Review of J. C. Wells ‘Sounds Interesting’

This ‘modest collection of observations’ is an anthology derived from the very popular blog ‘discussing everything to do with phonetics’ which Wells maintained for seven years after his retirement. His selection from it contains over 1,800 items, most of them no longer than a single page, presented in seven groups.

1 How do you say…?

The pronunciation of English words,

including proper names

1.1 sloth

He remarks on his surprise at hearing the word sloth rhymed with cloth on an American TV programme. Most Americans do so according to Webster. He comments ‘I call it sləʊθ, to rhyme with both and growth’. That many GB speakers unlike him call it /slɒθ/should hardly be surprising when one considers that for them, whereas only the word both rhymes with the Wells habitual version of sloth. They may be influenced by not only cloth but also by broth, froth and moth, besides the polysyllables apothecary, brothel, Gothenburg, Gothic, and hypothesis. In his LPD (Longman Pronunciation Dictionary) he labels \slɒθ\ as ‘non-RP’ though he accords ‘RP’ status to the \trɒθ\ variant of troth.

1.6 omega

LPD gives the results of one of his polls showing slightly over half of its self-selected British respondents preferring front stress. He asks ‘why in English do we traditionally stress it on the first syllable’ when you might think ‘that the syllable -meg- would bear fossilized contrastive stress’.

The reason, he says, is .. that it has become subject to ‘the Latin stress rule’. This says ‘Look at the penult syllable: if it is light (=short vowel), not more than one following consonant, then stress the antepenultimate’. Otherwise, it seems, we stress the penult. This rule also figures in two other items (1.3 and 2.12).

1.28 liege

He ‘keeps on hearing’ this word pronounced by actors as liːʒ rather than liːdʒ ‘the pronunciation given in dictionaries’. He says ‘The first dictionary to mention this variant seems to have been Webster’s Third International Dictionary of 1961’ lamenting ‘You will still not find it in most dictionaries’. The first British dictionary to include it was your reviewer’s CPD (Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English) in 1972. In 1969 at Prince Charles’s ceremonial investiture as Prince of Wales he clearly said liege with /ʒ/.

Wells continues ‘It’s not only liege. I have heard the ʒ variant in siege and besiege too… He ends ‘I’ve not heard anyone pronounce huge as hjuːʒ …yet.’ That may soon come. Where there’s no <d> in the spelling, there’s an increasing inclination to say /ʒ/ rather than /dʒ/. BBC announcers have long been saying /ʒ/ in adagio. Both jays of jejune have been heard as /ʒ/ from the actor Jeremy Irons. Also heard with /ʒ/ are centrifuge, subterfuge and refuge. So are arrangement and management as LPD confirms for the former yet not for the latter.

1.33 d’oh, doh…duh

In this note about American TV’s Homer Simpson’s exclamation Doh! Wells generalises : ‘Like all exclamations, it is said with a falling, or at least non-rising nuclear tone’. The irresistible rejoinder to this is ‘Oh?’ spoken on a wide rising tone.

1.39 veterinary

This demonstrates how, magnificent achievement though his LPD is, it can hardly be claimed that it’s not difficult to use, so much effort is required for the ‘unpacking’ of so many complex notations. He says ‘You have to infer ˈvetn̩ri by unpacking ˈvet ən ər‿|i’. This package has two syllable-division-indicating spaces: after the t and after the n. Its first, raised, schwa is ‘optionally inserted’. The other, italic, schwa is ‘optionally omitted’. The loop ( ‿ ) just below the baseline after the r is a ‘possible compression’ sign. The vertical ‘cutback’ line before the final i is a repetition-avoiding divider (with no phonetic significance). There is nothing unusual about the complexity of this item. Enthusiasts would not wish for an LPD with less information. Incidentally, the IPA linking loop seen here is twice as wide as the [ ‿ ] which since 1999 is the last of the nine symbols listed on the familiar IPA chart under the heading ‘Suprasegmentals’.

2 English Phonetics: theory

and practice

Including discussion of topics such as compression and weakening, not always well described in standard textbooks

2.9 compression anomalies

This begins ‘English seems to have a rule barring the compression of i, u to j, w when followed by a strong vowel’. I wonder how many, like your reviewer, feel no inhibition at all in regard to using a compression like /`reɪdjeɪtə/ for radiator. Likewise with radiate. Disyllabic versions of fiesta and sierra though do strike me as foreign.

2.11 stressing schwa

Too many writers have claimed that there are no stressed schwas in English (i.e. General British English aka RP etc). Wells admits ‘You do occasionally get a phonetically stressed schwa in English through the re-stresssing of a weak form’. He instances (be)cause, just and going to. That last /`gənə/ must be one of the most frequently spoken words in the English language.

There are quite a lot more that pass unremarked upon. The Queen has been observable as saying doesn’t as /dəznt/ and doing as /`də.ɪŋ/ in unscripted speech. The word threepence is often /`θrəpəns/. It may not be / `də rɪ`ɡɜ / to say de rigueur thus but René, Renault, Renoir, Ms and première include a stressed schwa for many GB speakers.

2.14 reductions in casual speech

A correspondent asked if anyone had produced systematic transcriptions of casual speech’, Wells quoted several books including Linda Shockey’s Sound Patterns of Spoken English (2003). He gave the example of ‘there you go’ with five reductions [ˈðeə ju ˈɡəʊ, ˈðeə jə ˈɡəʊ, ˈðe jə ˈɡə, ˈe jə ˈɡə, e jə ˈɡə, e j ˈɡə]. A friend of mine makes ‘anyway’ into [`enɪweɪ, `enəweɪ, `enəwe `enwe, `emwe, `ẽwe, `ewe, `əwe].

2.20 charted and chartered

He observed that an issue of the Guardian newspaper contained two apologies: one for printing ‘unchartered territory’ when ‘uncharted’ was meant and the other saying that a minister had ‘tended’ his resignation when ‘tendered’ was required. He bemoaned ‘All my twenty-year-old native-English students seem to have affect and effect as homophones’. One wonders if he’s noticed that accept is no longer distinguished among any but the most conservative GB speakers from the word except having become regularly /ɪksept/. His LPD from its first edition of 1990 registered the existence of this variant form of accept. None of the other authorities like the OED or the Cambridge EPD have. Its first GB record seems to have been in my CPD in 1972.

2.25 the symbol for STRUT

When a student complained about the use of [ᴧ] rather than [ɐ] he replied: ‘When I first started phonetics .. I had the same thought as you about ᴧ: that it would be better written ɐ. I made a point of [using it, but later]…it seemed better to stick with the same transcription other people use.

There are millions of people around the world who know that ᴧ means the STRUT vowel of English; there are a few thousand, at most, who know or care anything about the cardinal vowel system.’

2.39 settee

A correspondent asked how it could be that the vowel /e/ can occur ‘at the end of the first syllable of the word settee given that this vowel is never found in final open syllables.’ He answered ‘Why? That’s how it is. English is irregular’ quoting tattoo tæˈtuː as another example of the ‘small number’ of similar words.

This phenomenon surely has a more satisfying explanation, also applicable to such words like ballade, emir, errata and malaise etc. Such forms, being perceived by large numbers of English speakers as not being (fully) naturalised, tend to to be articulated more deliberately than native words.

Like Wells I grew up in a household in which the word settee was our term for a familiar article of furniture referred always fully naturalised as /sə`tiː/. Although this word’s record in the OED goes back 1716, it is still widely perceived as an incomer. In fact settee is the third of three homographs listed in OED. The first is a term for a type of ship recorded in a fully ‘naturalised’ pronunciation. No spoken version is provided for the second it being obsolete.

This leads Wells on to a discussion of the word mistake and its unsuitable syllabification in Jones’s day as [misˈteik]. On the post-Jonesian change he comments ‘This analysis goes back to A. C. Gimson, who as editor in 1977 of the fourteenth edition of EPD corrected the syllabification of mistake given .. in earlier editions’.

Actually, before that publication, others had already felt disinclined to follow EPD syllabifications in this respect. Witness your reviewer’s CPD of 1972 and long before that the Kenyon & Knott Pronouncing Dictionary of American English of 1944.

3 Teaching and examining

Teaching and examining phonetics, including general phonetics and EFL

3.7 volcano

Probably most of us who have taught EFL students have at times had thoughts such as he mentions here. He is puzzled that a vulcanologist ‘each time he used the word volcano — a frequent and crucial word in his report, as you might imagine — he pronounced it volc[æ]no’. He continues ‘You would think that, … working in an English-speaking environment he would have noticed by now that all his English-speaking colleagues … pronounce it volc[eɪ]no… The effect of his mispronunciation, on me at any rate, was to make me discount the value of what he had to say. If he doesn’t register the abundant evidence about the pronunciation of this everyday word, why should we suppose that he pays proper attention to the evidence on which he bases his scientific findings?’

I too have from time to time been puzzled to observe that even individuals who were among my most careful and conscientious students were capable now and then of being dismayingly unaware of the fact that they’re committing gross mispronunciations of common words. I suspect that this problem may have a lot to do with the fact that so many of our words can have two or more accepted pronunciations. Students who pick up wrong pronunciations may well in some cases imagine them to be accepted alternatives. Anyway, this speaker’s ‘volc[æ]no’ was very unlikely indeed to have caused any problems of communication. It was probably perceived by the man’s colleagues as merely a harmless eccentricity. Wells’s reaction described here seems exaggerated.

3.22 spot the mistake

This concerns words taken from ‘a phonetics written exam in which candidates … had to convert a short English passage in orthography into transcription’. I found myself regarding a couple of the ‘wrong’ transcriptions as perfectly acceptable spontaneous English. These were managed as /ˈmænɪʒd/, which in my observation is a very common variant form of the word, and dangerous as /ˈdeɪŋdʒərəs/. This is a version that, in the unlikely event of its it actually occurring, would probably pass quite unnoticed in conversation, strange as this may seem.

4 Intonation

Assorted comments on intonation

4.3 idiomatic intonation

The topic here is what he calls ‘tone idioms’ in which choice of tone is ‘fixed rather than free’. His first example is ‘oops’ or ‘whoops’ which he says ‘can only have a rise’. I should say that in fact a level pitch is very often, if not predominantly, the tone it takes. `By the `ˏway, his opinion that By the way has ‘never a rise or fall-rise’ also seems quite unsustainable.

4.7 empty things

This reports his reply to a correspondent who, very reasonably, about ‘How are things?’, asked ‘Don’t some native speakers put the nucleus on the empty word things?’ The reply to this I should have expected would have been: Why are you assuming that things has to be an empty word in such a question? You surely don’t regard it as ‘empty’ in an expression like ‘I must just get my things’ so why do so here?

To my surprise Wells’s actual reply was ‘The problem is that the nucleus has to go \/somewhere and if all other words in the intonation phrase are function words then it will even go on a weak (‘empty’) content word…’

He added the aside: Actually, for reasons I cannot explain, people like me usually violate number concord here and say ‘How’s \things?’ There is, as it happens, a perfectly simple explanation for that violation namely that it is an instance of the very familiar slang-type stylistic phenomenon that may be called ‘Linguistic Slumming’.

5 Symbol shapes fonts and spelling

Topics in the design of the International Phonetic

Alphabet and in English orthography

5.16 practicing (sic) wot i preach

At a ‘question-and-answer session on a UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics’ a small panel of the tutors were asked about spelling reform and, Wells remarks, ‘I expressed the view that this would be a Good Thing, though for social and political reasons difficult to achieve’. Your reviewer was a fellow panellist and, referring to Wells’s presidency of the Spelling Society, ‘challenged’ him … to ‘publish some of his writing in reformed instead of in traditional orthography’. His response appeared in a blog posting thus:

‘So heer goes. In my view, English spelling reform shoud be gradual rather than raddical … we aut to be like the Dutch and hav a minor reform evry few yeers rather than a big bang awl at wunce.’

5.35 fame at last

‘Gosh, I’ve been denounced by David Cameron!’

On ‘dumbing down’ in education the Prime Minister said ‘Listen to this. It’s the President of the Spelling Society. He said people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer .. I say he’s wrong. And by the way, that’s spelt with a W.’

Wells objects ‘He’s quoting me out of context. Here’s what I actually said at the Spelling Society Centenary Dinner, as quoted in my press release:

‘Let’s return to a time when English spelling allowed greater variation. Nowadays we often see light written lite and through as thru. Let’s not hold up our hands in horror — people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer’. I didn’t mean that we should abandon all standards in spelling. I was referring to pairs such as those I mentioned. I added a few more such as the text messaging u alongside you. And I suggested we get rid of the apostrophe.’ Perhaps there was enough ambiguity involved for many to sympathise with the P.M.

6 English Accents

Regional and social accents of English

6.9 television newsreaders’ RP

Wells was the external examiner for a 2007 University of Bergen PhD thesis entitled Variability and Change in Received Pronunciation submitted by Bente Hannisdal. One of her most interesting findings was that a retracted value of the goat vowel before dark l occurred in the speech of 24 of her 30 tv news presenter subjects.

Another notable feature of GB, becoming more and more common but hitherto not much commented on, is the occurrence of a process that she deals with under the heading T voicing. This concerns conversion of post-vocalic word-final /t/ to /r/. She mainly found this in function-type monosyllables as in it is, what about, a lot of, a bit of, not exactly etc. Very few GB non-function words exhibit this but she records the exceptions of British and pre-adjectival pretty.

7 Phonetics around the world

Languages other than English

7.4 Welsh ll

Wells has taken a particular interest in the Welsh language even surprisingly taking the trouble to learn to speak it. The BBC at one time had a web page where you could hear audio files of various Welsh place names. As he had been led to expect, trying it out, he ‘was immediately struck by the way the speaker pronounced the Welsh ll (e.g. in Llandeilo, Llangwm, Llanddewi Brefi, Benllech). Instead of the standard voiceless alveolar lateral fricative ɬ, he used a voiceless palatal fricative ç.’ A BBC Wales representative replying to a query from him said “Thank you for your comments about the Welsh pronunciation guides on I am not a specialist in the Welsh language, but happen to be a native Welsh speaker. To my ear, and to the ears of my Welsh-speaking colleagues here at BBC Wales Education & Learning, we cannot discern a problem with the pronunciation of the letter "ll" on [the] BBC Wales' pronunciation guide’.

Martha Figueroa-Clark of the BBC Pronunciation Unit agreed with Wells saying she found it ‘very intriguing that these differences do not seem to be discernible to native Welsh speakers' ears’. So had two other phoneticians.

‘So there we have it’, Wells concluded, ‘The use of a palatal fricative rather than an alveolar lateral fricative, … is immediately obvious to … phoneticians … but is beneath the radar as far as (some) native Welsh speakers are concerned. I wonder if there is a sound change in progress, and that ɬ is indeed giving way to ç. If so, and the palatal succeeds in driving out the alveolar lateral, speakers of Welsh will no longer be able to boast of having a really exotic sound in their consonant system. They’ll be no more able to lay claim to exclusivity than the Germans, and the use of the true alveolar lateral fricative will be left to Zulu and Xhosa’.


The book ends with two pages of answers to the question ‘Where did my interest in phonetics come from?’

His parents ensured that he had a head start in his education. He began French at eight, Latin at nine, (Ancient) Greek at twelve and so on. They sent him to St John’s College an independent school at Leatherhead in Surrey near to London. From there he was able to proceed to Trinity College Cambridge where one of the courses he took was ‘An Introduction to Phonetics’. This was taught by John Trim, previously a member of the staff of Daniel Jones’s UCL Department. It directly inspired him to embark on the very remarkable career which he came to achieve at that UCL Department.

This book provides great opportunity, for those who have not had the privilege and good fortune to attend lectures given by this foremost figure of his age in certain fascinating fields in the world of phonetics, to gather something of the flavour of his personality and imbibe a good deal of his valuable teachings.


Gimson, A. C. 1977. editor of the Daniel Jones English Pronouncing Dictionary. London: Dent.

Kenyon, J. S. & T.A. Knott. 1944. A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English. Springfield Mass.: G. & C. Merriam.

Roach, P. J., J. Setter, J. Esling. 2011. Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary. CUP.

Shockey, Linda. 2003. Sound Patterns of Spoken English. Blackwell Publishing. Malden: UK.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. 1961.

Wells, J. C. 2008. Longman Pronunciation Dictionary London: Pearson Education (‘LPD’)

Windsor Lewis, J. 1972. Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English. OUP. (‘CPD’)