Friday, 28 October 2011

żurek in Connacht

Thanks to all commentators for the very useful responses to yesterday’s posting. I shall now with confidence add to the next edition of LPD (when and if there is one) as follows.
uillean, uilleann ˈɪl ən ˈɪl jən — Irish [ˈɪ lʲənʲ ˈɪ lʲən]

While on the subject of Irish, I notice that on the American voice association’s email list a lady from Texas is asking about the pronunciation of the name of the western province of the Irish Republic, which she gives as Connaught.
Anybody out there know whether the emphasis in Connaught Province is on the second syllable? Pronunciations online seem to indicate a slight emphasis on the first syllable. My director, who lived in Ireland (but is in no way a vocal coach) seems to insist that the emphasis is on the second syllable.

Straightaway she got a reply from a voice teacher in Maryland.
I have always heard it pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. The first syllable is not 'thrown away', but de-emphasized.

Interesting. See how what appears to be misinformation disseminates. Perhaps it is true that in America you “always” hear this name given second-syllable stress. But that’s not what you hear in Ireland, or indeed in Britain. The only pronunciation I have ever heard is ˈkɒnɔːt, with initial stress.

Wikipedia offers us a range of authentic-sounding possibilities, all with initial stress:
Connacht (pronounced /ˈkɒnəxt/, /ˈkɒnəkt/ or /ˈkɒnɔːt/ —Irish: Connachta / Cúige Chonnacht —pronounced [ˈkɔnəxtə]), formerly anglicised as Connaught.

Indeed, we nowadays spell the name of this province as Connacht. We retain the old spelling in the case of the Duke of Connaught, a dukedom now extinct, and in various placenames and street names. The enquirer was talking about a play, A Lie of the Mind, whose author, Sam Shepard, no doubt uses the old spelling.

I suggest in LPD that for Connacht, though not for Connaught, we can reduce the second vowel to ə, as happens in Irish. Next time I ought to add the Irish-language pronunciation, too.
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In the past I have congratulated the Guardian on its newly acquired ability to print letters bearing diacritics, not only for names and other words from French, German, Spanish and Portuguese, relatively familiar languages for us, but also from other languages that use the Latin alphabet (blog, 20 April 2010). Today, though, it slips. Simon Hoggart, in his always entertaining parliamentary sketch, fantasizes about the UK prime minister, excluded from hobnobbing with the big boys of the eurozone, having instead to dine (horror!) with Swedes and Poles, Hungarians and Latvians. (Even the Slovaks and Estonians are in the inner circle, but not us.)
As any fule kno, these should be “żurek” and “blåbärssoppa” respectively. Though why someone might want three kinds of soup at the same time I have no idea.
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I shall be away for the next two weeks. Next blog: 14 November.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

uilleann pipes

Let’s try a bit of crowd sourcing. How do we pronounce uillean or uilleann, as in uillean(n) pipes?

Please do NOT respond if you’re not familiar with this word. Tell me what you say ONLY if you have heard other people use it in English, and particularly if you commonly use it yourself in English.

If you are a speaker of Irish please tell me how you pronounce it in Irish, too.

I should explain that Nicholas Jones wrote to me pointing out that LPD
doesn’t have ‘uillean (pipes)’, [a word] that is guaranteed to give English speakers problems. Collins English Dictionary gives only /'u:lɪən/. I may be wrong – I guarantee nothing – but I thought it was more commonly /'i:lɪən/.

In my reply I mentioned that Wikipedia says it’s pronounced ˈɪlən. This is also what is given on an American website for enthusiasts. I have now looked it up in the online OED, too, where I find the pronunciation given only as ˈɪljɪn.

Etymologically, the word appears to be the genitive singular of the Irish word for ‘elbow’, variously given in the nominative singular as uillinn (my Learner’s English-Irish Dictionary, and online here) or uille (Wikipedia, the OED s.v. union pipes, and the image shown alongside). Another source says it is an adjective meaning ‘acute-angled, having a sharp elbow or angle’. However, as the Wikipedia article recounts, it is also possible that it is really a reworking of the English word union.

To hear what uillean pipes sound like, go here and follow the links on the righthand side; or here.

Meanwhile I’ll ask around at the EFDSS and the London Irish Centre.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


As regular readers will know, I am always on the lookout for English intonation patterns that are not predictable on the basis of the general rules we know about, and which I have attempted to record in my book English Intonation.

Each case that we discover can be seen as demonstrating the inadequacy of the existing rules. This is not something to be upset about. Rather, it helps us work towards a fuller account of the language and of what native speakers implicitly know about it.

Linguists are not content with vague hand-waving in the direction of ‘sprachgefühl’ every time we are faced with something we cannot explain. We seek a fuller, more principled account.

I’ve been thinking about the phrase I don’t know. Apart from its obvious use to say that one doesn’t know some fact or the answer to some question, we also sometimes use it to demur — that is, to show that we disagree slightly with what has just been said.

How do people typically demur? Politely. Politeness being what it is, we also use this phrase, in BrE at least, to show that we disagree strongly (rather than slightly) but don’t wish to enter into an immediate fierce argument.

Here’s LDOCE’s example of this usage (s.v. know 21 c).
‘I couldn’t live there.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. It might not be so bad.’
What intonation would be appropriate for I don’t know in this sense?

I think it has to be a rise.

  Oh, I ˌdon’t /know.
  \Oh, | I ˌdon’t /know.

Ah, say followers of Brazil’s theories, that’s because we’re referring (to our lack of knowledge) rather than proclaiming it. To which I reply, but how do you know? Why should demurring be referential, whereas straightforward disagreement is proclamatory? It sounds nice as a post-hoc explanation, but if you were a NNS and needed to use this phrase — say, as an actor in a play — how would you know that a falling tone is inappropriate and that you should use a rise?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

incomplete plosion?

What, if anything, do you understand by the term ‘incomplete plosion’?

It is a term not to be found, as far as I can see, in any work by Gimson, O’Connor, Cruttenden, Roach, Ladefoged, Collins/Mees or in fact any British phonetician later than Daniel Jones (but see below). It’s not in SID. I haven’t checked American sources, but I don’t think they use it either. So I was a little surprised when I found it in the draft of a textbook of English phonetics by a Chinese author that I was asked to read.
When a plosive sound is immediately followed by another plosive sound, only the second plosive is fully exploded, but the closure of the first plosive sound (the 2nd stage of the first plosive) is held for double the usual time. This is known as incomplete plosion.
Examples given include such cases as the k acting ˈæktɪŋ or the ɡ in begged beɡd.

This is what I call ‘no audible release’ or ‘masking’ of a plosive. We also sometimes speak of ‘overlapping plosives’. Because of the supervening second plosive, the release of the first plosive in such sequences cannot be heard, being masked by the hold of the second plosive. Acoustically, what you get in ˈæktɪŋ is the formant transitions of a velar approach, a long silence (the double hold) and the formant transitions of an alveolar release. (The assertion that the first plosive is held for double the usual time is simply wrong.)

I do remember Gordon Arnold, one of my teachers at UCL, when I was studying phonetics as a postgraduate, telling me that the expression ‘incomplete plosion’ was strongly deprecated. The term ‘incomplete plosive’ was not quite so absurd, he said, but I should still prefer ‘plosive with no audible release’. I had the general impression that these were unfortunate Jonesian terms which his successors were trying to eradicate.

Accordingly, in my Practical Phonetics (with Greta Colson, Pitman, 1971, p, 73) I wrote
Another term sometimes encountered, INCOMPLETE PLOSION, is misleading and best avoided.

In a quick search of Jones’s major works, however, I can find no instance of ‘incomplete plosion’, only ‘incomplete plosive (consonants)’, e.g. at §§578-585 in the 1957 edition of An Outline of English Phonetics. Under that heading Jones deals not only with masked release but also with what we might now call gemination, zero release or unreleased plosives, in homorganic plosive sequences such as red deer and eggcup.

A Google search for ‘incomplete plosion’ brings up an old lecture handout on Rachael-Anne Knight’s website, which wrongly defines the IPA diacritic [˺] as denoting ‘incomplete plosion’. (In the current IPA Chart it is defined as ‘no audible release’.) She includes not only acting but also cases such as take five, where ‘narrow release may also apply’ (???).

Apart from this one document from a NS phonetician, Google directs us to a Powerpoint presentation from Xi'an Jiaotong University and some Chinese instructional material on English phonetics.
When a plosive consonant is immediately followed by another plosive, only the second plosive is fully exploded, the first plosive is incomplete. This is known as incomplete plosion, which often takes place at the junction of words.
For example:
actor doctor football black tea sit down a good teacher
1. They collected pennies. 2. She slept badly.

It would appear then that this terminology, obsolete or at least disfavoured among NS phoneticians, lives on in the local tradition of English phonetics in the People’s Republic.

Monday, 24 October 2011

language show

On Saturday I looked in at the London Language Show: 150 stands and three seminar rooms, exhibitors ranging from language schools to cultural bodies to publishers to travel agencies (they arrange student visits abroad). Over the three days of the show there were ‘taster’ sessions on Arabic, Czech, Chinese, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and British Sign Language, plus intensive classes in a subset of these and a whole range of seminars.

On the CUP stand I was able for the first time to have a look at the new (18th) edition of the Cambridge EPD. Visually, the most striking change is that the coloured type in the body of the dictionary, blue-green (teal?) in the 17th edition, is now light brown (tan?). The contents include six short essays by outside contributors. Transcription-wise, the most important change is that words such as tune, duke now have the tʃ, dʒ form prioritized. This is what my own preference poll reveals to be the most widely preferred BrE form, but I still find it a bit shocking.

I noticed two exhibitors at the show specializing in offering pronunciation tuition. I was attracted to one stand by the large chart of phonetic symbols for English displayed — refreshingly error-free and well presented. The young lady on duty at that stand turned out to hold a master’s in Phonetics from UCL: this was after my retirement, so I had examined her but not taught her.

A difference from previous years was the unusually high profile presented by two particular languages: Polish and Mandarin Chinese.

All the more reason for us to drill our students diligently in the difference between ɕ, ʑ and ʂ, ʐ.
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In a week I shall be off to Japan, for a conference in Kochi (here’s the programme). I hope to see some of you there. Afterwards I shall also be giving lectures in Osaka and Kyoto.

Friday, 21 October 2011


Locals know how to pronounce the names of places, because they've often heard other people say them. Outsiders often get them wrong, because they rely on the spelling, which may be ambiguous and misleading.

Yesterday’s parliamentary debate on the collapse of the carbon capture scheme at Longannet was a case in point. Dictionaries will tell you that there is no ɡ in the pronunciation of this name. It is lɒŋˈænɪt (with appropriate possible variation in the exact vowel qualities). I don’t know the etymology, but this suggests that it consists morphologically of long plus Annet. The lack of phonetic g is parallel to its absence in long odds or long overdue. The only people from whom we would expect a velar plosive are those with the local accent of the patch of northwest England in which singer rhymes with finger.

But as I listened to Today in Parliament (BBC R4) yesterday evening I noticed that Chris Huhne and other MPs were calling it lɒŋˈɡænɪt, as if the second element were gannet. Huhne was born in an ‘affluent’ part of London and attended the fee-paying Westminster School. So an RP speaker, then. (It appears that his mother was an actress who supplied the voice for the speaking clock.)

There’s a good television clip here (sorry if it’s not available in your country). On it you hear both the Scottish reporter, several times, and a local manager pronounce Longannet without g, but Chris Huhne pronounce it with.

Another Scottish -ng- trap is Kingussie. It looks as if it ought to be kɪnˈɡʌsi (or kɪŋ-). But it isn’t, it’s kɪŋˈjuːsi. According to Wikipedia, it’s from Gaelic Ceann a' Ghiuthsaich ˈkʲʰaun̴̪ ə ˈʝuːs̪ɪç. (I think that’s a better order for the diacritics on k than the kʰʲ you see in Wikipedia: the palatalization applies to the whole initial plosive, aspiration only to its release.)
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Here's Paul Kerswill in today's Sun newspaper. An excellent example of the "impact" our paymasters now want English academics to achieve.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

initial clusters

One of my favourite examples of metathesis is the Modern Greek verb βγάλω vghálo ˈvɣalo ‘I take out’ (aorist form).

To see how it came about we first have to dispose of one or two other sound changes en route from classical to modern. In Ancient Greek this stem took the form ἐκβαλ- ekbal- eɡˈbal-. The voicing assimilation of the consonant in the prefix ἐκ- ek-, making it voiced before a voiced consonant, appears to date from ancient times — see W. Sidney Allen’s Vox Graeca (CUP 1987) p. 18.

Ancient short unstressed vowels at the beginning of a word are lost (‘aphesis’) in Modern Greek. So for example the classical word ὄμμα ómma ‘eye’, or rather its diminutive ὀμμάτιον ommátion, stripped of its case ending -ον -on, loses its initial vowel to become Modern Greek μάτι máti ˈmati, still meaning ‘eye’. Classical ἐξερῶ ekserô ‘I will speak out’ (?) yields Modern aphetic ξερώ ξέρω kséro ˈksero ‘I know’.

Classical voiced plosives became fricatives in Modern Greek (‘spirantization’). Loss of the initial vowel in ἐκβαλ- ekbal- eɡˈbal-, the example we started with, left an initial cluster ɡb-. This duly became ɣv-. It was this cluster that then underwent metathesis to give the modern vɣ-. I do not know when the metathesis happened in popular speech. It was resisted in the katharevousa (puristic) form of modern Greek.

No parallel metathesis seems to have happened to γδ- from classical ἐκδ-. Homer’s ἐκδύνω ekdúnō ‘I undress’ (as in modern English zoological ecdysis and fanciful ecdysiast) yields Modern Greek γδύνω ghdhíno ˈɣðino with the same meaning and unmetathesized.

I used to find Modern Greek useful for widening my students’ appreciation of the phonotactic possibilities of language, and there was usually a native speaker conveniently to hand. Clusters such as word-initial are not difficult, once you have mastered ɣ, but can seem very strange to speakers of other languages — all except those familiar with French, where initial vr is found in such everyday words as vrai ‘true’. From you just need to move the uvular articulation forward to the velar position.

Greek has other interesting word-initial clusters involving a fricative + obstruent: φτάνω ftáno ˈftano or φθάνω ftháno ˈfθano ‘I arrive’, βδομάδα vdhomádha vðoˈmaða ‘week’, χτές khtes xtes or χθές khthes xθes ‘yesterday’, χτυπώ khtypó xtiˈpo ‘I knock’, σχολείο skholeío sxoˈlio ‘school’, σγουρός sghourós zɣuˈros ‘curly’.

For really complex consonant clusters, however, you need to go to the Caucasian or Salishan languages. When I was teaching my phonological analysis class we never seemed to have any native speakers of those languages around.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

son of RP

Graciela María Martínez writes
I am a teacher of Phonetics and Phonology at a Teacher's Training College in Argentina and would very much like to ask you a question as regards a conclusion you wrote in the article ‘Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation’. You wrote “EFL teachers working within a British English-oriented environment should continue to use RP (though not necessarily under that name) as their pronunciation model. But this model must be revised and updated from time to time.”

My question is: What should we call that pronunciation model? Is there any new publication with revised and updated data on RP?

At UCL we sometimes referred to it (not altogether seriously) as “son of RP”.

Jack Windsor Lewis tried to popularize the term "General British", but it has not found wide acceptance. In our Practical Phonetics (1971) Greta Colson and I used the name "Southern British Standard". Given that RP is supposedly not localizable within England, this term relies on people’s appreciating that Southern British means ‘of southern Britain’, i.e. ‘of England, not Scotland’. (Technically and historically, North(ern) Britain is Scotland, while South(ern) Britain is England-and-Wales.) But I’m not so sure that everyone is mindful of the difference between Britain and England.

More recently the term "Standard Southern British English" (SSBE) has become popular. I noticed it quite a few times at the Hong Kong ICPhS two months ago.

Nevertheless, the name RP does have some traction among the general public. The OED cites the Independent newspaper in 2000:
The Bristol accent also defeated them. ‘What do you do when the fabric tears?’ asked a young boy, only to be met by total incomprehension until his enquiry was translated into received pronunciation.

There are two principal reasons why the name RP is not altogether satisfactory:
(i) it uses the term ‘received’ in a meaning that is now unusual, namely ‘accepted or considered to be correct by most people’. We do still speak of ‘received opinions’ and the ‘received wisdom’, but that’s about it.
(ii) the social landscape has changed out of all recognition since the term was first used (by Walker in 1774; by Ellis in 1869; by Jones in 1926).

I’ve pointed out elsewhere that there are various sets of criteria by which we might try to define RP: sociolinguistically, by examining the speech of the people at the top of the heap; ideologically, by reference to correctness or what is perceived as correct or desirable; and pedagogically, as a convenient codification of the pronunciation model we teach to BrE-oriented learners of EFL.

In LPD I claim that the model of BrE pronunciation that I record is “a modernized version of … RP”.
In England and Wales, RP is widely regarded as a model for correct pronunciation, particularly for educated formal speech. It is what was traditionally used by BBC news readers — hence the alternative name BBC pronunciation, although now that the BBC admits regional accents among its announcers this name has become less appropriate.

Others have other definitions, or use other terms. I’m sure readers have views on this.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


My uncle Gilbert was not only a marathoner but also a climber, and I suppose it is from him that I must have learnt the verb to abseil (OED: “to descend a rock face or other near-vertical surface using a rope fixed at a higher point and coiled round the body or passed through a descendeur, the speed of descent being controlled by the rope's friction. Also with down and in extended use. Cf. rappel.)

He pronounced it ˈæbseɪl; so do I, and so do most of the people I have heard use the term. It stopped being a mountaineers’ technical term and entered general usage when people started abseiling not only down mountains but also down the outside of buildings, for charity, for fun, or in protest.

The etymology of the word is straightforwardly German: the neuter noun Seil means ‘rope’ or ‘cable’, and its derivative abseilen means ‘to lower (something, or oneself) on a rope’, hence ‘to abseil (down)’, and also, figuratively, ‘to skedaddle’. No doubt it was borrowed into English by the early pioneers of mountain climbing in the Swiss Alps.

The German pronunciation is zail, ˈapzailən (though neither of my two German pronunciation dictionaries includes the verb). The German spelling ei regularly corresponds to the sound ai (or however you choose to write this diphthong).

So why, despite this, does our prevailing pronunciation have ? It could easily be accounted for as a spelling pronunciation — compare eight, rein, veil, vein etc. On the other hand in native English words the spelling ei can correspond not only to but also to (eider, height, kaleidoscope) and (ceiling, deceive, Keith, seize). As we all know, either and neither can go either way.

All other German loanwords with ei, as far as I can see, have English , as Eiger, eigenvalue, Einstein, Freiburg, Geiger, gneiss, Holbein, Leipzig, Weimar, Zeiss, zeitgeist. What is special about abseil?

I think the explanation must be contamination from sail, even though abseiling has nothing to do with sails.

According to LDOCE, abseil is BrE only, the AmE equivalent being rappel ræˈpel, rə-. The OED, on the other hand, defines the two terms slightly differently, rappelling involving a doubled rope but abseiling just ‘a rope’.

Both my pictures (found on the web) are captioned as abseiling. One has one rope, one has two.

As an afternote: on the melodeon discussion forum there is currently some speculation about the origin of the model name Double Ray for certain Hohner melodeons from the 1930’s onwards. One plausible suggestion is that it is from the German doppelreihig ‘double-rowed’, since these melodeons had two rows of treble buttons at a time when most had only one. This model was commissioned by a Scottish accordion dealer from Hohner, which is a German company. If true, this would be another case of German ei ai being mapped onto English .

Monday, 17 October 2011

degreasing the galleon

I refer you to a horror story reported in Alex Rotatori’s blog. The above is part of a page in an English phrasebook published in Italy by a respectable publisher.

It’s not just a question of possible typing errors or misprints such as [intʃ] instead of [ɪntʃ] inch. What we have here is gross ignorance on the part of the author about the ‘phonemic spelling’ of English words.
• Leaving aside the Scots and Ulstermen who have no GOOSE-FOOT contrast, every native speaker of English pronounces foot as fʊt, not fuːt. Indeed, I chose FOOT as my keyword for the lexical set that includes put, push, and good.
• Every NS of English pronounces pint as paɪnt (i.e. with the PRICE vowel), not pɪnt.
• Every NS pronounces gallon with -lən, not -lɪən.
• No NS of English pronounces ounce as oːnts. We all use the MOUTH vowel, which may range depending on our accent from [æə] through the customary [aʊ] and [ɑʊ] to [ɔʊ], but is never .
• As far as I know, no NS pronounces Fahrenheit as ˈfɑːnhaɪt. Most of us say ˈfærənhaɪt.
• The citation form of the plural of degree ends in z. OK, there may be some contextual devoicing, but the appropriate entry in a list such as this is -ˈɡriːz.
• Because of the operation of the ‘stress shift’ or rhythm rule, for a NS the stress pattern of eighty-six in the expression 86 degrees is normally TUM-ti-tum rather than the citation tum-ti-TUM given here.

Of the thirty transcribed forms in this tiny fragment of the phrasebook, fifteen are wrong.

The Pons Travel Kit Inglese, according to the cover, comes con Audio Trainer. I do hope they got a native speaker to make the recordings. If they did, and listened to what the NS said, they would have been able to avoid these howlers.

As I say, Pons is a respectable publisher, based in Germany. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

I think teachers of English pronunciation need to give a lot of attention to establishing the correct target for the pronunciation of each word in the student’s English vocabulary. Knowing the spelling is not enough. We’re all aware that the relationship between spelling and pronunciation is less than perfect. But we often don’t realize how insidious the misleading effect of the orthography can be. Wild guesses are not the route to follow.

Presumably the author of the phrasebook knows English fairly well. He or she may even have a degree in the subject. But clearly this relates to the written language rather than the spoken.

It’s not just a matter of learning to make the sounds of English in an acceptable way. It’s also a matter of knowing which sounds ought to be used in which words. And that’s what often gets neglected.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I remember Gimson, probably sometime in the 70s, telling me that Jack Windsor Lewis was trying to convince him that he ought to change the EPD entry for government so as to prioritize the variant in which there is no n before the m. Gim didn’t think much of this idea, and continued to prioritize the pronunciation ˈɡʌvnmənt.

In his CPD (1972) Jack transcribes this word as ɡʌvm̩ənt, and entirely iɡnores the possibility of n before the m. See also his comments in §10 of this review.
the term government … can be heard every day over and over again in countless news bulletins and current affairs programmes. Both EPD15 and LPD list first the variant which contains the /-nm-/ sequence. However, anyone who listens at all attentively to recordings will soon discover that this is not merely not the predominantly heard form of the word, even in situations of the greatest prominence or highlighting, but that it is actually even a relatively unusual form of it.

Now Giovanbattista Fichera writes to take me to task over the same issue, expressing surprise that I have not acted on Jack’s criticism. (In LPD the main entry (BrE) for this word continues to read ˈɡʌv ən mənt.) GF continues
In my opinion, it requires a great deal of effort to articulate the <-nm-> sequence without assimilating the n to the m. In Italian, San Mauro is sa'm:auro not san'mauro. It seems to me that mm is not a variant/change in progress, but the rule.

I replied
I think my entry is correct. It unquestionably corresponds to my own slow-careful pronunciation of the word. I certainly don't have to make “a great deal of effort” to pronounce it as shown. (But then my L1 is English, not Italian or Japanese.) The alternatives that follow represent reductions which are also admittedly very common in speech - but they are just that, reductions.

I am in no doubt that for me (at least) ˈɡʌvənmənt accurately represents the succession of articulatory targets presumably stored in my mental lexicon as the phonological specification of this word. As I told GF, it also represents the way I pronounce it when articulating carefully (not overarticulating, but also not applying running-speech reductions).

Some of these reductions may indeed be frequently heard from speakers, in radio or TV news bulletins as elsewhere. That does not make them the mentally stored forms, which are what I think a dictionary ought primarily to record.

As for GF’s comments on San Mauro, he is perfectly correct as far as Italian is concerned. Italian, like Spanish, Japanese and various other languages, does not admit sequences of nasals at different places of articulation. But English does. Even JWL’s CPD shows -nm- at inmate, with no other variant given. (In LPD, on the other hand, I do recognize the possibility of ˈɪmmeɪt, derived automatically by applying the option of dealveolar assimilation.)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

well done everyone!

If I congratulate my friend Thomas by saying
Well done Thomas!
— how would you analyse that grammatically?

In this structure there don’t seem to be any other possibilities for the first slot, well. The only other possibility in second place seems to be played. The third slot can be a proper name or some other NP. It can also be a prepositional phrase with to.
  Well played Tendulkar!
  Well done London!
  Well done me!
  Well done the cast!
  Well done to everyone involved.

Although the syntactic structure appears to be elliptical, it is not clear what has been ellipted. It would be ungrammatical, in modern English at least, to say *You have well done. The only permitted word order is You have done well. Even That was a job well done has an unusual word order.

That problem aside, what is the syntactic role of the final NP here? If it is a personal name, then you might think that it was a vocative.
  Well played!
  Well played, Thomas!

There are two difficulties with calling it a vocative (except in the last example).
1. You can use this structure even if the person designated by the NP is not present. You can comment Well done Thomas even if Thomas is not in earshot. And the me of Well done me! can hardly be a vocative: you can say this while talking (boasting) to someone else.
  He faced them down, so well done Obama, I say.
  He won the vote, so well done the Prime Minister.
  Well done me, don’t you think? (= Don’t you think I’ve done well?!)

2. In intonation, final vocatives are usually not accented.
  ˈWell \played, Thomas!
But more usually in this structure the final NP is accented. (This is also shown by the absence of a comma before the NP in the written versions.)
  ˈWell ˈplayed \Thomas!
  ˈWell ˈdone \London.
  ˈWell ˈdone \me, | ˌdon’t you /think?

In the current issue of the satirical fortnightly Private Eye there’s a spoof of Cameron’s conference speech (blog, 6 October). Each paragraph ends well done me. If you read it aloud, the only plausible intonation is with the nuclear accent on me each time.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

low level or low fall?

The first exercise in my book English Intonation (CUP 2006) asks the reader to observe and imitate the difference between speaking ‘normally’, i.e. with intonation superimposed on the phonetic segments of the utterance, and speaking on a monotone.
E1.1.1 Listen to the following sentences spoken (i) normally and (ii) strictly on a monotone (= the pitch of the voice stays level, not going up and not going down). Repeat them aloud in the same way.

Jacob Chu writes from Hong Kong to claim that when the female speaker says Silly old fool! for the second time she uses not a monotone but a low fall. He asks
Is a low falling nuclear tone considered a monotone?
The answer to that question is of course no.

I have listened again to the sound clip. I still hear not a low fall but a low level pattern, i.e. a monotone. Do you, too?

Anyhow, I then made a spectrogram of all ten utterances: five with intonation, five on monotones of various heights. Here it is. (As usual, click to enlarge. You can access the whole sound clip here.)
As you can see, the tracing for the fundamental frequency for the bit we are interested in (ringed in red) does seem to show two slightly falling tones.

On the face of it this looks like that bugbear of intonation work, a mismatch between what the human ear perceives and what physical measurements of the speech signal tell us.

Then again, Jacob Chu must either be a native speaker of Cantonese or at least very familiar with it. And Cantonese tone 4 is described as “low-mid to low, falling” (the IPA Handbook) or “low falling, very low level” (Wikipedia, see graphic). In Daniel Jones's description (Principles of the IPA, 1949) tone 4 is described as "low falling (with very low level as a common variant)", tone 6 as "low level (...but higher than the variant of [tone 4])".

This would suggest that speakers of Cantonese might well find it difficult to hear the difference between low fall and very low level, since both map onto their tone 4 (as against a not-maximally-low low level, which maps onto tone 6). Could it be that Jacob’s L1 is influencing his perception? Or is it my L1 influencing mine? Or do we just say that different people sometimes hear the same physical reality differently?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Dugher, Creagh, Danczuk

I estimate that the Oxford Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges (also published as part of the Oxford Names Companion) contains about 35,000 surnames with their etymologies or origins. Yet the number of surnames in Britain must be many more than that, judging by names that crop up in the news but are not to be found in the ODS. And that is without considering names of recent arrivals from other countries. If we add in other English-speaking countries, particularly the United States, the number of current surnames is very large indeed.

The current crop of Members of Parliament includes one Michael Dugher. I came across his name in the newspaper and was wondering how it would be pronounced. It looks vaguely Gaelic: compare Irish dúghlas ‘dark green’ and its Scottish Gaelic equivalent, which have given us Douglas. But it is not to be found in the ODS.

Thanks to Jo Kim for pointing me to a short video clip in which Mr Dugher says his own name as he identifies himself. This is part of a series of brief goodwill messages from MPs to British troops serving abroad.

As you can hear, he pronounces his surname with the STRUT vowel, as if it were spelt Dugger. As a dictionary entry we would write ˈdʌɡə. Since he speaks with a noticeable northern accent (born and raised in Doncaster, south Yorkshire), he makes no distinction between the STRUT and FOOT vowels, so that this actually comes out more as ˈdəɡə, ˈdʊ̈ɡə.

The preceding clip on the same website is spoken by Mary Creagh, MP for a neighbouring constituency. She says her name as kreɪ, which is what you would expect. According to the ODS this is a variant of Cray, and is an anglicized form of Irish Ó Craoibhe ‘descendant of the curly-headed/prolific one’.

Another MP with a northern accent (born in Rochdale, Lancs.) is Simon Danczuk. He pronounces his name as ˈdæntʃək. (Is the second vowel his STRUT vowel or his schwa weak vowel? This is perhaps a meaningless question. In any case, on the clip he devoices it completely.) This name is not in ODS. It looks as if it would be a Polish diminutive of Dan(iel).

Such video clips offer a useful type of straight-from-the-horse's-mouth resource that was simply not available to lexicographers until very recently.

Monday, 10 October 2011

the full gamut

A correspondent writes that his wife
seems to think that the IPA cannot represent the full gamut of human sounds in terms of pronunciation in languages. Not wanting to argue on a point about which I cannot claim to know, I decided to email you.

If it is the case that any language can be represented by the IPA, is there a good book which one can use as a pronunciation reference when looking at IPA? And an unrelated question, can anyone actually really use IPA to speak like a native speaker if they don't have reference sounds (given they could reproduce them if they tried)? I would guess you would need some tutelage in order to properly use IPA...?

I replied along the following lines.

1. There is no universal enumerable list of discrete “sounds”, and therefore there can be no set of symbols in a one-to-one relationship with them. Rather, we are faced with a multi-dimensional continuum of possibilities. Putting it another way, there is no super multilingual phoneme system in the sky, of which the sounds of each particular language are a subset.

In principle, the IPA contains all the symbols needed to represent the pronunciation of any human language so far described — that is, it is adequate to cover the contrastive sounds (phonemes) of any language. Not all finer shades can be represented except by ad hoc symbols. For example the English ʃ sound in sheep is somewhat different from that in sharp and that in short. But it is not necessary to symbolize these finer nuances. The French ʃ (orthographic ch) is not identical with any of these, being usually “darker” than in English ʃ, nor in the other direction is the Japanese ʃ (orthographic し, romanized sh). However the same IPA symbol will serve for all. For languages that do make phonemic contrasts among sounds that we English speakers would regard as varieties of ʃ, the additional symbols ʂ (less palatal) and ɕ (more palatal) are available. As far as is known, these are sufficient to cater for the ʃ-type sounds of all languages.

2. It is of course true that learning a set of symbols does not equip you to pronounce any language perfectly. Phonetic symbols are a reminder of what you should be aiming for when pronouncing a word in a given language. They still need to be interpreted in the light of detailed phonetic information about that language (point 1 above). And even possession of this knowledge does not automatically give you the articulatory motor skills to perform the sounds accurately.

3. Yes, study phonetics! Or at least consult the IPA Handbook (CUP 1999) and a textbook or two.

More generally, it does seem to be the case that for many people practical phonetic skills are best learned through face-to-face tuition given by an expert. Partly, this is to do with the “hearing bias” imposed on us by our native language. We just don’t automatically hear all the details of speech sounds if those details are irrelevant in our L1. A tutor can draw our attention to aspects we may have overlooked, and perhaps offer ear-training to improve our perception of “foreign” sounds and sound contrasts. It ought to be possible for experts to deliver this kind of tuition through distance learning rather than face-to-face, but that’s something we’re still working on (though we made a start at UCL with PhonLine).

For original investigation into the phonetics of a language, there is no substitute for dealing with a live native-speaker “language consultant” (informant).

Friday, 7 October 2011

the Jane and Tim show

How can we popularize phonetics to a lay audience?

My colleagues Jane Setter and Tim Wharton have just had what can only be called a gig, at an event called Science Showoff, “an open mic night for scientists, science communicators, science teachers, historians and philosophers of science, students, science popularisers and anyone else with something to show off about science.”
Grab yourself 10 minutes to show off absolutely anything about science. Got a demo, sketch, song, video, talk, performance, dance or anything else about science that you’d like to try out in public, or show to a new audience? Bring it to Science Showoff.

Jane and Tim are both tutors on the UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics, as well as holding academic posts at Reading and Kingston universities respectively. They are also both talented singers, with plenty of experience as performers.

Their set comprised some elementary phonetic theory illustrated with two songs, In summer in London and Doing intonation. You may recognize the tunes.

I’m afraid there is no video available. There is a (rather poor-quality) sound recording here. You can listen to it while following the script here. Enjoy the audience participation.


There was one slight performance error. Where Jane was supposed to say (an exaggerated version of)
\really looking ₒforward | to \/science ₒshowoff
she actually produced
\really looking forward | to \/science | \/showoff
…which reflects our uncertainty about the stress pattern of newly coined compound nouns. Ideally I think I would have scripted, and performed,
\really looking forward | to \/Science | \Showoff

From a review on the Science Showoff website:
Highlights for me included ... Jane Setter earworming everyone with songs about phonetics (WHY DID I WAKE UP WITH THE LOCOMOTION IN MY HEAD??!?!) ...

Here's an old picture of Tim and Jane with students at the summer course.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

scope disambiguation

Have a look at this clip.

As the Guardian comments, the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s declaration in support of gay marriage yesterday at the close of the annual conference of the Conservative party
…was revealing, and not only of the oceanic distance that now separates British conservatives from their counterparts in the US, where such a statement is unimaginable from someone in Cameron’s position.

It also supplies us with an excellent example of how intonation disambiguates what would otherwise be a structurally ambiguous assertion.

On paper, the words I don’t support gay marriage might seem to imply that Cameron doesn’t support gay marriage. But if you listen to the clip (and are sensitive to English NS intonation) you will see that he is saying precisely the opposite. He does support gay marriage. He thinks that this support is not opposed to Conservative principles, but follows from them. Like all marriage, gay marriage is a form of commitment, and he’s all in favour of people being committed to one another.

With intonation marked up, his words (0:37-0:45 on the clip) are
So ˈI don’t supˈport gay \/marriage | in \/spite of °being a Con°servative. ||
\/I sup°port gay °marriage | because I \am a Con°servative. ||

In English intonation: an introduction (CUP 2006), p. 32, I wrote
The fall-rise tone has a special function in a negative sentence. Namely, it indicates that the scope of negation includes the word bearing the nucleus, but not the main verb (unless the main verb itself bears the nucleus). A falling tone, on the other hand, does not restrict the scope of the negation in this way.

I can see now that this wording is not quite correct. It does not cover cases like this, where the speaker chooses to divide his assertion into two intonation phrases, which means there are two nuclei. Here, it is the fall-rise on spite that marks its inclusion in the scope of the negation (‘I support gay marriage, but not in spite of being a Conservative’).

To illustrate this point in my book I chose an example which is (I hope) easier to grasp.
(i) She ˈdidn’t do it because she was \/tired. (= She did it, but for some other reason.)
(ii) She ˈdidn’t \/do it | because she was \tired. (= She didn’t do it. Here’s why.)

How many foreign learners, and of what language background, immediately get this intonation distinction? What other languages disambiguate the scope of negatives in this way? What are the implications for mutual intelligibility between NSs and NNSs?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

St Martin

Myra Wandry asked about the pronunciation of “St. Maartens”. She meant the Caribbean island.

This island is divided in two. The southern half is Dutch, the northern half French. (Click on the map to enlarge it.) The border between them is the only land frontier between what is technically the Netherlands and France respectively. The Dutch name of the island is Sint Maarten sɪnt ˈmaːʁtə(n). Its French name is Saint-Martin sɛ̃maʁtɛ̃.

In English it is known as St Martin (BrE) or Saint Martin (AmE), pronounced respectively as sənt ˈmɑːtɪn and seɪnt ˈmɑːrtn̩. The three syllables of this name manage to exemplify four phonological variables.

First, there is the prefix Saint, typically reduced in BrE to the weak form sənt or some further reduction thereof (sn̩t, sn̩ʔ, sn̩, sm̩ʔ, sm̩). Americans generally retain the strong form, seɪnt, perhaps glottalling the final plosive (seɪnʔ).

Next there is the rhoticity variable. Historical r is lost in most accents of England and Wales where nonprevocalic, but retained in most AmE.

The t of Martin is not infrequently realized as glottal in AmE, where it is immediately followed by a nasal consonant. In BrE, where it is usually followed by a vowel (see next point) it is more likely to be alveolar.

Lastly, there is the final syllable of Martin. In most BrE unstressed ɪ does not weaken to schwa before an alveolar obstruent or nasal (thus Harris ˈhærɪs, goblin ˈɡɒblɪn). In AmE, on the other hand, it usually does (so ˈherəs, ˈɡɑːblən). In AmE, accordingly, Martin usually rhymes with Parton, Barton, carton; in BrE, it usually doesn’t.

After t or d, as usual, the schwa coalesces with a following sonorant to give a syllabic sonorant, i.e. ən → n̩. So Latin is pronounced ˈlætn̩ and Martin is pronounced ˈmɑːrtn̩. These in turn yield possible ˈlæʔn̩, ˈmɑːrʔn̩.

Despite having Dutch as the official language, most of the inhabitants of the English Dutch side speak Caribbean English as their L1. Some speak Papiamento. One of the most famous things about the island of St Martin is the way aircraft landing at the airport pass just a few feet over a popular beach.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


I’ve been thinking again about the example I quoted on Friday, I fee[] ill vs. I may not look ill, but I do fee[ɫ] ill.

The only reasonable hypothesis I can come up with is that the ‘boundary’ that triggers the dark l is the end of a focus domain.

Marked up for intonation, we have
    I ˈmay not \/look ill, | but I ˈdo \/feel ill ||
or perhaps
    I ˈmay not \/look ill, | but I ˈdo \feel ill ||

In pragmatics, focus is the foregrounding of part of the message — typically what is new or contrastive or otherwise important — and the backgrounding of everything else. It is realized in intonation as the presence of accented syllables, i.e. syllables that are not only rhythmically but also intonationally prominent (pitch-prominent). Identifying the beginning of each intonational ‘focus phrase’ or ‘focus domain’ is sometimes tricky, but identifying the end is easy: it ends at the end of the word in which the nuclear accent appears (= the last accented syllable in the intonation phrase).

So in this example the focus domain in the first IP extends from may to look. The focus domain in the second IP is do feel. My hypothesis is that here the l in feel, being focus-final, is made dark even despite its prevocalic environment.

This is not a matter of being ‘prepausal’. In the example given, the phrase feel ill is not interrupted by any pause or intonation boundary.

Of course it would also be possible to place an intonation boundary and possible pause there.
    You ˈmay not be able to \/see anything unusual, | but I ˈdo \/feel | \ill ||

As we know, any lateral that is prepausal is dark. This applies whether or not it is also focus-final.
    You’re \i[ɫ] — (You’re wrong!) I’m /not i[ɫ]

I tried some more examples, and introspecting I think they work.
    This is ˈNell \Anderson. (nelʲ)
    ˈPlease /welcome | ˈJames /Anderson | and his ˈwife \Nell Anderson. (neɫ)

    There’s a ˈsmall \error. (smɔːlʲ)
    ˈNot a \/big error, | but a \small error. (smɔːɫ)

The big question, which I’ve never asked myself before, is this: are there any other instances of allophonic variation triggered by focus-final position? (The idea that this might apply to linking r, floated in the discussion on Friday’s blog, seems to me to be a non-starter.)

Monday, 3 October 2011


The British government has announced the creation of three new enterprise zones to help the workers who are losing their jobs at Brough, Warton, and Samlesbury, we read yesterday.

The Brough in question is not Brough under Stainmore in Cumbria but Brough-on-Humber near Hull. Like other English places with this name, both are pronounced brʌf (locally, of course, equating to brʊf). In Scotland things are different.

Warton is of course ˈwɔː(r)tn̩. This village is in Fylde faɪld in Lancashire. Samlesbury, too, is in Lancashire, just outside Preston, not too far from where I grew up. (My picture shows the village church.)

There is some uncertainty about the first vowel sound in this latter place name. I know it as ˈsɑːmzbri, -bəri, though I see that in LPD I deferred to the BBC Pron Dict of British Names and prioritized ˈsæmz-. Either way, its pronunciation does not correspond particularly closely to its spelling. In fact it is pronounced more as if spelt Salmesbury — compare psalm sɑːm and salmon ˈsæmən.

This YouTube video, too, calls it ˈsɑːmz- (or is she saying ˈsɒmz-?).

Wikipedia baldly asserts that the etymology of the first part of this name is the Old English sceamol ‘ledge’. Ekwall’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names is more cautious, saying only “Etymology obscure. If the name originally began in Sh-, the first element may be OE sceamol ‘bench’ &c. in some topographical sense such as ‘ledge’”. The earliest spelling recorded (1179) is Samerisberia, with Samelesbure in 1188 and Schamelesbiry in 1246. The English distinction between ɑː and æ is much more recent than that.