Monday, 31 December 2012


On the BBC2 TV antiques show Flog It! a member of the public had brought in a silver-plated object she owned and that she was hoping to auction. She wasn’t sure what it was; but the expert was at hand to tell her. “It’s a — a French word, it’s an eɪˈpeən — a French word for a table-centre display.”

Fair enough, except that the name of the object in question, epergne, is not a French word at all. Despite its spelling, which looks more or less French (though if it were really French it would probably have an acute accent on the first vowel, so épergne), and despite the more or less French pronunciation that the expert used (as if in French it were epɛʁɲ(ə) — despite this, there is no such word in French. The nearest French word that does exist is épargne epaʁɲ(ə); but that means ‘savings’, and has nothing whatsoever to do with table decorations.

So it’s all a bit of a mystery really. Here’s the OED:

In LPD I followed EPD in giving the mainpron as ɪˈpɜːn, with varprons e-, -ˈpeən. I did add a note, “not actually a French word”, and for that reason gave no French pronunciation. Perhaps I ought to have done, though, so as to cater for those, like the TV antiques expert, who pronounce it as if it were.

Friday, 21 December 2012

nonrhotic respellings

Talking of confusing non-rhotic respellings (yesterday’s blog and comments), yesterday’s Independent newspaper had an interesting take on the correct pronunciation of German.

In German, Miele is pronounced ˈmiːlə, ending with a closish schwa. (German has a contrast between this close-mid schwa and the open-mid schwa ɐ, as in the minimal pair bitte ˈbɪtə ‘please’ vs. bitter ˈbɪtɐ ‘bitter’.)

Unfortunately, the English spelling ar, while indeed standing for schwa in nonrhotic beggar, particular, collar, standard etc, also stands for ɑː in cigar, pulsar etc. And of course rhotic readers will interpret it as implying a following r sound too.

Today’s Guardian, on the other hand, has an interesting mistake which presumably results from a nonrhotic reporter’s mishearing of what was said in court or at a press conference.

The term hermetic means (COD) ‘1. with an airtight closure. 2. protected from outside agencies. 3 of alchemy or other occult sciences, esoteric’. The word intended must have been anti-emetic.

_ _ _

Happy Christmas everyone. Next posting: 31 December.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

he nar get none

It’s some time since I last discussed Montserratian Creole English (see 21 Nov 2006 here) in this blog.

But yesterday a news report on the web caught my eye. Under the headline Premier Meade Says Montserrat Is Blessed and 'He Nar Get None' we read

During the statement, whilst talking about sand mining, the Premier sought to take a dig at Montserrat born calypsonian De Bear, for his 2012 hit song entitled 'All Ah Dem Ah Get' by stating that contrary to insinuations in the very popular song, Meade stated, "me nar get none."

The point of interest here is the spelling nar for the Creole word pronounced naː. This is a function/structure/grammar word/particle used in certain Caribbean creoles (certainly Jamaican and Montserratian, at any rate) but not in standard English. Its meaning is a combination of negation and progressive aspect, ‘not …-ing’. The calypsonian’s claim aːl a dem a ɡet could be paraphrased in standard English as ‘they are all getting’, i.e. ‘they’re all on the take’, and the premier’s riposte as ‘I’m not getting any’. Here’s the relevant entry in the Dictionary of Jamaican English.

Notice that the DJE spells it naa, in accordance with the phonemic spelling system devised by Fred Cassidy for Jamaican Creole and now recommended by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies as a ‘standard writing system for Jamaica’. You also sometimes see the spelling nah. (In JC, but not MC, the progressive aspect is also used to refer to habitual action: nah gwan a Jamaica ‘don’t go on in Jamaica’.) But Jamaicans never spell it nar (the spelling used in yesterday’s report from Montserrat), and for a very good reason: in JC this particle does not rhyme with car, far, tar etc, which in JC retain their historical r in pronunciation (kjaːr, faːr, taːr).

Montserratian Creole, however, is non-rhotic. There naː rhymes exactly with faː and so on, making it common sense to spell it in the same way, with an r.

If you’d like to hear what Montserratian standard English sounds like, try this. For Montserratian (semi-)Creole the best I can offer you is this clip of De Bear, who was born and grew up in Montserrat; but he doesn’t happen to say naː at any point in this calypso.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

different strokes

We sometimes use the punctuation mark “/”, normally unsurrounded by spaces, in running text. Here’s an example from my blog posting of 10 October.

A correspondent writes to ask how to read this aloud. Good question.

The meaning of “/” here is to indicate alternatives. We could gloss it as ‘or’. Indeed, one way to say it aloud is to pronounce it, unstressed, as if it were written or, thus ˈlætɪn ɔː ˈɡriːk ɔː ˈhiːbruː.

But that would be like reading i.e. aloud as ðæt ˈɪz. What would be the equivalent, for “/”, of ˈaɪ ˈiː?

The usual thing, in contemporary BrE at any rate, seems to be to pronounce it as if it were written stroke, thus ˈlætɪn strəʊk ˈɡriːk strəʊk ˈhiːbruː. Another possibility is slash, or even slash mark, thus ˈlætɪn slæʃ ˈɡriːk slæʃ ˈhiːbruː.

Faced with, say, he/she, in BrE we often say he stroke she. I think Americans would prefer he slash she. (Some Brits, on the other hand, feel awkward with slash because of the informal spoken use of have a slash as a synonym of ‘urinate’.)

When it first became usual to name web addresses (URLs) on air, the BBC went through a period of pronouncing the “/” as forward stroke. But nowadays the forward part is usually dropped. (We know that URLs do not contain the backward stroke or backslash, “\”, so there is no danger of confusion of the two marks.)

In the days of my childhood, before the decimalization of our currency, you would pronounce 3/11, for example, as three and eleven, or formally and in full as three shillings and elevenpence (-pəns). (No one would have dreamt of saying three stroke eleven.) An alternative way of writing this sum then was 3s. 11d.

There are various other names for the punctuation mark we are discussing. Typographers sometimes call it a solidus ˈsɒlɪdəs. There are also diagonal and oblique. See a longer list in Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

keynote inflation

In China and Japan, the term ‘keynote speech’ seems to have undergone serious grade inflation. At the Shanghai conference I alluded to yesterday there were no fewer than 15 different ‘keynote speeches’ delivered, which seems to imply a polyphonic reluctance to remain in tune. I would have just called them ‘plenaries’.

Anyhow, a particularly interesting one was given by the organizer of the conference, Bu Youhong. She reported on some of the intonation errors she had observed among Chinese learners of English. In line with Francis Nolan’s advice, she was concerned only with ‘the division of the speech chunks’ (tonality) and ‘nucleus placement’ (tonicity), not tone.

I have tended to regard chunking (tonality) as a pretty common-sense matter, not varying much across languages, and therefore not needing much explicit teaching. Judging by some of the material Prof. Bu presented, this is not entirely the case.

Her subjects had to read aloud a written passage of English. Some of their intonational treatments were nothing short of bizarre.

  • English is spoken | as a | first language | in over forty countries | around the | world

Separating the articles a and the from their noun phrases and giving them nuclear accents suggests to me either extreme disfluency or complete failure to understand the meaning of the sentence. Isn’t it obvious that they need to be closely linked to their respective following noun phrases? (Evidently not.)

  • … Crystal also estimates | that | English plays a significant part…
  • those | who speak | it |…

Isn’t it also obvious that the complementizer (‘subordinating conjunction’) that has to be grouped with the clause it introduces, rather than treated separately or grouped with the verb it depends on? Again, evidently not: the example quoted is only one of a whole number in which Bu’s subjects had wrongly treated that as if it were a determiner (= demonstrative) rather than a conjunction ( = relative pronoun or complementizer). And isn’t it obvious that a pronoun object (here, it) has to be grouped with the verb that precedes it? It would get its own i.p., and therefore a nuclear accent, only in the rare case where it was thrown into contrastive focus.

These points are all subsumed in the general rule for not accenting function words — a rule that nevertheless calls for quite a bit of work. Do we really need to spell out that the indefinite and definite articles are covered by this rule, along with that when it is not a demonstrative, and pronouns?

Monday, 17 December 2012

what's important in intonation for EFL?

As I found in Shanghai, most people in mainland China cannot access my blog, because Blogspot is hosted on the Google ‘cloud’, which the Chinese government routinely blocks. They can’t see Facebook, either. They can, however, see my UCL pages, and can exchange email freely.

I also thought it strange that the conference I attended, despite being billed as the “1st Chinese International TESOL Symposium on English Phonetics Teaching”, apparently had no web presence. But I don’t think that has anything to do with official restrictions, more with a low awareness of the internet among Chinese academics.

The conference was also referred to as “the 2012 English Phonetic Conference in China”, this being a series of biennial conferences. Since my return, I have discovered that the 2010 conference, held in Jiangsu, does have a modest web presence, from which I have been able to recover the abstract of the keynote speech given by my colleague Francis Nolan of the University of Cambridge, who had some sensible things to say about the teaching of intonation in an EFL context.

Those who have had explicit instruction in English intonation will be aware that English has a rich intonation system, one that from the foreign learner’s point of view is possibly quite daunting. In the first part of this talk I will risk making English intonation even more daunting by giving a summary of the substantial intonational variation found in major accents (or dialects) of English in the British Isles. In the second part I will attempt to reassure non-native speakers of English by suggesting that, in fact, native speakers’ familiarity with this variation makes them relatively tolerant of learners’ intonational deviations. Unless learners wish to have an absolutely native English accent – a questionable goal outside spy school – their efforts should focus on a number of priorities in the prosodic system.
…Speakers in Belfast produce a rise-plateau in pitch where RP speakers produce variously a fall, a rise, or a fall-rise; yet there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility (as long as the segmental features are not too different). Such alternative patterns should remind us that English listeners are used to coping with considerable intonational variation. Admittedly, some nuances may be misinterpreted across dialects, but such misinterpretation in itself suggests that even the acquisition of perfect RP intonation won’t solve everything – unless the learner never mixes with non-RP speakers.
…I will suggest that what learners need is a strategy which will optimise the pedagogical cost-benefit ratio in terms of (in order of priority) intelligibility, the avoidance of inadvertent offence, and (lowest in priority) the mastery of intonational nuances. Broadly corresponding to these three goals would be three prioritised learning targets: the mastery of accentuation (involving stress placement, rhythm, and pitch prominence achieved by a reduced inventory of pitch accents); the eradication of any L1-influenced phonetic realisations of pitch accents which might convey unintended meaning in English; and (lowest in priority) the acquisition of a more complete set of intonational pitch contrasts.

Thus he sees the mastery of English tonicity (aka accentuation, aka placement of the nucleus/tonic) as the most important goal, much more so than mastery of the fine details of pitch contours in tone contrasts. I agree wholeheartedly.

I also see this as my defence against critics of my own intonation book who suggest that because my description is based on RP it is irrelevant to the needs of most learners, or that it ignores AmE and other models. On the contrary: that is why I relegated details of minor differences in pitch patterns to a late chapter, ‘Beyond the three Ts’. Everything in the earlier part of the book is applicable, I believe, to all core L1 varieties of English, and that is what is of importance to EFL learners.

Friday, 14 December 2012

shoe dye etc (ii)

Ren Houbo writes to say that he is delighted with yesterday’s answers and examples, and is looking forward to hearing about handle. So here goes.

The l at the end of handle constitutes a syllable on its own, usually with no separate ə after the d. The word is pronounced ˈhænd.l̩. Being, therefore, ‘syllabic’, this l may be somewhat longer in duration than it would otherwise be.

When a syllabic consonant is followed by a ‘weak’ (unstressable) vowel, it may optionally lose its syllabicity and become the ordinary (nonsyllabic) equivalent. Thus in handling, with the weak-vowelled suffix -ing, the basic three syllables ˈhænd.l̩.ɪŋ are usually reduced to just two, ˈhænd.lɪŋ. (This is the process I refer to as ‘compression’.) In this compressed form, the l is indeed now at the beginning of a syllable. The same applies in handle it, ˈhænd.l̩.ɪt or ˈhænd.lɪt, where the compressed version sounds identical to hand lit. Note, though, that handle lit is different, ˈhænd.l̩.lɪt, with a syllable-final l followed by a syllable-initial l. Here, as always happens when a syllable-final fricative or liquid is followed by an identical syllable-initial consonant, the two consonants are articulated by simply prolonging the steady state, not by moving any articulator. (Compare the prolonged s in bus stop and the prolonged m in same man.)

As I see it, the only common cases in English in which a syllable-final consonant is moved into the following syllable are the intensifier at all ə.ˈtɔːl and the combinations it is ɪ.ˈtɪz and it isn’t ɪ.ˈtɪz.n̩t. These three expressions usually have a strongly aspirated t, which tells us that it must be syllable-initial. (Some people think that syllable transfer also happens in the case of linking or intrusive r in BrE. I disagree, because more ice mɔːr ˈaɪs sounds different from more rice mɔː ˈraɪs.)

Thursday, 13 December 2012

shoe dye maxi my zonsets?

Houbo Ren writes to ask about “/n/ and /l/ in linking speech”.

He refers to the advice given on this website (and elsewhere),

When a word ends in a consonant sound, move the consonant sound to the beginning of the next word if it starts with a vowel sound.

Houbo comments, “I can hear that most of the linking consonants can go with this rule but I am not sure about the /n/ and /l/. For turn out, I don’t hear ‘tur nout’: what I hear is ‘turn nout’, which has two /n/s in it. The same thing applies to /l/, as in ‘handle it’, I hear ‘handl lit’ rather than ‘hand lit’. Some teachers in schools here even teach that when handle becomes handling, it should sound like ‘handl ling’, i.e. retain the /l/ in handle and add a new /l/ to be followed by ing.”

With some exaggeration, no doubt, he adds, “I still dwell on (dwel lon? dwe lon?) this question every single second and I really do need a professional opinion.”

I think we need to make a distinction between what native speakers perceive and what non-native learners, in this case Chinese people, perceive. We must also distinguish the linguistic facts, as demonstrated by such matters as minimal pairs and the rules governing the choice of allophones, from pedagogical advice suitable for beginners or intermediate-level learners.

Let us take the linguistic facts first. Phoneticians pointed out long ago that a word-final n sounds different from a word-initial n in an identical phonetic environment. The phrase an aim ən ˈeɪm sounds subtly different from a name ə ˈneɪm. Impressionistically, we can say that the n of an is weaker and more quickly articulated than the n of name. Turn out is tɜːn aʊt, not tɜː naʊt and not tɜːn naʊt (for the last, compare turn nasty).

Similarly, the word-final l of all eight ɔːl ˈeɪt is different from the word-initial l of (soon) or late ɔː ˈleɪt.

This type of difference is more obvious in the case of plosives such as /t/. There is a clear difference in pronunciation between Is the ship at anchor? … ət ˈæŋkə and Is the ship a tanker? …ə ˈtæŋkə. The word-final t of at is not strongly aspirated (and may also change to a glottal stop in some kinds of BrE, while in AmE it regularly becomes a voiced tap); the word-initial t of tanker is voiceless, alveolar, and strongly aspirated.

So from the NS’s point of view the advice given above is wrong. We cannot state as a general rule that a word-final consonant is moved to the beginning of the next word if that word begins with a vowel sound.

In phonology terms, the principle of maximizing syllabic onsets at the expense of codas does not apply across the board in English, at least when we consider minimal pairs and articulatory detail.

For hundreds of further examples, see here.

(Footnote: this is not to deny that it may sometimes be difficult to hear differences of the kind we find here. Indeed, there are several well-known cases where what was originally a word-initial n has come to be reinterpreted by speakers as a word-final n or vice versa. The kind of snake now called an adder was originally (etymologically) a nadder, Old English nǣdre. What we now call a newt was once an ewt or an eft.)

Nevertheless… In standard Chinese, words and syllables do not end with consonant sounds other than n and ŋ. Chinese people learning English are accordingly tempted simply to omit final consonants. As a reminder that these consonants must not be omitted, the advice to transfer them to the next syllable where possible may obviously be useful.

The word handle that Houbo asks about is a special case, because in this word the final l is syllabic. More on syllabic consonants tomorrow.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

thoughts of Mary-Jess

The current (Dec 2012/Jan 2013) issue of The Linguist, the official journal of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, carries a chatty article about one Mary-Jess Leaverland, a young lady who “shot to stardom after winning the Chinese ‘X-Factor’”. She had turned to studying Chinese, leading to a degree in Music and Chinese at the University of Sheffield, after becoming disillusioned with school French lessons. Her TV break came after she went to Nanjing as part of her degree work.

All credit to her for her success in modern languages as well as in music.

I’m not so impressed, though, by her reported comments on Chinese pronunciation.

So English vowels sounds are more ‘open’ than those of Chinese, the pronunciation of the latter being ‘all at the front of the mouth’?

I don’t think her study can have included any phonetics. Otherwise she would have known that the antonym of ‘open’, of a vowel sound, is not ‘front’ but ‘close’. The vowel systems of both Chinese and English include open vowels as well as close (and mid) ones, back ones as well as front ones.

The Chinese vowel sounds that are unusual to English ears (Mary-Jess is from England) include y (Pinyin ü, (q)u etc), which is indeed front, though in no way ‘quite similar to Italian’. More strikingly, they include ɨɻ and ɯɹ (both represented in Pinyin as i, the first when preceded by sh, r, ch, zh, and the second when preceded by s, c, z). See blog,26-27 Jan 2007. These do involve the tongue tip, but are central and back respectively rather than front. There is also ɚ (er), which is like the corresponding AmE sound, but again entirely un-Italian.

OK, The Linguist is for linguists in the sense of polyglots, interpreters and translators, not in the sense of scholars of linguistics; but even so, I don’t think it should print ignorant nonsense, even if no one is going to take it seriously. It’s unprofessional.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

alas, no voicing

Pablo Solares writes from Spain to ask how to tell whether a word has s or z. Given that daisy has z, he says,
I do not understand why it is fortis in basic ˈbeɪsɪk. I thought that after diphthongs it was always fortis.

The best I can say in reply is that your supposed rule is wrong. In English, unfortunately, the pronunciation cannot reliably be determined from the spelling. That applies particularly to the matter of s versus z with the spelling s.

Compare phase with z and base with s. Or, for that matter, erase with z in BrE but s in AmE.

Although the spelling z or zz reliably signals z (except in a few borrowed words), while c before i, e, y may correspond to s but never to z, even double ss sometimes corresponds to z rather than s, as in scissors ˈsɪzəz and possessions pəˈzeʃn̩z.

That’s why you should always look up the pronunciation in a suitable dictionary, and learn each new word with its pronunciation.

Monday, 10 December 2012

that's not punny

How can you tell that this visual pun was created by a north American? Because it doesn’t quite work in BrE or, therefore, in Australian/NZ/South African English.

Why not? First, and obviously, because in BrE barium has the stressed vowel while bury has e. So for us Brits barium sounds different from bury ‘em. But in AmE they are homophonous.

But secondly, I think, because we don’t use the form ’em for them as freely as Americans seem to. Our weak form of them is generally ðəm, with the initial consonant retained. As the OED (1891) comments under ’em,

The emphatic form of the pronoun was early superseded by THEM pron., but the unstressed form continued to be used, being regarded as an abbreviation of them. In literature it is now obs. or arch., but is still common in familiar speech.

Obsolete or archaic… yes, but not really "still common in familiar speech" (or so it seems to me). Rather, as far as I am concerned it seems to be generally restricted to a few set formulaic expressions such as If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and give ‘em the money. Beyond that, them can lose (or assimilate) its ð in the same way as that, the or they when following z in phrases such as is that, was the, claims they, sees them.

When I was a small child we spent family holidays in a friend’s unimproved rural Yorkshire cottage called, for some reason, Buryemwick ‘Bury them alive’. But if asked what to do with dead cats, for example, we’d never have said “bury ‘em”, but rather “bury them”.

It would also be possible to take the final əm of barium as representing not ’em but him (‘im) — but only in an accent of English that has lost the contrast between ɪ and ə in this position, as in often the case in AmE but generally not the case in English English.

Friday, 7 December 2012

to schwa or not to schwa

A company called Cambridge English Online Ltd has a website offering, amongst other goodies, a ‘phonemic chart’ showing the IPA symbols for the sounds (‘phonemes’) of English, with associated sound files enabling you to ‘click on the symbols to hear how they sound and to see words that use the sound’.

A purist might complain that you can’t pronounce a phoneme as such (still less a symbol), but only one or other of the allophones that manifest the phoneme — for example the r in red is different from the r in tread and the r in dread, so that you can’t adequately illustrate them all with one single sound clip; but by now we are used to teachers of EFL wrongly calling phonetics ‘phonology’ and speech sounds ‘phonemes’. No matter.

When you click on the symbols, however, you find something more disturbing. Clicking on a vowel or diphthong symbol is fine: you hear the corresponding sound (though their ʌ sounds a little bit odd to me). But when you click on a consonant symbol, in some cases you get the corresponding sound, perhaps lengthened (true for ŋ, s, z, ʃ ʒ, tʃ and r, for which you get ɚ), but in other cases the corresponding sound plus schwa, thus pə, bə, tə, də, kə, ɡə, mə, nə, fə, və, θə, ðə, dʒə, lə, jə, wə.

It is particularly confusing to treat different nasals differently, but ŋː, different liquids differently, and different affricates differently.

No one should be taught that the w in well, for example, is pronounced , because that would make it wəel.

It’s the usual problem: people making pronunciation practice materials don’t get advice from a phonetician, but imagine that every native speaker is an ipso facto expert.

Remember, when it’s language, people never check. They never call a linguist. They just make stuff up.

Anyhow, we mustn’t complain too forcefully, seeing that the site is free and also contains jolly games such as ‘Phonemic Hangman’ and ‘Phonetic Pelmanism’.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

mispronounced words?

There’s a letter in today’s Independent about English spelling.

The rules governing pronunciation in English are more complex than, say, German or Spanish. Most of us learn to overcome these obstacles when we learn to read at primary school, but some do not. The education of this latter group is blighted by the twin evils of complex pronunciation rules and non-phonetic spelling in the language in which subject material is written.

The writer is using the term “pronunciation” here in a sense different from any of the senses listed in standard dictionaries, e.g. the Concise Oxford:

  1. the way in which a word is pronounced, esp. with reference to a standard.
  2. the act or an instance of pronouncing.
  3. a person’s way of pronouncing words etc.

The verb “pronounce”, in turn is defined as

  1. utter or speak (words, sounds etc.) in a certain way.
  2. utter or deliver (a judgement, sentence, curse, etc.) formally or solemnly…

But what the writer means by “the rules governing pronunciation” is clearly the supposed “rules” determining a word’s pronunciation on the basis of its spelling. And as we all know, many of the spelling-to-sound rules of English, such as they are, are subject to numerous exceptions and irregularities.

Indeed, the writer goes on to argue that “part of the solution to the problem of illiteracy could be spelling reform”.

If a book is described as dealing with “pronunciation”, we expect to find an account of phonetics, not of spelling-to-sound complexities. David Crystal’s recent book (blog, 31 Oct) is correctly subtitled “the singular story of English spelling”, not “…of English pronunciation”.

Non-phoneticians do tend to get confused about the difference between sounds and letters, pronunciation and spelling, phonetics and orthography.

Just yesterday a PR person for Scrabble emailed me and then phoned me to ask for assistance with a story about “the most commonly mispronounced words in the English language”. She said she was concerned with native speakers, not EFL. It was not a matter of social/geographical features such as glottal stops. On my further questioning it turned out that she did not know whether she was thinking of articulatory difficulties such as a speech & language therapist would deal with, or with words of contentious pronunciation, where speakers have different views on what is correct. She said she’d get back to me when she’d thought further about it.

On reflection, though, I have an awful feeling that what she may really be thinking of is none of the above, but rather words that have “mispronunciations” associated with misspellings. Things such as *mischievious mɪsˈtʃiːviəs instead of mischievous, for example, or … *mispronounciation.

If she rings back, how much should I charge as a consultancy fee?

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

incomplete plosion again

I found that in China the inaccurate term ‘incomplete plosion’ (blog, 25 Oct 2011) was still widely in use. Furthermore, people apply it not just to the gemination type of no audible release (e.g midday) and the overlapping type (e.g. subcontractor) but also to nasal release (sadness) and lateral release (sadly). They don’t know about preglottalization (glottal reinforcement, as in laptop), despite this kind of articulation being a striking characteristic of Cantonese; but if they did, I expect they’d call that incomplete plosion, too.

Here’s what it says in the recently published (and generally pretty good) textbook Better Pronunciation for Communication (Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2012) by Liu Sen of East China Normal University. I read the manuscript of this book before publication, and managed to persuade the author to remove nasal release and lateral release as subcategories of ‘incomplete plosion’ and treat them separately; but she didn’t feel she could drop the term ‘incomplete plosion’ altogether, as I suggested, since it was, she said, so well established in English phonetics terminology in China.

Now, seeing the textbook as printed rather than in manuscript, I realize I ought to have intervened more forcefully.

Of the four examples given, numbers 2, 3, and 6 each have a plosive that is more likely to be elided than given no audible release; in number 5 NSs would be more likely to use a glottal stop or a no-audible-release assimilated [p]. A hold has "double the usual time" only in the gemination type, of which there are otherwise no instances here.

In numbers 3 and 4 of these examples NSs would probably elide the highlighted plosive; in numbers 1, 2, and 5 the plosive would have an ordinary oral release (though masked by the following fricative); in number 6 we might alternatively use [ʔ].

You can see why I chose as the topic for my workshop session in Shanghai ‘The characteristics of English plosives, and in particular the various ways in which they can be released’. Here is my take on what in my opinion is mistermed ‘incomplete plosion’ (even though, as Alex Rotatori pointed out, my colleague Patricia Ashby has used this term in a recent textbook).

Monday, 3 December 2012

flight info

I’m safely back home in England now after my trip to Japan and China.

I didn’t sleep much on the outbound flight from Amsterdam to Osaka. Once the meal was cleared and the lights dimmed I tried to, but kept finding myself watching the flight information screen, which alternated between a map of our current position and the details of our altitude, distance to destination, ground speed, etc. The language of latter cycled between Dutch, English and Japanese.

I noticed that whereas in Dutch and English kilometre was abbreviated to km, as you would expect, in the Japanese it was abbreviated to キロ, which is the katakana for ki-ro.

I mused on the fact that in English kilo ˈkiːləʊ is used as an abbreviation for ‘kilogram’ but not for ‘kilometre’. Is this true for AmE as well as for BrE? And why do we say unabbreviated kilogram with kɪ- but its abbreviation with ki:-? (Is this also true of AmE?) And why, as an abbreviation for ‘kilometre’, but not for ‘kilogram’, or for that matter ‘kilohertz’, do we say just K keɪ? To these absorbing questions I do not know the answers.

Then I further noticed that in giving our altitude ‘metre’ was written unabbreviated in Japanese, as メートル me:-to-ru. Its form suggests that Japanese must have borrowed this word from French (mètre mɛːtʁ(ə)). If it had come from English, it would presumably have taken the form ミーター mi:-ta:.

I believe that in Japanese, as in Chinese, ‘metre’ can also be written with the Chinese character for ‘rice’, 米 , which in Chinese is .

Monday, 5 November 2012

Glis glis

An unusual rodent pest found in a part of Hertfordshire is the edible or fat dormouse. Its scientific name is Glis glis. It is the only living member of the genus Glis. This is perhaps why, unusually for biological nomenclature, it has a specific name identical with its generic name. The only other such cases I can think of offhand are the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, and the Eurasian wren, Troglodytes troglodytes.

The usual stress pattern for two-word names is double stressing (main stress on the second word), as in ˌHenry ˈSmith, ˌMerton ˈPark, ˌLyme ˈRegis. This also applies to the Latin names of plants and animals: ˌQuercus ˈrobur, Diˌcentra specˈtabilis, ˌEquus ˈzebra, ˌPasser doˈmesticus.

But in cases such as Vulpes vulpes, Troglodytes troglodytes and Glis glis this usual pattern collides with the deep-seated Germanic principle of deaccenting repeated material. So do we keep double stressing, or do we deaccent the specific and shift the main stress onto the generic?

In the case of the edible dormouse, discussants on a recent television programme went for the single stressing, pronouncing it furthermore as if it were a single word, a common noun, a ˈɡlɪsɡlɪs. Furthermore they treated this word as invariant for number, like sheep (see screenshot above). —Well, you’d hardly expect them to know that the Latin plural of glīs is glīrēs. That’s strictly for us classicist showoffs.

What do we do when referring to people whose forename is identical with their surname? What stress pattern do we use for someone called Morris Morris or Graham Graham? Do we find such names awkward? No, I think we cope and give them the usual double stressing. Same with New York, New York. So why is Glis glis different?

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May I remind would-be commentators that I no longer allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Please sign with your true name. Unsigned comments will be deleted.

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In a few days I shall be leaving for a visit to Japan and China. So this blog will be suspended now for the rest of November. Next posting: 3 Dec.

Friday, 2 November 2012

spell it out (cont.)

So, what is to be done? As David Crosbie indicated in his comment on the previous posting, Crystal has an upbeat message. Teachers of literacy must concentrate on the regularities, not on the anomalies.
  • Above all, they should not set students the dispiriting task of learning the spellings of lists of difficult words presented out of context.
  • The “short word rule” for content words accounts for the doubled consonants of inn, egg, add, odd, ill and the final e of eye, owe and bye. Compare function (non-content) words such as in, up, to, if, as, by.
  • Pay attention to stress, which explains the doubling of the consonants in preferring, preferred but not in proffering, proffered.
  • Be aware of the morphology (or that of the Latin origin), so as to understand, for example, the single b of aberrant (ab + errant) as against the doubling in abbreviate (ab+brev-). This even explains accommodate (ad (ac) + con (com) + mod-).

I would add the mnemonic value of related words, as when definition reminds us that definite is not *definate, while substantial and residential remind us how to spell the endings of substance and residence.

As far as reforming the system is concerned, Crystal declares baldly that “there can never be a simple solution to the problem of English spelling”. On the other hand he twice refers to the fact that Google shows the non-standard spelling rubarb to be increasingly common online. “If it carries on like this, rubarb will overtake rhubarb as the commonest online spelling in the next five years.” Then dictionary makers will “eventually have to recognise that a change has taken place” (as they already have in the case of miniscule replacing minuscule).

By this logic, dictionaries of the coming decade will also have to recognize seperate, tounge, accomodation and so on ("misspellings" very frequently encountered online), and abandon such distinctions as lose — loose, rein — reign, sight — site, to — too, your — you’re, its — it’s (all often confused on the web). Or perhaps ever more intelligent spell checkers and speech-to-text technology will prevent this from happening after all.

I think it’s important to recognize that planned, systematic reform is not truly impossible. Consider the case of the chemical element sulphur. That’s how it was standardly spelt, at least in the UK, until twenty years ago. But in 1990 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry decided to adopt the spelling sulfur, and two years later the Nomenclature Committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry followed suit. In 1992 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for England and Wales recommended the f spelling, which is accordingly now found in textbooks and GCSE exams. I think it’s better for everyone to have an official change like this, so that we know where we are, rather than unofficial and chaotic rubarb-style changes.

Another similar example is the immunosuppressant drug of which the British Approved Name was formerly cyclosporin but is now ciclosporin. What used to be the correct spelling is now considered a mistake; what used to be a mistake is now correct. It might be better simply to allow both versions.

Unofficial changes do sometimes succeed, too, as with today, tomorrow, tonight, which have replaced the hyphenated to-day, to-morrow, to-night of my schooldays.

We could consider, for example, getting the QCA to make an official decision that all words with rh may alternatively be spelt without the h, just as we allow likeable alongside likable and (in Britain) organise alongside organize. That would take care not only of rhubarb but also of rheumatism, rhythm and rhino.

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.