Wednesday, 31 October 2012

spell it out

I’ve been reading David Crystal’s new book Spell it Out. Like everything he writes, it is entertaining and well-informed, and thoroughly to be recommended.

The core of the book is a historical account of how our spelling ended up as the infuriating mess that it is. We have the Anglo-Saxon monks adapting the Latin alphabet to the sounds of Old English, bequeathing us the gn- of gnat and ways of coping with vowel length, with final e to show a long vowel and consonant doubling to show a short one (hence hope — hoping and hop — hopping). There were the Norman clerks faced with writing an unfamiliar language, experimenting with various possible solutions and hitting on such ideas as letter doubling to show the long vowels of deep and moon. There was even the monk Orrm who tried unsuccessfully to persuade everyone to adopt a more rational and systematic orthography. Meanwhile, our basically Germanic language had to digest thousands of new words of Romance origin, which meant for example that we applied the consonant doubling principle to show the Middle English pronunciation of various French-derived words (e.g. baggage).

Contemporary handwriting meant that vv looked confusingly like the w that had taken over from OE wynn (ƿ); so doubled v was avoided where it would otherwise have been called for, for example after the short vowel of loving (compare the single v of roving); meanwhile even single v was not at that time distinguished from u, so that lov looked like lou, which led to the adoption of a final silent e to show that there was a consonant sound at the end of love, have, give — leaving the anomaly that persists to this day when we compare these words with grove, rave, drive; and leading to the homographic ambiguity of live (which can be either the verb lɪv or the adjective laɪv).

Then came major sound changes, notably the Great Vowel Shift, which left us with sets of related words in which the common element is still spelt identically but nowadays pronounced very differently, and in which medieval scribes and printers opted to follow the sense rather than the sound: crime — criminal, type — typical, cave — cavity and so on.

Then came a concern for etymology. As Latin words were borrowed they kept their Latin spellings (hence single r in florid but double in horrid). The unpronounced etymological b was “restored” in debt and doubt and likewise the p in receipt, though not, for some reason, in the exactly parallel deceit and conceit. Somewhere along the line Flemish compositors decided to introduce an h into ghost.

(to be continued)

Monday, 29 October 2012

high head, falling head

When I received an email signed “Seeka You”, I assumed that this was a rather odd pseudonym used by someone reluctant to give their real name. I was accordingly disinclined to expend time and effort on a reply. But the person in question assures me that this is their true name. Anyhow, he/she had a question about intonation, which I had earlier failed to answer when it first reached me immediately after my stroke (at which time I was in no state to answer it).
In your book English Intonation, you follow the principle that “the high falling head is used only before a fall-rise nuclear tone” and “the high level head is used before all other nuclear tones”. I’ve listened closely to RP speakers in different styles of speech, and I can't seem to avoid the impression that most of the time (70%?), they use a falling head regardless of the nuclear tone; using a high level head seems to be very formal and infrequent even in fairly formal speech. Is my perception incorrect?

To explain: The head is the piece of the intonation pattern that extends from the first accent up to but not including the nuclear accent. Prenuclear patterns (and therefore heads) are one of the less important phenomena in the intonation of English (they don't seem to encode much meaning), and I therefore relegated the whole matter away from the core chapters of my book to chapter 5, “Beyond the three Ts”.

I think the last two sentences constitute a pedagogically justified simplification of the complex reality. In recording the copious spoken examples that accompany the text we found it easy and authentic-feeling to conform to it. The footnote to the last sentence you see above reads as follows.

But I am not aware of any corpus-based analysis that would enable us to judge whether this pedagogical simplification deviates seriously from actual usage. So I told S.Y.

I don't know. It’s an empirical question to which neither you nor I know the answer.
There’s perhaps also a question of definition: how much of a downward deviation from level has to be present in a high head before we categorize it as ‘high falling’?
I certainly don’t feel that high falling heads (as I perceive them) fit naturally for me before anything other than a fall-rise.

I might have added that this is in all likelihood one of the things that varies considerably between accents. High falling heads before a high-fall nuclear tone (which S. Y. claims to be so usual) would put me in mind of a Highland Scottish accent; they don’t feel at all right for my own speech.

Friday, 26 October 2012


An interesting misinterpretation of spelling from Richard Osman, the resident expert on the BBC1 programme Pointless: he referred to a baɪˈɒpɪk, that is a biopic, a film about someone’s life, a filmed biography. It is, of course, normally called a ˈbaɪə(ʊ)pɪk, being composed of bio- plus -pic(ture).

Given bionic baɪˈɒnɪk and myopic maɪˈɒpɪk ‘short-sighted’, you can understand where he was coming from. After all, biopic looks as if it contains the suffix -ic, which regularly throws the word stress onto the preceding syllable.

This word thus joins a list led (!) by misled (ˈmɪzl̩d instead of ˌmɪsˈled) and also containing items such as the seabed siːbd, infrared ɪnˈfreəd rays, and (my favourite) ˈsʌndrid (sundried) tomatoes.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

slit fricative [t̞]

On a certain social networking site to which I belong, Tim Morley asked
Can someone explain to me, in terms of tongue position or whatever's relevant, the scouse allophone of /t/ that's a sibilant rather than a stop?
A French colleague asked me why a scouser had referred to "The Cass in the Hass", and although I believe I can perceive a difference in the cat-cass minimal pair through the scouse accent (i.e. I don't think it's just context that's allowing me to correctly interpret a homophone), I couldn't actually explain the difference that I believe I'm hearing, which kind of annoyed me to be honest!

So I said

It’s an alveolar slit fricative rather than plosive — a kind of lenition. It can be lenited in some words even further to [h]. See my blog for 15 Nov 2006.

Tim followed up with

By "slit", do you mean simply that there's "only a slit" (i.e. a very narrow gap) between tongue and alveolus? Or is there some fuller meaning that I'm not aware of?

So I clarified.

It means the space between the tongue tip/blade and the alveolar ridge is a left-to-right gap ("slit") rather than the front-to-back "groove" you get in [s]. [θ] and [ð] are dental slit fricatives, [s] and [z] are alveolar groove fricatives. The Scouse thing combines the shape of the first pair with the place of the second.

Then Tim discovered a Wikipedia claim that "no language is known to contrast a grooved and non-grooved sibilant".

Does this mean that Scouse would constitute a counterexample to this supposed universal and thereby disprove it? Hardly. I pointed out that

the nongrooved sibilant is not the default realization nor the most frequent realization of Scouse /t/. […The opposition exemplified in hit/hiss' operates] only in final or prevocalic position, and it’s not the only possibility even there. Note that in hit back (vs hiss back) you probably wouldn't get the slit fricative, but a no-audible-release [ʔ], [p] or [t].

Kevin Watson adds:

In a word like quite or internet you'd get a slit-t (of varying kinds, I've called them e.g. 'dynamic sibilants' and 'canonical sibilants' although I'm not happy with those terms) but in what or biscuit you'd get [h].

This same [] articulation of /t/ in postvocalic position is found in Irish English (“soft t”). Indeed, it’s one of the most indexical features of a (southern) Irish accent, and in Liverpool obviously derives from Irish influence.

Monday, 22 October 2012

the ending -d

Some of the unsolicited queries about English phonetics that I find in my inbox are easily answered. Zheng Yong’s was one such.
One book for Chinese Primary tells [= says] that "liked" is re[a]d /laikd/. What is your point [=opinion]?

I’m sure he really knew the answer already, so I made it short and sweet.

The book is wrong.

It's wrong because liked is pronounced laɪkt. The past ending -(e)d is pronounced as ɪd (or əd) when attached to a stem ending t or d, and otherwise as d with a stem ending in a voiced sound, but as t with a stem ending in a voiceless sound. So we have t in clapped klæpt, coughed kɒft, kissed kɪst, wished wɪʃt, touched tʌtʃt, and, yes, liked laɪkt.

That’s the story for students and teachers of EFL phonetics, anyhow. It is supported, for example, by the fact that missed is pronounced exactly the same as mist (both mɪst), while passed is a homophone of past, and backed rhymes exactly with act.

Those whom people in linguistics (not EFL) call phonologists, however, may argue that the underlying representation of liked is indeed /laɪk+d/ (or, for followers of Chomsky & Halle, the more abstract pre-GVS /līk+d/). They would say that the underlying representation of the past ending is /d/, but that an obligatory rule of voicing assimilation causes this /d/ to surface as [t] when attached to a stem ending in a [-voi] segment. Or, equivalently, that there is a constraint on the value of the feature [voi] that causes [-voi] to spread from the end of the stem to the end of the word. (For a worked example of this idea as applied to the English plural ending, see here.)

Be that as it may, I can’t end this little discussion without mentioning the many West African speakers of English who pronounce the ending as [d] after voiceless stems just as after voiced ones, and operate voicing assimilation in the other direction. That is, they pronounce kissed as kizd and liked as laigd. How widespread this is in Nigeria or Ghana I can’t say, but it certainly exists. All the same, I don’t think my Chinese correspondent would consider it relevant.

Friday, 19 October 2012

with, regretful

I found myself being just a tiny bit querulous when commenting on a posting in Language Log. A reader had asked about the word with, saying

I have always used unvoiced [th] as the pronunciation of that word, and had never noticed anyone doing otherwise.
As for the voiced [ð] in this word,
I'm interested in what the distribution of this variant is, but I'm having a hard time finding it online

In reply Mark Liberman, the usually very knowledgeable writer of the post in question, said just

Short answer: I don't know. I've never heard a discussion of this point of pronunciation variation, except with respect to the varieties of English that have [wɪf] or [wɪv].

There followed a string of commentators reporting what they said or what this or that dictionary reported.

Finally I felt I must chip in:

Doesn't anyone ever consult my Longman Pronunciation Dictionary? There you will find both preference statistics and graphs for wɪθ and wɪð in both American and British English. Also a note mentioning that "in Britain, wɪθ is nevertheless frequent in Scotland" - again, with statistics.
Why do I bother, if no one reads what I write?

I suppose the problem is in the phrase “finding it online”. People now no longer look for information in books, or in libraries: they expect to be able to locate it in in Wikipedia or via Google. They don’t want the inconvenience and expense of buying a book or locating the book in a library.

So the only way I can reasonably expect to disseminate the research I carried out into whether people prefer wɪθ or wɪð is indeed to put it online, which I shall now proceed to do, Here’s the entry for with from LPD.

You’ll see that in Britain taken as a whole we overwhelmingly prefer wɪð, though the Scots, unlike the rest of us, go for wɪθ. In the States most people, like the Scots, prefer wɪθ. The graphs alongside show that the situation is fairly stable over the generations in the US, while in Britain wɪð is gradually increasing in popularity as we move from older speakers to younger.

What the LPD entry doesn’t tell you, because it’s not really germane, is that there is an archaic/dialectal form with no final consonant at all, represented in special spelling as wi’. There are also forms such as wɪv, wɪf, used by TH-fronters in the wɪð and wɪθ areas respectively, and likewise forms such as wɪd, wɪt used by TH-stoppers. So don’t be surprised if a Londoner (probably young, possibly black) says wɪv or even wɪd, or if a similar NooYorker says wɪf or wɪt. But that’s for the sociolinguists.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

intervocalic semivowels

One or two footnotes to Monday’s discussion.

1. The spelling of Libya suggests that it should be disyllabic ˈlɪbjə. But all agree that in English it is actually trisyllabic/varisyllabic ˈlɪbiə. (It seems to be disyllabic in Arabic: ‏ليبيا‎ Lībyā.)

2. With foreign words containing an intervocalic semivowel there is a choice when we anglicize them. Which syllable do we treat the source semivowel as belonging to?

  • In some cases we resyllabicate, taking the semivowel into the lefthand syllable to make part of a diphthong. Thus Japanese Toyota トヨタ ˈ becomes English tɔɪˈəʊtə. Kawasaki 川崎 ka ˌɰa sa ki usually becomes ˌkaʊ.əˈsɑːk.i. Sayonara さよなら saˌjoː.na.ˈɾa becomes (in BrE at least) ˌsaɪ.əˈnɑː.rə. Provençal jambalaya becomes ˌdʒæm.bəˈlaɪ.ə, while Spanish playa ˈpla. ja becomes ˈplaɪ.ə and papaya paˈpa.ja becomes pəˈpaɪ.ə. French Bayeux ba.jø usually becomes ˌbaɪˈɜː or ˈbaɪ.ɜː in BrE, while crayon kʁɛ.jɔ̃ becomes ˈkreɪ.ɒn.
  • In other cases, though, we keep the semivowel as a semivowel and put it, as we then must, in the righthand syllable. Thus Malawi is məˈlɑː.wi (not *məˈlaʊ.i). Some people do this with Kawasaki, making it ˌkɑː.wəˈsɑːk.i rather than my ˌkaʊ.əˈsɑːk.i. I certainly pronounce Okinawa in English as ˌɒk.ɪˈnɑː.wə, not *-naʊ.ə (the initial vowel’s going to be different in AmE). There’s no choice, of course, in the case of hallelujah ˌhæl.ɪˈluː.jə, because in English we don’t have a falling ʊɪ̯.

3. Alas, my efforts to explain things clearly in the two previous posts don’t seem to have been wholly successful. Houbu Ren now writes

I don't believe I fully understand the phonological difference between million ˈmɪl jən and ˈmɪl i‿ən. Should I sound ˈmɪl jən like ˈmɪl first and then jən? or ˈmɪ first and then ljən? What would this word sound without the ‿? Would it be the same or just has to emphasize the ən, like ˈmɪ l iən ?

As explained in LPD in the text box about Compression (p. 173 in the current third edition, or p. 165 in the Chinese second edition), ˈmɪli‿ən means “two pronunciations are possible: a slower one ˈmɪl i ən, and a faster one ˈmɪl jən. The uncompressed version is more usual in rarer words, in slow or deliberate speech, and the first time a word is used in a given discourse; the compressed version is more usual in frequently used words, in fast or casual speech, and if the word has already been used in the discourse.”

In the second edition, the entry for million read ˈmɪl jən. Responding to a user’s criticism, I changed this in the third edition to ˈmɪl jən ˈmɪl i‿ən. This allows for a trisyllabic version as well as the usual disyllabic one.

Following my syllabification, you should sound it as ˈmɪl first and then jən.

If the compression symbol were not present, thus ˈmɪl i ən, that would imply that only the three-syllable pronunciation was possible. But that would be wrong, because a two-syllable pronunciation of million is certainly not only possible but also usual.

Monday, 15 October 2012

derived semivowels

If we define a diphthong as being two vowel qualities in a single syllable, or equivalently as “a complex vowel which changes its quality within a single syllable“ (SID), then we might feel we must recognize rising diphthongs in words such as win u̯ɪn, watch u̯ɒtʃ, yacht i̯ɒt and you i̯uː.

The argument against this is phonological. If we add to our phoneme inventory the rising diphthongs in these words, we shall have also to add those of weave, wet, whack, suave, war, woman, woo, work and yeast, Yiddish, yet, yam, yarn, yawn, York, yearn, i.e. more than the number of simple vowels we have in our inventory; not to mention additional triphthongs that we shall have to recognize in words such as way, woe, wine, wow, weird, yea, yoke, yikes, yowl, yeah. But these nonsyllabic and pattern like consonants (being at the margins of syllables), so it is clearly better to recognize just the two semivowels w and j, and to analyse all the polyphthongs just mentioned as /wV, jV/. A semivowel (or ‘glide’, if you prefer) is articulated like a vowel but patterns like a consonant. We no longer attempt to distinguish on the phonetic level between nonsyllabic [i̯, u̯] and [j, w].

You may be familiar with an indelicate limerick (search here, for example) in which Australia and dahlia (BrE for this flower, with as the stressed vowel) are made to rhyme with failure. Are these good rhymes? Is dahlia ˈdeɪljə an exact rhyme with failure ˈfeɪljə? Well, yes and no. The possible difference between them is not a matter of as against j, but rather of our awareness of the varisyllabicity in dahlia as against its absence in failure. We know that dahlia can optionally be said with three syllables (by some of us, at least), while failure can only have two.

(I was perhaps being too sweeping the other day when I suggested that this whole matter was a question of BrE vs AmE; but it is striking that Kenyon-Knott and Merriam-Webster do not allow for -eɪl.i.ə in Australia, while LPD and EPD do.) Then what about millennia compared with tenure? Peter Roach’s CPD has these as non-rhymes (mɪˈlen.i.ə and ˈten.jəʳ), just as in LPD I have mɪ ˈlen i‿ə and ˈten jə. Merriam-Webster, too, shows the difference here. So do Kenyon and Knott — though at Virginia K&K give -ˈdʒɪnjə but also add ‘esp. New England’ -ˈdʒɪnɪə. At this word ODP, by the way, gives for BrE only vəˈdʒɪnɪə(r) and for AmE only vərˈdʒɪnjə.)

What about a word like happier? It is clear that it can on occasion be pronounced as a disyllable. So if so pronounced, is ˈhæpjə the correct way to transcribe it? And for various, ˈveərjəs? What about DJ’s valuing ˈvæljwɪŋ? Is genuine truly ˈdʒenjwɪn?

We have seen that the reason why we hesitate to regard these as the underlying (lexical-entry, articulatory-target) representations is our awareness that in each case there is the possibility of a syllabic (= vowel) pronunciation in place of the putative semivowel. There are other possible reasons, too.

  • Given that we get noticeable devoicing of j after p in words like pure, why do we not get similar devoicing in happier? (Or perhaps we do?)
  • If the sequence -rj- is so awkward in garrulous, virulent, glomerula that we tend to avoid it by dropping the j, why does the same not apply in disyllabic various, barrier, glorious and so on? There is even disyllabic Istria, which must be ˈɪstrjə.
  • In some kinds of AmE the sequence -lj- in words such as William, million, failure can get reduced to -jj-. Does this happen in volleying and jollier? If not, why not?
  • The ‘semivowel’ solution leads to our treating valuing and genuine as containing sequences of semivowels, -jw-, something otherwise unattested in English and universally unusual.

In supplying a pronunciation entry for any word containing a possible w or j plus vowel, then, we have to ask ourselves: can this semivowel alternatively be pronounced as a syllabic vowel? If yes, then we take it as u, i; if not, then as just j, w. We may not always agree on the answer. As we have seen, British and American lexicographers disagree in the case of Australia. When I transcribed Daniel as ˈdæniəl the other day, I didn’t stop to consider the issue, though if you now ask me I would confirm yes, I can pronounce this name as a trisyllable. But some of those who commented obviously can’t. Anyhow, I also entered it in LPD as ˈdæni‿əl (the possible compression is predictable from context). On the other hand, I entered million in LPD as ˈmɪl jən, only to receive a complaint from one user that I ought to have allowed for a trisyllabic version and entered it as ˈmɪl i‿ən. (So in the current edition I give both.) You can't win them all.

Friday, 12 October 2012

rising diphthongs

Before we start on the promised discussion of and related topics, let’s have a bit of history.

In 1954 Daniel Jones published an interesting article entitled “Falling and Rising Diphthongs in Southern English” in Miscellanea Phonetica ii: 1-12 (issued with Le Maître Phonétique).

The article starts with a general discussion about two types of diphthong, ‘falling’ (with decreasing sonority) and ‘rising’ (with increasing sonority), distinguishing both types from simple sequences of two vowels.

The ‘common’ English diphthongs ei, ou, ai, au, ɔi, he says, (i.e. the FACE, GOAT, PRICE, MOUTH and CHOICE vowels, which we nowadays write eɪ, əʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ), are all ‘falling’. ‘Rising’ diphthongs are ‘uncommon’, but as an example of one he adduces the ĕo of Tswana.

He then discusses ‘the vowel elements of words like ruin, bluish’. There may, he claims, be either a succession of two short vowels (ˈru-in, in today’s notation ˈrʊ.ɪn) or a falling diphthong (ruĭn, = rʊɪ̯n); as a third possibility there may be a long vowel plus a short one (ˈruːin, = ˈruːɪn).

In unstressed positions, on the other hand, as in valuing, the possibilities are again a succession of two distinct vowels or a diphthong; but this diphthong is ‘generally a rising one, ŭi’. Furthermore, ‘in many such words there is an alternative pronunciation with wi as well as u-i. Thus valuing may be any of ˈvælju-iŋ, ˈvæljŭiŋ, ˈvæljwiŋ (= today’s ˈvæljʊ.ɪŋ, ˈvæljʊ̯ɪŋ, ˈvæljwɪŋ). Although it may be difficult to distinguish between these possibilities, ‘the distinctions are possible, at least in theory, and are probably felt subjectively by the speaker in slow utterance’.

Applying this approach to words that can have the falling diphthong , he distinguishes two classes: those that have alternative pronunciations with i-ə, such as idea, theatre, theory, museum, Ian, and those that do not, such as clear, fierce, nearly, hearing [i.e. distinguishing the varisyllabic first group and the non-varisyllabic second group]. A possible minimal pair for some speakers (though not for most) would be rhea and rear. [Today I would use as an example the more familiar Korea vs career.]

Words with the rising diphthong, such as hideous, easier, luckier, colloquial, theoretical, should be compared with those having a secondarily-stressed, falling diphthong, such as reindeer, Bluebeard, wheatear, realistic. With reindeer (falling diphthong) we can compare windier (rising diphthong or sequence of two separate vowels).

The rising-diphthong words “are sometimes said with two syllables and sometimes with one [, which] is shown by their variable treatment in verse, where the metre sometimes requires two syllables though more often, it would seem, one.” Jones adduces two lines from Hamlet, in one of which the word audience requires disyllabic pronunciation, and in the other trisyllabic.

Have of your audience been most free and bounteous
And call the noblest to the audience,
[I like to quote the British national anthem, in which -ious has to be disyllabic in happy and glorious, and compare it with the hymn Glorious things of thee are spoken, in which it has to be monosyllabic. See blog, 16-17 January 2007.]

Jones then applies a similar analysis to the -type sounds in fewer, renewal; tour, poor, skewer; contour, tenure, uranium, neurotic; influence, valuable, statuary, puerility, and again finds in Shakespeare lines in which virtuous must sometimes have two syllables, sometimes three.

He finishes by considering further possible rising diphthongs in words such as narrower, follower, coalesce; shadowy, yellowish, coefficient; forayer; essayist, archaism.

In the eleventh edition of his EPD (1956) Jones introduced two new symbols, for the rising diphthongs in happier (ĭə, corresponding to LPD’s i‿ə) and influence (ŭə, corresponding to LPD’s u‿ə). When Gimson took over as editor, he abandoned them.

In LPD I followed Jones in recognizing the various RP possibilities for these words. So I show museum , for example, as mju ˈziː‿əm, while fierce is just fɪəs. In mju ˈziː‿əm the italicization of the length mark shows that the first vowel may be short rather than long, while the compression mark indicates that between z and m we may have either a sequence of two separate vowels or else a falling diphthong, so that the word as a whole may consist of either three or two syllables.

Inspired by Jones’s pair reindeer — windier, another phonetician (I think it was Bjørn Stålharne Andrésen, but I can’t lay my hands on the reference, so this is from memory) performed a listening experiment in which he got speakers to imagine that as well as reindeer and roedeer we also have a kind of deer called a windeer; he asked them to pronounce in suitable carrier sentences the words windeer (kind of deer, with its falling diphthong in the second syllable) and windier (more windy, with its putative rising diphthong), and then played the results to listeners who were asked to decide which of the two words had been said. They proved unable to do this with better than random success. So the distinction between NEAR (my ɪə) and happY plus schwa (my i‿ə) may indeed be ‘felt subjectively by the speaker in slow utterance’, but the hearer cannot reliably detect it.

(to be continued on Monday)

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

angelic names

My partner’s name is Gabriel. Like other English-speaking bearers of this name, he pronounces it ˈɡeɪbriəl. However not everyone he meets appears to be familiar with this name, which is not as frequently encountered nowadays as perhaps it once was. People who do not know him quite often read his written name as ˌɡæbriˈel, which is properly the pronunciation that belongs with the female version of the name, Gabrielle. Some use a compromise pronunciation ˈɡæbriel.

I don’t know how long the female version has been around, presumably first in French and now also in English (not to mention Italian Gabriella and German Gabriele).

Although angels are supposed to be genderless, the archangels Michael and Gabriel are treated in English grammar as masculine (taking ‘he’, not ‘she’ or ‘it’ as their anaphoric pronoun), and as personal names are exclusively masculine.

Nevertheless, Michael has now acquired female equivalents — Michelle and the rare Michaela, and Gabriel has likewise acquired Gabrielle. As for other archangelic names, I’ve never come across a female form of Raphael or Uriel.

Interestingly, in standard spoken French the masculine form Gabriel and the feminine form Gabrielle are homophonous, both ɡabʁiɛl; though the feminine form has a final phantom ə that can surface in singing or in regional (southern) speech.

But in English the female form is regularly stressed on the final syllable, which gets a strong vowel, and is thus distinct (usually!) from the male form, which has initial stress and a reduced vowel in the last syllable.

Compare Daniel, the prophet cast into the lions’ den. As a man’s name in English he is ˈdæniəl, and again there is now a female form ˌdæniˈel, spelt in English as Danielle, though the French form is actually Danièle (again homophonous in French with the male form, give or take a schwa).

I don’t know enough about French to know why Gabriel forms the feminine by doubling the l while Daniel does it by adding a grave accent (but compare appeler — j’appelle as against geler — je gèle). Nor do I know enough about the history of English to know why Gabriel ends up with but Daniel with æ from what was presumably the same vowel in Latin/Greek/Hebrew (for the quantity of a in these phonetic contexts, compare Abraham and germanium).

Monday, 8 October 2012

an archiepiscopal mnemonic

Many of you will be aware that the Church of England is currently in the throes of choosing a new Archbishop of Canterbury. One of the candidates is the present Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

The religious correspondent on the Sky News morning programme yesterday referred to him as Bishop senˈtɑːmuː. But, as those who consult LPD or the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation will know, his own preferred pronunciation is ˈsentəmuː. (Those who consult Wikipedia, on the other hand, will find there the implausible ˈsɛntɑːmuː. Perhaps one of you will now correct it.)

The Archbishop has given us an easy way to remember the correct pronunciation of his name. He asks us to imagine three cows standing in a row. Each cow moos. On the left we have a left moo, on the right we have a right moo, and in the centre we have a centre moo. And he’s like the centre moo, ˈsentəmuː.

(Sorry this doesn’t work for AmE or even for the Scots.)

Friday, 5 October 2012

more syllable-based allophony

Jacob (Monday’s blog) isn’t ready to give up yet.
In LPD, for the word sequel the given phonemic transcription is ˈsiːk wəl, which indicates that the vowel // should be fortis-clipped by k.
However, the pronunciation heard on the CD which comes with the book is clearly [ˈsiː]+[kwəl], which shows no clipping at all, as the k does not belong to the first syllable, being the onset of the second syllable.
Could you tell me how to resolve the discrepancy?

No, I can’t, beyond reiterating that speakers are not consistent in whether or not they reflect these boundaries in their pronunciation, and that there are considerable differences between different speakers and different accents. All I know is that when I say this word myself, I believe that I normally do have fortis clipping of the . I have no idea why the actor who recorded the word in the studio on the occasion in question appears to have pronounced it as if it were a compound such as sea quest. And if I had shown sequel in the dictionary as ˈsiː kwəl, as you imply I ought to have done, you can bet your bottom dollar that the actor would have chosen to say ˈsiːk wəl, as I do, and you would still be complaining.

Jacob continues

Further, as there are a large number of words for which the phonemic syllables (based on a number of syllabification principles) do not align with the phonetic syllables (an example is Sundridge ˈsʌndr ɪdʒ phonemically, but [ˈsʌn] +[drɪdʒ] phonetically), it seems that from an ESF perspective, a phonetic transcription which stipulates the phonetic syllables would be of great help to foreign students. It would be a godsend if such a dictionary were made available.

Actually, Sundridge, the name of a village in Kent, is a particularly interesting case. All three possible syllabifications ˈsʌndr ɪdʒ, ˈsʌn drɪdʒ, ˈsʌnd rɪdʒ are phonotactically well-formed (if you accept my argument in favour of recognizing syllable-final (n)tr, (n)dr, as in ent’r a plea, und’r a cloud). The etymological one is the first: the name comes from OE sundor ‘separate’, cognate with the stem of modern asunder, plus an element ersc ‘ploughed field’, which is also to be found in the name Winnersh (a place near Reading). Popular etymology, though, might seem to favour the the second, as if it were a compound of sun, or the third, as if it were ‘ridge of the Sund’. My choice was of course the first, just as in sundry, which following my general principles I syllabify as ˈsʌndr i.

I repeat that speakers (and accents) differ widely in the extent to which they make these boundaries audible in their speech and in what articulatory means they employ to do so.

I’m afraid, Jacob, that as things are you have to choose between my LPD, where I at least try to supply a syllabification that predicts the likely boundary-adjacent allophones in accents like mine as accurately as I know how, and Peter Roach’s EPD/CPD, which divides syllables entirely on phonotactic grounds, making no claim about boundary-adjacent allophones. If you think there’s a gap in the market for a third approach, do feel free to try and fill it. Peter and I have done our best.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


Machynlleth in mid-Wales is quite a small town, not often featured in the national news. But yesterday morning as I finished my breakfast the television presenters on the BBC1 Breakfast show handed over to their correspondent in what they called məˈkʌnlɪθ. The correspondent in question, one Rhun ap Iorwerth, duly told us about the missing five-year-old in the town (at the time of writing she’s still not been found), the town which he, clearly being a speaker of Welsh, pronounced maˈχənɬɛθ.

Note the unreduced vowels in the first and last syllables and the schwa in the middle, stressed, syllable. In Welsh, in this respect strikingly unlike the Germanic languages, ə is often stressed, but is restricted to non-final syllables (clitics such as the definite article y(r) count as non-final).

In passing, I might comment that I have never previously come across the forename Rhun (riːn, or north Welsh r̥ɨːn). I see from Wikipedia that it was the name of a sixth-century king of Gwynedd.

I was in my mid-forties when I sat my Welsh A-levels after studying in evening classes. I remember that in the English to Welsh translation paper the passage set began “The sign on the station platform read ‘Machynlleth’”. I dutifully recast my Welsh version so that Machynlleth was the first word of the sentence rather than the last, as is required by Welsh syntax.

There was recently a brief discussion on the web (I’ve forgotten just where) on the subject of digraphs. As Wikipedia explains,

In some language orthographies, like that of Croatian (lj, nj, dž), traditional Spanish (ch, ll, rr) or Czech (ch), digraphs are considered individual letters, meaning that they have their own place in the alphabet, in the standard orthography, and cannot be separated into their constituent graphemes; e.g. when sorting, abbreviating or hyphenating. In others, like English, this is not the case.

Someone pointed out, correctly, that in Welsh CH, LL, NG, and RH are treated as digraphs [= as single letters]. I pointed out that in the case of NG this can lead to problems. NG is treated as a digraph [ = a single letter] for collation, and ordered between G and H, if pronounced [ŋ], but not if pronounced [ŋɡ], in which case it is treated as N plus G. So angau (death, [ˈaŋaɨ]) comes before ail (second); but dangos (show, [ˈdaŋɡos]) comes after damwain (accident).

Monday, 1 October 2012

the wardrobe in the bedroom

The start of the month today marks exactly fifty years since I first entered gainful academic employment. On 1 October 1962 I became Assistant Lecturer in Phonetics at UCL, where I remained on the staff until my retirement in 2006.

Back then one of the most discussed minimal pairs of English was nitrate — night rate. Everyone agreed that they were distinct, despite consisting of the same phonemes in the same order. In the then dominant American ‘structuralist’ approach, the difference between the two was ascribed to ‘juncture’, or more exactly close vs. open juncture, the latter symbolized /+/. So for Trager and Smith and their followers nitrate would be analysed /náytrèyt/, but night rate as /náyt+rêyt/. (There was also the more dubious Nye trait, /náy+trêyt/.)

In LPD I indicate these same differences by the use of spacing. So I transcribe nitrate as ˈnaɪtr eɪt, while for night rate (if that were a headword) I would write ˈnaɪt reɪt, and for Nye trait ˈnaɪ treɪt. You can interpret these spaces as indicating the boundaries of morphemes or (as I chose to) of syllables.

The reason we can “hear” these junctures/boundaries is that the choice of allophones is sensitive to their presence/absence. Take another famous pair (one of Gimson’s favourites), great ape vs. grey tape. The t in great ape ˌɡreɪt ˈeɪp is a typical of t in final position: it has little or no aspiration, it causes pre-fortis clipping of the preceding ; it is susceptible in BrE to becoming glottal, and in AmE to becoming voiced (‘flapped’). None of this applies to the t in grey tape (or, if you’re American, gray tape) ˌɡreɪ ˈteɪp, where the t is a typical initial one, being aspirated, not susceptible to glottalling or voicing, and not having any clipping effect on the preceding vowel.

If t and r or d and r are contiguous, i.e. have no intervening juncture, then in English they are pronounced together as a postalveolar affricate, as in train, drain, mattress, Audrey, entry, laundry. Compare what happens when they are separated, as in that rain, good reign, what result, saw drifts, ten trips, dawn drips. For more on all this, see my article setting out the syllabification principles I applied in LPD.

There are one or two exceptional cases where a putative or etymological morpheme boundary gets treated, by some speakers at least, as non-existent. I know that I do this in the word wardrobe. Although I know that etymologically it is a place for warding (keeping) robes (clothes), I pronounce its dr as an affricate, as in Audrey, not separated as in board room. Doubtless this is because I think of the word as a single item, not a compound. Personally, I do the same with beetroot and bedroom, though I am aware that some other speakers pronounce one or both of these with a boundary. I imagine that wardrobe, bedroom and beetroot are words that I knew well before I learned to read and write, and certainly well before I became aware of their etymologically compound status. (Note for Americans: in BrE a wardrobe is an everyday piece of bedroom furniture. You would probably use a 'closet' instead.)

This is what explains my different treatment in LPD of bedroom and headroom. My main prons are ˈbedr uːm, ˈhed ruːm. (Let’s ignore the irrelevant question of the vowel in -room — some people have ʊ rather than .) Although I ignore the boundary in the first, I think I usually preserve it in the second: headroom is a word I would not have learned before the age of nine or ten or so, and its compound nature as head plus room is fairly transparent. (Note for Americans: headroom is the BrE for ‘vertical clearance’.)

Furthermore, even when there is a boundary between t or d and r, people are not consistent in always reflecting it in their pronunciation. If I say there is no good reason to think that, I can still sometimes create an affricate out of the last consonant in good and the first in reason, even though there is an undoubted word/morpheme/syllable boundary between them. Similarly with the plosive and liquid in what rubbish!.

You may think that all this is rather good news for EFL learners. We can safely encourage them to treat all cases of tr and dr identically, namely as affricates.

But that’s to ignore people like my correspondent Jacob Chu, who has been listening carefully to the sound files that come with LPD and is dismayed by what he finds in two words we have been discussing.

The main pronunciation listed in LPD for bedroom is ˈbedr uːm. On the other hand, the main pronunciation listed for headroom is ˈhed ruːm and the pronunciation ˈhedr uːm is visibly absent, but the recording shows clearly, for British English, ˈhedr uːm. Please check the recordings from LPD. My query is, how should the discrepancy be resolved?

Beyond telling him to get a life (an idiom he might not be familiar with), what can I do but hold my hands up and congratulate him on his diligence and on the accuracy of his observations?

OK, I agree: on this occasion the actor who recorded ‘headroom’ in the studio happened to pronounce it as an exact rhyme of (my version of) ‘bedroom’. That’s life.

Of course, if I’d been in the studio monitoring the recordings (which I wasn’t, though I was for most or all of those entries in LPD that are not also in LDOCE, and also for some that are), I’d have jumped on it and got it re-recorded. Possibly. Or possibly not.