Monday, 30 November 2009


Cockermouth in Cumberland has been in the news recently because of disastrous flooding. Here’s Rod Liddle in yesterday’s Sunday Times:
An extra irritation for the poor people of Cockermouth, as if they needed such a thing, is the determination of television reporters to mispronounce the name of the flood-stricken town. They seem unwilling to articulate the first syllable, so that it comes out as “Currmouth” or, in the case of very posh reporters from the BBC, “C’mouth”. It must annoy the locals because it enrages me: I scream the first syllable at the TV every time it is mispronounced. Let’s hope the Sheffield suburb of Penistone stays dry this winter.

I must say I haven’t noticed anything particular about television reporters’ pronunciation of the first syllable of Cockermouth. I haven’t heard anyone reducing ˈkɒkə to just as Rod Liddle implies. (Though I suppose a few people might get as embarrassed about this name as American tourists in London sometimes do about Piccadilly Line tube trains showing the destination Cockfosters. Roostermouth, anyone?)
It was the final syllable that I found interesting, the -mouth part. Harry Campbell noticed, too.
It's always pronounced with the last syllable unobscured as in the mouth on your face, rather than -məθ. I had the idea from somewhere that only in Scotland was this the pattern, as in Eyemouth. Compare Burnmouth (in the Scottish Borders), pronounced burn-mouth, with Bournmouth (-məθ).

Although outsiders may say -maʊθ, I think the locals mostly say -məθ in Cockermouth, as you would expect for a place in England. Listen to a resident, Sue Cashmore, and a Scottish reporter, Laura Bicker; also the Chief Constable of Cumbria. They all say -məθ.
When I was a boy my father twice took a locum near Maryport on the Solway coast. We would have outings to the Lake District, taking a bus to Keswick (ˈkezɪk) that passed through Cockermouth. Being outsiders, we called it -maʊθ.

Friday, 27 November 2009

heav’nly scansion

OK, it’s a bit early yet for Christmas (though I’m singing in a Christmas show in just one week’s time). Sorry.
I was thinking about the carol Joy to the World — not one commonly sung in Britain when I was young, but now very familiar. The first verse ends with the repeated phrase and heaven and nature sing. Or actually, in the score I have, it’s and heav’n and nature sing (with an apostrophe) the first few times but then and heaven and nature sing (no apostrophe) the last two times. The slur marks on the score, however, indicate that heav’n (or heaven) is to be sung as a single syllable no matter how spelt.
This got me thinking about compression (varisyllabicity) and the constraints on it.
In modern English the word heaven, like seven, given, even, when spoken in isolation and in ordinary slow formal or colloquial style, must have two syllables. Phonemically heaven is /ˈhevən/, with the /ən/ sequence optionally being realized as a syllabic [n]. The cluster /vn/, with ordinary non-syllabic n, is not a permitted final cluster, and if there is no [ə] present then the [n] must be syllabic. (This is not the usage of eighteenth-century hymnodists, for whom “heav’n” could be, and usually was, scanned as one syllable in all contexts.)
However, like other syllabic consonants, this [n̩] is subject to possible loss of syllabicity when followed by a weak vowel. Compare seven and a half pronounced as four syllables only, ˈsevnənəˈhɑːf, or indeed heaven and earth as three, ˈhevnənˈɜːθ.
In heaven and nature sing the /ən/ of heaven is followed each time by the weak /ə/ of and. So the conditions for compression are satisfied, the word can be pronounced as a single syllable, and the notation in the score is justified.
In the recording made by Boney M, interestingly enough, we hear clearly disyllabic ˈhevən each time my score has heav’n, but compressed monosyllabic hevn for the last repetition, where my score says heaven.
Mariah Carey, on the other hand, sings disyllabic ˈhevən everywhere. This may be because she’s American, and the Americans don’t seem to do nearly as much compression as the British. (Compare typical AmE ˈfedərəl federal with typical BrE ˈfedrəl.)

Thursday, 26 November 2009


Donald Marsh wrote
I've been trying to find the origin for the difference in the pronunciation of the word 'schedule' (sked- and shed-) and thought you might be able to help. If you could give me a brief, layman's explanation as to why British English pronounces the word "shed-ule" and American English pronounces it "sked-ule" I would be deeply grateful. Which pronunciation is older, and how did the newer pronunciation become acceptable and take hold?
The basic answer is surely that we don’t know. As with most differences in pronunciation, we really cannot tell why one form has become prevalent in one geographical area and another in another.
I replied
It's often difficult or impossible to say WHY a particular pronunciation exists — ultimately it's a matter of fashion, like clothes.
For 'schedule', one mystery is that this word used to be pronounced with plain s-. That's the only form given by Walker (1791). (See the OED.) But it is never heard today.

The earliest spelling for this word given in the OED is cedule, from Old French and attested from the 14th to the 16th century, when the modern spelling first makes its appearance. (The OED continues, “mod.F. cédule”, though I can find no such word in my big Collins/Robert dictionary of French.) The pronunciation with /s-/ appears to have persisted unchanged. In BrE, the orthoepist Smart (1836) is the first to recommend the pronunciation with /ʃ-/. I don’t know what early Americans did.
So the question comes down to why /ˈsedjuːl/, the pronunciation used until the end of the 18th century, ultimately gave way to /ˈʃedjuːl/ in BrE but to /ˈskedʒ(u)əl/ in AmE.
Actually, as readers of LPD will know, the picture is actually more complicated than that. By no means all speakers of BrE prefer /ʃed-/. In my sample, in fact, 65% of BrE respondents born in 1974 or later preferred the /sked-/ form, which seems set to gradually displace /ʃed-/. This may have something to do with the fact that in AmE the word has a wider meaning than traditionally in BrE, since it covers BrE (railway, airline, bus) timetable as well as the meaning we share of a “tabular or classified statement” or “blank form”. Now we are borrowing this additional AmE timetable meaning (e.g. departing on schedule, scheduled arrival time), often along with its pronunciation.
I suppose that part of the answer to Mr Marsh’s question is that both /sk-/ and /ʃ-/ are spelling pronunciations. The model for the first would be in words such as school, scheme, schooner, Schofield; for the second, schnapps, schnozzle, meerschaum, and German names such as Schiller, Schubert, Schweppes, Porsche. Since the first group may be felt as more “native”, it is not surprising if it attracts items from the second. The same thing has happened with schism, traditionally /ˈsɪzəm/ but now usually /ˈskɪzəm/.
As for scheme, /k/ is the usual reflex of Greek chi, which is what σχῆμα schēma had.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

constraints on diacritics

Pablo Ugerman, a graphic designer, is developing a phonetic font for a degree project. He wrote to me enquiring about phonetic letters and diacritics. What constraints are there on the combination of particular base characters with particular diacritics?
As far as I know, no one has ever really addressed this question. I replied
In using the International Phonetic Alphabet, the only constraints on combinations of diacritics and base characters are logical ones. For example, the “voiceless” diacritic U+0325 COMBINING RING BELOW can logically only be applied to a base character that stands for a voiced sound, e.g. [m, b, ɓ, u], but not [t, θ, ç, ʘ]. It has a variant, U+030A COMBINING RING ABOVE, used if the base character has a descender, e.g. [ŋ, ɻ, ɡ]. Similarly, the dental diacritic U+032A COMBINING BRIDGE BELOW would usually only be applied to a base character standing for an alveolar sound, e.g. [t, n, s]. However if someone wanted to use it with, say, [b] to show a labiodental stop, that would also be OK. But combined with, say, [k] it would presumably be meaningless.
There is no formal constraint on having multiple diacritics on the same base character.

The aspiration diacritic, [ʰ], is most commonly deployed after symbols for voiceless plosives. The IPA Handbook also shows it with [d], although the article about Hindi in the body of the book instead uses [ʱ] for the voiced aspirated series, thus [bʱ d̪ʱ dʒʱ ɖʱ ɡʱ]. Korean has two kinds of alveolar fricative, one of them often transcribed [sʰ], and I suppose in principle any affricate or fricative can be aspirated. Can approximants? Can vowels? You could call the preaspiration of Icelandic, Scottish Gaelic etc aspiration of the preceding vowel, and certainly transcriptions of the type [kʰaʰt] are in use for such cases.
“Breathy voiced” and “creaky voiced” can only combine with symbols for voiced sounds: [t̤] is presumably a logical contradiction. Nasals can’t be nasalized. And so on.
Are “advanced” and “retracted” only for vowels? No, because they are sometimes used to show dental as against alveolar, prevelar as against velar consonants. What about “centralized”? Vowels only, I think. 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.
What about combining the syllabicity mark with a vowel symbol? Normally we don’t do that, because vowels are inherently syllabic, so it would be tautologous. But Abercrombie, in his English Phonetic Texts (1964), used a transcription for English in which the syllabicity mark sometimes appeared under schwa to show that it was not part of a diphthong.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


Václav Jonáš Podlipský wrote to ask about
the 'unreleased' IPA diacritic. Is it supposed to mark 'no ORAL release' or 'no release at all'? I'm asking because I don't know if it is correct to use the symbol in phrases like 'look at me' [lʊk əp mi] where the bilabial (underlyingly alveolar) stop is followed by a (now homorganic) nasal and where there is no labial release but only a nasal one. What about 'at noon'?

For a plosive to have literally no release at all, the speaker would have to stop breathing, or at least discontinue the airstream mechanism underlying the production of the plosive.
In the middle (compression) stage of a plosive, air pressure builds up in the cavity behind the primary articulators. Something has to undo that pressure buildup: if not the release of the primary articulators, then either some other release (notably nasal, by lowering the soft palate) or a zeroing of the pressure (if the intercostal muscles and diaphragm creating the egressive airstream stop compressing the lungs).
That is why the diacritic [ ̚ ] is defined on the IPA chart not as “unreleased” but as “no audible release”.
The excellent Wikipedia article entitled Unreleased stop correctly says that
An unreleased stop or unreleased plosive is a plosive consonant without an audible release burst.

Why would a plosive have a release that was not audible? Usually because a new primary place of articulation takes over the task of retaining the compressed air: most typically the glottal place. When we say right at the end of an utterance we often bring in a glottal closure to reinforce an alveolar closure. When the tongue tip then ultimately separates from the alveolar ridge there is no audible “burst” (noise of release), because the air pressure is held behind the glottal closure. Then later we either produce a glottal release or, more usually, just stop pushing with the lungs. The result can correctly be transcribed [t̚ ]. (It is also possible, of course, to release the [t] normally, or to entirely replace it by a glottal articulation, [ʔ].)
In phrases such as the look at me and at noon that Václav [ˈvaːtslaf] asks about it is possible to use nasal release, i.e. to release the [p] or [t] by lowering the soft palate. In that case there will be an audible release. Daniel Jones called this “nasal plosion”, and judging by his description it appears to have been the norm in the RP of a hundred years ago. The IPA symbol is [pn, tn].
Nowadays nasal release in this phonetic environment would tend to sound a bit prissy or over-careful: in Britain we mostly either just use a glottal stop, [lʊkəʔmi, əʔnuːn], or else we render the nasal release inaudible by covering it with a glottal closure.
What do I mean by “inaudible nasal release”? This can be notated [lʊkəpʔmi, ətʔnuːn], or if you prefer [lʊkəp̚ mi, ət̚ nuːn]. Instructions for making [pʔm] (which could also be written [p̚ m]) would be:
1. As you finish making the vowel, switch off voicing and bring the lips firmly together, thereby cutting off the air escape and thus creating the first stage of the plosive (the “approach”). The air builds up in the pharynx and mouth behind the lips.
2. While the lips remain together, close the glottis. This cuts off the air pressure from the lungs, isolating the supraglottal cavities so that there is no longer much pressure differential between the oropharynx plus mouth on the one hand and the nasopharynx and outside air on the other. Air pressure remains in the subglottal tract. This is the middle stage of the plosive (the “hold” or compression stage).
3. Lower the soft palate. We don’t hear any nasal release because there is no great pressure differential involved. The oropharynx and the nasopharynx now communicate.
4. Release the glottal closure. This is the third stage of the plosive, the “release” — but it is inaudible as such. The lips are still together. As the vocal folds (= glottis) cease to be firmly closed they start to vibrate, giving voicing. Air escapes through the nose. We have [m].
You could abbreviate all this description by just referring to it as “[p] with no audible release”.
A further possibility that might be called “no audible release” is the kind of thing we get in grab bag, bad dog, big girl, where articulatorily there is just a single plosive with a long hold: narrowly [ɡræbːæɡ, bædːɒɡ, bɪɡːɜːl]. Phonologically, of course, there are two plosives involved each time, /bb, dd, ɡɡ/. The /d/ at the end of bad is literally unreleased, just as the initial /d/ in dog is “unapproached”. There is just one plosive approach, as [æ] ends, and one plosive release, as [ɒ] begins. The extra duration of the hold phase, as the primary articulators remain in position and air builds up, signals to us that this counts as two successive consonants, not one.

Monday, 23 November 2009

iron or...

In Saturday’s Guardian Simon Hoggart commented, not for the first time, on Gordon Brown’s “strange pronunciations”.
The prime minister has been making much of the Conservative party leader David Cameron's "cast-iron" promise, now abandoned, of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.…
It's rather spoiled, though, by the fact that 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.

Gordon Brown is of course far from being ‘the only person in the English-speaking world who pronounces the letter “r” in “iron”’. All rhotic speakers do.
What is unusual about Brown’s pronunciation, as Simon Hoggart says, is that he pronounces the word as spelt, i-ron ˈaɪ rən. So for him it rhymes with Byron and involves the same sequence as tyrant. The usual pronunciation of iron, ˈaɪə(r)n, must result from a historical metathesis by which ī rən becomes ī ərn. The r then as usual coalesces with the preceding schwa in rhotic accents to yield ɚ, ˈaɪɚn, while in non-rhotic accents, being preconsonantal, it undergoes the usual deletion, giving ˈaɪən.
The OED gives a rather more elaborate account, involving “diphthongation” (by which I think it means the Great Vowel Shift) and “syncopation”, but saying essentially the same thing.I don’t know whether Brown’s pronunciation of this word is shared by some or all Scots. Perhaps someone will tell us. It does have the advantage of making the word clearly distinct from ion.

Friday, 20 November 2009

fɜːrɜːd gɜːlz

Yesterday I paid a quick visit to the University of Liverpool to chair a fascinating lecture by Wim Jansen of the University of Amsterdam, who has carried out a corpus-based comparison of the Esperanto of 1903 with that of 2003. He showed that over the intervening century some Esperanto affixes have acquired a life of their own: for example ege, from the augmentative suffix -eg-, was unknown a hundred years ago but is now a significant rival to tre (very) and multe (much).
Anyhow, on my way through the town, as I walked back to the station, I was intrigued to see a hairdresser’s punningly called Ben Hair. It took me back.
(Explanation: in Scouse, the local accent of Liverpool, the SQUARE and NURSE vowels are merged. Think chariot races.)
We had the same merger where I grew up, although our local accent was Lancashire rather than Scouse. When I was at primary school there was a girl in the class called ˈmɜːrɪ. I would clutch 5d ˈfaɪfpəns in my hand every day to pay my ˈbʊs fɜː. (That would have been a ˈθrepni ˈbɪt and two pennies, or I’d have got a penny change from a tanner. Question for the young: how much change would I have got from half a crown?)
Those who remember Cilla Black (a Scouser) from the television programme Blind Date will recall that she was forever introducing girls called klɜː or ˈsɜːrə.
My picture shows Abercromby Squɜː with part of the University and one of Liverpool’s two cathedrals.

In our Liverpool home,
In our Liverpool home,
We speak with an accent exceedingly rɜː,
We meet under a statue exceedingly bɜː,
If you want a cathedral we've got one to spɜː,
In our Liverpool home.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

One ell of a suffix

In the discussion of wholly and holy (blog, 30 October) I didn’t touch on the question of whether wholly is pronounced with one l sound or two (though some commentators did). So let’s do so now.
The general rule in English is that when you form an adverb in -ly from an adjective ending in l you simplify the two l sounds to one. Thus fully is ˈfʊli, partially is ˈpɑː(r)ʃəli. In addition, in an adverb formed from a stem ending in syllabic l the syllabicity is lost, thus simple, simply ˈsɪmpl̩, ˈsɪmpli, gentle, gently ˈdʒentl̩, ˈdʒentli (though there is some hesitation for subtly ˈsʌt(l̩)li). The ending -ically, too, usually has the underlying -ɪkəlli compressed to simple -ɪkli, thus physically ˈfɪzɪkli.
This means that for wholly we would normally expect only a single l sound. Does the fact that some speakers sometimes pronounce a double (geminated) l imply that they are treating this word as an exception, perhaps consciously striving to differentiate it from holy or hole-y? Perhaps it does. On the other hand, when we form a nonce -ly adverb from an adjective that is not usually made into an adverb in that way, double l may be preserved: you can experiment with dully ˈdʌl(l)i, smally ˈsmɔːlli, and futilely BrE ˈfjuːtaɪlli.
With the suffix -less there is no such simplification: guileless is ˈɡaɪlləs, not *ˈɡaɪləs; similarly tailless, soulless.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

royal enhancement

The Queen’s Speech to Parliament today gives us another opportunity to observe her pronunciation first-hand.
It is striking that she regularly pronounces enhance as ɪnˈhæns rather than the ɪnˈhɑːns which most RP speakers have. I feel sure she wouldn’t pronounce æ in dance or chance. I wonder why enhance for her has not undergone the usual broadening (backing plus lengthening) in the environment _ns.
There are two well-known exceptions to this sound change for all RP (etc.) speakers: romance rə(ʊ)ˈmæns and finance (stress variable, but always -næns). Speakers vary in the case of stance stæns ~ stɑːns and even more for circumstance (where you very frequently also get weakening to -stəns).

Hm. Why do I feel confident that the Queen would say lance, glance, answer and France with ɑː, while with (to) enˈtrance and fiancé(e) I feel there is a slight possibility that she might have æ?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


Following on from yesterday’s discussion of American æ before ŋ, perhaps we’d better have a brief mention of another mysterious matter in American English phonetics: the question of ɪ followed by ŋ.
The traditional view, and surely the correct view for most accents, is that , like other long vowels (see yesterday’s comments), does not occur lexically immediately before a velar nasal. The sequence iːŋ is impossible, unless it arises through alveolar-to-velar assimilation in items such as bean curd.
Traditionally, and for most of us, king is kɪŋ, string is strɪŋ, and link is lɪŋk, all with the short KIT vowel, ɪ.
However some Americans (they seem to be mostly Californians) report that they feel themselves to be using the FLEECE vowel in such cases: kiːŋ, striːŋ, liːŋk. (I transcribe with length marks in my usual way, although as we know American English does not really have a long/short contrast so much as a tense-lax one.)
I am not sure whether this extends to the position before ŋɡ, as in finger.
Again, you can argue that here we have a positional neutralization, this time of ɪ - iː, so that in a sense it is meaningless to ask which of the two vowels we have here. However speakers do generally seem to have pretty clear intuitions of a phonemic nature here: most of us are happy to identify the vowel of king with that of kin, while a minority identify it with that of keen. Are they all Californians?
Are these the same people who use an identical pronunciation for tin and ten, mini and many (another typical Californianism)? To judge by Wikipedia and Penelope Eckert’s webpage, probably not.

Monday, 16 November 2009

bank balance

Castedo Ellerman writes
I am wondering whether you hear /æ/ or /eɪ/ in the sound recordings for US English in your LPD software (3rd edition) for the word “bank”. To my ear I am hearing /eɪ/ in all of them (to varying degrees).
I have a US English accent and I find it natural to say the vowel in bank, sank, tank, or thank as either /æ/ or /eɪ/, so I think I can hear the difference.
For instance, the recording of “bank balance” from the US speaker really sounds like /beɪŋk/ … to me. Does it sound like that or /bæŋk/ to you?

I replied
I hear bæŋk, with a bit of an offglide of the ɪ type such as many Americans use before a following voiced velar nasal. But it's not beɪŋk - compare what you hear at bane.

I believe there is a phonotactic constraint in English against before the cluster ŋk. I suppose that means we could say that the opposition æ-eɪ is neutralized in the context of a following ŋk, which would mean it’s meaningless to ask which of the two we get in this context.
I am sorry I cannot extract the sound files for bank and bank balance from the CD-ROM so as to make them available to you here: but if you have the dictionary you can check them for yourself. Here is the clip in question (thanks to Petr Rösel). I am not sure which of the American speakers that we used recorded this particular sound clip, but he is evidently not one of those who uses a strictly monophthongal æ in all contexts.

I wonder how other Americans would react to Mr Ellerman’s opinion.
_ _ _

Further to my report of the death of Stanley Ellis (blog, 4 Nov), I would refer those interested to Jack Windsor Lewis’s obituary published in the Guardian (you may need to go to the front page,, then down through Obituaries | Stanley Ellis), as well as to what he has written in his own blog.
Edward Aveyard has drawn my attention to a press report from the Yorkshire Evening Press dated August 1953.

Friday, 13 November 2009

weak u and ə

Christer Bermheden wrote from Sweden:
I am sometimes still confused when it comes to weak vowels. Today [in LPD] I found ʊ in spatula and u in occupy, although they seem equal and appear in the same environment. I also noted that they are replaced by the same symbol in the transcription of the American-English pronunciation - ə.
Actually, it’s not true that they “appear in the same environment”. A crucial difference is that spatula has a weak final vowel (ə), while occupy has a strong one (). Consequently by my syllabification rules (which you may disagree with) the second syllable in spatula is closed, while that in occupy is open: the l of spatula remains in the default coda position, while the p of occupy is captured into the final syllable by the following strong vowel.
My introspection and observation leads me to think that in RP, or at least for me personally, we typically have a vowel ranging over [ʊ ~ ə] in a closed syllable but over the more firmly back [u ~ ʊ] in an open syllable.
Compare stimulus and stimulate, which I have transcribed ˈstɪm jʊl əs and ˈstɪm ju leɪt respectively (in each case also with -jə- as an alternative possibility).
In American English, yes, -jə- would be normal; but in BrE, for someone of my age group, my reaction to it is that that would sound uncultivated or at least very casual.
You may think that I have made things unnecessarily complicated here. There is obviously a gradual tendency for the British to follow the Americans towards generalizing -jə- in these weak syllables. But we haven’t by any means got there yet.
_ _ _
If you would like to see and hear me chatting about teaching pronunciation, here are two television interviews recorded when I was in Argentina recently. They are in programmes 25 and 26, but you’ll have to wait for 15-16 minutes of other material first each time.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


When I was a child, one of the dishes we quite often had for pudding (= AmE dessert) was blancmange, which we pronounced in a thoroughly anglicized way as bləˈmɒndʒ. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I noticed that it looks like a French word.
Like junket, this foodstuff seems to have more or less disappeared from Britain by now (and I’m not sure whether Americans ever had it). It has been displaced by yoghurt and other ready-made puddings/sweets/afters from the supermarket refrigerated display. If we do have it or something like it, we might nowadays call it (up-market) panna cotta or (down-market) shape.
The OED reveals that the word itself has been in English since Chaucer’s day. In the Prologue (1386) he writes
ffor blankmanger [v.r. blankemangere] that made he with the beste

The word does indeed have a French origin, though in modern French it has an extra syllable: blanc-manger blãmãʒe. You can see that it had three syllables for Chaucer, too. Furthermore, at that time it was made from chicken or other meat.
The OED’s first citation for a two-syllable version is 1789, when it was spelt blomange. I wonder when and how it became a sweet dessert and when and how it lost that final syllable.
In EPD Daniel Jones gave the word an alternative pronunciation with a French-style nasalized vowel, -mɔ̃ː(n)ʒ. But that must be based on the French spelling, not on actual French: it’s like connoisseur or epergne, a word that looks French but isn’t.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

diphthong, schmiphthong

A customer wrote to the publishers of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English to point out what she thought was an error in the list of diphthongs given in the Pronunciation Table on the inside front cover. The last two entries there read
She objected that these
ne sont pas des diphtongues (voyelle se modifiant en cours d'émission, prononcée en 1 seule syllabe) mais des voyelles non phonémiques /i/ et /u/ suivies d'un schwa /ə/, appartenant à 2 syllabes contiguës mais distinctes, malgré l'absence de consonne intermédiaire.
[are not diphthongs (a vowel modified in the course of production, pronounced in one single syllable), but non-phonemic vowels /i/ and /u/ followed by a schwa /ə/, belonging to two adjacent but distinct syllables, despite the absence of any consonant between them.]
Longman asked me to draft a reply.
In LPD I have a whole-page panel discussing what I call Compression. You could also call it Varisyllabicity. The point is that some English words are varisyllabic: the number of syllables they contain is variable. Thus actual can be pronounced as two syllables or as three; peculiar can be pronounced as three syllables or as four.
The sounds represented as and here can be, and frequently are, pronounced in a single syllable. Alternatively, particularly in slow, careful, overarticulated speech, they can be pronounced in two syllables.
If "compressed" into a single syllable, they are diphthongs. Daniel Jones treated them as a particular type of diphthong, rising diphthongs. I have sometimes called them crescendo diphthongs. (It may be difficult or impossible to distinguish them auditorily from the corresponding sequences of semivowel plus schwa, or .)
I would think you get the same alternation in French, for example in the name Louis, which is usually monosyllabic [lwi] but can also be said disyllabically as [lui].

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

more old nonsense

Here's another list of nonsense words from my postgraduate days, as dictated by J.D. O'Connor. It shows various extemporized symbols for sound types for which the (then) IPA made no provision.
As my marginal notes indicate, in line 3 z* was to stand for z with no friction, i.e. for an alveolar grooved approximant. In the same word the linked pk obviously stands for a labial-velar plosive, which is more usually (though arguably less logically) written k͡p.
In line 4 fɾʼ stands for an ejective cluster (as in yesterday’s nonsense). The symbol ʇ with an inferior right-to-left arrow, as the marginal note says, stands for a “reverse click”, i.e. a dental stop sound made with an egressive velaric airstream — a sound type not attested in human languages as far as I know.
Lower down, the improvised p with a superior left-to-right arrow is glossed “kiss click”. Now the IPA has a recognized symbol for this sound, the voiceless bilabial click, namely ʘ. In the same word we have an alveolar-labiodental ejective fricative, written as sf with an inferior tie bar.
In the last line but one the last symbol is a bit of a mystery. The underlined s with a superior right-to-left arrow is glossed “= [ks]” (with an inferior tie bar). I’m not sure what that means, nor how the sound shown by this symbol would have been different from the one shown by the same symbol without the underlining.
What fun we used to have!

Monday, 9 November 2009

ancient nonsense

I was digging around in one of my old notebooks dating from the early sixties when I was a postgraduate student at UCL doing a master’s in phonetics and linguistics. One of the things I found was a collection of nonsense words used for ear training in general phonetics. I received this kind of training from J.D. O’Connor, Marguerite Chapallaz, Hélène Coustenoble, and A.C. Gimson.
Alongside I have reproduced fifteen of O’Connor’s words. I assume this page of my notes is a fair copy rather than my own attempts at recognition.
In the first word, kʼoβɓaŋ͡ʇyʔ you will see that four different airstream mechanisms are involved: as well as the default pulmonic egressive, they are glottalic egressive for the ejective , glottalic ingressive for the implosive ɓ, and velaric ingressive combined with pulmonic egressive for the nasalized dental click ŋ͡ʇ (which nowadays we write ŋ|).
Among the other points of interest are
• (lines 4 and 5) the other two old click symbols, retroflex ʗ (now !) and lateral ʖ (now ǁ).
• (line 5) an ejective cluster, with a bilabial plosive and an alveolar lateral combined in a single “ejection”: I don’t know of any language that has this kind of combination.
• (line 7) the symbol ɐ with a “more open” diacritic, to represent a fully open vowel halfway between cardinal 4 a and cardinal 5 ɑ. Compare this with the “advanced” ɑ in line 3, which shows that we were operating in terms of five degrees of advancement among open vowels: cardinal 4, retracted 4, this central one, advanced 5, cardinal 5.
• (line 8) the symbol ɹ with a subscript dot (= closer), standing for the fricative rather than the default approximant (or “frictionless continuant” as we used to call it in those days).
• (line 10) a velarized voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. Nowadays we would have to write it ɬʷ.
• (line 14) the symbol sf stood for a labiodentalized s. ExtIPA (see the IPA Handbook) now writes this as sʋ.

Friday, 6 November 2009

neonate intonation

A reporter from the Times rang me up yesterday afternoon to ask for my reaction to the claim made by German biologists that
French newborns tended to cry with a rising melody contour, starting at a low pitch and ending on a high note, whereas German babies preferred a falling melody. …
These patterns are consistent with characteristic differences between the two languages, according the researchers.

This was the first I had heard of this claim, and I had not had an opportunity to read the journal article on which it was based. Not surprisingly, my immediate reaction was to rubbish it. After all, both French and German use both rising and falling pitch contours (as does English).
No one would want to dispute that very young children acquire the appropriate suprasegmentals for their native language, including in particular appropriate rhythm and intonation, well before they acquire segmentals (vowels and consonants). It is entirely plausible that this should be detectable even in newborns, and even that French newborns should vocalize differently from German ones.

The problem arises in the claim that French has rises while German has falls. Both have both.

The report duly appeared in today’s Times. It makes the claim in rather greater detail, including reference to loudness.

While the average volume of crying was the same, the French babies started more quietly and built up to a crescendo, while the German babies did the opposite. …

“When you say the word ‘Papa’ in German, for instance, you stress the first syllable, whereas in French it is the other way round,” explained Professor Angela Friederici, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig. The same pattern is typical for longer phrases, she said.

This appears to be plain wrong. According to Mangold’s Duden Aussprachewörterbuch, German Papa is usually stressed on the second syllable, paˈpaː. (That is if it means ‘father’. If it means ‘pope’, it has initial stress. I don’t think German newborns would be concerned with the Pope.)

Thursday, 5 November 2009


In a television discussion between the former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and the presenter Andrew Marr, both used the pronunciation ˈspaʊzɪz for spouses (pl).
I think (though without any hard evidence) that most people pronounce this word with a voiceless sibilant at the end of the stem, ˈspaʊsɪz. (There is also a jocular plural spice spaɪs, like mouse—mice.)
There are two possible explanations for the voiced sibilant pronunciation: (i) the speakers in question say spaʊz for the singular noun; or (ii) they say spaʊs in the singular, but switch voicing for the plural.
Many dictionaries do record spaʊz as a possibility for the singular noun, although EPD/CPD is not among them. I would be pretty confident in saying that in BrE at least it is very much a minority preference.
So explanation (ii) seems to be more likely. The explanation for a switch in voicing would obviously be the analogy with house haʊshouses ˈhaʊzɪz (which is pretty general among native speakers, though Scots seem often to have the regularized ˈhaʊsɪz).
Although house is the only stem in s which switches voicing for the plural in this way, the “minor rule” involved applies to a fair number of stems in voiceless fricatives at other places: f-v in leaf—leaves, wife—wives, sheaf—sheaves etc, θ-ð in oath—oaths, truth—truths, mouth–mouths, and less reliably in path—paths, bath—baths; moth—moths in AmE but not BrE. There are no instances of ʃ-ʒ alternation.
The labiodental cases are supported by the spelling, f-v. But this naturally does not apply to those spelt th or s.
The alternation is better supported in noun-verb pairs, where the noun has s but the verb z: use, abuse, advice/advise, loss/lose, spouse/espouse as well as house. (But only Germans think that leasing has z.)
It would be unusual for an exceptional pattern (minor rule) to be extended to new vocabulary items. That is why ˈspaʊzɪz seems worthy of comment.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Stanley Ellis

Hard on the heels of yesterday’s blog comes news of another death: that of Stanley Ellis, the distinguished dialectologist, who has died at the age of 83.

Stanley Ellis was one of the principal fieldworkers on the Survey of English Dialects conducted under Harold Orton at the University of Leeds half a century ago. He brought to this work not just accurate observation, recorded in careful IPA notation, but also, famously, a striking ability to establish a good rapport with the informants, who were mostly elderly agricultural labourers in the north of England. Stanley’s own clearly northern accent and way of speaking must have helped in this; but he was also just a very friendly man who could get on well with all sorts.

He was also extensively involved in forensic phonetics, being the first person to give expert evidence on speaker identification in an English Court, at Winchester in 1965.
In later years he and I sometimes used to work together lecturing visiting Americans on speech varieties in England. We did a kind of double act, perhaps slightly exaggerating the difference between our backgrounds: I played the ex-public-school RP speaker, he played the rustic local. (In reality and in contrast, I too am a northerner from a small village and he was a highly educated academic.) I last saw him at a meeting of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, which he helped run.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Ian Catford

I was sorry to see that Ian Catford had died. Here’s an obituary.
He was 92, so quite a bit older than me and presumably than nearly everyone else reading this. I didn’t know him well, though I did meet him briefly once or twice. But it was his method of teaching the subject, enshrined in his book A practical introduction to phonetics, that was a great inspiration.
He rightly emphasized how important it is for students of phonetics to learn how to actually recognize and produce a wide range of speech sounds. So-called phoneticians who can’t, won’t or daren’t actually attempt to make the sounds of all sorts of foreign languages are missing out on an important element of the subject. Sitting in a lab measuring formants, or cogitating about phonological systems and rules, is all very well: but it’s not enough.
When asked to give advice to linguistics students, Ian said, “Don't neglect to acquire the phonetic skills – including, or in particular, articulatory phonetics. Students should learn to perceive and produce everything.”
Hear, hear!
Requiescat in pace.

Monday, 2 November 2009

rock law

The Travel section in Saturday’s Guardian had a feature article about Wroclaw [sic], by one Alex Webber, who says he has lived in Poland for the last nine years.
It is surprising, then, that he is ill-informed about the pronunciation of this name.
For the record, its correct spelling is Wrocław (though we mustn’t niggle over the difficulties the British press still has with east European letters such as ł). However its Polish pronunciation is not, as Mr Webber claims, “rot-slav” but [ˈvrɔtswaf], which he could write as “vrot-swahf”. Mr Webber may be right in his claim that (some) Brits call it “rock-law”, i.e. [ˈrɒk lɔː], though I have never heard that myself: in the circles in which I move, people call it [ˈvrɒtslɑːv], and that is what I put in LPD.
Other interesting places mentioned in the article include “Poznán” (should be Poznań) and “Kracow” (should be either the traditional English Cracow or the Polish Kraków). The latter city does have a traditional English pronunciation, too — [ˈkrækaʊ] — to set alongside its Polish name, pronounced [ˈkɾakuf].
All three of these places are also known in English by their German names: Breslau, Posen, Krakau. The first is presumably the source of the surname of the comedy actor Bernard Bresslaw (1934-1993).