Ovvissly not one of us

This review of the 1990 first edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary edited by J. C. Wells appeared in The Times newspaper on May the 5th 1990

Speakers of English worldwide agree on how to spell practically all words but differ over how to say so many that for centuries large dictionaries have existed dedicated entirely to pronunciations.

The biggest and best ever of them has just appeared. It has over 800 pages, is as hefty as the Concise Oxford Dictionary and gives highly detailed information on the different ways that over 75,000 words are pronounced in the standard varieties of British and American English.

It tells you in addition exactly how most noticeably foreign words are pronounced in their original languages, whatever these may be, from Albanian to Zulu! All this information, which includes the names of innumerable people and places as well as ordinary words, is given in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

This set of symbols is now almost universal in serious dictionaries from the new edition of the great Oxford Dictionary down. For the English items at least, it isn't too difficult to handle using the key provided.

The author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary is Professor John Wells of University College London, unquestionably the world's greatest authority on English pronunciation. It's particularly aimed at foreign users of English, who are caused endless confusion by the constant ambiguity and frequent disinformation of our spellings.

But it'll interest native speakers as well, because it presents primarily a modernized version of the most prestigious and least localizable British variety of pronunciation, which Wells, like most British academics, unfortunately persists in referring to by the ridiculously archaic, parochial and question-begging term "Received Pronunciation" .

British pronunciations in common educated use which don't fall within this most-okay type are identified by a dagger [in the 2000 second edition the substitution of a paragraph sign made a better choice by avoiding the possibility of a cross-over-a-grave suggestion that some reference works have employed to convey that an item is obsolete]which indicates that they are correct but not customary in the southeast, and consequently not recommended for adoption by foreigners. A third category, in widespread use among educated speakers but not considered standard or generally seen as incorrect, is indicated with a traffic-style warning triangle.

Purists will grind their teeth to see items like always with no l-sound classified simply as standard variants. But Wells is usually right. Most of us say a'ways at least some of the time, including even the Queen and Lord Olivier.

Wells rates as standard pronunciations apPLICable, aRISTocrat, chatted as chattered, CONtribute, Corn-wall, decission, deleerious, dip'theria, dip'thong, DISpute, diesect, drawring, envirom-ment, Feb'uary, flassid for flaccid, haRASS, hoemosexual, kiLOMeter, laMENTable, manDATory, one as wan, op'thalmic, primerrily, pri'e minister, REsearch, sheikh as sheek, villages as villagers, vu'nerable and winderpane (though not winder by itself for window ).

Likewise most-okay are agriCULTure, sometimes to be heard from Mrs Thatcher, Birming-h'm, as favoured by Angela Rippon, the Queen's orphan for often, and Lord St John of Fawsley's frawst for frost (with which he once convulsed an Any Questions audience) and even Denis Healey's none-nuclear for non-nuclear and the Londonish o of Ted Heath and Peter Walker in words like pole.

The not-most-okay dagger goes to Mart'n for Martin (a flaw in Penelope Keith's portrayal of an aristocrat in To the Manor Born ), to len'th and stren'th as heard from Selina Scott or David Owen and to therefer as from Sir David Steele.

He surprisingly awards the Danger! triangle to sixth as sickth , as from Sir Robin Day and the BBC's Chief Announcer. It isn't surprising for nucular a la Eisenhower or Eartha Kitt's perculator or for Roy Jenkins's partic'lar. But it's not justified for the now-so-very-normal reduction of temporarily to temporally - though it was intriguing to hear on the BBC that a certain erring cleric had been temporally suspended. Nor is it justified for gover'ment. It's surely psychologically significant that the only three members of Parliament to keep its second n unrelentingly are Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher!

When he revises, Professor Wells should include the so-commonplace hospiddle for hospital and the i-less forms of seriously and obviously, that favourite word of the Princess Royal and her father, which they utter var(i)ously as obvously, ob-bissly, obvissly, ov-vissly, ovvissly and o-wissly. Try them yourself – not too deliberately. They sound very natural.

At any rate no-one will in future be a credible guru on pronunciation matters unless he has his LPD at his fingertips.