Thursday, 5 August 2010

yː in Wales?

Roy Becker-Kristal writes
The plot of the film Plots with a View takes place in Wales, in the fictional town of Wrottin Powys. Brenda Blethyn plays the main character, who speaks English with a Welsh-like non-rhotic accent.
Having watched the film a couple of times, I noticed that, in addition to the pronunciation of [ø:] in NURSE words, Brenda Blethyn pronounces NEAR words (here, beard) with [y:], with visible lip-rounding. On one occasion she also pronounces the word 'girl' as [gy:l] instead of [gø:l]. I should perhaps mention that her pronunciation of GOOSE words in this film is a relatively retracted [u:]. (Sorry I can't provide a link to a video that shows all this, you'll have to trust me.)
I haven’t seen the film, so can’t comment directly. In my Accents of English book I said (p. 381) that in south Wales
In NEAR words there is usually /jɜː/, so that beer /bjɜː/ can be said to rhyme with fur /fɜː/ as well as with fear /fjɜː/, while year, ear, and (/h/-dropped) here are all identical as /jɜː/. Some speakers, though use a disyllabic sequence /iːə/, thus beer /ˈbiːə/ etc.,, and in the environment _rV simple /iː/ is usual, thus period /ˈpiːriːəd/…
We know that NURSE is often rounded in southeast Wales, “giving the effect of a centralized raised [œː] or lowered [øː]” (p. 381), with an “auditorily unusual quality” (p. 383). So what one would expect for here is something like (h)jøː. If Brenda Blethyn really says (h)yː, this could be seen as a kind of coalescence in which two segments, j and øː, are collapsed into a single segment that shares the features of both.

Roy has another theory.
Suppose that Brenda Blethyn normally pronounces NURSE as a slightly advanced schwa, and NEAR with a slightly advanced high-central-unrounded monophthong (as many speakers of Estuary English do). These two vowels may actually form a vertical series for her. Then, as part of the effort to sound Welsh, she pronounces this series as front-rounded, thus correctly pronouncing [ø:] in NURSE but incorrectly pronouncing [y:] in NEAR.
Ingenious! Do we buy this?

(Blethyn is her married name. She was born Brenda Bottle in Ramsgate, Kent, and as far as I know has no Welsh connection beyond the surname of her ex-husband, which she retains as her professional name.)


  1. Do we buy this?
    A bargain at any price.

  2. I've found a clip of a bit of Plot with a View. Brenda's character is dead for the first part of the clip. When she comes alive, much of what she says is repetitive. And I'm pretty sure there isn't a NURSE vowel. Still, it's an indication of how successful her Welsh accent is.

    By contrast, here's a clip of Brenda speaking (mostly) as herself in her own accent. In this she does say nervous and girl and (stressed) her .

  3. I’ve not had much contact with South Wales since the 1950s but I spent most of my life there until that period devoting a good deal of time to observing the speech of the area for my unpublished book Glamorgan Spoken English. I never observed anyone rhyme beer or fear with fur, as /bjɜː/ etc, which the quote from Accents suggested. Year, ear and near were quite a dfferent matter. I regarded the lip rounding I observed then in such words as individual personal or paralinguistic features. Developments since then have inclined some observers to suggest that they are now phoneme features, a matter on which I dont feel equipped to comment. I never remember hearing any vowel I’d classify as [y].

  4. I used to have a Welsh principal from Cardiff here in America, but I can't remember what he sounded like. I would like to go talk to him again to here what he sounds like and if he says, for example, [kɛːdɪf]. All I know about Welsh accents is what I've read in Accents of English, because I haven't had a chance to hear many of them in real life.

  5. "here" ---> "hear"

  6. David,
    By contrast, here's a clip of Brenda speaking (mostly) as herself in her own accent. In this she does say nervous and girl and (stressed) her.

    And rehearsals and prefer.

    But there doesn't seem to be any corroboration for Roy Becker-Kristal's hypothesis that Brenda's own NEAR has an EE-type slightly advanced high-central-unrounded monophthong. At about 2:22 she says [riəli], which may be /riəli/, tending to refute his hypothesis, or conceivably /riːəli/, with a perhaps rather actressy awareness of orthoepy or even etymology, which would of course be inconclusive as to whether she says [nɪː].

  7. [Australian speaker] The roundedness or not of NURSE has always been a sticking point for me. My lips feel rounded when I say it, so I intuitively think of it as a rounded vowel. However, it isn't rounded enough to have the phonetic properties of a fully rounded vowel, so even though it feels like one, it doesn't really count as rounded.

    Incidentally, I can give you a phonetic angle on the recent Australian election - throughout the campaign, Gillard consistently referred to Abbott as "Mr. Rabbit", using an intrusive /r/ instead of the glottal stop we would expect. However, in her post-election speech I noticed that when she congratulated Abbott and wanted to sound sincere, she used a glottal stop like the rest of us.

  8. @outerhoard:

    That would be linking R, not intrusive R. I am surprised that it would be regarded as unusual in Australia: I think it would be quite usual in England.

  9. Yes, vp, most extraordinary. Oz is supposed to have both r phenomena. I hardly think this glottal stop can be replacing them. We haven't had the benefit of being on the spot for the election, but I can only think that the glottal stop has only come to be "expected" as a media strategy to avoid "Mr Rabbit", not necessarily out of courtesy but at least as a matter or responsible reportage. Over here we have not formed the impression that Gillard is interested in such things.

  10. Correction: I should have said "I hardly think this glottal stop can be supplanting them." It can of course occur in these contexts in BrE and other non-rhotic dialects as well. But I do find the implication that Australians are more careful with politicians' names surprising.

  11. Of course in England there would be less danger of the abbot/rabbit confusion, since the Weak Vowel merger is less widespread.

  12. beer/fear rhyming with fur? I think someone must have fur (y)ears!