Thursday, 31 March 2011

a family funeral

Yesterday we buried my sister-in-law Martha, who had died at the age of 83.
She was a cheerful and uncomplicated soul, mother of two daughters, with grandchildren, nephews and nieces. She had come to England from her native Montserrat in her twenties, to work first as a seamstress and then as a hotel chambermaid. You might imagine that her funeral would be a low-key affair. But no, West Indian funerals are major events.

One of my jobs was to prepare the service sheet for the funeral. To the copy shop’s surprise, I ordered 350 copies (for most funerals in London fifty is more than enough). That was a mistake. Supplies were exhausted twenty minutes before the start of the service. I ought to have ordered 500. It was standing room only in the church, and some people were not able to get in at all but had to stand outside in the rain. Everyone who knew Martha or knew any of her extended family was there.

We sang The Lord’s my Shepherd, How Great Thou Art, The Day Thou Gavest, and And Can it Be. A great-niece and a great-nephew read lessons from the Bible. The church choir sang an anthem. A nephew provided the formal Eulogy that is expected on such occasions. My partner Gabriel, Martha’s brother, sang a moving tenor solo. The officiating minister, who knew Martha well, gave an appropriate address, the superintendent minister prayed. I read aloud two poems that I had found on the web: “Do not stand at my grave and weep” and “She is gone”.

Then we proceeded to the cemetery for the interment. The bearers, eight younger male members of the family, lowered the coffin into the grave. The gravediggers did their work, heaping earth over it. We sang more hymns. The minister (who is originally from Guyana) reminded us of our own mortality:
ɝːt tə ɝːt, dʌs tə dʌs
Requiescas in pace, Martha. May you rest in peace.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011


I get quite a few emails from people asking about names that are not in LPD.
Sometimes I can give a quick and straightforward answer. This is usually for names that have only come into the news (or to my attention) since the current edition was prepared. So when Lucas Guevara asked me about the name of the film actors Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal it was easy to reply that their surname is pronounced ˈdʒɪlənhɑːl (particularly since that information is available anyhow in Wikipedia).

Fortunately the pronunciation in Swedish of this originally Swedish family name is not relevant here. (I would guess ˈˈjʏlənhɑːl.)

Emanuele Saiu wanted to know how to pronounce the name of the South American language family Zamucoan. I replied
I don't really know. Probably with the stress on -co-. Compare Minoan.

Sometimes my ignorance is displayed to all. Khosrow Tavakoli said
I couldn't find the correct pronunciation of these two well-known brand
Raymond Weil
I had to reply
I am not familiar with these names. They are not "well-known" as far as I am concerned. But then I don't buy luxury goods.
As a German name, Weil would of course be vaɪl. As an Italian name, Moschino would be moˈskiːno, anglicized (BrE) as mɒˈskiːnəʊ.

Other correspondents are more demanding, even peremptory. One such, writing from Poland, sent me a shopping list of 36 words and names, of which I recognized only two. I suggested politely that she do her own research. A few days later she wrote again
Few days ago [sic] I asked you for help with some foreign words. You advised me to do some researches [sic] and I did so. Unfortunately I did not found [sic] answers for [sic] my questions. I spent much time [sic] on doing it. I would like to ask you again for help. Could you send me recordings how to pronounce these words? Or some directions how I should pronounce them. … I need it for my phonetics classes.
The many errors in her English suggest to me that she is probably a student rather than a teacher. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, though, I said, tongue in cheek,
If you haven't time to do the research yourself, why not get your students to do it? Find out which language each word is from, and what English context it is used in (if any). Track down the phonetic information about the original language, and find people who use the word/name in English (if any), to ask them how they say them.
It is utterly unreasonable to expect me to do this work for you unpaid.

There are limits to my helpfulness.
_ _ _
Tomorrow I shall be busy with family matters. Next posting: 31 March.

Monday, 28 March 2011


As I was reading Why Does E=mc2 by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (blog, 9 Feb) I came across the name of Albert Einstein’s colleague and tutor, Hermann Minkowski, the man who first claimed that space and time must be merged together into a single entity, spacetime.

I read the name to myself as mɪŋˈkɒfski and thought no more about it.

(About the name Minkowski, that is. I’m still trying to get my head round spacetime.)

In supplying this mental pronunciation of his name, I was following the pattern of other -owski names I know: the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, whom my UCL teachers referred to as ˌmælɪˈnɒfski, or Jacob Bronowski, presenter of the 1973 BBC TV documentary series The Ascent of Man, whom everyone called brəˈnɒfski.

Mention of Hermann Minkowski revealed a gap in my general knowledge. He was evidently an important figure in the mathematics underlying modern cosmology. In Wikipedia we read that he came from Kaunas (Kovno), now in Lithuania but then part of the Russian Empire, and was of Jewish descent, educated in Germany. He was awarded his doctorate at the University of Königsberg and subsequently taught there and at Bonn, Göttingen, and Zürich, all German-speaking universities.

The mathematician Hilbert called him his best and most reliable friend.
Seit meiner Studienzeit war mir Minkowski der beste und zuverlässigste Freund…
As a German name, Minkowski is pronounced mɪŋˈkɔfski. This indeed anglicizes as (BrE) mɪŋˈkɒfski.

Since he is such an important figure in cosmology, I was thinking that I ought to add his name to LPD.

But if I do that I must check how it is actually pronounced by English-speaking physicists, mathematicians and cosmologists. Do they use the same pronunciation as I inferred?

It’s possible that they don’t, because Americans tend to treat -owski names differently, rendering them in accordance with English spelling-to-sound conventions as -aʊski. Do Americans refer to him as mɪŋˈkaʊski, then? Given the dominance of Americans in most fields of scientific research, would you find this pronunciation among British scientists too?

There’s no way to find out except to listen to people or to ask them. Fortunately we can nowadays sometimes save time by exploiting on-line resources.

I did a quick YouTube search. Given the existence of a classical musician and recording artist Marc Minkowski, the search term had to be “Minkowski -Marc”. This brought up this video and this one, showing that at least two Americans do call our man mɪŋˈkaʊski, as I suspected.

This British one, despite a promising title, has a sound track containing no speech.

Probably my entry for Minkowski, if I decide to add one, should read

Minkowski mɪŋ ˈkɒf ski || -ˈkaʊsk iGer [mɪŋ ˈkɔf ski]

But I need to check the BrE. Any British cosmologists out there?

Friday, 25 March 2011

strong and weak

Veronika Thir wrote
I am wondering when the KIT vowel (or the FOOT vowel) is actually a
strong vowel and when it is a weak vowel. I think it is weak when occurring in an unstressed syllable […] Thus, it should be strong when occurring in syllables that receive either primary or secondary stress. My questions is: is it weak when occurring in a monosyllabic unstressed structure word like "in" within a sentence?
What about content words which […] do not receive stress for [some] reason?

The general rules about strong (= stressable) and weak vowels in English are that
1. in a stressed syllable you can only have a strong vowel;
2. in an unstressed syllable you can have any vowel.

It would be nice if vowels were always weak in unstressed syllables. But clearly that is not the case in English (unlike, say, Russian), as shown in famous pairs such as modest ˈmɒdɪst (last vowel weak) but gymnast ˈdʒɪmnæst (last vowel strong); informant ɪnˈfɔːmənt but torment (n.) ˈtɔːment; Thomas ˈtɒməs but commerce ˈkɒmɜːs, etc.

Most noticeably, the vowel in the less prominent part of a compound is strong despite being unstressed, e.g. bedsheet ˈbedʃiːt, tentpeg ˈtentpeɡ, kettledrum ˈketl̩drʌm. But notice also non-compounds such as colleague ˈkɒliːɡ, phoneme ˈfəʊniːm, hypotenuse haɪˈpɒtənjuːz.

Some analysts (particularly Americans) argue in the other direction, claiming that the presence of a strong vowel is sufficient evidence that the syllable in question is stressed. In the British tradition we regard them as unstressed.

(There are a few exceptional compounds in which the secondary element DOES weaken, notably some in -man and -land, as milkman ˈmɪlkmən, Finland ˈfɪnlənd. Compare, though, snowman ˈsnəʊmæn, Nagaland ˈnɑːɡəlænd with no weakening.)

The weakening process converts what would otherwise be a strong vowel into a weak vowel. This is most obviously seen in function words with distinct weak forms. (All examples from BrE.)
at strong æt, weak ət
them strong ðem, weak ðəm
from strong frɒm, weak frəm
us strong ʌs, weak əs
are strong ɑː, weak ə
for strong fɔː, weak
NB: there are some function words that do not weaken in this way, e.g. on, always ɒn.

When ordinary lexical words bear no sentence stress, there is no weakening of their vowels. So start, for example, always has ɑː; stop always has ɒ; best always has e; and worst always has ɜː, no matter how non-prominent they may be made in an utterance. Weakening has nothing to do with sentence stress (accentuation), only with word stress.

As Veronica rightly points out, the KIT vowel seems to present something of a problem, since ɪ can be either strong or weak. In bridge it is obviously strong; but in the ending -ed, as in waited ˈweɪtɪd, it is obviously weak, competing as it does with the ed sometimes used in formal singing style.

So with the FOOT vowel. I would regard the ʊ as strong in the lexical word full fʊl, but as weak in the ending -ful, e.g. beautiful. The suffix vowel usually weakens further to ə anyway, though the darkness of the l, combined with syllabic consonant formation, and now its vocalization, may make this difficult to determine. The penultimate ʊ in executive and ambulance is weak, and similarly is alternatively pronounced ə.

Words like in and it indeed present a puzzle. Do these words have a weak form, which happens to sound identical to the strong form? Or are they like on, lacking a weak form?

If I assert that the first vowel in finishing ˈfɪnɪʃɪŋ is strong but the other two weak, can I prove it? Does it matter?

It seems to me that there are two further kinds of evidence that can shed light on the issue of strong and weak ɪ.

One is to look at accents of English that have lost the distinction between ɪ and ə in weak syllables. Australian English is one such: for rabbit, where I say ɪ, Australians say ə, making it rhyme with abbot. So if I want to know whether the last vowel of armistice, my ˈɑːmɪstɪs, is strong or weak, all I have to do is look the word up in my Australian Macquarie Dictionary. There I find this word transcribed with -stəs, proving that the last vowel is weak for them. So presumably the vowel in my -stɪs is weak too (despite being derived from the second part of a Latin compound).

In Australian English it and in, strong forms ɪt and ɪn, DO weaken to ət and ən in contexts where we would expect a weak form.

The other kind of evidence comes from phonological processes that are sensitive to the presence of weak vowels. Take AmE t-voicing, or “flapping” as it is often inaccurately called. Within a morpheme it operates only where the following vowel is weak. So we get the output (= ɾ, more or less) in atom (last vowel weak) but not in latex (last vowel strong). In words such as emphatic we DO get t-voicing, which tells us that the last vowel must be weak ɪ, not strong.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

unpacking the conventions

On 22 March someone left a comment on this blog, under the cloak of anonymity, saying
It reminds me of how the dictionaries can be confusing. For example, one gives ˈsteɪʃ^ənəri, the other /ˈsteɪ.ʃ^ən.^ər.i/, where both are unpronounceable. As written, taken literally, without certain implications. The choice of sounds not to be pronounced is also so random, the prescriptivity arbitrary... Then you have the recorded actor's voice and it doesn't match the written.

I don’t usually react to anonymous negative criticism, but on this occasion I will.

The word stationary/stationery is a good example of how an English word can have several subtly different pronunciations all trivially different from one another. This is because of the interplay of two optional phonological rules in English. They are (i) syllabic consonant formation, which permits a sequence of schwa plus a sonorant to become a syllabic sonorant, and (ii) compression, which involves a reduction in the number of syllables in the word. As the author of a pronunciation dictionary, my dilemma is (a) whether to include all these variants, and (b) if so, how to avoid spelling them all out in detail, which would be too wasteful of space. (AmE is much simpler here, since Americans do not reduce the suffix vowel.)

In BrE our word can be pronounced in any of eight ways, which our seɡment-based transcription system enables us to distinɡuish as follows.
1. ˈsteɪʃənəri (four syllables, no syllabic consonants)
2. ˈsteɪʃn̩əri (four syllables, including a syllabic nasal)
3. ˈsteɪʃənr̩i (four syllables, including a syllabic liquid r̩ = ɚ)
4. ˈsteɪʃn̩r̩i (four syllables, including a syllabic nasal and a syllabic liquid)
5. ˈsteɪʃənri (three syllables, no syllabic consonant)
6. ˈsteɪʃn̩ri (three syllables, including a syllabic nasal).
7. ˈsteɪʃnəri (three syllables, no syllabic consonants)
8. ˈsteɪʃnr̩i (three syllables, including a syllabic liquid).

From the point of view of the EFL student, any one of these is fine. A similar but simpler combinatorial explosion affects words such as liberal and national. Then dictionary and missionary are like stationary.

If I were designing a pronunciation entry for an elementary or intermediate dictionary, I would select one variant and ignore the others. For LDOCE and the like, the entry ˈsteɪʃənəri is entirely adequate. On the other hand the COD’s entry ˈsteɪʃ(ə)n(ə)ri could be taken to imply, wrongly, that the word can be pronounced with two syllables only.

But LPD is meant to be a specialist dictionary. I do not want to dumb down by pretending that the other variants do not exist. I want to specify them unambiguously.

My solution is to use abbreviatory conventions. My entry reads
stationaryˈsteɪʃ ən ər_i -ən_ər i || -ə ner i
What is shown here as an underline should actually be a low breve, which for typographical reasons I cannot reliably reproduce here. This symbolizes the site of possible compression. As explained in the part of the dictionary that people tend not to read, a raised symbol indicates a segment that is usually absent (creating a consonant that will be syllabic unless compressed), though it may alternatively be included. An italic symbol indicates a segment that is usually present, but may be omitted (ditto).

To understand the entry you have to be able to ‘unpack’ the abbreviatory conventions. If you can do so, you will find that it covers all eight possibilities mentioned above.

The advice on page 149 of the third edition says that you can, if you choose, simplify the abbreviatory conventions by preserving italicized symbols, deleting raised ones, and ignoring the compression mark and syllable-division spaces. Applying this to our word we derive ˈsteɪʃnəri, variant number 7. Fine.

As for the claim that
the recorded actor's voice … doesn't match the written
— it is simply untrue. She says ˈsteɪʃn̩ri, version number 6. There is of course no way in which she could have produced all eight versions simultaneously.

Looking at the other pronunciation dictionaries, we see that variants 5 and 6 are not covered by the Cambridge EPD’s ˈsteɪ.ʃən.ər.i, ˈsteɪʃ.nər-. The ODP’s ˈsteɪʃn̩(ə)ri, ˈsteɪʃən(ə)ri does not cover versions 7 and 8.

The LPD entry may be complicated — but the facts are complicated. The optional segments are not ‘random’. Rather than ‘arbitrary prescriptivity’, you could claim that I go to an extreme of inclusiveness and non-prescriptivity. I certainly gave a very great deal of thought to the problem of how best to design an accurately inclusive entry for tricky words like stationary.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

our new multiethnolect

In connection with its ongoing exhibition Evolving English the British Library is holding a series of ‘events’.

Yesterday’s was a lunch-time lecture by Paul Kerswill on the subject of Multicultural London English (this blog, 02 July 2010, 25 Mar 2008 and 16 Nov 2006). I am gratified to say that the event was sold out, but less happy to report that many people had to be turned away.

In his lecture, richly illustrated by sound clips, Paul showed how traditional Cockney, once upon a time centred on inner eastern areas of London such as Bethnal Green, has now moved out to the outer suburbs (his team had studied Havering, on the Essex borders). In inner areas (his team had studied Hackney) the incomers who replaced the white working class had in many cases more than one variety in their repertoire, being able to switch, for example, between Cockney and Jamaican.

(We can illustrate this with the 1984 hit Cockney Translation by the late Smiley Culture, sung in Jamaican Creole but explaining words and usages from Cockney — as Paul pointed out, with no reference at all to Standard English.)
me come to teach you right and not the wrong
ina di Cockney Translation
Cockney’s not a language, it is only a slang
an was originated yaso [= here] ina Englan’…

For today’s teenagers, though, this has given way to a new local multiethnic speech variety shared by adolescents of all different ethnic origins. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Jafaican’, though Paul’s team prefer their term Multicultural London English.

To illustrate the point, Paul played us sound clips of four Hackney adolescents talking, and challenged us to guess the ethnicity of the speakers. They did indeed all sound much the same. Yet one was self-described as Bengali, one as White British, one as Black British Caribbean, and one as Turkish. (I did get two out of four correct, but that may just have been by lucky chance.)

We can illustrate this new variety by this clip of Dizzee Rascal being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman just after Obama’s election. You can hear all sorts of ‘Cockney’ features in his speech (t glottalling, l vocalization and so on) but also plenty of features foreign to traditional Cockney (unshifted FACE and PRICE diphthongs,‘man’).

And he has great answers to Paxman’s condescending and supercilious questions.
Do you believe in political parties?
Do you feel yourself to be British?
_ _ _

I have handed over to Paul Kerswill the original tapes of the interviews I conducted with Jamaicans in London in 1969-70 for my PhD work. If the recordings are still playable after sitting in a drawer for forty years the BL will help digitize them so that they can be properly archived.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

how do we pronounce train ?

Students of phonetics who are NSs of English are regularly given the task of “doing transcription”, i.e. transcribing a passage of English into phonetic notation. This task may not be as easy as it would seem at first sight. The gifted get it right first time, but the average student is tempted to make frequent mistakes. Many can be attributed either to being dazzled by the familiar orthography (so wrɒŋ, for example, instead of rɒŋ), or to failure to take account of weakening and other features of connected speech (e.g. ˈtuː ɒv ðem hæv ˈfɪnɪʃd instead of ˈtuː əv ðəm əv ˈfɪnɪʃt).

The teacher who sets the transcription task has to exercise a certain discretion when correcting the student’s work. Students are encouraged, after all, to represent their own accent rather than some variety different from their own (though in Britain we normally allow them to choose to transcribe RP if they prefer, even if it is not exactly their own accent). Where do we draw the line between a mistake on the one hand and a permissible local-accent feature on the other?

Consider someone who transcribes train as tʃreɪn, drink as dʒrɪŋk etc (which is by no means unusual).

What I would do faced with this is to draw the student’s attention to the fact that the usual transcription is treɪn, drɪŋk. I would mention the allophonic rule that makes English r fricative in the clusters tr and dr, and also the corresponding allophonic rule that retracts t and d when followed by r. I would then try to get the class to discuss which analysis is right, and why.

Do the initial clusters of train and drink contain any phonetic matter that cannot be attributed to the fricative r that we expect in this context? Is the friction element followed by the r element, or simultaneous with it?

The concept of phonological neutralization is relevant here, though sometimes difficult for practically-oriented students to grasp. The point is that there is no possible contrast in English words between a posited cluster tr and a posited cluster tʃr. This means that the opposition between t and is neutralized in the context _r, at least word-initially, and likewise the d - dʒ opposition. So in a sense it is meaningless to ask which is involved.

It may be relevant to consider the pair century – sentry. Obviously, century is basically ˈsentʃəri and distinct from sentry ˈsentri. However, like other words with this phonetic structure, it is subject to optional compression in the form of the loss of the schwa, leaving ˈsentʃri. Is this still distinct from sentry?

If the answer is no, they are not distinct, it confirms our diagnosis of phonological neutralization. If it is yes, they are distinct (which it tends to be), then we ask whether ther initial affricate of train is like the -tʃr- of compressed century or like the -tr- of sentry. It is like the latter, and we transcribe accordingly.

You will now see why I was not convinced by Joshua Smiles, who wrote to me asking
I wonder whether you might know the name of a phonological change occurring in London speakers of RP (and those who simply watch too much television). What I refer to is the shift of any alveolar plosive preceding a rhotic consonant to a post alveolar affricate. Examples of this would be "tripoli", and "children" which are often rendered /tʃɹɪpəli/, and /tʃɪldʒɹən/ in RP and EE alike.

I don’t believe there is any such phonological change in progress. So naturally I don’t have any name for it.

Monday, 21 March 2011

shattered brains

Yesterday I heard an announcement that so-and-so had died of səˈriːbrəl cancer. Personally, I would have said ˈserəbrəl.

Cerebral is one of those medical-anatomical adjectives in which we don’t all agree where the main stress should fall. Other similar cases are skeletal, cervical and our own palatal.

What characterizes these derivatives is a clash between two psychophonological principles. One principle is that of maintaining the shape of the stem to which the suffix -al is attached. Just as person gives us personal and option optional etc, so we may expect to treat the suffix as stress-neutral, giving ˈserəbrəl, ˈskelɪtl̩, ˈsɜːvɪkl̩, ˈpælətl̩, all with initial stress. Compare the initial stress of skeleton, cervix, palate.

(Where the stem has three or more syllables, Chomsky and Halle’s ‘Alternating Stess Rule’ moves the initial stress of the stem to penultimate stress in the adjective, as in ˈuniverse – uniˈversal, ˈdialect – diaˈlectal etc. That is irrelevant here.)

The other principle is the Latin stress rule, largely inherited in English, which says that a long vowel in the penultimate, or any vowel followed by two or more consonants, attracts the main stress to that syllable. So ˈhormone gives us horˈmonal, ˈsepulchre seˈpulchral, and so on. But if the penultimate vowel is part of a ‘weak cluster’, i.e. light — having a short vowel, followed by one consonant or none — then the stress goes not on the penultimate but on the antepenultimate, as ˈpyramidpyˈramidal.

In English as in Latin, to operate the Latin rule it is crucial to know the quantity (length) of the penultimate vowel. But very few people know Latin these days, and even those of us who do may be uncertain about the classical quantity of this or that vowel.

Dentists and anatomists (in BrE at any rate) “know” in some sense that Latin pălātum has a penultimate long vowel, and accordingly pronounce palatal as pəˈleɪtl̩. Phoneticians don’t have this “knowledge”, or “choose” to ignore it, so we pronounce the word as ˈpælətl̩.

The Greek form of skeleton has -λετ-, with a short vowel, which would regularly yield, via Latin, ˈskelɪtl̩; but those who say skɪˈliːtl̩ do not “know” this.

Latin cervix has the stem cervīc-, with a long vowel, and the surgical tradition is to pronounce cervical accordingly as səˈvaɪkl̩; but the pressure of all the hundreds of other adjectives in -ical leads most lay people to prefer ˈsɜːvɪkl̩.

In the case of cerebral, the relevant vowel of Latin cĕrĕbrum is short. The issue here is whether the consonant cluster br is sufficient to ‘make position’, i.e. make the syllable heavy. Clusters with liquids are characteristically uncertain in this regard (which is incidentally the origin of the term ‘liquid’, i.e. ambiguous or uncertain). If we make the syllable heavy we get ceˈrebral, if light ˈcerebral.

You may recognize this Latin word as part of one of the standard examples of tmesis, in the famous half-line from the poet Ennius,
saxō cĕrĕ- commĭnŭit -brum
‘he shattered his br- -ain with a stone’.

Friday, 18 March 2011

initial ps-, ts-, ks-

One or two people have written to me to suggest that I discuss the English pronunciation of tsunami. I have not done so, because the matter has already been extensively aired on Language Log, including here.

OK, then: let’s agree that if we articulate very carefully we can reproduce in English the Japanese affricate ts (which is the allophone of /t/ used before u), giving tsuˈnɑːmi. But once we have got into our stride we’re likely to simplify the initial affricate to a plain fricative, suˈnɑːmi.

(Fun fact: in the local speech of Kōchi 高知, on the island of Shikoku, this allophone is not used, and people say tunami.)

The same sort of thing happens in other borrowed words that have initial ts in the donor language. So tsetse (fly), from Tswana, becomes English ˈ(t)setsi. However with tsar (from Russian царь tsarʲ) and Zeitgeist (German pronunciation ˈtsaitgaist) the English outcome tends to be a voiced fricative, thus ˈzɑː, ˈzaɪtɡaɪst. In the latter word this is easily explained as a spelling pronunciation giving the letter Z its usual English value, and I suppose tsar may be similarly influenced by the alternative and older spelling czar, which the OED dates from 1549.

This voicing uncertainty made me think about other cases where we have borrowed from a foreign language words beginning with a consonant plus s. Notably, these are the Greek-derived words spelt in English with ps- and x-.

It is clear that words with Greek initial psi (Ψ, ψ, ps) end up in English with a voiceless s, while those with initial xi (Ξ, ξ, ks) end up with z. So on the one hand we have psalm, pseudonym, psoriasis, psychology etc with s-, but Xerxes, xenon, xenophobia, xylophone with z-.

So the bilabial produces a voiceless outcome, the velar produces a voiced outcome, and the alveolar can go either way. I do not know why.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


An early start this morning and no time for a proper blog entry, so here’s a link to a jolly song to help you learn the Arabic alphabet (or “abjad”).

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Over-60s in London are entitled to a Freedom Pass, which gives free travel on all buses, underground, overground and trams, and on the Docklands Light Railway. It also gives free travel on National Rail services within London, but only after the morning rush hour is over. A “twirly” is supposedly an older person who tries to use their free travel pass on rail services before 09:30.

“Twirly” is a contraction of “too early”, because bearers of Freedom Passes are supposed to crowd around the ticket barrier just before half past nine, waiting to enter and asking “Am I too early?”

I have seen and heard several mentions of this term recently, though I don’t think I have ever heard it in use (as opposed to mention).

In any case there is something of a phonetic problem with it. The general rule in English phonetics is that WEAK u (ʊ) can be compressed to w before a following vowel, but that strong cannot. Furthermore, even weak u can undergo this compression only if the following vowel is itself weak. So (in my kind of English) there is nothing awkward about twəˈraɪv to arrive if suitably embedded in a sentence, or twɪkˈspləʊd to explode. However it would feel wrong to say twiːt instead of tuˈiːt to eat or twɑːsk instead of tu ˈɑːsk to ask, because in those cases the vowel following the compression site is strong. It would also feel wrong to say twɪɡˈzɔːstɪŋ instead of tuː ɪɡˈzɔːstɪŋ too exhausting, because too — unlike to — has no weak form and is therefore not a candidate for compression. It follows that ˈtwɜːli fails on two counts: (i) because the initial ɜː of early is a strong vowel, and (ii) because it involves too not to.

I would claim that nobody compresses too or two, because nobody has a weak form for them. And for people who shun the tu prevocalic weak form of to in favour of generalizing to all unstressed positions there will be no compression of to either.

[There is a complicating factor here. In some kinds of RP strong tense can undergo smoothing to a laxer ʊ even when stressed, as in ˈtuː əˈklɒk → ˈtʊ əˈklɒk two o’clock. But this does not entrain the possibility of compression. Compare two o’clock (no compression, always three syllables) with to a clock (can be compressed, potentially two syllables).]

The on-line Urban Dictionary, always entertaining, offers several definitions for twirly: not only the one we are discussing here but also a number of others, including indelicate ones supported (if that is the right word) by implausible fragments of dialogue illustrating their supposed use.

I hope this posting wasn’t twʌnɪkˈsaɪtɪŋ. (Actually, it can’t have been. Now you know why.)

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Harold Orton

Last Thursday’s Guardian had a “from the archive” item republishing its 1975 obituary of Harold Orton, creator of the Leeds Survey of English Dialects. (To read it, follow the link.)

I never actually met Orton. At the ICPhS held in Leeds in 1975 he was due to chair a session at which I was to be the speaker, so that I would certainly then have made his acquaintance. But he died a few months before the conference.

In Orton’s heroic method of collecting dialectological data, the informants were all locally born, almost always over 60, and mostly working-class men from small villages. The data was collected from over three hundred different locations by fieldworkers operating on the spot, recording the answers to a 1300-item questionnaire in handwritten IPA and in some cases on bulky gramophone discs.

By the mid-70s the sociolinguists, inspired by Labov and Trudgill, were already demonstrating more modern models of dialectology data collection, better but also arguably more limited (certainly more limited in geographical coverage).

As the sociolinguists rightly asked of SED-style surveys, what about the under-60s? What about speakers who were not manual labourers? What about the bulk of the population, who live not in villages but in towns and cities? And most importantly, what about women?

Nevertheless, despite its limitations, Orton’s survey remains a magnificent monument to English dialectology.

Monday, 14 March 2011

fun with phonetics

I had a great time this weekend at the University of Sheffield First International Languages Festival.

What was particularly remarkable about this event was that it was created not by the academic staff, but by the students themselves — an enthusiastic band of a dozen or more young people who had put together an impressive programme of language taster sessions ranging from Portuguese, Hungarian, Polish and Welsh via Arabic and Hebrew, Yoruba and Xhosa, Tagalog and Thai, to Japanese, Korean and Chinese. And that’s only a selection. There were also sessions on BSL, Braille and Old English. The initiator of all this was one Maks Marzec, a student from Poland with native-like English and fluent Mandarin, who picked up the idea from a similar event he had attended in Nanjing.

The opening ceremony attracted the presence not only of the Vice-Chancellor of the University (who gave a witty and inspiring opening speech) but also of the Lord Mayor of the city and one of the city’s members of parliament. The VC reminded us that language study was valuable not only intellectually and socially but also because it was fun.

A highlight of the opening ceremony was a click song performed by a speaker of Ndebele, accompanied by a drummer.

The idea of inviting me came, I assume, from one of the organizers who was an Esperanto enthusiast. The committee asked me to give two talks (“presentations”) at the opening ceremony, one short and one longer.

The short one was 10-15 minutes on ‘Languages in My Life’. I told the two hundred or so people in the auditorium how from a monoglot start I had learnt — in chronological order — French, Latin and Greek at school, Esperanto on my own, German through a family exchange, and Welsh by attending evening classes. Halfway through the lights failed because the projector lamp had overheated, but I continued Powerpoint-less in the dark until power was restored (“every decent lecturer has a plan B”). I finished by urging them to learn as much as they could while they were young, because the older you grow the harder it gets to memorize things. Latin and Greek declensions and conjugations were a doddle when I was aged 9-14 — but now I would never be able to master such complexity. In my thirties I still retained sufficient powers of memory to learn Welsh reasonably well — but I couldn’t do it now. Strike while the iron is hot, when the brain is not yet sclerotic!

My second contribution was a 45-minute lecture on ‘Speech Sounds Around the World’. This was a combination of serious analysis (classification of consonants by voice, place and manner; airstream mechanisms, etc) and entertainment (fun with exotic sounds). I got everybody practising switching voicing on and off, ffvvffvv, zzsszzss, and using this to learn new sounds: mmm̥m̥mmm̥m̥, xxɣɣxxɣɣ, ççʝʝççʝʝ. This led into exotic sounds of various kinds. Wherever possible I found a speaker of a relevant language to do an authentic demonstration. A Greek young lady was delighted and proud to be called on to say ˈɣala (‘milk’) for us, and to take us through the present tense of the verb ‘to have’, ˈexo, ˈeçis, ˈeçi, ˈexume, ˈeçete, ˈexun, and of ‘to open’ aˈniɣo, aˈniʝis, aˈniʝi… (just add voicing — see?). I found a Swede to demonstrate ɧ, a Welshman to do ɬ, and an Arabic speaker to give us ħ, ʕ, sˤ, ðˤ. And so on. The Polish student I called on to pronounce język ‘language’ thought that my own pronunciation of that word sounded rather old-fashioned and mannered. Ah, well.

There is no better audience for an elderly lecturer than a crowd of enthusiastic young people.

Since it was my birthday, Tim Owen got the audience to finish by singing, to the tune of Happy Birthday to You:
Ĉion bonan al vi, ĉion bonan al vi,
ĉion bonan, profesoro, ĉion bonan al vi!

The success of the Festival shows the foolishness of current education policy in this country, which has dropped the requirement to study a foreign language at secondary school.

Friday, 11 March 2011

controversy and Mr Tickle

“Mr Tickle proves British accents not becoming more American” is the headline introducing an article in today’s Guardian. (The version on the website, dated yesterday, is longer than the one published in the paper, which the subs must have cut rather severely.)

As is often the case with newspaper reports of scientific and scholarly research, you have to exercise a certain scepticism about the headline claims and try to discover what the research findings actually were and on what evidence they were based.

As far as I can see, the findings so far reported of British Library’s survey — admirable as it is, and constituting a great resource for present and future researchers into British speech — do not prove anything at all about what British accents might or might not be “becoming”.

What the reported research does demonstrate is that certain words have a prevailing BrE pronunciation that differs (in a non-systematic way) from that prevailing in AmE. The article mentions controversy, applicable, harass and scone. (The web version also adds garage and neither.)

These are some of the words included in my own preference surveys, reported in LPD. Of the four, the only one for which my own figures justify a claim of a change over apparent time (as detected by comparing results for different age groups) is harass, for which older speakers preferred initial stress, younger speakers final stress. The same change can be detected in both AmE and BrE, with AmE leading the way by a generation or two.

As for garage, my figures show a clear BrE trend from ˈɡærɑː(d)ʒ to ˈɡærɪdʒ, with a very small number of each age group opting for the American ɡəˈrɑː(d)ʒ. For (n)either, the youngest age group in my survey showed an increase in BrE iːð-, but only to 13%. For all BrE age groups, aɪð- easily prevails.

I'll naturally be interested to hear in due course whether the BL survey, when properly analysed by age group, confirms my findings or not.

* * *
I'm off to Sheffield now, to speak at their International Languages Festival.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

pillow talk

News comes to me of a forthcoming phonetic workshop to be held in Maine (northeast USA). It is entitled “Joy of Phonetics” and will be given by Louis Colaianni.

It will “explore and embody virtually all of the sounds of the English language, as well as some foreign sounds”, not to mention “exploring the expressive attributes of vowels and consonants”. Expressive attributes? You can see that it is aimed at voice-speech-and-drama people rather than at students of linguistics, laboratory phonetics, or speech and language therapy.

What really grabbed my attention, though, was the promise of “learning exercises and games using phonetic pillows”. Phonetic pillows? I don’t think I’ve ever had a phonetic pillow. Did you know you can buy a supply of them? Here’s what they look like.It turns out that they are pillows in the shape of phonetic symbols. I’m not sure how they are used: perhaps if I throw a stuffed schwa at you, you cry ə, and if you retaliate by throwing an esh at me I have to go ʃ. Here's a pillow in mid-throw. (Not quite sure whether it's a, e or ɐ.) This picture comes from a page headed Phonetic Pillow Teacher Certification.
At least this could be a fresh way to motivate students to learn IPA symbols. It evidently works wonders — the website offers glowing testimonials to this method. "Cannot imagine learning speech by any other method"? It’s not how I learned speech myself...

Somehow I fear I would not have been taken seriously if I had tried phonetic pillows with the students of linguistics and of speech therapy that I used to teach. But the drama students with whom I moonlighted when very young would have loved them.

EFL teachers, do you think your students would benefit from this method?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

a Faroese mystery

There’s a mysterious entry in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch (German pronunciation dictionary):
Brú fär. brɨθu

I know very little about Faroese except that it’s a Scandinavian language, related to Norwegian and Icelandic, and spoken by the fifty thousand people who live on the Faroe Islands, halfway between Scotland and Iceland. But one thing I thought I did know about this language was that despite using the letter ð in its orthography it has no dental fricatives — no phonetic ð and certainly no θ.

So how can this Faroese name be pronounced as shown in Duden?

I consulted my colleague Michael Barnes, who until his retirement was Professor of Scandinavian Studies at UCL and is an expert on Faroese. He tells me that Heðin Brú is a pen-name taken by the Faroese writer Hans Jacob Jacobsen.

This pseudonymous surname is a form of the Faroese word for ‘bridge’, which is more usually brúgv brɪɡv. The older form brú is found in Faroese ballads. Prof. Barnes says it would be pronounced roughly bryu, where the first part of the diphthong is somewhere between Norwegian y and Norwegian ʉ. In the reference work Faroese by Höskuldur Þráinsson et al. (Tórshavn: Føroya Fróðskaparfelag, 2004) it is given as brʉu.

So Duden’s “brɨθu” must be one of that dictionary’s very few misprints. It should read “brʉu”. Aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus. And we who live in glass houses mustn’t throw stones.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

cosmic pitchers

I’ve rather a lot of things to do today, so there’s no time for a proper blog entry. Instead I offer you a lolcat. It’s rather literate for a lolcat, knowing about correct apostrophes in pronoun-verb contractions and having heard of epenthesis eˈpentθəsɪs.
My other offering is a short video on the danglers of replying on a spellchequer. (Thanks, Lynne Murphy.)


Monday, 7 March 2011

bilding a cubbard

The Guardian recently had an interesting leader entitled “Unthinkable? Simpler spelling”, to which Greg Brooks subsequently offered a rejoinder “These variations on English spelling simply won’t work”.

The Guardian’s editorial has been rightly pilloried for repeating the absurd claim that
phonetic languages like Italian and, apparently, Finnish not only have no problem with dyslexia, they don't even have a word for it.
Of course the Finns do have a word for it. Dyslexia may be less of a problem in languages with regular spelling, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, still less that their speakers can’t name or discuss it.

Nevertheless, I was pleased to see the Guardian arguing that the time has come
to step back where we can from uniformity and let in variety and simplicity [in our spelling].
Greg Brooks welcomes this openness and gives some examples.
Some oddities in conventional spelling occur in only a few words, and could be changed without causing problems: bild, cubbard, dubble, gost, gard, lam, bom, crum, autum, potatos, sope, foke, buty, canoo, frute. These would be easier for native and non-native speakers, but would have to become official – not alternatives to existing spellings [emphasis added — JCW].

On the assumption that we are content to allow reform of these “oddities”, I don’t see the logic in insisting that the traditional spellings must no longer be permitted alongside the reformed spellings. Why not allow the two forms to co-exist, to compete if you will, until one or other becomes obsolescent and ultimately obsolete?

That is what has often happened in the history of our spelling.

Even within my own lifetime I can think of examples. As a boy I was taught that we could spell the word pronounced ʃəʊ either as show or as shew.
Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee. Gen 12:1
No one would write shew today.

That reminds me. When I was at school it was still quite usual to write no-one and to-day with a hyphen. That hyphen is now obsolescent in the first, obsolete in the second. Nowadays (now-a-days), you will see mostly no one and only today. A hundred years ago our newspapers wrote Oxford-street; today it’s Oxford Street. All those hyphens first coexisted with the unhyphenated forms, then finally lost out.

When I was a boy the spelling gaol (for jail) was the usual spelling in Britain. Only Americans would write jail, we thought. Wrong: British newspapers too now write jail.

In Britain we tolerate both organise and organize, and similarly with many other -ise/-ize words. (Some British people wrongly imagine that only -ise is correct for us. On the contrary, the Concise Oxford Dictionary, like many others, prefers -ize.) It does no harm to allow both forms. The same applies to judg(e)ment and various other cases.

And so we come to build and cupboard. On the first, the OED comments (with its charming Victorian syntax)
The normal modern spelling of the word would be bild (as it is actually pronounced); the origin of the spelling bui- (buy- in Caxton), and its retention to modern times, are difficult of explanation.
On the second, we all know that despite its etymology a modern cupboard is not a table or board for cups. It is a cabinet or closet in which we store all sorts of things. A “broom cupboard” has nothing to do with cups or with boards.

So if people want to write about bilding a cubbard, let’s allow them to do so. As for those who prefer building a cupboard — let them continue to do so. Let a hundred or so improved spellings like these exist alongside the traditional forms. Let a hundred flowers bloom. And let’s see what survives.

Friday, 4 March 2011

singing in foreign

The choir I sing in is working on our next show, which will feature songs from all over the world.

We’re having another go at Jacques Brel’s “Carousel”, which we did last year (blog, 19 Jan 2010). Listening to our very creditable efforts, I was struck by the word carousel itself. I find that (in singing style at least) I want to pronounce the middle syllable with u. But most people in the choir pronounce it with ə, even in singing, thus ˌkærəˈsel. Airport baggage reclaim halls have made this a familiar word nowadays in the UK, where the fairground amusement in question is called not a “carousel” but a “roundabout” or a “merry-go-round”. Clearly I was right to prioritize the ə form in LPD, despite my own conservative habits.

We had an extra rehearsal last night, which has left me in something of a nit-picking mood. We have brilliant professionals producing original arrangements of the music we sing — so how is it that they can’t spell their Italian musical directions correctly? In Italian accelerando is spelt with two cs and one l, just as English accelerate. And I think the arranger means “resume”, not “assume”.
Even my poor smatterings of Italian are enough to know that this should be “molto sonoro”, not “molto sonore”.

Linguistically the most challenging for us of the new songs is an arrangement of two Hindi hits, Chaiyya Chaiyya and Jai Ho. (You may know the second of these from Slum Dog Millionaire.) An Indian member of the choir has been pressed into advising us on the pronunciation, but he’s struggling a bit because Hindi is only his third language, after English and Telugu. We have the lyrics in romanization of course, not in Devanāgarī. This brings its own problems (ee represents ई , not ए ). We’re doing our best. What is tricky, though, is that the lyrics of Jai Ho at one point suddenly switch from Hindi into a sort of Spanish: “ahora conmigo tu baila para hoy…”. Our tame Spanish speaker had to admonish us not to pronounce h in ahora, Spanish aˈoɾa. There’s nothing he can do about the questionable grammar, though.

There’s more Spanish in a song called “In These Shoes”.
No le gusta caminar.
No puede montar a caballo.
Como se puede bailar?
Es un escandalo.

It’s a lost cause to try and persuade a choir mainly of English people to pronounce a Spanish-style r at the end of caminar and bailar, though we can manage an r-sound of sorts in montar — I’m sure you can see why. Interestingly, everyone knows about the double ll in caballo. We do it as j, which is fine, rather than as the disappearing Castilian ʎ. But an awful lot of our singers wrongly extend this treatment to bailar, producing baɪˈjɑː (Spanish baiˈlaɾ).

No way, Jozé. Ez un escándalo. But I don’t suppose the audience will notice. Rant over.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


There was another idiosyncratic pronunciation from David Attenborough last night, repeated several times in his programme Attenborough and the Giant Egg (iPlayer here). For Malagasy, which most of us call ˌmæləˈɡæsi, he says ˌmæləˈɡeɪzi. I suppose it can be considered a spelling pronunciation, though there aren’t actually any other words in -asy that might have acted as a model for it.

No dictionaries, as far as I know, give anything other than ˌmæləˈɡæsi (or their idiosyncratic transcriptions of the same pronunciation, as in the new edition of the OED, with Upton’s a for æ).
Etymologically, the alternation between the d of Madagascar and the l of Malagasy is due to an alternation in the Malagasy language itself. The OED says
There is a division in Malagasy between dialects with /d/ and dialects with /l/, which accounts for the coexistence of forms in Mal- and forms in Mad-.

Wikipedia adds that Malagasy l becomes d “in reduplication, compounding, possessive and verbal constructions, and after nasals”. Malagasy belongs to the Bornean branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language family.

The other English adjective/ethnonym from Madagascar, namely Madagascan ˌmædəˈɡæskən, is interesting in that it is morphologically irregular. It “ought” to be Madagascarian, like Gibraltarian from Gibraltar. For non-rhotic speakers the irregularity is only in the spelling: as far as pronunciation goes, ˌmædəˈɡæskə — ˌmædəˈɡæskən is just like ˈæfrɪkə — ˈæfrɪkən.

* * *
I feel quite chuffed that my lexical sets PALM and LOT have made it to lolPhonology.
As you can see, internal evidence (wif) suggests that this lolcat is American.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

funny har-har

Alan Iwi sent me some non-rhotic puns.

First, there’s the British children’s TV character called “Shaun the Sheep”. Would Americans pick up the pun in his name?

Next, a joke suitable for English, Australian etc ten-year-olds. Presumably it wouldn’t work for American fourth-graders.
What do you call a deer with no eyes?
  —No idea.
What do you call a deer with no legs and no eyes?
  —Still no idea.
For that matter, would they think the reason we call diarrhoea (AmE diarrhea) by that name is that it gives you a dire rear?

Then there’s this joke about not wanting to get involved.
People see church like a giant helicopter. They fear getting too close in case they get sucked into the rotas.
The joke wouldn’t work in AmE — not only because of rhoticity (groan) but also because Americans don’t use the word rota.

Alan also draws my attention to a commercial website where we read that Abingdon Eye Centre was “formally” known as Classic Eyes Opticians.

Lastly, there’s a carpet company calling itself "Walter Wall Carpets".

This is noteworthy for two reasons:
(1) the company is located in Exeter, which happens to be one of the rather few urban centres in England that are still largely rhotic; and
(2) Walter Wall is not actually an exact homophone of wall-to-wall even for non-rhotic speakers, because the t in Walter exerts a pre-fortis clipping effect on the preceding ɔːl, while for the t in to this effect is blocked by the internal word boundary. So the two phrases differ rhythmically. (For people who say ˈwɒlt- rather than ˈwɔːlt-, the difference is even greater.)
Nevertheless the pun presumably works well enough to justify its use.

* * *
Those of you living in the UK (or anywhere else where you can access the BBC iPlayer) may be interested in this interview with Peter French on the topic of forensic acoustics. It’s available for a few days only.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


In the BBC R4 panel game Just a Minute the panellists have to attempt to speak for sixty seconds on a given topic without hesitation, deviation, or repetition.

In last week’s episode one of the topics was what is usually written as quantitative easing. I would pronounce the first word here as ˈkwɒntɪtətɪv. However the chairman (Nicholas Parsons), and everyone else on the programme as far as I could tell, pronounced it ˈkwɒntətɪv. This raises the same sort of issue as mischiev(i)ous and prot(r)uberant (blog, 3 Feb). Is ˈkwɒntətɪv a variant pronunciation of quantitative, or is it to be treated as a separate word, “quantitive”?

Formally, I suppose this is a haplology (blog, 7 Mar 2007), comparable to library ˈlaɪbri. A repeated consonant gets deleted along with its support vowel.

The OED has a separate entry for quantitive, which it regards as “irregularly” formed. It adduces citations from 1626 onwards.In Just a Minute, given that the chairman specified the topic as ˈkwɒntətɪv easing, I wonder whether panellists would have been penalized for deviation if they had referred to ˈkwɒntɪtətɪv easing. More to the point, you’re allowed to repeat the words on the card (but no others) without penalty. If someone had more than once repeated “quantitative” ˈkwɒntɪtətɪv, would that have counted as disallowed repetition, since that was not exactly the word the chairman had specified as part of the topic? Are the “words on the card” those that the chairman utters, or those that are written?

Americans and some others prefer ˈkwɒntəteɪtɪv, a variant which I imagine would be resistant to haplology.