Archive 19 of JWL Blog


Readers who need explanations of any of the abbreviations used may find them at Section 1 of the Home Page.

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06/06/2009TIANANMEN and GOVERNMENT#190
03/06/2009How Important is Intonation?#189
26/05/2009Euphonic Pronunciations#188
22/05/2009Accents and a French loanword#187
21/05/2009Provenance of the Happy Vowel#186
14/05/2009Accentuation of Polysyllables#185
12/05/2009English or Italian?#184
11/05/2009Aspiration Revisited#183
09/05/2009A Dog of a Stressing Problem#182
07/05/2009Aspiration Again#181

Blog 190

The 6th of June 2009


Graham Pointon’s “Linguism” blog of the fifth of June 2009 was about the name Tiananmen Square which, he sed, when it first figured so prominently in the media twenty years ago, “most people had great difficulty in pronouncing”. His amusing comment was a dry observation on the irony of the way the New China News Agency’s pref·rence for this name for the location had changed from an earlier custom of referring to it as the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the light of the dre·dfully unpeaceful atrocities that it witnessed. He ended his post with “For the record, Tiananmen has three syllables, and is most accurately anglicized as /ˈtjɛn æn mən/ with all four nasals clearly articulated”. I found the pronunciation of this “new” expression especially int·resting becoz, as I continued to observe its very frequent use, it presented me with what I take to be the ans·er to a question I’d been pond·ring for some years.

I’d observed for at least two decades that the extremely common word government, he·rd in news bulletins etc about as offen as any other “content” word, was only occasionally and by very few individual speakers pronounced in the way that absolutely all dictionaries represented it (and for that matter still do) as normally uttered with two occurrences of the /n/ phoneme ie as /`gᴧvənmənt/. Even granted that it has weakforms which occur freely when it’s not fully accented, it still, when it is fully accented, regularly takes a normal form, for all but a handful of speakers, as /`gᴧvəmənt/ or /`gᴧvm̩(m)ənt/. These exceptional speakers have been notably “individual” persons who’ve included Tony Benn, Margaret Thatcher, the Queen (who has had annually to read aloud a very serious script telling the nation what “my Government” proposes to do during the session of Parliament which she is formally inaugurating) and the sometime BBC Radio Chief Announcer Peter Donaldson. Even the two-syllable variant /`gᴧvmənt/ doesnt sound in the least unusual or hurried.

I’d establisht the main facts about this pronunciation during the sixties of the last century while systematically observing especially the speech of scores of British media newsreaders. This was in large part undertaken as lexicographical preparations for my CPD (Concise Pronouncing Dictionary) of 1972 and another Oxford publication the third edition of Hornby’s ALD (Advanced Learner’s Dictionary) of 1974 of which I was its first Pronunciation Editor. In both of those  books I gave only the transcription/`gᴧvm̩ənt/. When I discussed what I me·nt to do about this word with Daniel Jones he exprest approval of my intention to list it first (at least) with no medial /n/. As I was producing materials for EAL (EFL) users I might well have recommended the form with the medial /n/ because there is an undou·ted advantage for them not to have to take account of a pronunciation discrepant from ordinary spelling. However, the form(s) I recommended (with or without syllabic /m/) had the equally undou·ted advantage of being less difficult to pronounce.

A question I had pondered for some years was whether, on the one hand government had acquired its simplified pronunciation merely because, being so very familiar to everyone, it was treated with relative contempt; or on the other hand it intrinsically presented English speakers with an articulation that was not easy for them to perform. There were another dozen-and-a-half non-abstruse words with the same /nmə/ sequence that one cd observe from time to time but the infrequency of their occurrences precluded a confident decision that they normally omitted /n/ from that sequence. The Wells LPD very justifiably lists variant forms without medial /n/ for attainment /ə ˈteɪm mənt/, entertainment /ˌent ə ˈteɪm mənt/ and imprisonment /ɪm ˈprɪz əm mənt/. It also has several variant forms of government with no medial /n/ even including for good measure a couple of “casual” versions /ˈgᴧb m mənt/ and /ˈgᴧm mənt/. Now. [Footnote: It has occurred to me that the colloquiality of this last one-word sentence may puzzle some readers. I refer them to OED now advb etc A II 6.] What especially intrested me about Tiananmen was that, altho appearing as a completely new word to practically everybody, it was virtually immediately to be heard, by almost all speakers, who sed it with fluency and confidence, simplified to /`tjӕnəmən/.

It was no surprise to me that Graham Pointon, a former head of the BBC Pronunciation Research Unit, shd make the remark he did. His use of “accurately” typifies his understandably habitually rather authoritarian outlook. The word I shd prefer is “precisely” in regard to the kind of anglicisation he offers: lack of precision seems to me a fairer description than inaccuracy. I’m sure he’s completely right in saying that /ˈtjɛn æn mən/ is a close approximation to the Chinese. However, it’s cert·nly not what I’ve been observing the great majority of (relatively sophisticated) speakers to use over the last twenty years. Nor is the version promoted by successors of his at the Pronunciation Unit in OBG (the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation) /ˈtjɛnənmən/ because what I hear usually, like government, has no medial /n/. What’s more, I think the vast majority of us, being not highly pinyin-savvy, are too unable to resist the influence of the misleading appearance of “a” in the first syllable of the transliteration so that we dont say the “correct” /ɛ/ but naturally make the word /`tjӕnəmən/.

I’ve no intention of changing my habit in that respect. I notice that LPD has /ӕ/ even in the Chinese IPA version, which is comforting, and gives first /ti ˌӕn ən ˈmen/ tho with the warning of the shift of the principal stress in the word when it occurs in combinations like Tiˈananmen `Square. Only LPD’s third American version shows a complete absence of medial /n/ and the more usual yod in the first syllable. Neither of the other major pronunciation dictionaries has such a version, whether British or American, except that ODP has after British /tɪˌanənmən ˈskwɛː/ a bracketed (“optional”) medial /n/ in its American version /tiˈɛnə(n)mɛn ˈskwɛ(ə)r/. EPD also gives the item only in the combination as /tiˌӕn.ən.mɪnˈskweə/ with similar American form.

Blog 189

The 3rd of June 2009

How Important is Intonation?

In John Wells’s blog of 3 June 09 he quotes his phonetic colleague Takehiko Makino’s comment on the Japanese translation of the Wells Intonation book that, for Japanese teachers of English, it's doubtful if they “need a knowledge of intonation when they cannot read the book in English!” John exprest sympathy for this view adding “intonation is pretty irrelevant for someone who can hardly string a sentence together with reasonable fluency” and that some might say that learners “would do much better by listening to lots of spoken English and doing plenty of practice speaking the language themselves”. I shd certainly endorse this last view.

I have over many years had plenty of experience of talking to and of teaching Japanese users of English. A very significant point, in my opinion, is the thaut that, tho I’m a very interested observer of the pitch features of anyone’s spoken English and well equipt to note down what I hear with some precision, I’m quite unable to remember any gross or important deviations from normal English patterns on the part of any of my Japanese contacts. This suggests that at any rate a major part of the content of the book wd indeed be of very doutful utility to Japanese speakers. Another very major part of it, the chapter on “Tonicity”, is rather a different matter. Virtually all users of EAL (English as an additional language) are apt to produce from time to time distributions of accents within sentences which strike most English native speakers as strange or unidiomatic. Even so, it’s pretty rarely that serious misunderstandings occur in such contexts. The topic, then, is hugely less important for Japanese speakers than eg mastering the distinction between /l/ and /r/ that often persists even in the performance of Japanese advanced learners.

The most difficult performance level for any EAL user to aspire to is that which is equivalent to being able to convincingly act the part of an English native speaker in a drama or to read aloud with a similar dgree of idiomaticness. For the EAL speaker with such or similar aims, I’m sure one cdnt recommend a better book than the Wells Intonation. It shd be borne in mind, tho, that the majority of well-educated native speakers of English are not very good at performing such tasks and that even professional actors and readers are very far from infallible in that respect. I quite often wonder what the director of a drama can have been thinking of to let an actor be recorded using some very inappropriate stressing in a sentence but it happens on many occasions. Indeed it strikes me that it may well be that a major difference between a pedestrian dramatic performance and an excellent one can often lie chiefly in the aptness of the actor’s choice of prosodies. I completely agree with the decision to devote much space in Intonation on topics like the very strong inclination of native English speakers to avoid the re-accenting of recently accented words but I have to admit that hardly a day passes without my hearing violations of these “rules” in spontaneous native English speech. This must mean that non-specialist observers must find much EAL spontaneous speech far more acceptable than the teaching manuals may seem to suggest. Evidence that supports this view may be seen in the main division of this website at §8.4.

Blog 188

The 26th of May 2009

Euphonic Pronunciations

I was delighted to read Graham Pointon’s Linguism blog of the 13th of May on the pronunciation of the composer’s name Purcell. I might well have written along those lines myself tho what he wrote was certainly more complete and intresting than I shdve managed. I offen notice the way older pronunciations tend to be replaced by something euphemistic or more chic, elegant, glamorous or “ornamental”. That last term came to mind because I’ve just been checking the name Purcell in the OUP’s invaluable Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges (1988; hereafter “HHS”) where it confirmed my recollection that it came from the French word for “piglet”. By the way, I’ve always been unhappy, despite my gen’ral unbounded admiration for HHS, about their use of that word “ornamental” applied to personal names. They sed at their p. xliv that their choice of ‘ornamental’ was because it was a “more apposite label than ‘arbitrary’ when ‘those who chose ... names for themselves ... presumably said to themselves, ‘Let’s pick a nice-sounding name’...”. I can’t understand why they didnt adopt a word that actually means “nice-sounding”. And for that it seems to me the obvious choice is “euphonic”. Hence our title today.

It’s pretty easy to understand why people make these changes in most cases.  It’s obviously embarrassing having a name that coincides with a word that suggests something ridiculous or contemptible such as `Tickell which sounds the same as tickle tho it’s probbly from a placename with originally hill as its second element. So people attempt to dispel the association by stressing it Tic`kell. Same sort of thing goes for Twaddell which has nothing originally to do with twaddle and has the variant Tweddle which is closer to its earliest form Tweeddale. Similarly waddle isnt connected with `Waddell. No wonder people bearing them use the pronunciations Twad`dell and Wad`dell. Many people with the name Onions prefer to stress it O`nions /əʊ`naɪənz/ which must make some folk wonder if they’re of Irish extraction. The name Ketelbey was well-known at the BBC at one time and its Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names gave it rightly with pronunciation /kə`telbi/ which was the one that its musician owner wisht to be used but this name is undou'tably a variant spelling of Kettleby the name of sev'ral places where of course it’s pronounced /`ketlbi/.

The favourite way people have of euphonising their names is to associate them with the French reputation for elegance etc by endstressing them. Bur`nett seems to be the more popular stressing of people with that spelling. Others are Ca`dell, Ca`vell, Far`nell, Fla`vell, Li`dell, Man`tel, Man`dell, Mo`ran, Mo`rel (also Morrell from moor ie blackamoor), O`vett, Pa`dell, Quen`nell and perhaps Sho`vell. Americans seem to be even more enthusiastic than we are at doing this: they have Bar`net, Car`mel, Cor`nell etc and Graham, we see, vouches for their Dur`rell, Law`rence and Mar`vell.

It’s not only stressings that get changed: people called Cockburn seem very offen to pronounce it /`kəʊbɜːn/, no dou't, as HHS suggests “to veil the imagined indelicacy of the first syllable”. Perhaps in America someone has changed it to Roosterburn. The most embarrassing name I can think of is Smellie. It amazes me that some people actually refrain from changing it. Smillie is the Scottish version. That is fortunately a bit more disguised. Smiley is no dou’t another form of it but this time made to sound positively ple'sant by comparison. Weatherhed and Wethered are spellings which, unlike the less usual Wetherhead disguise an original medieval uncomplimentary nickname for a person with a head like a ram. Ramsbotham by contrast is by some pronounced /θ/ for its th tho its normal pronunciation wd be the same as Ramsbottom whose comic association is “undeserved” because it’s one of our many -ham-ending placenames. Some people called Bugg or Buggs apparently more offen pronounce it /bjuːg(s)/ than you might expect — according to EPD at least.

Blog 187

The 22nd of May 2009

Accents and a French loanword

As some readers may’ve noticed, I sometimes listen to some of the BBC Radio 4 weekdays programmes of fifteen-minute readings of non-fiction from what they call Book of the Week. This past week it’s been from The Blue Hour by Lillian Pizzicchini which is a biography of the strange author Jean Rhys. It hasnt been a favourite subject for me: I dout if I’d like her books much and she led quite a chaotic life but it’s been re’d extremely effectively by a 44-year-old actress originally from Lancashire called Pooky Quesnel announced as /puːki kə`nel/ or once /kwə`nel/. Her accent is a neutral young General British type but she can subtly modulate now and again into a Caribbean type of speech, which was the kind of accent Jean Rhys had, if she’s quoting things Rhys sed. “Rhys” was born Ella Gwendolen Rees-Williams in Domenica and lived there till at 16 she was sent to be a boarder at the Cambridge Perse School. She spent, sez DNB, only two terms there “before her father was advised to take her away, as her teachers could not eradicate her Caribbean accent”. Such an attitude is rather horrifyingly intresting but was perhaps not surprising for 1924. She next was accepted to study at the (nowadays Royal) Academy of Dramatic Art where, the biography (just published this month) tells us, her accent was “judged to be a barrier to a serious theatrical career”. There you are agen! But attitudes were to change later in the century quite “dramatic'ly”.

Anyway the one word which caut my attention was a now archaic term which you rarely hear uttered these days but I well remember being spoken as /ə`pӕʃ/ often applied to an apparently violent form of dancing. Ms Quesnel is obviously too young to have any memories of hearing the term and she naturally but, I’m afraid rather inappropriately and certainly not in the way Rhys wdve known it, pronounced the word /ə`pӕʧi/. The origin of this problem was that early in the last century the term Apache, the name of a reputedly fierce tribe who had inhabited areas including Arizona, was popular as a slang label for certain kinds of ruffianly Parisians. So the word was naturally imported into English with a French-type pronunciation. These facts are on record in the OED and it and LPD have both pronunciations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a pronunciation that LPD refers to as “obsolete”, neither EPD nor ODP has the French version.

At the other end of the scale it’s possible to have too good an accent at least in a fore’n language. The late John Drummond in his autobiography Tainted by Experience (2000 at p.121) sed: I found [Paris] unfriendly and most of its inhabitants hostile. Part of this, ironically, was because my French was too good. People seemed irritated by this, as if I was trying to pass myself off as French. ‘Why do you have no accent?’ they would ask me indignantly. You can’t win, can you!


Blog 186

The 21st of May 2009

Provenance of the Happy Vowel

I recently came across some remarks by the distinguisht dialectologist Peter Trudgill which he made in Sociolinguistic Variation and Change (Edinburgh University Press 2002 pp 173 ff). He referred to “changes [which] make their way into RP over time by diffusion upwards from lower-status accents” and as “a good example” instanced “the replacement through time of word-final unstressed /ɪ / by /iː /, so that /hӕpɪ/ becomes /hӕpiː/.” In fact I dont think this is at all certainly an example of this phenomenon. I believe Trudgill, in following his statement with the gen’ralisation “RP has always had /ɪ/ in such items” was misled by the Wells untenable assertion at Accents of English §3.4.3 that the happy vowel was “between the seventeenth century and 1950 regularly analysed by phoneticians as [ɪ]”. This was quite wrong because it took no account of the evidence of the numerous eighteenth-century orthoëpists and lexicographers who (all of the ones I have knowledge of, at least) either very explicitly transcribed happy etc with their equivalent of [hӕpi(ː)] or had nothing contrary to say about the matter. This point was made in my 1999 article HappYland Reconnoitred: the final -y sound a version of which is to be seen as item 3.2 on this website (See its  §12). An  indication of Victorian phoneticians’ awareness of happy with [i] was Michael MacMahon’s remark at p.101 of his 1985 article in the Transactions of the Philological Society on "James Murray and the phonetic notation in the New English Dictionary" that “Murray was well aware of ... the use of /ι/ or /iː/ in the unaccented vowel of CITY ... and had even thought of marking it in the notation.”

A further remark by Wells about the happy vowel on the same occasion  “... there has been an increasing tendency throughout the English-speaking world to use a closer quality [i(ː)]...” is no doubt true. It must be considered perfectly possible that, rather than as a consequence of “diffusion upwards from lower-status accents”, participation in this very general movement is as likely to be the origin of the change in this most geographically neutral accent of England. It seems to me probable that this development is due to increasing speech-consciousness, a closer value being perceived as desirably “clearer”.

I shd say that the evidence as I find it is that the weakening of the (final) happy vowel from an [i] quality to an [ɪ] or opener value was a fairly rapid change which took place in the early nineteenth century and was complete by the middle of the century. It’s rather strange that so many writers of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries failed to describe this phenomenon: there are usually speakers to be he'rd who have become old-fashioned but still exemplify such earlier values, as we see with Bertrand Russell. However, there was a striking exception in Gimson who, in the first two editions (1962 and 1970) only, of his Introduction to the Pronunciation of English, at his discussion of the variants of the /ɪ/ phoneme made reference to a ‘conservative’ form ‘much closer than the general ... coming nearer to the quality associated with’ /iː/. There are recordings of Russell (1872-1970) in which just such a feature can be heard. There are at the website of the Bertrand Russell Archives two brief fairly clear clips from Russell’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In them he can be heard to use a happy vowel value that in itself now sounds completely “modern”. This is plain for example in both occurrences of the word duty in the first clip and in the words deeply, democracy and calories in the second. He came of an aristocratic family and eventually inherited the title of earl. The general impression his speech makes is Victorian (like Jones’s his wdve been fully formed in Victoria’s time) but of a rather archaic type that was very likely the result of never attending any school but being tau't individually thus probably making very little contact with people of his own age.

Blog 185

The 14th of May 2009

Accentuation of Polysyllables

A well-known member of the British government, Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the other day threw the cat amongst the pigeons, linguistically speaking, by referring in an article she contributed to a Sunday newspaper on her party’s performance as in certain respects “lamentable”. This outstandingly forthright word in consequence became pounced upon for quotation in innumerable news reports in the following days. The thing that struck one about it was hearing it repeated by a variety of speakers some of whom were obviously slightly embarrassed when they became aware that they were stressing it differently from people they were speaking too. This is a quite common happening and one clue to how words can change remarkably quickly. It can very easily arise if a teacher’s talking to a pupil because repeating a word that the pupil has just sed is very easily taken to be a correction instead of a confirmation especially if it’s spoken, as often naturally happens, on a high falling tone.

 I remember particularly John Humphrys, my fellow ex-Cardiffian and the notoriously relentless inquisitor of the BBC Radio Four weekday-mornings “Today” programme, rather uncharacteristically mumbling something that was unclear but was prob’bly “I don’t know how you say it”. The problem was whether to accent the word as `lamentable or as la`mentable. The tendency of English-speakers to place the stress on an earlier syllable of a polysyllabic word rather than a later one is a centuries-old topic. Shakespeare’s verse showed that his practice was very variable. He used numerous stressings like `acceptable, `delectable, `detestable, `horizon, `invisible, `observant, `receptacle, `successive etc. The OED records from 1879 a term used by some to refer to “stress transferred towards or onto the first syllable of a word” as “recessive accent”. This is the only specific term for the phenomenon I know of but I recoil from using it because I’m too uncomfortable with reference to “the first syllable of a word” as at the back of it.

The eighteenth century seemed to be just as unsettled about such stressings as the sixteenth and seventeenth had been: Walker 1797 recorded eg `academy, `acceptable, `commendable, `concordance, `discrepant, `orthography, `splenetic etc. However, by the latter nineteenth century there seemed to have been  large numbers of words which had acquired a fairly settled stress pattern so far as we can judge from the NED/OED (1884 to 1927) and the 1917 first edition of the Daniel Jones EPD. We find Bradley (OED in 1901) and Jones agreeing on giving only the stressing `lamentable. OED has yet to revise that entry. Jones even by 1956 hadnt admitted la`mentable to listing as “received” usage. It remained out of the EPD until Gimson put it in in 1977 as a subvariant. He was at least capable of according co-variant status to an entry as might be seen at his treatment of the two main versions of controversy. EPD 2006 maintains the Gimson picture as did LPD until 2008. Then it reversed the two main versions presenting vivid graphics to illustrate the findings of the 2007 on-line pronunciation preference poll contributed to by about 800 volunteers who indicated their geographical origins as Britain ie England, Wales, Scotland and the Channel Islands, but not Ireland. The respondents’ percentage of preference between the two alternatives was 72 to 28 in favour of la`mentable. It shd be clear that non-coincidence between the ordering of variants between EPD and LPD is not at all a matter of accuracy because the two works have not got identical underlying premises. The British order of preference is indicated by LPD as the same for American usage, a choice supported by MWO (Webster online). By contrast ODP parallels the EPD preferences. Some American stressings have changed less from the Victorian-era picture than British ones have. The only (˚) or chief versions they have are `adversary˚, `capitalist˚, `controversy˚, `disciplinary, `hospitable, `inventory, `laboratory, `mandatory˚, `urinal˚.  

Blog 184

The 12th of May 2009

English or Italian?

The other day I he’rd on BBC Radio 3 one of my favourite music presenters, James Jolly, introducing a recording of a glorious demanding soprano aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te, that had been written by Mozart specially as a farewell gift for a singer by the name of Nancy Storace with whom he performed it, playing a unique piano obbligato piano part along with the orchestra, at a concert for her in 1787 at the Vienna Burgtheater as she was about to leave for London. Being the meticulous presenter that he is, he’d judiciously consulted the BBC Pronunciation Unit to find what way of saying her name they recommended. It isnt in OBG (their Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation). He was told by them that some English-speakers say her name as if it were an English name /`stɒrɪs/ and others treat it as an Italian one (of course using some sort of moderate Anglicisation such as /stɔː`rɑːʧeɪ/). So he could take his choice. In the event he mentioned both possibilities. She was the famous singer who in 1786 “created” the leading part of Susanna in Mozart’s incomparable opera Le Nozze di Figaro.

In fact Nancy Storace’s surname was not of English-language origin so the appropriate pronunciation to give it, in the absence of a more or less universally agreed anglicisation, must surely be in a reasonably Italian manner. Some people may have been misled into imagining her surname was English by the fact that her first names were English as was the professional first name she went by, her pet name Nancy. It may well be that she or her father, a double-bass player, anglicised the family surname, as he is known to have done with his first name, while living in England. The Storaces gave her brother an English name too,  Stephen not Stefano. It’s a good thing they didnt call him Horace or there might have been even more confusion. The Storaces moved to Italy when Nancy was  thirteen. She lived there for five years and performed with great success in many of its opera houses before moving along with the company of Italian musicians to which she belonged to Vienna. Her father’s surname was a rather fragrant one, storace [sto`raːʧe] in Italian being a word for what in English is called storax or styrax a term of ultimately Greek derivation meaning an aromatic gum resin.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has the following:
Storace, Ann Selina [Nancy] (1765–1817), singer, was born on 27 October 1765 in London, the second and last child of Stefano (Anglicized to Stephen) Storace (d. 1783?) and his wife, Elizabeth (1739?–1821), the daughter of John Trusler of Bath and London. Her father was an Italian musician from a village near Naples, who had emigrated to England by 1747, and who worked in Bristol and Dublin before settling in London.

Nancy may well have been fluent in Italian before she got to Italy. Anyway, native English speakers find Italian one of the easiest languages to speak. Phonetically it presents relatively few problems. Not only do they make pretty good shots at saying Italian words but they’re usually better still at singing in Italian. This is because the things they most often come a cropper over in saying isolated words concern the stressings of polysyllables and the failure to use i and u as approximants (semivowels) where they dont represent vowels. The composer’s musical notation resolves these problems for them. They’re not going to sing fuoco as three syllables or abbiamo as four if those arnt the numbers of notes in the score. It doesnt take much effort to learn why even eg Gianni Schicchi is /ʤanni skikki/ and that’s a pitfall for many English speakers. OBG doesnt include it: which is mildly surprising coz in the past it’s been a favourite interview test word for would-be BBC announcers when they were required to have some idea of how to tackle Italian words. In the restaurant world you seem to be lucky if you hear people refer to a bruschetta as a /bru`sketə/: I’ve even heard an Italian restaurant proprietor say it contaminated by the English mistaken /ʃ/. If you’ve re’d this far you might well like to be directed to items 9.4 and 9.5 of our Main Articles section..

Blog 183

The 11th of May 2009

Aspiration Revisited

I’ve just been reminded of our recent discussions in Blogs 180 & 181 of some aspects of aspiration by hearing what I considered to be a very unusual pronunciation of the word bishopric as /ˈbɪʃ əp rɪk/. Those who know the Wells Longman Pronunciation Dictionary will probbly notice that I’ve quoted the word exactly as it’s transcribed in LPD3. So am I saying LPD got it wrong? Well not exactly but I’m afraid I prefer the word to be transcribed in the way it is in EPD as /ˈbɪʃ.ə.prɪk/ because I think the LPD way of syllabifying it may lead some users to presume that it’s current GB practice to say the /r/ as it’s normally uttered at the beginning of a syllable. In fact it’s, in my experience hitherto, invariably pronounced in this word devoiced by the aspiration effect which it gets from immediately following a voiceless plosive consonant which begins a stressed syllable. It’s true that the syllable in question, which is treated in EPD as I prefer, transcribed as /ˈbɪʃ.ə.prɪk/, is only moderately stressed. However, we may note that MWO (Webster Online) accords it a bracketed secondary stress mark thus \ˈbi-shə-(ˌ)prik\ tho the ODP American editor, usually a faithful Websterian, doesnt. The person whose pronunciation of the word attracted my attention I he’rd only briefly but he sounded very much like a native speaker of English. He sed the last syllable clearly like the word rick and not like prick. He was broadcasting from Israel being interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 morning programme “Sunday” as, I believe, some sort of a representative of British Jewry. Of course, he may have been influenced by awareness of the word’s etymology, the ric element having been derived from the Old English “ríce realm, province” cognate with the German word Reich. It seems pretty unlikely that he was influenced by the sort of delicacy that has made the word rooster so much commoner in America than here.

I have a similar sort of problem with LPD transcriptions like that of pastry /ˈpeɪs tri/ which suggests the appropriate length of the /eɪ/ but doesn’t satisfy me by failing to suggest that the last syllable either must or may be spoken as if it were /stri/. It’s my impression that it’s most often if not always given the unaspirated treatment as [sdri] rather than as somewhat  aspirated [tr̥i]. No dout we have here a case of the “ambisyllabicity”  of some consonants which can make lexicographers’ work something of a headache: these consonants can behave simultaneously as the final sound of one syllable and the first sound of the next syllable.

Another situation arises where this time I prefer the LPD to the EPD and MWO versions. LPD shows aspect  as /ˈӕsp ekt/ whereas EPD has /ˈӕs.pekt/. Here I see EPD gives the second syllable (by clear implication, tho the exact word isnt given a separate entry from henpeck) as it would that of henpecked /ˈhen.pekt/ in which aspiration of the /p/ is the only normal possibility. This causes me disquiet as does MWO with its version \ˈas-ˌpekt\. A case where I’m not happy with either of them is the word district. LPD has /ˈdɪs trɪkt/. EPD agrees showing it as /ˈdɪs.trɪkt/ (and  MWO as \ˈdis-(ˌ)trikt\). But I feel I’d have to syllabify it as /`dɪ.strɪkt/ if I were to avoid the aspirated /tr/ their version suggests. Similarly they all agree on transcribing outrage with the /t/ and the /r/ in separate syllables but, tho I don’t consider any misrepresentation is involved, I feel that /`aʊ.treɪʤ/ is a perfectly possible variant. Finally I’m amused to note that in EPD we find ostrich as /ɒs.trɪtʃ US ɑː.strɪtʃ/. I’m afraid that, tho some readers of the EPD may imagine that they’re being shown a difference between British and American usage here, I don’t believe that is what it is intended to convey for one moment. I think the American editor has made the better choice if you have to show only one syllabification. One can hardly dout that Daniel Jones and in his turn Gimson (and Kenyon & Knott) knew pretty well they'd be opening a can of worms if they undertook to show syllabifications — so made the more canny decision not to.

Blog 182

The 9th of May 2009

A Dog of a Stressing Problem

A couple of days ago I was searching Google for something — I’ve now completely forgotten what, as so often happens — when I alighted on a reference to the expression “eye teeth”. This was at a site which on occasion gives pronunciations in very acceptable IPA transcriptions. Thinking I’d like to hear the opinion of the writer on the pronunciation of the expression he was dealing with, I responded to the invitation at the site to make comments thus:
At this entry no indication is given as to whether the former or the latter of these two words is regarded as taking the principal stress.
I received the following reply:
I'm not at all sure either word has the principal stress. When I say it, at least, both words are stressed about equally.
My brief reply to that was something like:
It’s perfectly true that it’s possible to utter the two words with very nearly equal stressing but any final word of such a pair in lexical quoting is generally agreed to carry the greater degree of stress if only by virtue of bearing a (low falling) "nuclear" tone.

The problem we have here is that, tho all the three large pronunciation dictionaries and the OED all agree to represent it as fore-stressed ˈeye-teeth, I seem only to have ever he’rd it as ˈeye-ˈteeth. It’s not an expression that I’m personally in the habit of making use of. The OED spells the expression ˈeye-teeth with a hyphen. This was the practice of the writers in nine of the fifteen quotations which it gives as examples of the use of the term. The remaining six spelt it as two separate words with no hyphen: they were mostly the earliest ones, the first being dated 1580. One of them was a sentence from Somerset Maugham’s 1930 novel Cakes and Ale He'd give his eye-teeth to have written a book half as good. It’s only in this sort of context talking about being willing to give one’s eye teeth for something that I can recall ever hearing the expression used and I’m pretty sure that each time I've he’rd it it’s been stressed ˈeye `teeth. All the pronouncing dictionaries spell it solid as eyeteeth. None of them gives that sole stressing I’ve heard except for ODP: at its British entry as a second form.

My feeling is that the basic stress pattern is ˈeye`teeth but that, previously to the popularity of the expression to give one’s eye teeth in which the use of the stressing `eye teeth might well be rejected as not sounding right (seeming to suggest an inappropriate contrast with one’s other teeth), lexicographers’ acquaintance with it had been pretty exclusively in contexts where eye teeth were mentioned by contrast with other teeth and hence what is essentially a contrastive stressing has been been perceived as the unmarked one. It seems improbable that if the synonymous collocation canine teeth were much used in a similar way anyone would say they’d give their `canine teeth for something. This is one of those problems that beset pronunciation lexicographers that’s almost impossible to find a generally acceptable solution to.

Blog 181

The 7th of May 2009

Aspiration Again

In our last blog I referred to the Wells account of aspiration (and non-aspiration) which he had discussed in terms of GA and GB. He naturally confined his attention to ans’ring the question he was responding to in terms of these two varieties that the majority of his readers were likely to be most interested in (and anyway his remarks did apply to most native speakers’ usages) and to a comparison with Spanish. The only native speakers in any numbers who have different habits from the rest in this field are many speakers in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. They tend to attach word-final /p, t/ and /k/, with aspiration, to any closely following word beginning with a vowel. As to non-native speakers, I’ve tau’t many with Romance and Slavonic native-language backgrounds, for whom their home /p, t/ and /k/ were unaspirated but, perhaps because my pupils have most often been rather advanced learners, I dont recall having felt much inclined to raise the matter of any lack of aspiration on their part. Indeed the one thing I really have found myself commenting on from time to time has been their over-enthusiasm resulting in their failing to omit it from sequences like /sp, st, sk/. Some native-English speakers adopt aspiration of such sequences occasionally as a paralinguistic stylistic device used to express such feelings as exasperation. Then people may refer to them as “spitting” out the words. I seem to remember Margaret Thatcher as having that as a characteristic feature. The largest body of speakers I’ve noticed whose English is characterised by lack of the aspirations usual for most of us are many of those of the Indian subcontinent. A lot of them speak English with largely such completely native-like accents that it can tend to be almost the only feature of their speech that particularly registers with me. People like Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto are examples.

Aspiration matters dont cause many serious misunderstandings. For example no-one’s likely to mistake She was at ease for She was a tease or to imagine that Shakespeare wrote a play called All’s Well that Tends Well. If a picture was entitled A Tanker at Anchor it wd sound a little strange if it was referred to making it sound exactly like the same pair of words repeated. I have before now he’rd I got up at eight o’clock re’d aloud so that it sounded quaintly like I got a potato clock. (Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a clock which can run on the  electrochemical energy obtained by connecting it to a potato! Google will tell you how to make one for yourself.) Even young native-English-speaking children are quite aware of the effects of aspiration. The book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (OUP 1959) by Iona and Peter Opie quoted at page 86 the playground riddle: Why is a short negro like a white man? Answer: Because he’s not at all black. This little joke hinges on the irregular treatment the phrase not at all receives from most GB and many GA speakers. It has become so rhythmically unified in pronunciation that the /t/ of its word at has become “captured” onto the following word all so that the phrase becomes completely homophonous with not a tall.

This phenomenon was the subject of a very intresting paper entitled A ‘tenny’ rate by John Baldwin, who was for long a member of the UCL Phonetics Department, contributed (at pages 301 to 309) to a volume Studies in General and English Phonetics which I edited in 1995 for Routledge. It began by discussing a similar consonant transfer in the phrase at any rate to the one in not at all, again signalled by an irregular aspiration. It mentioned some similar very common pronunciations such as it is and it isnt as /ɪ `tɪz/ and /ɪ `tɪznt/. Only the Wells LPD of the big three pronouncing dictionaries includes these (at its entry for it). They were both included in my 1972 CPD. Another example too unusual to’ve been given in CPD but agen to be found, of the three big ones, only in LPD is the doubly irregular — because it involves elision of /h/ at the beginning of a strest syllable as well as consonant transfer — at-home. Whether as a noun or as an adverbial phrase (at home) it may still sometimes be he’rd as /ə`təʊm/. This was the regular usage of Winston Churchill. He cd be herd using it in a recording of a broadcast just before he used the words "Advance Britannia!" A parallel development, long unrecognisable as such because the word’s been written solid ever since its first appearance in the sixteenth century, is /ə`təʊn/ atone which incorporates an older pronunciation of the word one which has become replaced with the present /wʌn/ so that the spelling which we go on using for that word one today is no longer at all suitable. My remaining two examples are not to be found in any of the dictionaries, the first unsurprisingly because it isn’t common is whatever as /wɒ`tevə/ or /wə`tevə/; the second, very surprisingly not given in any of them because it’s arguably the predominant current GB usage, is /wiː`kend/ for weekend. A few of the above examples were borrowed from §4.3 of the main part of this website.