressed syllables in English connected speech.)
As Jack says,
Whether a speaker chooses to stress them or not depends entirely on how fluently or quickly he or she happens to wish to say the sentence.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

macaronic mondegreens

Paul Tench wrote, in a posting to a listserv I belong to,
I took my mother to try a new Italian delicatessen round the corner from where we live, but she was not feeling very adventurous and opted for a cup of tea, whereas I went for a latte. The Italian waiter got my order: “A cuppa tea ’n’ a latte please”.

Imagine my mother’s surprise when she received a cappucino! (I got my latte!) A neat case of an Italian speaker interpreting colloquial English with “Italian ears”, and probably thinking “These Brits just can’t get their Italian pronunciation right!”

(Just in case anyone’s not sure, the Italian pronunciation of cappuccino is kapputˈtʃiːno. So the phonetic distance from ˌkʌpəˈtiːnə, in noise, is not great.)

This led another subscriber, Jamie Kirchner, to comment
After a pronunciation lesson on aspiration of voiceless consonants, a
Brazilian student of mine suddenly realized why he always got the wrong beer in noisy nightclubs. He would order Killian’s and get Guinness, not just once, but all the time. Apparently amidst all the din, American waitresses and bartenders thought his unaspirated [k] was [g] and would consistently bring him the wrong thing.

And Billy Clark says that when he told his daughter “do your revision” she took this to be “do Eurovision”.

Conversely to Paul’s experience, I remember the possibly apocryphal Londoner many years ago who, going with his girlfriend to a coffee bar and hearing that there was a trendy new drink called cappuccino, ordered two cups o’ chino, one for him and one for her.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


From the LOLphonology group on Facebook, two illustrations of epenthesis.
I think these pictures are more fun than banging on about ˈfentsɪz and ˈɡæŋkstəz.
0 → kæt / kæt _ kæt

PS Please don’t ask me to be your FB friend unless we actually know one another. Sorry, but otherwise the whole thing gets out of hand.

Monday, 15 June 2009


One of the things I most regret about growing older is the decline in my ability to memorize things. Not boasting, but between the ages of 10 and 18 I somehow committed to memory great swathes of Latin and Greek morphology (or Accidence, as it was then known — declensions and conjugations, regular and irregular), not to mention mathematical formulae, geometrical proofs, historical dates, French verbs and vocabulary, how to read music, and I suppose well over ten thousand additional English words with their spellings and meanings. That was in school. On my own I taught myself a limited amount of Italian, the Cyrillic alphabet, thousands of Gregg shorthand outlines, and to play the melodeon. To add to school-generated conversational fluency in French, I acquired rather better privately-acquired fluency in German and Esperanto.
You want to know the value of pi? No problem. What the sine of an angle is? How to calculate the area of a circle? Solving quadratic equations? The lyrics of every pop song from the early fifties? Of course. Once learnt, always remembered.
And scores of square dances, country dances and Scottish dances.
Not any more. Now I struggle just to try and memorize a paltry hundred kana symbols or a few lines of song for the choir. Learnt today, gone tomorrow.
What makes it especially galling is that so much of this memorizing in my youth was effortless and unplanned. No one made me learn the words of Doris Day’s The Deadwood Stage. I didn’t even try to learn them. They just came.
I suppose the period of effortless learning extended to my undergraduate and postgraduate years. I never remember having to make any particular effort to remember a hundred-plus phonetic symbols. My teacher or my book told me about them: from then on I knew them. (However I do have to admit that as an undergraduate I failed to acquire Sanskrit morphology and the Devanāgari to write it with. So motivation was obviously a factor by then: Sanskrit wasn’t part of the examination.)

Now I can’t even remember the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. That’s because I didn’t attempt to learn them till later in life.

These depressing thoughts came to me when for some reason I was thinking of the Latin Grace recited before dinner in Hall when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge. There were two Graces, one of which is taken from Psalm 145:15-16. I remember it as
Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das escam illis in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione. [The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord, and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.]

Searching the web shows, however, that this Latin text differs from that found in the Vulgate in one word. The Vulgate reads
Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das escam illorum in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione.

Had Trinity changed illorum (of them) to illis (to them)? Or am I remembering it wrong? Perhaps my memory is not really as good as I imagine.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

That’s what it semt to be

Peter Roach wrote:
I heard a Rotherham man being interviewed on Radio 4 earlier today about the effects of the recession. I thought I heard him say 'It semt to come on suddenly' ('semt' where 'seemed' would be expected). If I heard that correctly (I wasn't listening carefully at the time), it would be presumably be analogical to /dremt/ - /dri:md/. Have you ever heard this? Or did I mis-hear?

I answered
I’ve never heard it, but it seems entirely plausible. The OED has a past tense semde, sempt, semt in the 13th-16th centuries.
You could possibly check in the Leeds Survey of English Dialects.

Peter then reported
I consulted my cousin-in-law, who knows the area well - he used to be Head Teacher of Grimethorpe Comprehensive. I remember him telling me of hearing one of his teachers saying to a boy “don't tha thee-thou me!”. His reply concerning semt:
Yes semt (I'm not sure exactly how it's spelt - it can be pronounced more like sempt) is common in Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley, tha’ knows. They also use tret (for treated).

So I think I must have heard this form correctly.
And I in turn can say that I have heard tret for the past of treat.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Yes, sir!

Discussing the weak form of saint (blog, 9 June) reminds me of another word that has a weak form in BrE but not in AmE: sir. As a vocative, it’s sɜː(r) everywhere. But when it precedes a name, in BrE it normally has the weak form sə(r).
So we say Humphrey, Galahad, Professor Howard Fergus.
With a possible linking r, we have sə(r) Alexander Fleming and sə(r) Alan Sugar (star of The Apprentice, recently ennobled and given a cabinet post).
The only circumstance where sir would be strong in this position is if accented for emphasis or contrast. There was a case just today when the Scottish Olympic cycling champion Chris Hoy received a knighthood. Here’s the TV interviewer asking him “How does ˈsɜː Chris sound?”
Note to non-Brits: he’s Sir Chris Hoy or Sir Chris, but never Sir Hoy.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Not Wavian but drowning

In my blog for 5 Sep 2008 I asked a question intended to be jokey and rhetorical:
Shavian ˈʃeɪviən, for the writer George Bernard Shaw, is more recent (OED: 1905). And Fitzrovia, for the area around Fitzroy Square near Euston, is a mere half-century old (OED: 1958).
(Do you think anyone would give Waugh an adjective Wavian? No? Neither do I.)

I spoke too soon. The word had already been coined and used. In a review of Alexander Waugh’s book Fathers and Sons: the autobiography of a family, Christopher Hitchins wrote
If students of George Bernard Shaw can be called Shavians, a friend of Evelyn Waugh’s named John Sutro argued, then those interested in all things Waugh might be called Wavians. I now realize that, without knowing it, I have been a Wavian for many years.

The review is dated June 3, 2007.
Another review, by Barbara Kay, dated June 13, 2007, bore the headline Parental neglect: the Wavian muse.
In November 2007 there was even a punning headline, Wavian goodbye.
Let me update my question. In years to come, when someone writes a biography of our Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, will his views and behaviour be called Stravian?
Or we might reverse the process and start calling birds aws. (Think about it.)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


I’m aware of the danger of the “recency fallacy” that leads commentators on pronunciation to claim that a pronunciation is getting more common when it really isn’t.
But I do feel tempted to claim, though admittedly without proper evidence, that the strong form of Saint is becoming commoner, where I would expect the weak. I would never use the strong form in names of saints or in placenames based on them. For me St Matthew, St John, St Agatha, and likewise St Albans, St Helens, St Leonards-on-Sea all have sənt, or forms still further reduced such as sn̩t, sn̩. It’s sn̩ Thomas’s Hospital and sm̩ Paul’s Cathedral.
My impression is that people have recently (= in the last twenty years or so) started pronouncing these with the strong form seɪnt.
OK, I know Americans often do this. But I’m talking about Brits.

My late father used to like to recite a verse referring to pairs of apostles who share the same saint’s day in the calendar of the Anglican church (1 May and 28 October respectively, since you ask.)
Let us emulate the aims
of St Philip and St James
and be very very good
like St Simon and St Jude.

And all the Sts were reduced.
(His mispronunciation of good as ɡuːd instead of ɡʊd, to make it rhyme with Jude, was intentional.)

Do we blame the decline of religion, that we don’t talk about saints very much any more? Or do we attribute it to American influence?
Correction: we’re phoneticians. We don’t blame, we observe and seek a reason.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Sure thing

Tami Date (pictured, right) has a remarkable talent for asking me questions about intonation that I don’t exactly have the answer to.
While listening to a CD based on one of the junior high school textbooks authorized by the [Japanese] Ministry of Education and Science, I came across the following:
Mother: Don’t forget to do your home work.
Daughter: I’ve already done that.
Mother: That’s great. Oh, will you pick up your little brother? He’s at Aunt Peg's house.
Daughter: Sure, I'll pick him up.
As for the underlined sentence, it sounded to me as if there was a high pitch or stress on I’ll. I don't know which term is more appropriate. In fact, if it is the former, as you write in your book, I take it as adding emphasis to the whole IP, whereas, if it is the latter, it seems to me there is no legitimate reason for I’ll to be stressed. Karen Chung says: I’LL pick him *UP. (rising intonation).
The capital letters indicate stressed syllables.
The symbol [*] indicates the nucleus.
Since the textbook has a pretty wide circulation across the nation, I think such an apparently unusual intonation is no petty matter to dismiss out of hand, because it must be a source of puzzlement and anxiety to most teachers, who are usually expected to model-read new material in class as well as play the CD. How about the following?
(1) A: Are you coming?
B: Sure, I'm coming.
(2) A: Do you know her?
B: Sure, I know her.

On balance, I think that the most likely pattern for these utterances is fall plus rise. But there could alternatively be a high head or a high prehead followed by a rise.
\Sure. || \I’ll | pick him /up.
or: \Sure. || 'I’ll pick him /up.
or: \Sure. || ¯I’ll pick him /up.
and likewise with the other two examples.

The problem is that the answers contain no new lexical or grammatical items. So there is no non-given item to place the nucleus on. Even the polarity remains the same as in the interlocutor’s question. These answers just mean “yes, OK”.
If yes or OK or (AmE) sure were all we had, it could have a rise (throwaway, routine, “encouraging further conversation”) or a fall (definite, neutral).

I have to say, though, that I don’t feel very pleased with my explanation so far. Probably this is yet another case where we need some input from the pragmatics people to unravel conversational situations that phoneticians like me feel we’re not very good at describing.
Or perhaps we just say they’re yet more intonational idioms.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

French/English interference

At the Chambéry conference Nicolas Ballier of Paris Treize put forward an interesting hypothesis to explain two common errors French people make in pronouncing English. They tend to mispronounce rain as ʁɛn on the one hand and law as lo (or anglicized into ləʊ) on the other.
Ballier says it’s all to do with syllable structure expectations.
For many French speakers their vowels e and ɛ are in complementary or nearly complementary distribution, with the higher one, e, being used in open syllables and the lower one, ɛ, being used in closed syllables. Since rain is a monosyllable closed by its final consonant n, they tend to say it with their ɛ (which we perceive as our short e, the vowel of DRESS), rather than with their e (which we would tend to perceive as our of FACE).
In the case of law, on the other hand, we have an open syllable. The French vowels o and ɔ, too, are in complementary or near-complementary distribution, with the higher o again being preferred in open syllables and the lower ɔ in closed syllables. Although English law would sound much better with French ɔ than with French o, particularly if phonetically modified towards English-style ɔː, nevertheless the syllable structure inhibits its use.
If this is correct, we would also expect a tendency to use a DRESS-type vowel instead of FACE in make, place, same, plate, fail, etc., and conversely a GOAT-type vowel instead of a mid-open vowel in saw, draw, jaw etc. The letter r in the spelling acts to counteract this trend in words such as more, four, score etc., in which either a phonetic r of some kind or a virtual one in the mind causes these syllables to be felt as closed.
We would also predict a tendency to use a LOT-type vowel in words where English has the GOAT vowel in a closed syllable, as in ghost, rope, coat, home.
Obvious, when you think about it. But for some reason I’d never thought about it before.
To the extent that some French speakers preserve the distinction between les le and lait , paume pom and pomme pɔm, this ought not to happen. But I suspect that not very many do preserve these and similar minimal pairs.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

corpus preferences

At the moment I am in France for an international conference on English Pronunciation: Issues and Practices, held at the Université de Savoie in Chambéry. Quite apart from everything else, it is good to see so many former students and old friends again.
One of the most interesting presentations I have attended was by José Mompean, who has done a corpus-based study of words with variable pronunciation. Among these words are several for which I did preference polling, as reported in LDOCE. His study was based on BBC correspondents and news presenters, as represented in the sound files available on the BBC website, and involved counting up the number of times a word was said this way or that.
Most of his statistics agree reasonably well with mine. Where they don’t, this can be readily understood given that he is looking at the performance of people from a very specific professional background, while I was looking at the opinions of people of various social backgrounds from all over Britain.
For example, my 2008 polling figures for the word poor were pʊə 26%, pɔː 74%. Mompean’s are pʊə 32%, pɔː 68%. Allowing for sampling error, these are virtually identical.
For stress placement in the word controversy, on the other hand, my 2008 survey had initial stress ˈkɒn- 40%, second syllable stress -ˈtrɒv- 60%; Mompean found initial ˈkɒn- 73%, second syllable -ˈtrɒv- 27%. The explanation for this discrepancy may be that BBC announcers have been explicitly trained or encouraged to use initial stress in this word, whereas the general public are under no such pressure.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009


Elias Mourão wrote:
For a long time I've been intrigued by an IPA symbol, reversed e. It apears in the middle of the vowel chart and is described as a close-mid central unrounded vowel. I bought the IPA Handbook hoping I would get a proper explanation of it, but the book simply repeats what I already knew about it. Unfortunately it does not give an example of its use. Can this symbol be used for any English word? Could you give me example?
I replied
The symbol ɘ is little used. It is a possible allophone of English ə
(e.g. perhaps in the word “recognize”). It would be a phonetically
more explicit way of writing German ə, as in “bitte”, which is clearly
closer than the corresponding English sound. However, since there is no contrast among short mid central vowels, we normally write ə no matter what the precise vowel height.
I could have gone on to say that in my view the middle of the IPA chart represents an excessive enthusiasm for a non-Jonesian extension of the Cardinal Vowel scheme. In this scheme Daniel Jones first gave us the primary cardinal vowels i e ɛ a ɑ ɔ o u, supplemented by the secondary cardinals y ø œ ɒ ʌ ɤ ɯ. Later the missing one, the open front rounded secondary 4 (c.v. no. 12) was assigned the symbol ɶ, though it is not clear whether there is any use for this symbol in transcribing a real language. (The best candidate for it known to me is the open allophone of Danish /œ/ used next to the Danish uvular r. But no language, as far as I know, distinguishes four front rounded vowel phonemes.)
Considerably later (I speak from memory, since I do not have access to books today) Jones added the two close central vowels to fill the gap between i and u, y and ɯ, namely ɨ and ʉ. Their inclusion is justified by languages such as Russian, which needs the symbol ɨ, and Swedish, which needs ʉ.
But Jones never defined any non-peripheral cardinal vowels. For most languages there is at most one mid central vowel, which can be adequately represented by the schwa symbol, ə, which has always been rather vaguely defined. A few languages have two mid central vowels. German and Danish distinguish a higher/closer ə (as in German bitte ˈbɪtə) from a lower/opener ɐ (as in German bitter ˈbɪtɐ). Non-rhotic English distinguishes a strong long ɜː (as in the noun insert ˈɪnsɜːt) from the weak short ə (as in the noun concert ˈkɒnsət). English and German justify the presence on the chart of two other non-peripheral lax vowel symbols, ɪ and ʊ. Certain other languages (e.g. Dutch) may need the symbol ɵ.
But as far as I can see we don’t need ɘ and we don’t need ɞ. The only reason to include them on the chart is a desire to label every intersection of lines on the chart, rounded and unrounded.
We have never taught the symbols ɘ and ɞ or drilled the corresponding sounds at UCL. I wonder if students have been taught them and drilled on them anywhere else. I suspect not.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Reading about intonation

A few weeks ago a Japanese translation of my intonation book was published, under the title 英語の イントネーション.
My phonetic colleague Takehiko Makino commented
To be frank, the fact that you need a translation for this book, which is written in such clear, easy English, shows the (low) level of proficiency among Japanese teachers of English. I doubt if they ever need a knowledge of intonation when they cannot read the book in English!

—which seems to me to be a fair comment. Japanese learners’ oral ability typically lags some way behind their reading ability. People whose English is not good enough to be able to read the book in the original English probably also can’t speak English well enough to need intonation. After all, intonation is pretty irrelevant for someone who can hardly string a sentence together with reasonable fluency.
I suspect that the explanation is this: many Japanese learners know that their pronunciation is not very good, and feel embarrassed about this fact. So they willingly buy books about pronunciation (including intonation), in the hope that this will help them to improve. As an author, I obviously benefit from this line of thinking, because it helps the sales of my books. Some people might say, though, that they would do much better by listening to lots of spoken English and doing plenty of practice speaking the language themselves.
Or they could painstakingly work through the English-language original.
When I am learning a language I have sometimes talked to the cat, talked to the mirror, talked to myself, held imaginary conversations in my head, done mental simultaneous interpretation of a speech. It all helps. Reading books in your own language about the language you are learning may be interesting and increase your general knowledge, but it is not the best way to acquire conversational fluency.
Or perhaps readers disagree.

Monday, 1 June 2009

More about nasals, palatal and velar

As we saw yesterday, the palatal nasal ɲ is spelt as gn in French and Italian, as ñ in Spanish, and as nh in Portuguese. In Catalan and various African languages it is spelt ny. You might think that this would be straightforward for English speakers to process, but experience shows this isn’t necessarily the case.
Malawi (or Malaŵi, to be pedantic) used to be called Nyasaland, where Nyasa ɲasa, also spelt Nyassa or Niassa, means ‘lake’ in various Bantu languages in that part of Africa. What is now known as Lake Malawi was then called Lake Nyasa. But would the British say ˈnjæsə(lænd), as intended? No, they tended to go for naɪˈæsə. That is, they misinterpreted the letter y as standing for a vowel rather than a consonant. They did the same with the Tanzanian political leader Julius Nyerere. Compare today the name Myanmar (blog, 11 Oct 2007).
Quite apart from its use to spell a palatal nasal, the digraph gn is well known to be ambiguous in English. The g is silent (or ‘zeroed’, as Carney has it) in sign, reign, impugn, but not in signal, pregnant, pugnacious.
Most English-speaking classicists, I think, say ɡn in Latin words such as agnus, dignus, regnum. But choral singers and Catholics tend to be influenced by Italian and say nj. In classical Latin gn appears to have stood for neither ɡn nor ɲ, but rather for ŋn, thus aŋnus, diŋnus, reŋnũ (Allen, Vox Latina, CUP 1965). Allen says (p. 24) that according to C.D.Buck ŋn was changed in late classical times to ɡn as a spelling pronunciation. Subsequently the Romance languages changed ɡn to ɲ (etc).
A discussion of gn would not be complete without mention of the gnu, immortalized by Flanders and Swann with the jocular pronunciation ɡəˈnuː. (Watch and listen here.)

We don’t use the word gnu in ordinary conversation, since we call the animal in question a wildebeeste. According to the COD, gnu originated as a Bushman word nqu. As far as I know, modern Khoisan orthographies do not use the letter q; but if we interpret it following the spelling conventions of Zulu and Xhosa, that would mean a retroflex nasal click ŋ͡ǃ at the beginning.