Archive 24 of JWL Blog


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23/12/2009Historical Wyn Dropping#240
16/12/2009Syllabic Plosives a Yes-Yes#239
14/12/2009A Reply re Certain Contractions#238
11/12/2009Elisions? Lor'!#237
06/12/2009Apostrophes and Contractions#236
04/12/2009The Prons of CINEMA and CHICKEN#235
02/12/2009Eva Sivertsen 1922 - 2009#234
01/12/2009Authors' Use of Contracted Spellings#233
29/11/2009The Sound and Spelling of 'IRON'#232
22/11/2009Certain American Pronunciations#231

Blog 240

The 23rd of December 2009

Historical Wyn Dropping

When I coined the term “yod-dropping” in the sev'nties it seemed to be a very convenient and very obvious term to apply to the elision of /j/ and particularly useful when making comparisons between different accents of English and different periods of its development. As far as publication was concerned, I first used it in 1971 in a contribution to English Language Teaching Journal. I’ve now much enlarged upon that article in the 18,000-or-so words of “The General American and General British Pronunciations of English” which is Item 1 of Section 3 on this website. I was surprised to realise that no-one seemed t've used the term, at least in print, prior to 1971 tho it has appeared since then notably in Wells’s Accents of English of 1982 which is quoted in the OED at the entry for 'yod' where the term 'yod dropping' is used.

Altho it’s not exactly unacceptable to use the term “w-dropping”, I can’t help feeling a preference for an expression that’s explicitly phonetic and not just as possibly a reference to orthography. In any case I feel a certain awkwardness about saying “/w/-dropping” aloud as  /`wə(ː) drɒpɪŋ/. So, as a parallelism with the borrowing of yod from Hebrew, I find it convenient at times to use for the close-back-rounded-approximant consonant sound the term wyn which I borrow from nearer home, specifically from the Runic alphabet “futhork” /`fuːθɔːk/.

Wyn-dropping is a very common process that goes back a long way. Already during the Old English period the early form hlāfweard  became hlāford which, with fewer changes than it really was to undergo, wdve become *loaf-ward, meaning something like bread-guardian, but is actually now the word lord. Compare semantic'ly breadwinner which retains the old sense of winner which preceded its current one of victor. Other words have had their wyn elided too but by contrast have kept the w in their orthodox spelling. The OE form of two was twā which is the form seen in the name of the ancient Scottish ballad The Twa Corbies (meaning The Two Ravens). The wyn of OE twā passed its lip-rounding on to the vowel it preceded and then, later-on, itself dropt out. The phonetic development was something like [twɑː → twɔː → twoː → twuː→ tuː].

The word sword (OE sweord) has remained pointlessly saddled with its original w in our so-frequently-mindless devotion to orthographic tradition. So has answer long after losing its wyn. The second element of answer we have in swear which, in its case, has kept its original wyn. The earliest meaning of answer was not simply a reply but a rebuttal ie a gainsaying or “gainswearing”. As regards the word swoon, its wyn is now restored to it but a couple of centuries ago it cd often be he'rd as /suːn/, a variant that in 1791 the influential, authoritarian John Walker no dou't helpt to drive out when he condem'd it. He did the same with swoop which he pontificated “must not be  pronounced exactly like soop” — not that he recognised any word soop; tho he did have a mysterious entry soopberry which he glossed only as “a plant”. OED has no trace of such a word! Walker didnt include in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary the forename Edward but if he had he'dve probably deplored the common eighteenth-century pronunciation /`edəd/ for it which was apparently the form that Nelson used.

Of course we still have dozens of common words, like wrap, wren, write and wrong which we continue to spell with an initial w for which no-one but a few dialect speakers has used a wyn since at least the 17th century. 

Placenames abound throughout Britain ending -wich and -wick most of which retain their spellings with w but have long dropped their wyns eg Alnwick,  Berwick,  Bromwich,  Chiswick, Greenwich, Harwich, Keswick, Norwich, Smethwick,  Warwick,  Woolwich. Some have restored their wyns if they ever lost them eg Droitwich, Hardwick, Ipswich, Nantwich, Sandwich and Lerwick. Surnames are more likely to have been re-spelt more phonetically as in the cases of Garrick and Crummle(s) the latter of which also exists as Cromwell.

It’s surprising that there seems to be no clear record of midwife ever losing its wyn. Tho Bradley in 1920 in OED1 at the entry W repeated the comment he made in OED1 at 1906 “in midwife the contraction (`mɪdɪf), formerly general, is now rarely heard”, OED2 in 1989 added the qualification “but no other dictionary of the period [presumably 1906] appears to record this variant” and indeed none of the numerous variant spellings of the word confirm Bradley’s claim. OED2 added  to Bradley’s remark “J. Wright Eng. Dial. Gram. (1905) 58/2 records the general disappearance of medial w in this word in regional dialect”. I personally suspect Bradley wasnt all that far wrong. On the other hand housewife certainly has lost its wyn in one pronunciation. It’s even separately developed new senses in its extreme reduction to hussy which is also sometimes spelt huzzy better reflecting its only usual pronunciation /`hʌzi/. Its earlier uses were not at all pejorative but it now means chiefly “an ill-behaved, pert, or mischievous girl; a jade, minx” (OED). 

(By the way, the EFL user may care to note that hussy is one of the very small group (the others are dessert, dissolve, hussar, possess, scissors) which are the sole common words-spelt-with-double-s that are always pronounced with /z/. One or two other words may be he'rd from various speakers with -ss- as /z/, eg pessimist, but these /z/ versions ar'nt  the clearly predominant usages.)

Blog 239

The 16th of December 2009

Syllabic Plosives a Yes-Yes

John Wells’s phonetic blog of the 25th of Nov 2009 “constraints on diacritics” contained the following:
Is “syllabic” only for consonants? Normally yes, and then only for nasals and liquids. Some students imagine that looked should be transcribed lʊkd̩ (with “syllabic d”), but they are confusing phonetics with morphology. Syllabic plosives are a no-no.
It’s this last sentence I shd like to discuss because it’s only that which I disagree with him about. Wells himself gives in LPD a weakform /ʃd/ of should. As did Jones and still does Roach in EPD. I’m quite sure that most English-speakers have at least one syllabic plosive in their repertoire. I shdnt deny that such plosives are either rather, or in some cases extremely, unusual and praps never used at all by a minority. I’m only treating of plosives in stop form ie not at all released in the normal way or, so far as they can be sed to be released, only so via a following lateral or nasal consonant. I have in mind items like [ˈsp̍ːˎpraɪzɪŋ] ‘Surprising!’ where the first [p] isnt released at all. This [p̍], the syllabic peak of the first syllable, wd seem most likely to occur in a prosodic context in which it’s high in pitch and the following tonic syllable [praɪ] is falling. This first syllable has its fairly long fricative [s] cut off sharply by the immediately following lip-closure so I see no reason for accepting any suggestion that a schwa intervenes. Compare successful as /sk̩`sesfl/.   

 A syllabic [t̩] (Unicode or browser may not site the syllabicity diacritic nicely in such a case) can occur very similarly. I find myself perfectly able to say [ˈs t̩ ˎdaʊn], at least to my dog (‘Sit down’), and [ˈsk̩ ˎkjʊːrəti] ‘security’ in a contemptuous style. With a different initial fricative I may say (in a bad temper) [ˈfk̩ˎkraɪseɪk] ‘for Chrissake’, [ˈðb̩ˎbɑːstəd] ‘the bastard’ or [ˈfd̩ˎdɒŋkiz jɜːz] ‘for donkey’s years’, [fg̍ˎgɒdseɪk] ‘for Godsake’, and at least hesitantly [aɪ.ʃt̩ `ˏθɪŋk ˳səʊ] ‘I should think so’, [`ʃd̩n̩tˏaɪ] ‘`ˏShouldn’t ̥I’. Other examples, some of which some people may prefer to take to involve schwas, are [ˈgb̩ˏmɔːnɪŋ] ‘Good morning’, [ˈsb̩ˎstӕnʃl] ‘substantial’ and, for Americans, [ˈsg̍ˎʤest] ‘suggest’. The kind of example where a syllabic [d̩] precedes a syllabic /n̩/ seems to me to be not very graceful but nor very uncommon eg [`ӕksd̩n̩t] ‘accident’ and [`prezd̩n̩t] ‘president’. Finally there is one such word that I think most speakers use in counting-sequences like 101,102,103 that is [hᴧndrd̩n̩ (wᴧn &c)] ‘hundred and’. This was something I mentioned in our Blog 131 qv.

I also feel myself at home with syllabic /d/s after /r/ in hatred, sacred, Mildred etc.

PS I forgot one o' the best known items of this kind ie the [k̩kju] of one pronunciation of Thank you.

Blog 238

The 14th of December 2009

A Reply re Certain Contractions

In a comment on an aside of mine in my Blog 236 on Apostrophes and Contractions, viz It’s perfectly commonplace to hear “it was” and “it is” with the weakform /t/ for “it”, although mainly only stressed and in initial positions in prosodic units’, at  the 9th of December 2009 John Wells thaut up, for his blog entitled ’t oughtn’t to be, two very good examples of the kind of sentence I had in mind. These I now quote with added tono-phonemic transcriptions by me indicating what I me'nt:
1) (Why are you bringing that old matter up?)
 It ˈwas a ˈlong time a\/go, | after \all. / `twɒz ə `lɒŋ `taɪm əˎˏgəʊ |ɑːftər `ɔːl/
(2) Complaining about the cold?
 It ˈis \/winter, you know. / `tɪz ˋ ˏwɪntə, jə ˳nəʊ/
John continued:
Would it be “perfectly commonplace” to hear ˈtwɒz in (1)? No, it wouldn’t. The usual BrE pronunciation would surely be ɪʔ ˈwɒz. In colloquial style the it might disappear entirely, leaving just ˈwɒz. But ˈtwɒz, with ... /t/, is surely very stylistically marked, belonging in a mock, faux-antique style, just like its written equivalent ’twas. 

I’m afraid I’m not in the least inclined to modify my comment in the light of this flat contradiction but I must point out that, tho I don’t wish to contest his judgment that the “usual” (GB) pronunciation wd be ɪʔ ˈwɒz, the expression I used was “perfectly commonplace”. I’m confident that, altho many expressions like /tɪz `nɒt/ and /tɪz `wɪntə/ cd well be described as “stylistically marked, belonging in a mock, faux-antique style”, prob'bly however uttered, the kind of expression I’ve tried to specify excludes */`tɪz nɒt/ but not /`tɪznt/. Current usage doesnt admit of eg */twɒz `ˏnɒt/ ie of unstressed /twɒz/  and even /twəz `ˏnɒt/ sounds unusual but /`ˏtwɒznt/ doesnt seem at all impossible. They may not be part of John’s idiolect and there may be great numbers like him but I’m completely confident that things like /`tɪznt/ in ordinary unselfconscious conversational contexts have very often been heard by him and countless others without their noticing any impression of archaism at all. Of course, for the written English form ’Tisn’t, an archaic effect is indisputable.

I’ve often thaut how curious it was that the forms ’tis, ’twas and a number of others (including /`tɔːtnt/!) shdve disappeared from Late Modern English written usage but partly survived in speech. I believe this came about because, when in the great majority of situations /tɪz/ and /twɒz/ etc had fallen out of spoken use, their appearance in writing came to be so strongly archaic-looking that people cou’dnt bring themselves to believe that it was “correct” to write the “archaic” form in the small number of cases when it wdve cropped up for th'm actually corresponding to phonetic values. 

    The history of the competition between it’s and ’tis was conveniently summarised in the conclusion to her valuable 18-page article “Variants of contraction: The case of it’s and ’tis” in the annual ICAME Journal No. 28 of 2004 (the abbreviation is for The International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English) by Kirsti Peitsara of the University of Helsinki thus:
Contractions of it and be begin to appear in written prose in the early 17th century, first in texts assumed to reflect spoken language. The earlier variant ’tis holds its ground until around 1800 as the established form, though it’s is occasionally found... There is a radical change in preference for it’s around 1800... it’s had found its place earlier as an analogical variant fitting the general pattern of enclisis which had become established in English. ’Tis survives in the south-western varieties of British English...
Her full text is to be found at
which, by the way, didnt work for me with Safari and Firefox. I had to paste it into Google! I’m very grateful to Amy Stoller for drawing my attention to it.

PS The Brideshead Revisited 1981 tv production (still available on dvd) has a good example of modern use of ’tis: `There ˏ’tis. Spoken by Bridie.)
Antonia Fraser reading her book Must You Go on BBC Radio 4 on January the 14th 2009 sed perfectly clearly /twəz ə fʊl haʊs/ no dou't reading what she'd written as It was a full house.


Blog 237

The 11th of December 2009

Elisions? Lor'!

John Maidment in his blog has been posing questions on the topic of “synchronic elisions”. This is not always a completely easy thing to identify. If a person hesitates between two versions of a word he can’t necessarily be sed to be exac'ly dropping the phoneme that constitutes the diff'rence. I often say /ɒfn/ but I also often say /ɒftən/ perhaps sometimes being prompted by seeing its spelling with t or on another occasion perhaps harmonising with an interlocutor. (And being a free-spelling enthusiast I offen write offen.)

Anyway, if a consonant disappears but “remains” in an assimilated form which is another phoneme, that is presumably outside this discussion. So we shan’t be considering the many items like /`ӕpsɪs/ for abscess and occasional ones like /`ɒttɪmɪst/ for optimist. Likewise if a nasal consonant disappears but its ghost remains in the nasalisation of the vowel it followed. I take it also that he’s not int'rested merely in words as pronounced in their lexical forms but does wish to consider even extreme colloquialisms. I shall only be contributing some comments on GB (General British pronunciation).

He sez: “Can any other plosives [than /t/&/d/] be elided in English? ... I can’t think of plausible examples of the elision of [b] or [g]...” [having instanced /k/ in asked and /p/ in tempt & temperature]. An answer is that they do occur in the sequences /mbr/, /mbl/,  /ŋgr/ and /ŋgl/. The most obvious example of current /b/ elision I can think of is that many people who have as their target pronunciation for subpoena /səb`piːnə/ actually frequently tend to say /sə`piːnə/. Quite a few people say, at times at least, Cambridge as /`keɪmrɪʤ/, embryo as /`emriəʊ/, remembering as /rɪ`memrɪŋ/, assembly as /ə`semli/, grumbling as /`grᴧmlɪŋ/, English as /`ɪŋlɪʃ/, dangling as /`dӕŋlɪŋ/, angry as /`ӕŋri/, Ingrid as /`ɪŋrɪd/ etc. A word with an unusual elision of /b/ is able, in very casual style /`eɪ.l/, which is actually more offen in somewhat less casual style /`eɪ.wl/. Another pretty common but very colloquial example is /`ɒvɪsli/ as a form of obviously which will've been arrived at via the non-colloquial form /`ɒbvɪsli/. Another extreme colloquialism, whose standard status wd no dou't be challenged by many, is /`gɪmi/ from /`gɪbmi/ a variant of /`gɪv mi/ give me. Similarly /`semti/ is a (usually combinative) form derived from /`sebmti/ which is a common variant of /`sevnti/ seventy. This is to be he'rd from no dou't a minority of GB speakers but is very much the rule in South Wales English: I've he'rd it from that most august of BBC television news presenters the agreeably Welsh-sounding Huw Edwards.  It seems more likely to me that the intermediate stages I’ve suggested occurred than that the fricatives were directly elided.

Elisions of /b/ etc arise from de-geminations as when /`prɒbbli/ becomes /`prɒbli/ for probably and /`hedres/ for head-dress. With number as /`nᴧmmə/ we have only assimilation but non-lexically we can get /nᴧmə `wᴧn/ for number one. So with remember as /rɪ`memmə/: very casually remember when... can become /mem wen.../. He also sez: “So what is so special about [t] and [d] and are they similarly treated in other languages?”  I shan’t offer any reply to the second half of his question but in English they chiefly disappear from clusters. An exception is the elision of /d/ at the end of the expletive Lord! This is perhaps for a GB speaker best classed as a quotation from Cockney as with /ɑː ʔə məʊ/ for half a mo(ment). This last is the kind of fricative elision he refers to when he sez “About the only example I can come up with [of fricative elision] is the pronunciation of afternoon as [ɑːʔənuːn] and that is either used jocularly or is confined to a few accents”. Only Cockney perhaps. Not much of a list of elidable fricatives but there are in GB the case of "of " which offen loses its /v/ in items like /kʌp ə `tiː/ cup of tea and /hɑːpɑːs/ for half past with its common elision of its /f/ (not to mention its /t/).

He doesnt mention elisions of /l/. There is the universally common form /`əʊni/ of only (many speakers never say /`əʊnli/ unless it’s phrase-final) and items like /`ləʊninəs/ for loneliness, /`gəʊləs/ for goalless. The phoneme /n/ is more often than not omitted from the sequence /-nm-/. When its syllable is climactic it frequently assimilates to /-mm-/ but English speakers mostly don’t manage even that in unstrest syllables such as  in /`gᴧvəmənt/, universally he’rd for government, and very often in /ɪn`vaɪrəmənt/ for environment, /ɪm`prɪzəmənt/ for imprisonment etc. Most speakers immediately began saying /ti`ӕnəmən/ for Tiananmen (Square) when it became suddenly notorious.

Of course h-dropping (the history of which as a sociological phenomenon gets exhaustive — not to say exhausting — treatment covering about fifty pages of Lynda Mugglestone’s 2003 book Talking Proper), r-dropping and yod-dropping are very well documented. Perhaps less so is "wyn-dropping", as I like to call elision of /w/, but I’ll leave this to on another occasion. Certainly very much less so is s-dropping which has universally for a generation or more been frequently occurring word-finally to all words ending -sts but is yet to receive a mention in any of the many accounts of English pronunciation I’ve consulted. This offering hasnt de'lt with all the GB consonants leave alone the vowels but we shall look forward to seeing what more ponderings along these lines John Maidment is going to come up with.

Blog 236

The 6th of December 2009

Apostrophes and Contractions

1. The apostrophe was first introduced into English spelling in the 17th century and not fully established until late in the 18th century. Its later use has been mostly as the sign of the genitive ie the possessive of nouns. However, the pronoun genitives his, hers, its, ours, yours don’t receive it, though one’s does. Among general lexical items there is just one really common word, o’clock, which has been in use since about 1720. Otherwise apostrophes occur only in a small number of mainly either unusual or old-fashioned expressions including cat-o’-nine-tails, Hallowe’en, Hop-o’-my-thumb, Jack o’ lantern, ne’er-do-well, sou’wester, Tom o’ Bedlam, Will o’ the wisp etc. The French word entr’acte was borrowed in the 19th century with its original apostrophe.
2. An apostrophe is a feature of a number of, mainly Irish, surnames such as A’Beckett, A’Court, O’Boyd and O’Day and a very small number of, mainly Scottish, placenames including Besses o’ th’ Barn [LPD \ˌbesɪz əð ˈbɑːn\!], Brig o’ Turk, Bo’ness, Castle Oer, Irlams o’ the Height, John o’ Gaunt, John o’ Groats, Kirk o’ Shotts etc. Informally, it's occasionally used to abbreviate some names eg Scarboro’ (for Scarborough). It’s now archaic in items like Inns o’ Court, man o’ war, Isle o’ Wight, even though speakers’ elision of /v/ is occasionally heard in mainly informal utterances of such expressions.

3. Apostrophes are commonly seen in the representation of dialectal and plebeian speech and to some extent in verse. Some of these last uses include e’en, e’er, o’er, thro’ (ie even, ever, over, through) and also ’tis and ’twas. It’s curious that these final two items should now never ordinarily be used in representing conversation. It’s fairly commonplace to hear “it was” and especially “it is” with the weakform /t/ for “it”, although mainly only stressed and in initial positions in prosodic units. Certain abbreviated forms of words are, or in the past have been, indicated as such by chiefly more pedantic authors eg ’bus,’cello, ’cute (this was George Eliot’s representation of the aphetic form which has nowadays shed its apostrophe and acquired a distinct meaning from the original acute), ’phone, ’till etc.

4. A few nautical terms that are fairly well known include bo(’)s’n and fo’c’sle. Our greatest writer of historical nautical stories, Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000), was remarkably sparing in his use of contracted spellings using eg regularly forecastle in full. An apostrophe would be necessary if any writer wished to represent the nautical shortened version of top gallant as t’gallant. OED2 has no record of such a spelling but it gives the subvariant pronunciation /tə`gӕlənt/. Similarly it has /`tɒps(ə)l, `sprɪts(ə)l  & `steɪs(ə)l / as subvariants of topsail, spritsail & staysail. OED3 gives /`meɪnsl/ as its first version (in frequency) of mainsail. None of these have OED-attested syncopated spellings either.

5. OED2 listed the spelling <’cause> labelling it awkwardly as dialect. This form of the word is of course very much a colloquialism. So is, in contemp'ry usage, “scuse” inste·d of “excuse”. The pronunciation /`skjuːz mi/ is not at all perceived as anything like offensively casual. In the 15th and 16th centuries “scuse” was regarded as not undignified and could be used in serious verse. A similar pattern can be seen in the way /əm/ has become generally regarded as an exclusively colloquial usage and is always represented by <’em> with the implication that it is to be taken as a casual weakform of the word them (which it actually is not, in strict historical terms). OED3 has a headword “p'raps” for the colloquial form of perhaps.

6. For the EFL learner who is aiming at a natural conversational pronunciation uses of contracted spellings representing verb forms are quite important because they reflect some striking changes that have occurred to conversational usage in the last century or two. Authors who wrote before the present era and contemporary writers who depict the imagined speech forms of bygone ages are usually extremely unsuitable to serve as EFL models. Although all contemporary authors generally make use of some colloquial contractions in representing conversations most do so rather erratically. Some are highly erratic, as we saw in Blog 233 regarding the practice of Barbara Pym. They may frequently write things like eg “he is not” which suggests a spoken form which, EFL users shd take careful notice, never occurs in present-day ordinary unemphatic purely conversational usage. The pronunciation such a phrase suggests, when it occurs in less ordinary styles, is more deliberate than a just normally emphatic version. It’s thus best avoided altogether by the EFL learner because it may suggest impatience, exasperation or the like. Both “he isn’t” and “he’s not” can be uttered perfectly emphatically. 

7. It might be thaut that playwrights wd be at some pains to make the way they wanted lines spoken by using contractions carefully but that isnt at all necessarily so. To quote the sort of thing I wrote in my Guide to English Pronunciation in 1969, an author is likely to rely on his actors to use the appropriate forms rather than bother to show them explicitly. For example, altho Harold Pinter usually contracts the spelling of will whenever he wants a weakform to be used, even on occasion after substantives eg “roads’ll” (The Room p. 106), John Osborne writes eg Cliff will be back and what you will be going through which could not possibly be spoken with strongforms in their contexts (pp 33 & 60 of Look Back in Anger). Similarly, anyone who cares to compare published transcripts of unscripted interviews or printed versions in newspapers of reported remarks with recordings of the originals will find plenty of discrepancies between their spellings and the speech used. It’s not unusual to see the same quotation contracted in a newspaper headline but expanded when it recurs in the report itself. 

8. There are 23 contractions consisting of fixed compound words of which the first element is an auxiliary verb and the second elment is <n’t>.  Some of these are now tending to obsolescence viz daredn’t, usedn’t and perhaps mayn’t. This last appeared in the EPD until 1977 only as /meɪnt/. The now generally recognised variant form /meɪənt/ was apparently first recorded in my CPD in 1972. American usage has more completely shed such forms. Besides these 23 contractions in each of which the adverbial particle not has historically-speaking coalesced with an auxiliary verb, there are 30 or so pronoun-verb contractions. Full lists of these contractions are given at §§4 & 5 of Section 4.7 on this  website.

Blog 235

The 4th of December 2009

The Prons of CINEMA and CHICKEN

John Wells gets lots of challenging queries and gives many int'resting answers to them. One he replied to on the third of December concerned the pronunciation of cinema with final /-ɑː/. The questioner asked:
Is this pronunciation becoming more common, and is it part of some form of wider change of pronunciation (ie does it involve more words than just "cinema")?
His reponse was
The ɑː at the end of "cinema" is a well-known variant. But I have no statistics about whether or not it is becoming more common. I don't think this particular alternation applies to any other words.
There’s mention of this word at §4.3.5 on this website which contains a comment which will be seen to be in perfect agreement with this answer and may int'rest EFL users:

Although there are thousands of words and names in the English vocabulary which end in unstressed syllables having the spelling -a, there is apparently only one which can, for quite a number of people, take /ɑ:/ instead of schwa. That is the word cinema ... Compare the word rush-hour whose pronunciation coincides exactly with the common EFL distortion of Russia, a word normally by General British speakers pronounced with a simple vowel or at least a monosyllable as its latter element, /`rᴧʃɑː/... Children have fun with such items posing riddles to each other like, using of course the abnormal comically pedantic-sounding pronunciation /`dɒgmɑː/, "What is a dogma?" Answer: "A bitch with a litter of puppies". (Ma is a well-known though inelegant abbreviation of Mama ie Mother.)

Wells added
The -ː form is therefore a bit of a mystery. I remember noticing Gimson using that pronunciation and thinking it was odd, since I myself say -mə.
Gimson was born in 1917. A lady very well known to me born in 1934 regularly uses the /ɑː/ version. I have the schwa one. The /ɑː/ variant doesnt seem to me to be gaining ground much. The earliest appearance of it in print known to me was in the 1937 edition of the Daniel Jones EPD. No use of it by Americans has to my knowledge ever been recorded. The current EPD still has it as a variant. The Oxford DP doesnt record it for GA or for GB.

On the second of December Wells was asked for comment on the pronunciation of chicken. The dictionaries are all agreed that in GB it’s usually /`ʧɪkɪn/ but most indicate variants with both /-ən/ and syllabic /n/. I think this last is very uncommon as an isolate version. I’ve certainly he'rd people, who I shd classify as GB speakers, who use /-ən/ but it always strikes me as uncommon. As Wells pointed out, neither Jones nor Gimson ever recognised it. It’s the usual GA form. Wells added to his response to his  questioner who’d sed in effect that he found the /ɪ/ version something of a mystery:
For me the mystery is not so much the fact that the weak vowel in chicken is usually ɪ as the fact that the same is NOT true of thicken, stricken, quicken, sicken. They all have ə. I would guess that for most BrE speakers chicken ˈtʃɪkɪn does not rhyme with thicken ˈθɪkən, and I have no idea why that should be the case. Given the identical spelling and the similar morphology (a fairly transparent -en suffix), you would expect them to have the same vowels.

I’m afraid that the identical spelling and the similar morphology arnt the most pertinent considerations here. The word chicken comes down to us from Old English since when the spellings of it, except for some aberrations in the 14th and 15th centuries, have all been with its original -en or occasionally, before our orthography became quite so regularised, with the phonetic updatings -in or -yn. The comparably written words thicken, quicken and sicken are from the different word class of verbal infinitives and thereby have a suffix with a different phonetic history. In addition stricken, as a past participial form, has another history. Dicken(s) seems to have yet another. The -en of chicken is an ancient diminutive suffix which seems to survive otherwise only in kitten and maiden. In those the unstressed vowel, coming between two alveolar closures, has mainly been elided. It’s safer therefore not to think in terms of a single “fairly transparent -en suffix”. I shd think that the reason a small minority of GB speakers have acquired the schwa they use in /`ʧɪkən/ is that for them it has undergone a common type of further weakening-by-centralisation most GB speakers, unlike our American cousins, havnt embraced at least as yet.

Blog 234

The 2nd of December 2009

Eva Sivertsen 1922 - 2009

Eva Sivertsen, who was born at Trondheim, the northernmost of Norway’s four major cities, on the 8th of July 1922 has died in a hospital there on the 22nd of November. She was undou'tedly the most significant Norwegian figure in the field of English phonetics since Henry Sweet’s fr'end Johan Storm. She re'd English at the University of Oslo in 1951 producing a PhD thesis on a comparison of Cockney with “RP” phonology. The person there to whom she expressed special gratitude was its longtime Professor of English the Dane Paul Christophersen. She began collecting her data in London in 1949 and continued doing so until 1956 enjoying a cordial relationship with University College London Phonetics Department whose traditions she acknowleged to have provided her with the basis for her early studies in the subject especially in regard to the works of Jones and Kingdon.

 She produced in 1960 her most remarkable work Cockney Phonology (pp xiii & 280) which was published by the Oslo University Press. Although she had no strong connection with any US university, she was plainly deeply impressed by the ideas of Charles F. Hockett the dynamic scholar from Ohio who, while she was elaborating her materials in the fifties, produced two brilliant new works in his Manual of Phonology and Course in Modern Linguistics. These became the inspiration for the basic framework of her book which was, as she said, “mainly an impressionistic articulatory study”.
When in 1957 the Eighth (four-yearly) International Congress of Linguists had adopted Oslo as its venue she was a key person in its organisation and subsequently single-handedly edited its large volume of Proceedings. She became widely in demand to sit on a variety of national and international committees, councils and boards, as president in some cases. In the sixties she found time to produce a volume on phonology that cd be re'd by Norwegian students in their own language Fonologi (1967). She he'ded the Department of English at Trondheim University from 1960 to 1969 and then began combining that professorship with administrative posts at her university that culminated in her going as high as was possible by becoming its Rektor.

Her work as he'd of the Department of English me'nt that, besides her devotion to phonetics and phonemics, she maintained an avowed int'rest in “TEFL” (the teaching of English as a “foreign” language) as well as English grammar and general linguistics. At this period she wrote very little other than items for internal circulation like the booklet she produced for her students eliminating some of the complexities she didnt favour of the O'Connor-&-Arnold pedagogical treatment of English intonation. 

She was in many ways a very ascetic and intense personality as was witnessed by the punishing fitness regimes she imposed on herself. Yet she cou'd truly relax. I remember with pleasure the night in 1970 she came to dinner at the house where I lived up on the hills above Oslo when she was not at all put out by the, to my wife and myself embarrassing, circumstance that she had no sooner arrived than a fuse blew plunging everybody into complete darkness for some minutes. There was more hilarity when the plates arrived at the dinner-table having somehow become excessively heated. She was very kind to me personally, undertaking to read the manuscript of the book I had written on Glamorgan Spoken English. She offered to commend it for publication to a board on which she sat but we both knew that it badly needed a good deal of polishing first. I was by then too wrapt up in other enterprises to find the patience to do that and it has remained unpublisht and only seen by a few int'rested scholars to whom I’ve lent a copy. Eva Sivertsen lived a very full life in which she never married. It’ll be a long time before she’s forgotten.

Blog 233

The 1st of December 2009

Authors' Use of Contracted Spellings

An author whose books I quite enjoy is Barbara Pym. I imagine that she c'd well have composed th'm sitting at a typewriter, a situation in which alterations are more difficult to effect than they wou’d be for someone writing by hand or using a word processor. If you’re thinking about exactly what to have your character say at some point you may well have to slow down in order to weigh your choices and this may lead you to type a less concise version of a phrase than the speaker wd normally use in a real-life situation. I find myself quite offen reading over things I’ve written and feeling that they’re too stiff compared with my ideas of what I feel to be a good representation of how I'd be saying th'm.

Poor Barbara was particularly ineffectual in her use of conversational contractions. For me this is mildly disquieting because she is so often either tryingly ambiguous in that I’m left wond’ring whether a cert'n character is me'nt to be represented as displaying a markedly stiffly verbal manner or not. I also find it disagreeable when the failure to use an appropriate contracted spelling means that the text cou'dn’t possibly represent as shown something uttered in real life by a person of the kind it’s assigned to. This makes it likewise very unsatisfactory for reading aloud without considerable efforts of interpretation on the part of the reader. Of course for narration the formality of a mainly contractionless style is completely normal but I’ve taken for examples of her undesirable stylistic failings only items of dialogue from one of her most successful novels the admirable Excellent Women prefixing to each the number of the page in its 1980 Penguin Books edition. The largest numbers of uncolloquialisms occur in her use of will but many other examples involve other auxiliaries, parts of the verb to be, the negative particle etc where no sort of insistent or contradictive stress on them wd be appropriate in their contexts. Some of them might just possibly be charitably taken to be prompted by imagined rhetorical pauses etc. Illustrative examples like the following cdve been given in considerably greater numbers.

17 She is an anthropologist.
26 once he is here
135 It is not so very unusual.
89 They are just like
164 I suppose you are glad to...
235 I know what you are looking at
36 Oh, you will find it deadly dull.
42 I think we will knock off for tea.
65 I think you will like it
76 we are giving it ... It will be frightfully dull
82 It will be our turn soon.
94 Oh, this will do
110 he will help her
152 I will let you know if there are any developments.
154 so that you will be able
164 I suppose you will have to
218 I wonder who they will be? ... they will be people who will come to our church.
221What will you do after we’ve gone?
185 I expect he has forgotten...
17 He has been in Italy.
157 I had always thought
109 that you have lost 
127 that he would marry me
136 people I have met
138 I think we had better have some sherry.
145 Anybody else would have done the same.
167 You have seen him ... Perhaps I had better get down to writing that letter...
185 Oh, I expect he has forgotten...
191 I had better come back to the vicarage
202 I have got some meat to cook.
208 If he had wanted to marry me he could have asked me.
234 I should not have been able to entertain you as I should have liked.
45 She felt she did not like to approach me                                          

She’s by no means completely stiff all the time but just constantly highly erratic or, as one might say, at best untidy and at worst chaotic. She’s capable of writing something as unstiff as 156 Just wait till he’s married and you’ll see. Some of her stiffnesses are hardly to be criticised because unfortunately they’re very widely conventionally condoned and thus preferred to more realistic’ly natural alternatives eg 145 would have for would’ve, 208 could have for could’ve, 234 should have for should’ve, 152 there are for there’re, 218 who will for who’ll, 221 what will for what’ll. Oddly enough she on one occasional actually produces a fairly unconventional colloquial spelling, at 197, what’ve you got to say. Also she offen uses contractions in narration. I offer this discussion now not as anything complete in itself but as a beginning on a topic I hope to develop in due course. In the meantime EFL teachers may wish to consider the unrealistic versions quoted above as materials for types of possible exercises for giving practice to their students, either by writing using phonemic transcription or as items to be re'd aloud, in the recognition of the differences between what appears in conventional written English and what constitutes the normal corresponding spontaneous spoken usage.

Blog 232

The 29th of November 2009

The Sound and Spelling of 'IRON'

The successful political-sketch-writer for the UK Guardian newspaper, Simon Hoggart, has been making another of his ill-natured, ill-judged and ill-informed attacks on the pronunciation of pri'minister Gordon Brown saying, in what he jokily referred to as “Gordon Brown's strange pronunciations, part 87”, he seems to be the only person in the English-speaking world who pronounces the letter "r" in "iron", thus: "cast eye-ron promise". It brings you up short and makes it hard to concentrate on what follows.

John Wells, putting him firmly in his place, sed in his blog of the 23rd of November “Gordon Brown is of course far from being ‘the only person in the English-speaking world who pronounces the letter “r” in “iron”’... What is unusual about Brown’s pronunciation ... is that he pronounces the word as spelt, i-ron ˈaɪ rən. So for him it rhymes with Byron...I don’t know whether Brown’s pronunciation of this word is shared by some or all Scots. Perhaps someone will tell us.” There were numbers of comments most of which, as so often from those whom bloggers optimisticly offer space to, when not palpably silly, were depressingly worthless especially because of being mostly anonymous. One reader was clearly of the opinion that many Scots have Brown’s form of the word. Another had a look at the SED (University of Leeds Survey of English Dialects 1962-71) and found places in Lincolnshire that had the /`aɪrən/ type. In fact SED recorded occurrences of it in most counties from there up to the Scottish border and over to Lancashire. Another commenter referred to Andrew Marr who is one of sev’ral well known persons with traces of Scottish influence in their speech who have seemed to me, too, to be saying /`aɪrən/. Ming Campbell is another, I think.

Anyway, what has long particu'ly int'rested me is that “iron” is the only word containing the letter sequence “-ro-” (or for that matter “-ra-, -ri-” or “-ru-”) that has no /r/ in its pronunciation in General British or in any other low-rhoticity variety of English pronunciation. I’ve often pondered over why this word shd be unique in that way. The clue turned out to be the fact that various words, especially those involving r-sounds, have in the past undergone “metathesis”, the term which in linguistics is used for exchange of position by two consecutive phonemes and the word Wells rightly applied to the development of iron. From various centuries before the 19th, when pronunciations were not so fixed and codified as later, we can find in the OED pairs of variants like acorn & acron, auburn & abroun, cauldron & cawdroun, children & childern, environ & inviorn, pattern & pattren etc. H C K Wyld in his History of Modern Colloquial English, using a variety of post-medieval sources not employed by the OED, quoted Katherine as Katturn among other items. Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary in 1791 had entries that included at apron the recommendation that it was to be pronounced only as if it were spelt apurn and similarly saffron only as if spelt saffurn. At the entry for hundred Walker indicated /`hᴧndred/ for “solemn” use but  /`hᴧndəd/ for colloquial. But things were changing. For citron he recommended /`sɪtən/ in 1791 but changed that to /`sɪtrən/ in 1797 in his second edition. For iron, for which OED has numerous spellings like ierne up to the 16th century, he only had our current version. My conclusion was, then, that the unique present spelling-to-sound relationship seen in the word iron is to be accounted for simply by its being the sole survivor of a number of words with similar metatheses.

PS Other references to (alleged) idiosyncratic pronunciations are to be found at blogs 49, 55 and 197.  The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names of 1983 gave for the Scottish placename Irongray, a small town some miles northwest of Dumfries, only the transcription /ˈaɪərəngreɪ/. 

Blog 231

The 22nd of November 2009

Certain American Pronunciations

On Tuesday the 17th of November 2009 John Wells wrote
some Americans (they seem to be mostly Californians) report that they feel themselves to be using the FLEECE vowel in ... kiːŋ, striːŋ...
I can’t say that I myself have ever observed this in regard to the kind of monosyllabic words he quoted but I’ve certainly noticed on occasion some US speakers pronouncing the -ing suffix so. I’ve not found any reference to this “mysterious matter” in older writers such as Kenyon, C K Thomas, Kurath or Bronstein. The only place I’ve came across mention of it has been by the remarkable pronunciation editor Edward Artin (who was born in 1905) in the groundbreaking 1961 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. The current Merriam-Webster editors understandably don’t allow space to this usage in their useful online edition. Artin showed close-vowel variant forms not of string, king or link but only of the -ing ending (with his “ē” symbol as in words like street). He didnt regularly show the close vowel at every one of the very numerous suffix occurrences eg not at coming, doing, railing or singing but he did give it at awning, hearing, being, viking and ski-ing. I presume this was so not because these latter words were recognised as behaving differently but as an economy of sorts. He referred to a similar procedure in another context as adopted to “hold down the number of variants in transcriptions”.

On this website in my article ‘The General American and General British Pronunciations of English’ at §3.1.28d I mentioned that the feature could be heard from Nixon, a Californian. I also remarked that the Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, an Illinois originary once, using it in company with his GA "soft" /t/ (or shou’d it better have been described as a /d/?) in the word coating, led me momentarily to think I’d heard the word codeine

Incident'ly, I’m struck by the way in the present century actors on both sides of the Atlantic have generally improved their performance of each other’s accents. In the old days one used to shudder at the thought of a Hollywood film portraying the speech of English people. Their Cockney attempts were usually particularly blud-curdling. Of course there were acceptable ones and plenty of ex-pat Brits for any parts requiring British accents.

I’ve also been struck by how various American actors, especially those with upper class New England accents, have matched perfectly “RP” phoneme distributions and melodics etc as far as one cd hear but seemed to have styles of some sort, maybe rather subtle voice quality features, which sounded unmistakeably American. My favourite actress in this category was Groucho Marx’s regular amorous prey Margaret Dumont but serious ones cd be heard in films like the Olivier Pride and Prejudice.

This reminds me of the hilariously inadvisable disclosure by Daniel Jones in the 1917 EPD1 (p.ix) “Several American teachers (mostly from New York and the North-Eastern part of the United States) have ... informed me, somewhat to my surprise, that RP or RP with slight modifications would be a suitable standard for teaching in American schools”.

Anyway let’s just quote a couple of recent examples of really good uses of Brit accents. Anne Hathaway’s, in playing the part of Jane Austen in the pseudo-biographical film Becoming Jane, was almost flawless. She slipped up only over the single word /kəŋgræʤə`leɪʃnz/. Gwyneth Paltrow seemed perfect in her part in the outstanding film Shakespeare in Love.