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.)