Thursday, 16 December 2010

Black or white ice?

Here we go again! I've spotted another howler in my English-Italian Italian-English 2010 Hazon Garzanti Dictionary (cf. my blog for the 20th of November).
Having to check the exact translation into Italian of the English compound black ice, I opened my dictionary and looked it up in there. Much to my surprise, I found that the phonemic transcription the authors offer for this expression is ˈblækaɪs. But this is obviously wrong! The correct stress pattern in English is ˌblæk ˈaɪs, with main stress on the final element, NOT on the initial one.

The expression black ice refers to ice in a thin layer on the surface of a road. While not truly black, it is virtually transparent, allowing black asphalt roadways to be seen through it.

The late stress on the compound noun highlights the fact that we are NOT talking about 'ice that is black' (I haven't seen any yet!), rather that black ice is just a particular type of ice that is to be found on the surface of roads in frosty weather - a topical issue in this part of the world, I would say.

The double stress on black ice is similar to the one you get in such words as black board or black bird:
1) a ˈblackboard is a particular board with a dark smooth surface, used in schools for writing on with chalk; a ˈblack ˈboard is just a board which is black.
2) a ˈblackbird is a common American and European bird, the male of which is completely black; a ˈblack ˈbird is just a bird that is black.

Does anyone in the English-speaking world pronounce black ice front-stressed? Please, let me know. I'm really curious!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas in Tarquinia

Christmas is coming up soon and Tarquinia, the town I live in in Italy, is getting ready for the celebration of the coming of Christ. This year on Boxing Day, about 300 performers dressed in period costume will parade through its cobblestone streets, re-enacting the miraculous event. Tarquinia will then be transformed into a first century AD scene of little Bethlehem, with wooden benches, straw, wooden carriages, open-air markets of goods and livestock, antique inns and all the traditional accoutrements of a time past.
On the 6th of January, then, citizens dressed as the Magi accompanied by real camels will walk through the streets leading to the crib where the baby Jesus lays in swaddling clothes.

If you want to know more about the Tarquinia Live Crib, you can visit th
is website. Here you'll find a lot of pictures and a nice video of the past Christmas events organised by my brother in our fascinating Etruscan town.

The arrival of the festive season made me think of the origins and pronunciation of the term Christmas. According to my Oxford Dictionary of English (2005, 2nd edition), Christmas is derived from the Old English
Crīstes mæsse, with mæsse probably coming from ecclesiastical Latin missa, from Latin miss- 'dismissed', from mittere, perhaps from the last words of the service Ite, missa est, 'Go, it is the dismissal'.
From a phonetic point of view, Christmas is obviously pronounced ˈkrɪsməs,ˈk
rɪzməs (sometimes ˈkrɪstməs in very careful speech), with its suffix always reduced to a schwa. So from the Old English strong-vowelled mæsse we get a suffix -mas (meaning 'a holiday, a sacred day') which is characterised by the weak centralised ə. This is a tendency typical of all unstressed vowels in English when they passed from Old English to Modern English. As Cruttenden in his Gimson's Pronunciation of English (2008, p.66) put it,

"OE [=Old English] is sometimes called the period of full endings, e.g. stanas was realized as [ˈstɑːnɑs]; ME [=Middle English], the period of levelled endings (when vowels in endings were all levelled to [ə]), when stones was pronounced [ˈstɔːnəs]; and eModE [=early Modern English] onwards, the period of lost endings, when stones is [ˈstoːnz] or later [ˈstəʊnz]. The general tendency has been for all unaccented vowels to shorten (if long) and to gravitate towards the weak centralized vowels [ɪ] or [ə], or sometimes [ʊ], if not to disappear altogether. This fact accounts for the high frequency of occurrence of [ɪ] and [ə] in PresE [=Present-day English] and for the complete elision of many vowels in unaccented syllables in rapid colloquial speech, e.g. suppose [spəʊz], probably [prɒbblɪ]."

So Christmas is
ˈkrɪsməs today, never *ˈkrɪsmæs (or *ˈkrɪsmas, as many EFL learners wrongly pronounce it). But what about the word Candlemas, the name of the Christian festival held on the 2nd of February to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the Temple? Is it ˈkændlməs, on the pattern of ˈkrɪsməs, or ˈkændlmæs, with a strong-vowelled suffix? Well, LPD3 has both but it prioritises the pronunciation with -mæs. So does the ODP (2003), specifying though that ˈkændlməs is the established variant in General American. The Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation (2006) only acknowledges ˈkændlmæs, whereas the Cambridge EPD (2006) has both pronunciations but prioritises the one with the schwa.
And here's my question: why do we get two pronunciations for Candlemas and only one possible for Christmas when these words can both be analysed as STEM + -mas? I sup
pose one reason could be because Christmas is by far more common than Candlemas and so people have internalized the pronunciation with the weak-vowelled suffix. Candlemas, on the other hand, being less frequent in people's vocabulary or indeed non-existent in some individuals' mental lexicon, tends to be said the way it is spelt. So we (sometimes) get a spelling pronunciation in Candlemas but we keep the more "traditional" (and expected?) one in Christmas.

In English there are another four words (maybe more?) suffixed with -mas: Childermas, Hallowmas (or Hallowmass), Martinmas, and Michaelmas. (For more on the meanings of these terms, click here.) How are they pronounced? Are they like Christmas or like Candlemas? Well, I have to say I fluctuate between -məs and -mæs
in all of them, except in Michaelmas which for me is always ˈmɪkəlməs. Is it the same for you?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

To administer or not to administer?

Last week I attended an introductory lecture given by a colleague of mine on how best to do medical research in English. The lecture was part of a course entitled "English for Researchers in the Medical Profession" on which I co-teach with a couple of other lecturers.

Friday's talk, in particular, was about providing the students with the right keywords so they can retrieve information from databases such as PubMed and CINAHL as quickly and as accurately as possible. One of these words was the English verb to administer. My colleague claimed that this verb is different from to administrate and should not be confused with it. He insisted that the former is only used with the meaning of "giving someone a medicine or medical treatment", whereas the latter means "to manage or organise something".
But this can't be true! Don't you say, for example, "to administer justice"? Or "to administer the affairs of a company"? And what about "to administer a questionnaire"? Also, isn't administrate somewhat rarer than administer?

So, as always, I went and looked up both terms in my Oxford Dictionary of English (2005, 2nd edition edited by C.Soanes and A.Stevenson), and this is what I found:

As is evident from the above, the more common of the two terms is to administer and it CAN actually mean "to manage or be responsible for the running of a company, etc." To administrate, on the other hand, means the same as to administer (sense 1) and is first attested in English in the mid 16th century.

Not content with that, I then looked to administrate up in the Longman Exams Dictionary (2006) and I couldn't find it. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (2010) doesn't include it either, nor does its online version, which, on the other hand, does include to administer. (Read here.)

If we check in the British National Corpus, we only get 1 occurrence for administrate and 538 occurrences for administer. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, administrate comes up only 18 times, whereas to administer 1881.

I think there is enough evidence here to argue that EFL students at all levels should be made aware of the several meanings of the term to administer and that they shouldn't bother about its much rarer "synonym" to administrate.

Why should we teachers sometimes complicate things when they are not so complicated?

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Pronunciations in Hazon Garzanti 2010

On consulting my English-Italian Italian-English 2010 Hazon Garzanti Dictionary, I've realized that most of the pronunciations the authors provide for English are either old-fashioned or not the established ones at the moment.

Here are 18 words. Notice first their pronunciation(s) in Hazon Garzanti 2010 (which we can shorten to GARZ 2010 for convenience) and then the ones provided by Professor Wells in his LPD 3:

applicable: GARZ 2010 ˈæplɪkəbl (for both BrE and AmE); LPD 3 əˈplɪkəbl̩ (BrE 85%; AmE 36%), ˈæplɪkəbl̩ (BrE 15%; AmE 64%).

Asia: GARZ 2010 BrE ˈeɪʃə, AmE ˈeɪʒə; LPD 3
ˈeɪʒə (BrE 64%; AmE 91%), ˈeɪʃə (BrE 36%, AmE 9%) - BrE, those born before 1942, ˈeɪʒə 32%, ˈeɪʃə 68%.

ate: GARZ 2010 BrE et, AmE eɪt; LPD 3
et (BrE 55%; AmE considered non-standard), eɪt (BrE 45%, with almost 70% of younger people preferring this pronunciation).

bedroom: GARZ 2010 ˈbedrʊm (for both BrE and AmE); LPD 3 ˈbedruːm (BrE 63%),
ˈbedrʊm (BrE 37%).

controversy: GARZ 2010 ˈkɒntrəvɜːsɪ (for both BrE and AmE - notice the
ɪ of old-fashioned RP); LPD 3 kənˈtrɒvəsi (BrE 60%), ˈkɒntrəvɜːsi (BrE 40%) - Among RP speakers the latter form perhaps still predominates, but in BrE in general the former is now clearly more widespread.

deity: GARZ 2010 ˈdiːɪtɪ (for both BrE and AmE - notice the
ɪ again); LPD 3 ˈdeɪəti (BrE 80%), ˈdiːɪti (BrE 20%).

dissect: GARZ 2010 dɪsˈsekt (for both BrE and AmE - notice the quite improbable
-sˈs-); LPD 3 daɪˈsekt (BrE 89% - born since 1981, 95%), dɪˈsekt (BrE 11%).

exquisite: GARZ 2010 ˈekskwɪzɪt (for BrE); LPD 3 ɪkˈskwɪzɪt (BrE 69%, with more than 85% of younger people preferring this pronunciation),
ˈekskwɪzɪt (BrE 31%).

forehead: GARZ 2010 ˈfɒrɪd (for BrE); LPD 3 ˈfɔːhed (BrE 65%, with 80% of younger people preferring this pronunciation),
ˈfɒrɪd (BrE 35%).

impious: GARZ 2010 ˈɪmpɪəs (for both BrE and AmE); LPD 3 (ˌ)ɪmˈpaɪəs (BrE 53%),
ˈɪmpiəs (BrE 47%, born before 1942, 63%) - The traditional, irregular pronunciation has lost ground in favour of (ˌ)ɪmˈpaɪəs.

kilometre: GARZ 2010 ˈkɪləʊˌmiːtə (for BrE); LPD 3 kɪˈlɒmɪtə (BrE 63%),
ˈkɪləˌmiːtə (BrE 37%).

-less: GARZ 2010 lɪs; LPD 3 ləs (BrE 74%), lɪs (BrE 26%).

longitude: GARZ 2010 ˈlɒndʒɪtjuːd (for BrE); LPD 3 ˈlɒŋɡɪtjuːd (BrE 85%),
ˈlɒndʒɪtjuːd (BrE 15%).

often: GARZ 2010 ˈɒfn (the only pronunciation offered for BrE); LPD 3 ˈɒfn̩, ˈɒftn̩ (also with the now less common vowel ɔː).

poor: GARZ 2010 pʊə (the only pronunciation offered for BrE); LPD 3 pɔː (BrE 74%),
pʊə (BrE 26%, born before 1942, 41%).

schism: GARZ 2010 ˈsɪzəm (the only pronunciation offered for BrE); LPD 3 ˈskɪzəm (BrE 71%),
ˈsɪzəm (BrE 29% - maybe still common among the clergy).

year: GARZ 2010 jɜː (the only pronunciation offered for BrE); LPD 3 jɪə (BrE 80%),
jɜː (BrE 20%).

zebra: GARZ 2010 ˈziːbrə (the only pronunciation offered for BrE); LPD 3 ˈzebrə (BrE 83%),
ˈziːbrə (BrE 17%).

As is evident from the above, using the 2010 Hazon Garzanti Dictionary for checking how words are really pronounced in English today is NOT a good idea. Italian students of EFL may risk sounding fairly old-fashioned (especially the younger generation) and are therefore strongly advised to use LPD 3 or CPD or ODP for checking pronunciations, and Hazon Garzanti (or indeed any other good monolingual/bilingual dictionary) for the meanings of words.

Aside: It's interesting to note that in the introduction to their dictionary, the authors say that

[t]he 2010 edition is (...) the fruit of careful and constant monitoring of present day English and Italian (...).

Well, I've got the 1990 edition of the same dictionary and the words analysed above are all transcribed in exactly the same way!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

...words, words, words yet again!

This week I've been thinking of other words which have come into Italian from English and, as ever, I would like to discuss their pronunciation(s) with you.

One of them is
management. According to the Devoto-Oli 2011, the term management was first used in Italian in the 1970s. Its pronunciation? Well, every dictionary I have at home says it is pronounced - or should be pronounced - ˈmɛnedʒment, although I suppose most Italians today pronounce it maˈnadʒmɛnt. Canepàri's Dizionario di Pronuncia Italiana (DiPI) lists more variants, although all of them are front-stressed:ˈmanadʒment, ˈmɛ-, -ne-, -ni-.
What about the term performance? Well, again all my dictionaries say it is pronounced perˈfɔrmans, but I think this is wrong: most Italians nowadays say ˈpɛrforman(t)s. The DiPI has perˈfɔrmans as the standard pronunciation and regards ˈpɛrformans or even pɛrforˈmans as variants which should be avoided by Italian native speakers because they are slipshod speech.
One last word: decoder. All my dictionaries (including the DiPI) say this is d
eˈkɔder, although I've heard many newsreaders on TV pronounce it deˈkodɛr, which, I suppose, is a rather recent pronunciation.

As you can see from the above, dictionaries in Italy are still very prescriptive, telling you HOW YOU SHOULD PRONOUNCE a word rather than how words ARE REALLY PRONOUNCED by native speakers. This (imho) rather negative approach to language is also evident in the pronunciation dictionary from RAI, Radiotelevisione Italiana, entitled Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d'Ortografia e di Pronunzia, or DOP for short. Why is it that words like the ones we've just discussed are not included in it? Is it because they are English words and therefore should not be part of an Italian dictionary? Well, if they are used in Italian, it means they ARE Italian words, too, don't you think?

On Monday 19th July 2010, Professor Wells, on his excellent and fascinating phonetic blog, discussed the use of phonetic symbols in the DOP and also partly criticised its strongly normative nature. You can read what he said here.
On that occasion I joined in the discussion too, as I was really annoyed by the opinions expressed by one of the authors of the DOP, Tommaso Francesco Borri, about the fact that it is NOT a prescriptive pronunciation dictionary - which IT IS! Back then, I also criticised the transcription system which the authors had devised in order to avoid the complicated symbols found in IPA. You can read my comments here.

Mr. Borri's assertion that the DOP is not a prescriptive dictionary can easily be
tested. Just look up the words borsa, Borsa (bag; stock exchange) and zucchero (sugar), and check out their pronunciation. The DOP only gives ˈborsa for the former and ˈtsukkero for the latter. But almost every native speaker of Italian is aware of the fact that these are NOT THE ONLY pronunciations which people use in Italy. I don't say ˈborsa for example (which to me sounds very posh or old-fashioned); let alone ˈtsukkero. While these are the traditional pronunciations, many Italians today increasingly prefer ˈbortsa (or ˈbordza?) for borsa, Borsa and ˈdzukkero for zucchero.
In his DiPI, Canepàri only gives
ˈborsa, but acknowledges both ˈtsukkero and ˈdzukkero. Indeed, ˈdzukkero is what he prioritizes, stating that this is the pronunciation which is now most common both in Tuscany and in "Received Tuscan".

Other words with a similar alternation and in which ˈdz- or ˈ-dz- are becoming more and more prevalent are: avanzare (to advance), zuppa (soup), zampa (paw), zappa (hoe), zucca (pumpkin), zio (uncle), zitto (silent), zoppo (lame).

For more on the pronunciation(s) of 's' and 'z', read Canepàri's introduction to DiPI, pp.71-76.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Words, words, words...

In my blog for 19th June 2010 I discussed the Italian pronunciation of the term zoo and I said that many Italian native speakers pronounce it either ˈdzɔo or dzɔ.
When this week I asked my Italian EFL students how they pronounced it, some of them answered that they thought zoo could only be pronounced in one way - I don't know which of the two variants above, though. Even when I pointed out to them that there are people in Italy who use different pronunciations for the same word, some of them went so far as to say that that wasn't possible. Italian is essentially a phonetic language, so each word is pronounced the way it is written, they retorted.
Of course, we know that it is not always so, especially with words that have been borrowed into Italian from other languages, e.g. English.
According to the Dizionario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana (Zanichelli, 1999) by Manlio Cortelazzo and Paolo Zolli, the term zoo has come into Italian from the English expression zoo(logical Gardens), and was adopted by the French about 1931, at a time when they were already using zoologiste (first attested in French in 1760). So, the fact that most of my students were not aware of a pronunciation variant in zoo could well be because this term has been in the language for almost a century now and people do not notice - or criticise - speakers when they say for example dzɔ, which is not the pronunciation considered as correct by the majority of dictionaries in Italy. Also, the two forms, dzɔ and ˈdzɔo, sound quite similar to Italian ears and so it goes without saying that most people don't notice any difference.

Another word which a great deal of Italians seem to be using today is stage, meaning 'work experience, internship'. Many Italians pronounce it steidʒ, thinking that the term is derived from the English word stage meaning 'the raised area in a theatre which actors or singers stand on when they perform' - I don't know why they make this kind of connection! As a matter of fact - purists say - stage comes from the French staʒ and so that's how it should be pronounced.
...But, as my readers will know, when it comes to pronunciation, there is no right or wrong: preference is what should be taken into account. So whether it's staʒ or steidʒ, I personally don't care. A linguist's job is just to describe the language as it is used, NOT AS IT SHOULD BE USED.
Now, do you want to know how I pronounce the word stage? Well, I have to say that I fluctuate between the two possibilities discussed above: with my friends or with people I know well I tend to use steidʒ; with my superiors, in my work environment, or in more formal situations I say staʒ, as I'm aware of the fact that pedants are always on the lookout for "incorrect forms" and they might object to them vehemently.
The reason why the pronunciation steidʒ is so vigorously condemned is probably because the word stage, compared to zoo, has been in Italian "only" since the early 1960s (it is first attested in 1963). This means that its pronunciation is still unstable and it will probably take some time before people come to accept the more controversial steidʒ.
Canepàri, in his Dizionario di Pronuncia Italiana (Zanichelli, 2009), regards staʒ as the correct form, but acknowledges steidʒ (or even stɛidʒ) as a possible variant, although he judges it meno consigliabile ('less advisable').
In all the other dictionaries I have at home it's more or less the same story.

Yet another word which has been borrowed from English is report, having exactly the same meaning as the noun report in English. Italians normally pronounce it ˈrɛpɔrt or ˈripɔrt, not usually riˈpɔːt or rəˈpɔːt as it is in RP. (People who use the English pronunciation would just be ridiculed, I think, for sounding too posh.)
The word report has been in Italian only since the 1990s and I suppose many people pronounce it ˈrɛpɔrt because this is how the famous presenter Milena Gabanelli pronounces the name of her popular TV show: Report.

Now, over to you my dear readers: How do you pronounce zoo? Which pronunciations do you prefer and/or use for stage? How do you say report? I need as much information as possible!

NB: To see the IPA phonetic symbols in the text, please ensure that you have installed a Unicode font that includes them all, for example LUCIDA SANS UNICODE or Charis SIL. (Click here for free download.)

For typing phonetic symbols, you can use this website. Just click on the symbols you want to use, then copy and paste them into your comments.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Tricky stress

Halloween (or Hallowe'en) is fast approaching and people all over the world are gearing up for the event.

Halloween originated in Europe as a Celtic New Year celebration. In the Celtic calendar, October 31st was Samhain [ˈsaʊ(ə)n, ˈsɑːwɪn], a pagan festival. The Celts believed that the dead returned to possess the living during that night and so they left food on their doorsteps for the good souls and wore costumes to scare off evil ones. Their priests - the druids - led the people out into the forests where they made bonfires and sacrifices to their gods.
Finally, each family took home an ember from the fire in turnip lanterns, in order to start new home fires. The fires warmed their houses throughout the cold winter and kept away evil spirits.
In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church established November 1st as All Saints' Day.

According to Wikipedia,

[t]he word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even ("evening"), that is, the night before All Hallows Day. Up through the early 20th century, the spelling "Hallowe'en" was frequently used, eliding the "v" and shortening the word. Although the phrase All Hallows is found in Old English (ealra hālgena mæssedæg, mass-day of all saints), All-Hallows-Even is itself not attested until 1556.

The name Halloween is also phonetically interesting. When pronounced in isolation it is ˌhæləʊˈiːn in RP, thus with main stress on the last syllable and secondary stress on the antepenultimate. But in connected speech it often has the pattern ˌhæləʊiːn, thus having greater stress on the antepenultimate rather than on the last. This phenomenon is called stress shift and is very common in English. Consider the following examples:

a) ˌHalloween ˈparties
b) ˌHalloween acˈtivities
c) ˌHalloween ˈcostume
d) ˌHalloween ˈproducts
e) ˌHalloween paˈrades

In all the above phrases native speakers of English naturally tend to switch around the stress levels in the first element, in order to maintain the regular alternation between stronger and weaker syllable typical of English rhythm.
According to Professor Wells (LPD3, 2008, p.784),

[i]n principle, stress shift can apply to any word that has a secondary stress before its primary stress. In practice, though, it is most likely to apply to those which are regularly followed in a phrase by a more strongly stressed word: most adjectives, but only certain nouns. [...] In some cases usage is divided.

Thus, stresses in English seem to be altered according to context: we need to be able to explain why this occurs, but it's a difficult question and one for which we have only partial answers.

Here are some more instances of the same phenomenon:

a) ˌfourteen ˈstudents
b) ˌChinese ˈpeople
c) a ˌfar-ˌreaching ˈchange
d) an ˌantique ˈchair (sometimes an anˌtique ˈchair)
e) the ˌacademic coˈmmunity

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Highlands and Lowlands

On leafing through LPD3, I came across the word Highland and I noticed that Professor Wells syllabifies it as ˈhaɪl.ənd. I then checked the term Lowland and saw it was syllabified as ˈləʊ.lənd. So I wondered: why is that? Do native speakers of English really pronounce these words in slightly different ways? Does it depend on the origins of each term?
If you check in Roach et al. (2006)'s CPD, both words appear as -.lənd, which indicates that in the authors' mental lexicon the words Highland and Lowland are probably analysed as a combination of high/low + land. Not so in LPD, in which the syllabic division proposed by John Wells is not evident from the orthography or from the morphology.
The difference between ˈhaɪl.ənd and ˈhaɪ.lənd lies in the l phoneme. Phonetically, in fact, the first l, being in syllable-final pre-vocalic position, is shorter and weaker than the second l, which is longer and stronger being in syllable-initial position.
Although I was aware of the fact that the LPD's syllabification principles are somewhat different from the ones adopted in CPD, I dared ask Professor Wells why he thought that Highland should be syllabified as ˈhaɪl.ənd and Lowland as ˈləʊ.lənd, to which he kindly answered:

This is not based on any theoretical considerations, just on my intuitions on how I say them and how most people seem to say them.

Fascinating, isn't it?

If you want to know more about Professor Wells's syllabification principles, read here.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Liʔle Briʔain

Last Monday, one of my students sent me an e-mail saying he couldn't place the accent of one of the female characters in the British comedy sketch show Little Britain. Little Britain, which was first broadcast on BBC radio and then turned into a TV show, comprises sketches involving exaggerated parodies of British people from all walks of life in various situations familiar to the British.
One of the female characters in the show is the teenage girl Vicky Pollard. She is intended to be a parody of chavs (=young working-class people who are rude and aggressive, have a low level of education, and wear a certain style of fashionable clothing such as trainers, sportswear, and baseball caps) living in the West Country. She speaks unusually quickly which, together with the gossip she comes up with, often confuses or annoys the person in question. Watch this YouTube video.

In his e-mail, my student explained he thought Vicky had a kind of a Cockney accent, probably due to the frequent use of glottal stops in her (most of the times) inarticulate speech. But no! Vicky speaks with a typical Bristolian accent. Now, it is true that both Cockney and some West Country accents make extensive use of glottal reinforcement and glottal replacement, but Cockney is non-rhotic and West Country accents (thus including Bristolian) are rhotic. In the video this is easily noticeable: Vicky's r sounds more like a retroflex approximant [ɻ] and also has strong vowel colouring (in some way reminiscent of General American).
Another feature typical of the city of Bristol and not found in Cockney is the so-called 'Bristol l'. This is a very close final allophone of
ə sounding almost like FOOT - and thus interpreted by non-Bristolian ears as a kind of dark 'l' - in words ending in orthographic a and ia. If you want to know more about Bristol liquids, here's a link to John Wells's blog that you might find very interesting.

For those of you who would like to find out more about Cockney as spoken today in and around London, here's another link to Professor Wells's blog.

As far as RP's use of glottal stops is concerned, glottal replacement is possible before syllabic nasals but not yet accepted before syllabic laterals. In the phrase Little Britain, the phoneme t can be replaced by glottal stop in Britain (and indeed this is the pronunciation many people use in present-day RP) but not in Little, as this would be considered substandard (cf. Cruttenden's (2008) Gimson's Pronunciation of English, p.82). Here's a BBC video for you in which Prime Minister David Cameron pronounces the placename Sutton as ˈsʌʔn̩.
If you want to know more about this fact, read this.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


Another question from my students this week was why in English we say ba'rometer, with stress on the second syllable, and not 'barometer, with (main) stress on the first.
The suffix -meter/-metre in English can be pronounced in two different ways: (a) ˌmiːtə (RP)/ˌmit̬r̩ (GA); (b) mɪtə, mətə (RP)/mət̬r̩ (GA). Pronunciation (a) tends to be used 1) with units of length: 'centiˌmeter/metre, and sometimes 2) in the meaning "measuring device": 'voltˌmeter. The stress-imposing pronunciation (b) is used 1) with reference to versification: he'xameter, pen'tameter, and sometimes again 2) in the meaning "measuring device": ba'rometer. Hence the different pronunciations of the two senses of the word micrometer: micrometer/micrometre meaning "micron" is normally stressed on the first syllable (although some people also stress it on the second); micrometer the instrument, on the other hand, is always stressed on the second syllable.
In the terms altimeter and kilometer/kilometre, the two types of pronunciations explained above have been confused, giving thus rise to competing variants with different stressings. In particular, with the word kilometer/kilometre Professor John Wells has shown that, although this term is constructed on the analogy of centimeter/centimetre and millimeter/millimetre, which are stressed on the first syllable, today the -ˈlɒm- form tends to predominate both in British English and in American English. See the pie charts below:


Several of my Italian students this week were flabbergasted when I told them that the pronunciation of the famous district of south London, Wimbledon, was not ˈwimblədɒn but ˈwɪmbəldən. I guess, this is a word whose pronunciation most EFL learners - not just Italians! - very often get wrong. This is probably because they fail to recognise its analysis as Wimble plus the old Anglo-Saxon suffix -don.

According to Wikipedia,
[t]he name Wimbledon means "Wynnman's hill", with the final element of the name being the Old English dun (hill). The current spelling appears to have been settled on relatively recently in the early 19th century, the last in a long line of variations.
The village is referred to as "Wimbedounyng" in a charter signed by King Edgar the Peaceful in 967 and is shown on J Cary's map of the London area as "Wimbleton".

The stem
Wimble rhymes with nimble, the final consonant sound being the same as in incredible, able, unbelievable. Also, the syllable-final phoneme sequence blə which they used in the version they produced is not possible as far as English phonotactics is concerned.
Finally, in RP the Anglo-Saxon suffixes -ton, -don, -ham in placenames like Southampton or Birmingham are always unstressed and weak. Not always so in General American: cf. Birmingham ˈbɜ˞mɪŋhæm.

Thursday, 2 September 2010


While watching yesterday evening's Tony Blair interview with Andrew Marr on BBC2, I was slightly surprised by the way the presenter pronounced the word longevity: he said lɒŋˈgevəti instead of the traditional lɒnˈdʒevəti/lɒŋˈdʒevəti.
I have to admit that it's not the first time I've heard such a pronunciation, although none of the current pronouncing dictionaries seem to allow it.
I think one of the possible reasons for the existence of this variant form is that people might be influenced by the way they pronounce the term longitude. As John Wells has shown in his LPD3, people today are increasingly going for ˈlɒŋgɪtjuːd (85%), instead of ˈlɒndʒɪtjuːd (15%). See the preference poll graph below:

What about you? How do you pronounce longevity?

You can watch the last bit of the interview with Tony Blair here. (Andrew Marr pronounces longevity with a "hard g" towards the first half of the 12th minute.)

And for those Italians who read the monthly magazine Speak Up, there's an interview with one John Burton in the August issue (article The Music of Time, track 11), in which the interviewee pronounces the word longevity with g. The comment by Rachel Roberts at the end of the magazine (p.65) is that English pronunciation is so difficult that even native speakers get it wrong.
No, Rachel! That's NOT the way it is! Pronunciations come and go. Language is a living and constantly changing thing. If some people (are starting to) say lɒŋˈgevəti, you just have to accept it. And who knows? In the future, this variant may well become the new established form!

And finally, if you want to read some further comments on this topic, here is where you can find them.

(For more on idiosyncratic pronunciations you can also read this post by Jack Windsor Lewis.)

Friday, 6 August 2010

Non-words, innit?

Wurfing, precuperate, polkadodge: are you familiar with any of these words? - Or perhaps I should ask: are you familiar with any of these "NON-words"?
"Non-words" are said to be terms widely used by people today but which are not considered as "words" because they haven't made it yet into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Oxford University Press has judged them to be "unsuitable" because there is not enough evidence that people are using them.
Graphic designer Luke Ngakane has recently uncovered expressions like freegans, earworm, or dringle - terms which he apparently uses in his everyday speech or has heard spoken by other people - as part of a research project for London's Kingston University. He hopes that today's "non-words" will become "proper words" in the future by being incorporated into the OED.
Joined by Iain Aitch and presenters Charlie Stayt and Susanna Reid, Mr Ngakane discusses his findings in an interesting BBC Breakfast interview that you can watch here.
If you want to know more about this topic, you can also read the articles posted on the Metro website and on the Telegraph one.

Just one little thought: why should "experts" classify expressions such as the ones we mentioned above under "non-words" if people seem to be using them? Are words recognised as such only when they are included in a dictionary?