Monday, 19 May 2014

Monday, 22 April 2013

click farewell

How come, you might ask, that a word spelled with -c- comes to be pronounced with an l? Why this gross discrepancy between spelling and sound, orthography and pronunciation?

Blame the 1989 Kiel Convention of the IPA, which replaced the click symbols then in use, ʇ ʗ ʖ, by the current ǀ ǃ ǁ.

Because the second syllable of this word is pronounced in Zulu with a voiceless dental click. Unfortunately in some fonts the currently official IPA symbol for this sound looks indistinguishable from a lower-case L.

For further discussion, together with a number of sensible readers' comments, see my blog for 9 Sep 2009.

_ _ _

…In fact over recent months I have increasingly been feeling that in this blog I have by now already said everything of interest that I want to say. And if I have nothing new to say, then the best plan is to stop talking.

So I am now discontinuing my blog.

Thank you, all those readers who have stayed with me over the seven years that I have been writing it. If you still need a regular fix, there are archives stretching back to 2006 for you to rummage through.

Goodbye, au revoir, tschüss, hwyl, cześć, tot ziens, до свидания, さようなら, ĝis!

ˌðæts \ɪt

Friday, 19 April 2013


We can’t agree on how to spell the name of the famous Dutch/Flemish painter(s): were Pieter B. the Elder and his relatives Breughel, Brueghel, Breugel or Bruegel?

As is often the case with foreign names in English, we’re not entirely sure how to pronounce them, either.

In Dutch this name is pronounced ˈbrøːɣəl (subject to the usual regional variationː possible diphthonging of the stressed vowel and devoicing of the velar, not to mention the variability in the second consonant), which is what you would expect for a spelling with eu. In turn, you would expect foreign-language ø(ː) to map onto nonrhotic English NURSE, as happens with French deux mapped onto BrE dɜː or German Goethe ˈɡøːtə onto BrE ˈɡɜːtə.

Yet on the whole we call the painter not ˈbrɜːɡl̩ but ˈbrɔɪɡl̩. Why?

I can only suppose that our usual pronunciation is based on the spelling with eu interpreted according to the reading rules of German. If Deutsch is English dɔɪtʃ and Freud is frɔɪd, then Breug(h)el must be ˈbrɔɪɡl̩.

For the same reason, even though Wikipedia prefers the spelling Bruegel (which would prompt us towards a pronunciation ˈbruːɡl̩), most of us, I suspect, tend to spell the name with eu.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013


I had a phone call a few days ago from someone trying to get in touch with David Rosewarne. The caller thought I might have his contact details. I was unable to help, since as far as I remember I have only met Rosewarne once, and that briefly; the last I heard of him was that he was working in Malaysia, but I do not know where he might be now.

David Rosewarne’s great claim to fame is that in October 1984 he coined the expression “Estuary English”, in an article published in the Times Educational Supplement.

In doing so he gave expression to the widespread perception that Daniel Jones-style RP was gradually losing its status as the unquestioned standard accent of educated English people. Or, putting it a different way, that RP was changing by absorbing various sound changes that previously had been restricted to Cockney or other non-prestigious varieties.

Two years earlier, in my Accents of English, I had written

Throughout [London], the working-class accent is one which shares the general characteristics of Cockney. We shall refer to this accent as popular London. […] Middle-class speakers typically use an accent closer to RP than popular London. But the vast majority of such speakers nevertheless have some regional characteristics [emphasis added]. This kind of accent might be referred to as London (or, more generally, south-eastern) Regional Standard.

I added the warning

It must be remembered that labels such as ‘popular London’, ‘London Regional Standard’ do not refer to entities we can reify but to areas along a continuum stretching from broad Cockney (itself something of an abstraction) to RP.

So Rosewarne’s observations in a sense contained nothing new. He muddied the waters unhelpfully by referring to details of vocabulary and grammar (which have nothing to do with “a new variety of pronunciation”). But the name he coined, Estuary English, was taken up quite widely, gaining resonance eventually not only with journalists but also with the general public, to such an extent that we can now expect to be readily understood if we describe someone’s speech as “estuarial”.

The estuary Rosewarne was thinking of was of course the Thames estuary, which in a geographical sense might be interpreted as extending from Teddington near Kingston upon Thames (the point where the river becomes tidal) down to Southend-on-Sea (where the Thames enters the North Sea). Rosewarne’s original article says “the heartland of this variety lies by the banks of the Thames and its estuary, but it seems to be the most influential accent in the south-east of England”; though later writers, particularly Coggle in his Do you speak Estuary? (1993) implied that it covered the entire southeast of the country. It was left to my colleague Joanna Przedlacka to demonstrate that it did no such thing (see her 2002 book Estuary English? and this summary). Przedlacka demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently.

Rosewarne’s suggestion that EE “may become the RP of the future” led to credulous excitement in the EFL world, particularly in central Europe and South America.

It was in response to media and academic interest in the topic that in 1998 I set up a website “to bring together as many documents as possible that relate to Estuary English, as a convenient resource for the many interested enquirers.”

One thing I did myself was to consider how we might agree on a phonetic transcription scheme, which would be needed for pedagogical purposes if we seriously wanted to teach this putative new accent. See this article. But no one followed this up by criticizing my proposals or suggesting anything better.

All the excitement gradually died down. I last had cause to update the website in 2007. By the time I retired, in 2006, this was my one-page summary of the issue. EFL teachers, meanwhile, mostly know that we just need to update our pedagogical model of RP in the minor ways outlined in LPD.

Monday, 15 April 2013

London place names

Londonist, a website “about London and everything that happens in it” offers a page of advice on London place names.

Some of the advice is a little surprising.

These names are normally ˈɔːldwɪtʃ, ˈbʌrə, kəˈdʌɡən, ˈtʃɪzɪk, ˈklæpəm, ˈdeʔfəd, ˈdʌlɪdʒ. RP usually distinguishes ˈɔːl from əʊl and ɒl (so that Paul ≠ pole ≠ Poll(y)), and Aldwych has ɔːl or possibly ɒl, but not əʊl. Of course many speakers have the GOAT allophone ɒʊ when dark l follows, as here; and Londoners tend to vocalize dark l, making cold kɒod; but I had thought that most would not merge the result with the ɔːo of l-vocalized called. Hence I am surprised to see Aldwich explained as “old witch”; though I suppose “all’d witch” or “auld witch” would be orthographically awkward. (Anyhow, the main point is that -wych stands for wɪtʃ, not wɪk.)

With Clapham, the basic ˈklæpəm can of course be reduced to ˈklæʔm̩ by the regular processes of syllabic consonant formation and glottalling.

The final consonant in Dulwich is, in my judgment, more often than , though both are possible; it’s odd that the anonymous author should prescribe the voiceless affricate in Dulwich but the voiced one in Greenwich and Woolwich, where the same hesitation between the two possibilities for -ch applies.

That’s ˈhəʊbən, ˈhɒmətən, ˈaɪzəlwɜːθ, with the usual syllabic-consonant options, plus possible glottalling in ˈhɒməʔn̩ and weakening in ˈaɪzl̩wəθ (or, of course, a more London-y ˈɑɪzowəf). Initial h is just as likely to be dropped/retained in Holborn as in Homerton.

So, ˈplɑːstəʊ (though I’ll allow people from the north of England and the Americans to say ˈplæstəʊ if they prefer), ˈrɒðəhaɪð, ˈraɪslɪp,ˈsʌðək, ˈstretəm, ˌθeɪdənˈbɔɪz, ˈtɒtənəm, ˈwɒpɪŋ. Regular optional processes generate the variants ˈrɒvəhaɪv, ˈstreʔm̩ and ˈtɒʔnəm; there is also an archaic variant ˈredrɪf (Redriff) for Rotherhithe; and if you drop the h in the usual form you'll get an internal linking r, ˈrɒvəraɪv. The Cockney tube train driver on my AofE recording pronounces his part of London, Wapping, as ˈwɒpʔɪn.

Friday, 12 April 2013

money tree policy

Puns that work for some do not necessarily work for all.

Here’s a witticism from a letter-writer to the Guardian a month ago. But I suspect that this pun doesn’t exactly work for anyone at all, though it is close enough for us to get it.

The Bank of England has a Monetary Policy Committee, which is in the news from time to time.

As we all know, money does not grow on trees, though if it did the tree it grew on would be a money tree.

The pronunciation of monetary is ˈmʌnɪt(ə)ri, with variants ˈmɒn-, -ət-. We can disregard the question of the vowel in the first syllable, which for some (most?) is the same as that of money, while for others it has the spelling-pronunciation vowel of monitor (which immediately destroys the pun). Let’s concentrate on the weak vowels. Is the rest of monetary pronounced as in money tree ˈmʌni triː?

Not for those who have a lax happY vowel, phonetically similar to KIT rather than to FLEECE (like me). For me, monetary ends with trɪ, which feels and sounds different from my tree triː. On the other hand my money also ends with ɪ, which I can readily identify with the second syllable of monetary. If, though, in the second syllable of monetary I had a schwa ə (as many do), rather than my weak ɪ, then that too would destroy the pun, because this schwa could not be mistaken for my happY vowel.

To make the pun work you need a tense happY (so that -tary = tree), but you also need a lax happY (so that money =mone(t)-). And you can’t have it both ways at once.

A strong, AmE-style suffix vowel in -ary destroys the pun, too, since tɛri could not be mistaken for tree. To save the pun you need not just to weaken but actually to delete this vowel, since təri could not be mistaken for tree, though tri might.

All in all, then, standup comics wanting to tell people a joke depending on this pun would have to be remarkably careful in their ‘diction’.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

listen once more

When my three-volume Accents of English (Cambridge University Press, 1982) was published, it was accompanied by a cassette with recorded specimens. The same tape was also published by BBC English under the title In a Manner of Speaking. Both cassettes have been unavailable for many years.

From time to time, though, I get queries about them. Now, with the agreement of the publishers, I have had the tracks converted to digital form, and plan to make them freely available on the web.

It will take me some time to edit the sound files, but I hope to make them all available within a few weeks. I have thrown together a quick-and-dirty web page to link to them. So far only two sound files are available, out of the twenty or so that will complete the set. Please bear in mind that the recordings all date from 1982 or a few years earlier.

The first is the specimen of RP, a test passage read by my former colleague Susan Ramsaran. (I use the same test passage for specimens of General American, Scottish, and New Zealand speech, to follow later.) The cassette inlay for it reads as follows.

RP is the standard accent of English in England, and the accent taught to overseas learners of English in many countries.

Some of its phonetic characteristics are as follows, with examples from the test passage.

  • LOT has a rounded vowel, [ɒ]: o’clock, stopped, vodka.
  • Non-rhotic distribution of /r/, historical /r/ having been lost except before a vowel: work, hour, later, started, earth tremor, utterly [ˈʌtl̩i].
  • Linking /r/, though, before a vowel: after I’d had, quarter of; also intrusive /r/ between /ə/ and a following vowel: vodka or.
  • Centring diphthongs in NEAR , SQUARE, CURE: steering, air, fury, experience, there, during.
  • Weak suffix in -ary: momentary /ˈməʊməntrɪ/; but not in -ile: hostile /ˈhɒstaɪl/.
  • Broad vowel, /ɑː/, in BATH: after, past, vast, ask.
  • The vowels of THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE are all identical: awesome, horse, force.
  • GOAT is a diphthong with a central starting point, [əʊ]: drove, local, momentary.
  • ”Smoothing” may make a diphthong monophthongal when before another vowel: throwing /ˈθrəʊɪŋ/ [θrəɪŋ], diabolical [daə-]; // and // may become [ɪ, ʊ] before a vowel: two o’clock [ˈtʊəˈklɒk].
  • The yod semivowel /j/ is retained after /t, d, n/, sometimes after /s, z/: during, new, supernatural.
  • Words such as really, fury, utterly, fiery end in [ɪ]. (Compare [i] in many other accents.)

The second track is my discussion of RP, and in particular of the specimen offered. Here is what I say. (Phonetic transcriptions are in accordance with the printed book, iɡnoring the abbreviatory conventions etc. of LPD.)

Here [in the spoken specimen] you can note [...] the rounded vowel in words of the standard lexical set LOT, for example in the words o’clock əˈklɒk, stopped stɒpt, vodka ˈvɒdkə. This is a non-rhotic accent, i.e. historically it has undergone the innovation of R Dropping, so we have the pronunciations for example work wɜːk, earth ɜːθ, tremor ˈtremə, hour ˈaʊə, later ˈleɪtə, started ˈstɑːtɪd, horse hɔːs, and so on; in the word utterly ˈʌtl̩ɪ, so pronounced, you even hear a syllabic l that results from a dropped r. But we retain linking r before a following vowel, as in the phrases after I’d had, a quarter of an hour; compare a quarter past, where there’s no r. And we have intrusive r in the phrase a double vodka or two.
We have separate centring diphthong phonemes in the lexical sets NEAR, SQUARE and CURE. Examples in the passage are the words experience ɪkˈspɪərɪəns, steering ˈstɪərɪŋ, there ðɛə, air ɛə, fury ˈfjʊərɪ, and during ˈdjʊərɪŋ.
Suffix vowels: we have a weak suffix vowel in momentaty ˈməʊməntrɪ, but a strong one in hostile ˈhɒstaɪl. Words of the lexical set BATH have the ‘broad’, that is the long back vowel, ɑː, as in the words after ˈɑːftə, past pɑːst, vast ˈvɑːst, and ask ɑːsk. That’s the same vowel as in the word calm kɑːm, as you can hear, but different from the vowel of gas ɡæs. As far as the set CLOTH is concerned, we have the same vowel in off ɒf, as in lot lɒt, but this speaker says rɔːθ where I personally would say rɒθ wrath. We have variability within RP, as you know, for this.
We’ve got the same vowel in the sets THOUGHT and NORTH, as you can hear by comparing awesome ˈɔːsm̩ with horse hɔːs; and the same vowel in words of the set NORTH as in those of the set FORCE, as you can see by comparing horse with force fɔːs.
The diphthong in GOAT has a central or even slightly front starting point; examples in the words local ˈləʊkl̩, momentary ˈməʊməntrɪ; and then we have the characteristic RP feature of “smoothing” in the phrase ˈtʊə ˈklɒk, that is two o’clock, and in ˈθrəɪŋ throwing, though this speaker didn’t smooth in the word quiet ˈkwaɪət, which she pronounced like that rather than as ˈkwaət. In the word diabolical daəˈbɒlɪkl̩, on the other hand, she did smooth.
We have historical yod j retained in the words new njuː, and during ˈdjʊərɪŋ, and for this speaker even in the word supernatural ˈsjuːpəˈnætʃərəl, which I should call ˈsuːpəˈnætʃərəl.

You can’t leave comments on the recordings on the UCL site — but you can here, if you wish.