Archive 29 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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01/08/2010The Pronunciation of 'ENGLISH'#290
31/07/2010An Unremarked Elision#289
27/07/2010Accentual Idioms#288
16/07/2010Falling plus Rising Tones#287
10/07/2010What say you?#286
09/07/2010Absent thee fr·m Rhoticity a While#285
08/07/2010The Spelling th#284
06/07/2010Once Dubitable Items#283
28/06/2010Voiceless to Voiced PreAssimilations#282
27/06/2010Northernisms of Sorts#281

Blog 290

The 1st of August 2010

The Pronunciation of 'ENGLISH'

John Maidment’s recent observation that a lecturer using the pn /eŋglɪʃ/ for the word “English” had “a perfectly normal General English accent” is a little bit frustrating because one wd like to’ve known whether the speaker cdve had any special influence that caused him to retain it when presumably every NS (native speaker) around him wdve been saying it differently from him including presumably his parents. If his mother had been accustomed to use his version that cd account for it. EAL speakers, those for whom English is not their “mother” tongue but one additional to it, do sometimes acquire it. So many words in English have alternant pns that it’s all too easy for a non NS to perform such a regularisation of the pn into line with the normal value of “e” when it’s a stressed short vowel. I must apologise for so suddenly being so tired of writing the five-syllable “pronunciation” that I’ve  experimentally begun reducing its written form to “pn” in these blogs. John’s comparably sudden use of the attractively simple term “General English” also prompts me to point out that at least one drawback about using it is that it’s potentially misleading especially in a worldwide context. An EAL user cd praps be in dou't about whether it refers to being 'general' in little old England or 'general' in the English-speaking world as a whole. The words street, choice and English itself can reasonably be sed to have relatively the same pn anywhere among English-speakers.

As for the word “English”, two questions suggest themselves. Why isnt it “Anglish” and now that it’s written “English” why isnt it spelt “Inglish”. You’d naturally think that it really ought to be “Anglish” when it’s pretty obvious that it’s derived from the name of the people called “Angles”. There is or anyway has been such a spelling. It seems to’ve been sort-of invented in the seventeenth century (by John Milton and others) or rather re-invented coz Old English did have the form “Ӕnglisc” and Middle English had the variant “Anglisshe” but they seem to’ve had plenty of rivalry from the forms “Englisc” and “Englisshe” which they had given rise to and which orthographically speaking supplanted them. The change was quite a common type usually called a mutation. Even tho the vowels involved werent contiguous that didnt stop the earlier one being changed from [a] to [e] as speakers anticipated the closeness of the vowel of the second syllable. The result was [e] which of course gave rise to the spelling we’ve become stuck with.

As you’d expect, in Middle and Early Modern English, when people were so free to decide on the spellings they preferred, menny actually did write it with initial I or Y. It so happened that it came to be pronounced /ɪŋglɪʃ/ as part of a change by which a lot of ME words with [e] before [ŋ] raised the vowel to give [ɪŋ] including it seems blink, bring, fling, ink, sting, string, think & wing. So why didnt “English” change its spelling too? I suspect the answer is becoz it was a proper noun. Names are much more prone to retain out-of-date spellings than are the common items of our vocabulary. Look at any collection of the pns of names especially the invaluable BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names compiled by G M Miller in 1971 and revised excellently in 1983 by Graham Pointon and you’ll find that it’s an intriguing chamber of horrors of pns that are spelt in ways that havnt for a matter of centuries caut up with what their spoken forms have developed into. It’s a scandal to my mind that Oxford University Press, of which one division prints so many books that hardly anyone wants to use, has let this book go out of print and has no plans to re-issue it. Of course we all know th't that great publishing house is a menny-headed beast and we see that the division responsible was in this case more moved by commercial than idealistic motives. Anyway, one can’t exactly blame OUP for the infuriating wording one finds in Amazon’s inept blurb saying “Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation, The Essential Handbook of the Spoken Word, Superseding the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names” when the book in question is a not at all indispensable, albeit fascinating, farrago which contains only a fraction of the coverage of the domain of the BBC PDBN.

Blog 289

The 31st of July 2010

An Unremarked Elision

I’ve cultivated the habit of carefully observing people’s pronunciations at frequent intervals for over sixty years. I’m fully conscious of the fact that the evidence of recollections not based on notes taken at specific times must be treated with very considerable caution. So these preliminary observations I now offer may be discounted by the skeptical reader but I mention them on the understanding that they may be taken for what the reader judges them to be worth. My topic is the handling, mainly by speakers with the General British types of accent, of the word-final cluster /-sts/. It seems to me to have undergone a change of treatment in the second half of the last century. My impression was that in the forties and fifties it was very unremarkable to hear the /-s/ inflections of nouns like list, nest or ghost or verbs like last, boast or rust as /-ss/ ie [-sː]. I dont wish to suggest that this type of plural formation has become in itself remarkable but it seems extremely clear to me that it’s been very largely replaced by /-st/.

I don’t wish to suggest either that the classic version /-sts/ cd be sed to sound in the least remarkable ie unusual but I do have the very clear impression that its common use in conversation is these days overwhelmingly often reserved for occasions where the word having it is relatively highlighted. This usually means that it’s now mainly resorted to by speakers before they make a rhythmic break, typically for instance in enunciating clearly something that isnt a predictable item in the discourse. For example I shd certainly expect /gəʊsts/ if a speaker was making a single-word reply to a question such as “What was the play you saw?” with “Ghosts”, tho even so I shdnt be amazed if the final /-s/ wasnt used there. Apart from that I regard /-st/ as the normal plural ending. I’ve repeatedly found myself, while watching television or listening to radio, waiting for more infomation to elucidate whether a speaker me'nt the singular or or the plural by the way they sed eg /ðə `gəʊst aɪ wz təʊld əbaʊt/.

I dont find this phenomenon very surprising because there are many such changes to words’ pronunciations to be observed. They’re made by speakers from the desire to employ “clear speech” seen in the (no dou't unconscious) rejection of /-ss/ for the target /-sts/. Our resultant /-st/ is I’m sure quite unconscious but the natural outcome of failure to manage the slightly taxing articulation /-sts/ in the course of fluent speech. Something I do find mildly surprising is that I havnt been able to observe any corresponding cluster reductions occurring in the handling of the similar sequences /-sps/ or /-sks/.

An example I happened to notice recently while watching a DVD was one that can be checkt by any reader who has access to a copy of the recording of the Scorpion episode of the 1984 television drama series Jewel in the Crown. In it the middle-class woman played by Peggy Ashcroft remarks “My room is very small for entertaining guests” in which the final word is very clearly/gest/. Another example was repeated more than enough times for me to be confident that I’d he'rd it quite correctly. It took the form of a television advertisement for a product entitled “New Lemon Ajax” about which we were assured that “The lather really lasts /lɑːst/ longer”. The fact that this phenomenon makes a large addition to the hitherto rather restricted numbers of zero plurals that English contains (besides sheep etc) makes it all the more surprising that I know of no other reference to it than the present one. By the way, I've certainly he'rd examples of it from American speakers.

PS  Today  (3Aug10)  I've just seen notices put up saying “Guest” and “Production Artist"! I dou't if either of them is me'nt to be taken as singular. They’re directing traffic to the site of the so-called ‘Leeds Festival’ (of pop music) which is annually held in the grounds of a stately home well outside Leeds and about a mile from where I live.

Blog 288

The 27th of July 2010

Accentual Idioms

This summer period is the time of year when for most of my working life I’ve been accustomed to teach on summer courses. Looking over the materials I intend to use this year, I wondered agen what advice I cd give the people I’m tutoring about finding information on one of the topics I’d be raising with admittedly very advanced students. This was the matter of what one may call “stress” or praps more precisely “accentuation idioms” or if you like “tonicity idioms”. In these phrases the tonic (or “main”) stress falls not in the usual place ie on the last content (ie non-grammatical) word but on some earlier content word. These anomalous accent placings are so unpredictable and incapable of being judged by simple logic that it seems fair to call them “idiomatic”.

Limiting myself to expressions that most educated English-speakers wd be familiar with and avoiding anything that might strike one as at all merely literary, I selected mainly at random  ten expressions to turn up in the current editions of the three outstanding EFL-oriented dictionaries conveniently available online namely the Oxford and Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionaries and their rival of only one year the MacMillan Dictionary. The idioms were, according chiefly to the headwords under which they were found:

`axe to grind, have an
`flesh creep, make one’s  
`game away, give the
`head on one’s shoulders, have a good
`hair stand on end, make one’s
`house on fire, get on like a
`pretty kettle of fish
`land lies, see how the
`fish to fry, have other
`spoon in one's mouth, born with a silver

I’m pleased to say that I found all of them in the two “ALD” works and most of them in the MacMillan which came off slightly less successfully to my surprise coz my general impression of it is that it’s extremely good at listing “Phrases”. I’ve given them above in order of their earlier-than-predicted-tonic words. That was the good news. Now here’s the bad. None of these online dictionaries gave readers any clue that they were irregularly stressed. And altho all three dictionaries very valuably provide audible spoken pronunciations, the MacMillan being the most generous about collocations (eg giving pronunciations not only for ‘private’ but also for ‘private detective’) phrases dont seem to get such treatment. It wdve been a perfectly simple matter for each of them to indicate these irregular accentuations. In this respect the Oxford ALD gives the unfortunate impression of having gone backwards in these online versions. In 1974 all these expressions were supplied with appropriate stress markings. This was something I introduced into that dictionary, as its first Pronunciation Editor, at that third edition. One must also add that in the preface to the fourth edition as issued in 1989 it was claimed not exactly appropriately that “as a new feature[sic] ... a full treatment ... of stress idioms” was being included. And very well done it was by Dr Susan Ramsaran who similarly de'lt with all our selected examples but the last two. Happily I understand from its present Pronunciation Editor Michael Ashby that this policy has been fully maintained in the printed text and that the representations in the online edition have not deliberately had their stress marks  removed from them. Here are some examples as they appear in the OALD printed text
ˌhave an 'axe to grind to have private reasons for being involved in sth
make your 'flesh creep to make you feel afraid or full of disgust
born with a silver 'spoon in your mouth (saying) having rich parents
Alas the CALD has the expressions but without the valuable accentual markings. As regards accent markings exactly the same may be sed of LDC (Longman Dict of Contemp'ry English).

Blog 287

The 16th of July 2010

Falling plus Rising Tones

The latest questions Tami Date has come up with show him quoting from Peter Roach’s English Phonetics and Phonology. This is arguably the best of the few EFL textbooks that provide descriptions of English phonology that pay real regard to the needs of the reader with an enquiring mind. The examples he refers to appear on page 141 of that book. The versions I give are very slightly different transcriptions from the originals. Their use aims at helping to make the points I wish to convey and at avoiding quoting Tami’s slightly ambiguous transpositions of the original tone markings. Here are the sentences along with versions of the comments and contexts Roach gives: 

(i)This response might be sed in conversation on hearing someone’s name; ‘him’ has much greater prominence than in the parallel version and is not possible in a weakform:
A: John Cleese is a very funny actor.
B: əʊ `jes. aɪv `siːn ˏhɪm
(ii) The word ‘seen’ is given the greatest prominence, ‘him’ very much less. This is quite  likely to sound as tho the speaker might have some reservation or something further to say:
A: Have you seen my father yet?
B: aɪv `ˏsiːn ˳ɪm (bət aɪ ˈhӕvnt hӕd ˈtaɪm tə ˎtɔːk tw ɪm)
The O’Connor-&-Arnold-style notations are a way, if one feels one needs it, of indicating that at the Fall-Rise tone the fall is associated with the accented word ‘seen’ but makes it clear that its rise only occurs at the unaccented word ‘him’. Tami comments “... to most non-native-speaker readers of the book, I suspect that the first example will be a matter of puzzlement.  They may even wonder what’s wrong with Oh  \yes |Ive \seen  him.  They would probably wish that the author had explained, or made some comment, about the seemingly contrastive accenting of the pronoun him, but actually there is nobody else to contrast him with in the context. So, what attitude can be read into Oh  \yes |Ive \seen  /him ?

Roach is with clarity making a staightforward point about the presence of two tonics in one of the two similar sentences and not in the other. Tami’s concern we see is not to comment on that point but to raise semantic issues that Roach hasnt set out to discuss there. Anyway in his remarks Tami’s tending to overlook the very important fact that you dont need a specific verbal context to explain why a speaker expresses something in a particular way (cf §8.1.7). The speaker may simply have in mind other actors who may not have been seen. It may also be here very possible that the speaker cd have a (slight) preference for avoiding the finality of a fall. The prosodies of loudness, rhythm, firmness of articulation, overall pitch range, vocal quality, tempo etc cou'd all enter into the matter but even with all those neutral a fall cou'd tend to rather be felt as cutting short the topic from lack of int'rest or worse.

I give students as exercises on prosodic matters various ordinary-conversation-type dialogues to read aloud. The advice I find myself most often inclined to offer them is “If you’re in any dou't about sounding perfectly agreeable, you shd end your sentence with a (not extravagantly wide) rise”. It’s important to remember that the very rudiment'ry indications of intonations that teachers quite reasonably use as useful tools for representing pitches (and thereby no less than those, rhythms) are very blunt instruments. I’m afraid those of us who teach EFL users about intonation matters too offen fail to make these limitations clear. We tend to end up appearing to exaggerate the value of what we offer and sometimes inducing unfortunate inhibitions. I find that hardly any of the countless EFL speakers I’ve conversed with have disconcerted me by their intonations even if the prosodic strategical procedures they adopt dont necessarily give rise to very common native-speaker patterns for the situations involved. I’ve no problem whatsoever with any EFL user not sounding like an exact copy of a native English-speaker: quite the opposite in fact. Incident'ly I think the topic of the differences between British and American tone usages is a negligible one for EFL students. More at Section 8.4.

Blog 286

The 10th of July 2010

What say you?

Tami Date has come up with another of his questions on suprasegmental matters — what he, like so many, calls the “intonations” of three different kinds of questions with identical wording. They were suggested to him by a cinema version of the Arthur Miller play about witch-hunts The Crucible. Miller’s allegorical drama was set in seventeenth-century Massachusetts which accounts for the archaic grammar. Tami describes the three prosodies  as what one may represent in a simple tonetic transcription as:
 (i)    ́What say you? (ii)  What `say you? and (iii)  What say `you?
Tami sez “I thought this would be good material for teaching my students how intonation can contribute to differentiating one meaning from others”.

The three versions essentially only differ in the placements of their tonic syllables so we can only rather loosely refer to this as a question on 'intonation'. I cd wish people didnt use the term 'intonation' when they’re not talking about the tones themselves but only about where speakers place climax tones in sentences. There’s a smart word for this topic of the location of the climactic tone of a prosodic unit for those who may like to use it namely “tonicity”.
I’m a bit surprised that he thinks his Japanese students may go wrong on these sentences. Of course the students must be clear about the different senses of the three questions which we might express in loose paraphrase as:
(i) WHAT is this ridiculous question you’re asking me? (I can hardly believe my ears.)
(ii) Come on, what’ve you got to SAY (for yourself)?
(iii) Tell me. What opinion do YOU have?
Given that they understand them, all the students have to do is give principal stress to the key words. I’ve had plenty of Japanese students and I’ve never come across any problems of the sort he seems to be expecting. Praps he’ll try them out on some of his students, of course avoiding any confusion that might be caused by using archaic grammar, and report the results.

He also asks ‘with respect to the command "You will say", Is "will" usually accented? Can it ever happen that a school teacher says to a noisy pupil during class, "Bill, you will shut up!"? I presume it sounds like a pretty high-handed command?’ Of course he is right that this is a markedly peremptory expression as an instruction — besides being a pretty unlikely one for a present-day teacher to use. If the verb will is being used in its usual “predictive” sense in ordinary conversation it’ll normally be incorporated into a 'contraction' for which we have in non-formal writing the spelling “you’ll”. The insistent or impatient etc style might offen in such a case be reinforced by stressing the initial pronoun-of-address “you” as in the sometimes sarcastic, supercilious etc type of command “ˈYou `do that”.

By the way, this discussion suggests a notable example of the dangerously unhelpful ambiguity of seeking to indicate the pronunciation (including of course the prosody) of an expression solely by giving strongly articulated words (or syllables) in capital letters. Here it’d be such a case if one represented eg “Will you be quiet!” as “WILL YOU be quiet?” Simple tonetic transcriptions are a much safer guide eg “ˈWill ˈyou be `quiet!” which is the prosody I shd imagine most likely to be adopted by a speaker employing such an expression. Using the question mark “?” at the end of a sentence which is evidently interrogative from its grammatical form is not only superfluous but praps awkwardly ambiguous. The prosody “ ˈWill you be     ́quiet!” tho less likely is possible and cd well suggest, along with the appropriate rhythmic and voice-quality features quite forcefully, a threat of immediate castigation eg implying “or shall I hit you”. Incident'ly I find both an exclamation mark and a question mark together almost as graceless as multiple exclamation marks. (For elucidation of tone markings see §8.3.)

Blog 285

The 9th of July 2010

Absent thee fr·m Rhoticity a While

Today John Wells has a blog on the word “rhotic” which he introduced into the literature of phonetics in an unpublished paper in June 1968 (p. 56 of Progress Report of the Phonetics Laboratory of University College London as OED precisely details for us). He ended the article with: “Some people did not like my coinage. But it’s too late now. You’re stuck with it”. This prompted commenter Lipman to query: “What are people's reserves about it?” to which he replied “I think jwl was one who disliked it. (If so, I'm sure he'll explain.)"

Another commenter “Kraut” kindly, before I cou’d stirr myself into doing so, explained for me: “It's not that JWL strongly dislikes the term 'rhotic' but that he prefers to describe accents on a scale from high rhoticity or low rhoticity. See his post to an entry to the blog by Graham Pointon at

John Maidment, after that remark that Kraut referred to which was a comment added to a Pointon Linguism blog, sed “A very sensible policy which I shall adopt”. So I shall look forward to seeing him recommend it in his excellent SID (Speech Internet Dictionary). I’ve never felt “stuck with rhotic” because I’ve never used it simply because it doesnt fit my usual purposes so well as the wording I prefer to use. After all, my usage is another Wells coinage anyway. There’s more detailed explanation of my reasons for that preference at my Blog 123 which was prompted by John Wells’s celebration of the fortieth anniversary of his coinage of “rhotic” in 2008. The Billy Clark, whose comment on today’s Wells blog asked about more Wells coinages, may like to look at my blog 127 in the same archive as 123.

Blog 284

The 8th of July 2010

The Spelling th

In a recent (29 June 2010) blog commenting on the word “brothel”, John Wells suggested that the exceptionality of its current pronuncation was revealed by a note of Murray’s in 1883 in the NED (OED1). This note was, as I read it, essentially about the word’s semantic development and didnt seem to be particularly relevant to its pronunciation. He was certainly right in saying that the value of the th in the word is anomalous but, in considering why it shd be so, it’s worth remembering that the word brothel is in modern times very much a book word. The earliest OED quote for it in its current sense was 1593. Tho it clearly ultimately descends from Old English its exact precursor has not been found in OE texts. It occurs in no translation of the Bible by the way.

The digraph th is of course a completely ambiguous spelling that might equally stand for /θ/ or /ð/ in modern English. However, by far the greatest number of words containing the spelling th have it for /θ/ not /ð/. Word-initially OED records well over 7000 items beginning with th all of which except about two dozen have it as /θ/. Word-finally it has about 4500 ending th almost all of which have /θ/ for it. Word-medially we have a number of very common words with /ð/ but still the majority have /θ/. People’s “notional” value for th has fairly unsurprisingly become /θ/. It seems to me clear that brothel has in consequence acquired a spelling pronunciation which has replaced the more phonologically regular development it formerly exhibited and still does across the Atlantic to an extent.

The claim at p. 55 in his 1991 article in the Transactions of the Philological Society by Peter J. Lucas, “No Modern English word of native origin has medial /θ/” was no dou't quite justified except in relation to this one word brothel which of course makes it outstandingly anomalous as John Wells pointed out. We may disregard the Scottish words bothy and drouthy. We must of course also disregard such highly unconventional coinages as the forenames Eartha and Youtha (also Yootha). Altho the name Ethel had an OE origin, it didnt have the regular development thru from OE to PresentE but died out and was “artificially” revived. Bertha is of German provenance.
We’re familiar with unhistorical pronunciations that some people adopt for their surnames using /θ/ in Blyth or Smyth etc. This process of some users of a name refashioning its pronunciation but others maintaining the traditional value is to be seen with placenames like Atherton and many others which may be he'rd with medial /θ/ as well as /ð/. It’s a very familiar phenomenon that shifting of populations leading to arrivals of numerous new inhabitants outnumbering the old population at a spot have me'nt that many placenames thruout England have seen their traditional word-of-mouth versions supplanted by ones that have been re-modelled by newcomers re-interpreting the traditional spellings.

As to brothel even as recently as 1917 in EPD1 Daniel Jones gave the /ð/ pronunciation in first place. However, he omitted it altogether two decades later. In 1797 Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary gave only the /ð/ form with no reference to any disagreement among the many authorities he regularly referred to; and still by 1845 Beniowski agreed. For American usage Funk & Wagnall in 1914 and the 1961 Webster gave a /ð/ subvariant; so did Kenyon & Knott; and so do Merriam Webster online and the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation. We seem to be seeing the same process at work with the word booth which was never recorded as /buːθ/ by Jones or Gimson excepting in the latter’s 1991 recension by Ramsaran. It’s not in OED1989 but is in ODP, LPD and EPD in all as subvariant. Compare bequeath now subvariantly having /θ/ tho in NED (OED1) in 1887 Murray recorded only /ð/ and smithy for which Craigie in 1912 likewise gave only/ð/. A number of words like broth, cloth, moth and oath also show various degrees of tendency to replace earlier /ð/ forms with /θ/ ones.

Blog 283

The 6th of July 2010

Once Dubitable Items

I was slightly startled yesterday by seeing a mis-spelling in the subtitles to a dramatisation of a silly P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves story I was casually idly watching mainly out of indolence. Any subtitles available I like to have displayed for a variety of reasons one of which is to observe this sort of thing. This spelling, surely one of the more venial of the numerous orthographical gaffes to be observed, took me suddenly back to what I guess were my early teens. At this time I was aware of the existence of the word “indubitably” but I was unaware that I had a very mistaken idea of how it was spelt. For probably quite some time I was afflicted by no dou't that it was pronounced /ɪn`djuːpɪtəbli/ and consequently under the delusion that its written form was *“indupitably”, somehow failing to connect it with words like “dubious”. Anyway “indupitably” was exactly how it turned up on the tv screen last night. As it happens it’s an excellent extreme example of variation in the length of an English vowel phoneme. The one-size-fits-all currently predominantly used British transcription of the English vowel of boot, goose, lose, rule, voodoo etc is of course /uː/ with its permanent “belt-and-braces” length mark. When I see GA and GB transcriptions given side by side with these colons in one and not in the other I always feel it tends to give many people an exaggerated impression of the length differences between GA and GB vowels. I don’t suggest that there arent any differences at all but GB as well as GA certainly has plenty of vowel length variations. I therefore personally prefer the economy of (simple phonemic) transcriptions that dont have the superfluous colons.

As is well known, immediately before sharp (fortis) consonants within the same syllable English vowels in both GA and GB are normally considerably shortened. Shortening also regularly takes place when a vowel occupies a syllable followed immediately by one or more enclitic weak syllables. In indubitably both of these circumstances obtain even to the extent of the probable maximum possible of three completely weak following syllables being involved. These factors taken together appear to maximally reduce the length of the /uː/ allophone in ordinary speech. So we neednt be surprised that, since the major clue that indicates to the hearer whether the bilabial consonant is /b/ or /p/ in such a context isnt what degree of vocal vibration, if any, is to be detected but the length of the vowel preceding, there may well on occasion occur complete neutralisation of the [b/p] contrast and people may well feel that they hear /p/ rather than /b/.

A couple of other of my youthful verbal misconceptions occur to me. One was that for years I knew a word for an only vaguely understood unpleasant bodily affliction that I he’rd as /`ӕpsəs/. I was aware of such things only as affecting others so it was a word that rarely drew my attention but I remember taking it for granted that it’d be spelt *“apsus” with that perfectly convincing appearance of having been spelt so in its presumed original Latin form. Meanwhile I also came across a term for another very vaguely perceived medical condition which I he’rd as /`ӕbses/ and which I could recall seeing in print as “abscess”. I’ve very little idea of how long it was before the shocked realisation came upon me that I was merely hearing two rather different pronunciations of one and the same word. The common features of the framework were /`ӕ-s-s/ the differing ones were /p/ versus /b/ and /ə/ versus /ɛ/. If it surprises anyone that /p/ was to be he’rd in this word for <b> one may point out that, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the pronunciation lexicographers to record most of them, for at least two generations many words spelt <abs> and <obs> are constantly to be he’rd with either pre assimilation to /ӕps-/ and /ɒps-/ etc  or post assimilation to /ӕbz-/ and /ɒbz-/ etc. For example the form /ˈӕpsə`luːtli/ of “absolutely” is extremely common. I recorded a sparing dozen such <abs-> forms in my 1972 CPD.
 A final misprision I may confess to was that in my tender years I knew of a word /pə`tɜːb/, which I wd gaily have spelt *“peturb”, a mistake that, had I been a  higher-rhoticity English-speaker, one cdve expected me not to make. I also knew, from my reading, of the existence of a word <perturb> that I think I probably thaut of as /pɜː`tɜːb/, which is what LPD3 records as a variant pronunciation of that word, given after /pə`tɜːb/. I imagined it had a somewhat different meaning. It was quite disillusioning when I realised that no dictionary listed a word *“peturb” !

Blog 282

The 28th of June 2010

Voiceless to Voiced PreAssimilations

Regular readers will know that I’m an avid follower of John Maidment’s blogs. He surprised me the other day by saying “Why the word [gooseberry] should be pronounced [ˈɡʊzb(ə)ri] [is] a mystery. And why is the word raspberry [ˈrɑ:zb(ə)ri] ... so pronounced? ... The voiceless to voiced assimilation in these two words is not found post-lexically in English and the only other word that I can think of (at the moment) where a similar change takes place is husband.” He cdve considered the other goose derivative gosling /`gɒzlɪŋ/ or cobweb

I shd be inclined to say exactly the opposite of what he claims. If an English word involves an <s> followed immediately by a voiced consonant I expect it to be /z/ by default and I automatic'ly tend to wonder why it’s not so when I find an exception. It’s a notable regular feature of English as opposed to many other languages. This is easily demonstrated by looking at the way people “instinctively” pronounce new acronyms when they appear. Examples are ASBO, Asdic,  ASLEF, Aslib, Nasdaq, /`ӕzbəʊ, `ӕzdɪk, `ӕzlef, `ӕzlɪb, `nӕzdӕk/ and WOSB /`wɒzbi/ etc. Consider how English place-etc names with vowel+s+voiced consonant are pronounced with /z/ usually unhesitatingly even if unfamiliar eg as Disley, Frisby, Isbister, Kesgrave, Osgerby, Oswestry, Wisbech ie /`dɪzli, `frɪzbi, `ɪzbɪstə, `kezgreɪv, `ɒzgəbi, `ɒzwɪstri, `wɪzbiːʧ/. John has Mousehole /`maʊzl/ in his backyard.

 Of course there are exceptions but they include various Celtic names and words that have preserved memories of versions current before the voicing tendency kicked in. This is why we have both /wesli/ and /wezli/ for Wesley even tho it’s no longer spelt Westley. Only a minority of us use /z/ in mistletoe no dou't for the same sort of reason. There’s a similar reason for /lesli/ being used by some, chiefly in the US, rather than /lezli/ for Leslie or Lesley. It also accounts for the difference between the US /ӕzmə/ and our /ӕsmə/ for asthma. The reverse seems to be the case with crescent, Brits favouring /`kreznt/ but few using /z/ in the US. Neither GB nor GA has assimilated the /s/ of isthmus /ɪsməs/. Neither of us has assimilated basin /beɪsn/ either — but jazzfans’ll know that the New Orleans street has /z/. Glasgow chiefly has /z/ nowadays in the UK but old John Reith was inclined to terrorise BBC speakers who didnt use his prescribed form with /s/. 

When we borrow from a number of languages we convert their [s] to /z/. That’s what we do for Basra, Casbah, Dresden, Duisburg and Oslo /bӕzrə, `kӕzbɑː, drezdən, `duːzbɜːg & `ɒzləʊ/. Some people with gross ignorance of the workings of language have been reported by the BBC Pronunciation Unit as preposterously taking offence at /z/ used in words like Muslim. That habit’s been with us for centuries. I wonder if I’m right in presuming that many of the Ancient Greek words we’ve borrowed in such quantities may’ve had [s] when they came to us, eg cosmos, presbyter, Pelasgian. The word rhythm has apparently mainly assimilated to [ð] from an earlier [θ]. And so on.

Blog 281

The 27th of June 2010

Northernisms of Sorts

I’ve just received a query about intonation which candidly wasnt worth discussing here. The questioner referred me to two books on the subject. The first thing he drew my attention to was something on page 73 of John Wells’s English Intonation (2006) where the expression I was askt about was paired with another which caut my attention because it struck me as not a very common one to be he'rd from speakers with General British accents. It was this (in my preferred tone symbols):
He’ll beˈvery ˎangry, | will my `ˏbrother.
I’m not saying a GB speaker wd never use such an expression but I’d wager that the use of that latter type of tagged phrase, with its reversal of subject and verb, is a great deal commoner over some of northern England than it is elsewhere. To me it sounds a bit rhetorical rather than just ordinarily conversational.

The other book I was referred to was Paul Tench’s Intonation Systems of English (1996) where at page 82 there occurred the example
I saw ˎ John | ˏyesterday (or yesterˏday)
at which its bracketed alternative exhibits a stressing of the word yesterday that I shd think is far commoner over northern England than it is anywhere else in the English-speaking world. EPD does give that stressing of its last syllable (lexically yester`day) as a variant possibility but I can’t concur with that judgment. ODP doesnt include such a variant and LPD3 positively excludes it from "RP" with its § sign.

The other northernism that these two items tangentially braut to my mind concerns spelling only. Educated people in or from the north of England normally use spellings that are exactly the same as those employed by most other English-speaking communities excepting the USA. However, if I got a letter from an unknown person who chose to employ the alternative spelling inquiry inste'd of the predominant one enquiry, I shd be strongly tempted to guess it was from a northerner. I think praps northerners may be inclined to prefer the less common alternative spelling because they associate the spelling enquiry with the pronunciation /ɛn`kwaɪəri/ which you might think they’d use. However, tho the northern preference for strong vowels in many unstressed prefixes in words like employ, encourage, engage, enjoy, entrust etc is well known [cf 7.1.4 §4], enquire and enquiry dont seem to be begun with /ɛn-/ in the north so often as these others. I suspect this is becoz /ɪn`kwaɪəri/ better correlates for them with the spelling inquiry. Public notices which say /ɪn`kwaɪəriz/ in the north seem more offen to be spelt as Inquiries rather than as Enquiries which latter seems to be the more usual form in the south. The reason spellings like enquire arnt much used in the US may be in part due to the fact that their variant `inquiry so positively has strong /ɪn-/ and never /ɛn-/.

Bradley in the OED in 1891 sed “The mod[ern] Dicts. give inquire as the standard form, but enquire is still very frequently used, esp. in the sense 'to ask a question' ”. Murray in 1900 gave at inquire (in-, ėnkwəiə·ɹ) in the now obsolete OED1/NED style which one presumes me'nt what we may these days transcribe as /ɪn, Ɨn`kwaɪə(r)/ to convey that it usually begins with /ɪ/ but may also be he'rd with a value intermediate between [ɪ & ə].  Bradley, who was braut up in the north, seems to have felt reluctant to suggest that this word beginning with the letter “e” wasnt pronounced accordingly. The  only pronunciation (enkwəi·əɹ) he gave for enquire, ie /ɛnˈkwaɪə(r)/, was simply retranscribed when the OED1/NED pronunciation was converted to OED2’s IPA style. The entry will no dou't be reconsidered when the ongoing OED3 revision gets to it.