How English is Really Pronounced

The following is a revised version of a presentation given at University College London in August 2006 at a meeting held to honour Professor John Wells on the occasion of his retirement from the chair of phonetics there.

1. Many common English pronunciations are either eschewed entirely or given scant treatment by the pronunciation dictionaries EPD (the Roach, Setter et al. English Pronouncing Dictionary), LPD (the John Wells Longman Pronunciation Dictionary) and ODP (the Upton et al. Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation). This on reflection is not very difficult to understand since it is EFL learners who are the chief recipients of such dictionaries, and such users are on the whole best served by being offered pronunciations that accord most closely with words' ordinary orthographies. The rather sad fact is that recommending the most helpful models for learners and representing faithfully the actual speech of native speakers are to a serious extent mutually antagonistic procedures.

2. The chief reason that thousands of frequent pronunciations are excluded from even the specialist dictionaries of pronunciation is the circumstance that English spelling has been very stable for several hundred years and literacy among English-speakers has been at a high level. Thus when words develop new forms these, so far from being adopted as norms, are often censured. Older forms represented by the orthodox spellings persist beside the new ones because the literate most generally favour faithfulness to orthography over oral tradition. What is more, although in common usage a new pronunciation of a word less reflective of its traditional orthography may come to predominate in actual usage, the traditional pronunciation very often remains as, although a less frequent alternative, a perfectly acceptable one which excites no feeling of pedantry or fussiness etc in those who hear it.

3. A notable set of words in this category are the huge numbers which have "weakforms". By this is not meant forms which are merely weakly uttered in terms of breath-force or loudness but ones which have such phonological contrast with their "strong" versions they might well have been quite separate words. A small number of these are so constantly employed by all speakers that failure to use them in appropriate circumstances will sound artificial or at least suggest a markedly formal speech style. The few dozen such words, mainly certain verb forms, prepositions and pronouns such as have, to and her are quite carefully treated by EPD and LPD though little considered in ODP. Differences of perception of the formality of such forms constitute a minor feature of the contrasts between varieties of standard English pronunciation. For example the unweakened form of the pronoun them is completely uncharacteristic of General British spoken usage in many situations in which it is quite often to be heard used spontaneously by General American speakers.

4. Because the stylistic effect of in certain circumstances not using a normally employed weakform is so strikingly unsuitable in regard to a fairly small number (forty-odd) function words, writers on pronunciation for the EFL audience have been at pains to identify such words and even to limit the term weakform only to such words not applying it to other parallel weakenings that happen to non-function words – though Wells in the LPD shows awareness of the weakening process operating in them by his comments on eg the final element of -day words. This leaves these authors quite unable to offer an acceptable definition of the word weakform. Incidentally, writing as one's own editor on a Website provides the satisfaction of not having to submit to some editor's veto when one feels that the term weakform is best so written to emphasise its special meaning rather than writing it as two separate words or a hyphenated compound.

5. An example of the many words which have weakforms which cause no stylistic problem is the word only. This is normal-sounding as given in EPD, LPD and ODP as containing an /l/ and it is invariably so pronounced in its prepausal occurrences but, whether stressed or not, on every other occasion it is overwhelmingly most often uttered throughout the whole educated native-English-speaking world without any /l/. There is little gain for the EFL learner to be given this information and the only admission of the existence of this majority form without /l/ is in LPD which quite wrongly categorises it as "non-RP". Another word very frequently to be heard without the /l/ with which it's spelt is certainly which is as often as not pronounced / `sɜːtn̩i/ or in a further reduction when not isolated as / `sɜːtni / with not even a syllabic /n/. Another such word is occasionally which is often /ə`keɪʒni/.

6. Some other cases where a form denied first place in (if not omitted completely from) almost all dictionaries is to the intensive observer clearly either a majority form or doubtfully of less currency than the dictionaries' preference may be exemplified by the following. All three of the pronouncing dictionaries record variants of the word government without the first /n/ suggested by its spelling. None of them, however, gives such a form first. Nevertheless, versions of any word with the possible sequence /-ənmə-/ are in fact only relatively infrequently to be heard with that /-n-/. This applies also eg to environment, imprisonment and even to Tiananmen (Square) though this last word was until relatively recently very unfamiliar to most English-speakers.

7. ODP, which has no use of the "tapped /t/" symbol of EPD and LPD, a [t] with a subscript small 'v', pefectly reasonably shows hospital as uttered by GA speakers with final /-dl/. Such a transcription would faithfully reflect the usage also of the majority of GB speakers but no trace of this even as a subvariant British form is to be found in any current dictionary. Only in LPD but not at all in EPD or ODP is a version found of accept which coincides with first given version they have of except but such a value is commoner than the first versions they do give (which they begin with schwa).

8. Longer adverbs ending with -ly are particularly prone to reduction in unselfconscious speech very widely receiving a syllable fewer than is so often indicated in dictionaries. Among examples of this are previously, seriously, immediately and invariably which generally lack any sound corresponding to the internal i of their spelling.

9. The LPD sign ᴗ indicates the alternative form with 'compression' of /-iə-/ to /-jə/ etc. The current EPD takes no specific account of compressions. My CPD (Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English) at its page xvii drew attention to the fact that it deliberately ignored compressions – incidentally employing for the first time in regard to a pronouncing dictionary a term which had been introduced into the literature in 1969 in my Guide to English Pronunciation (pp 34/5).

10. The adjective meteorological was at one time to be heard daily from British broadcasters though latterly it is usually avoided by referring to the meteorological office instead as "The Met Office". It is hardly ever  heard as /mi:tiərə`lɒʤɪkl/ as shown in the dictionaries but most often as /miːtrə`lɒʤɪkl/.

11. Another form curiously overlooked by the dictionaries is the suffix -ward with the vowel /ʊ/. Very often indeed the word backwards is homophonous with backwoods and the phrase Edward Woodward would is quite likely to have /ʊ/ in every syllable but the first.

Large numbers of words always indicated in orthography as having inflected forms ending -sts are constantly to be heard without any final /s/ ie as /-st/ in all circumstances but especially when unstressed. Such zero plurals have yet to find mention in grammar books.

Only in EPD of the three major pronunciation dictionaries would the first version given of usually not be relatively rarely heard. EPD rightly shows /ˈjuːʒəli/. (And so on ... and so on ...)