On the 4th of March, thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to hear an address made by the new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The news was reported by the BBC throughout yesterday evening, but I only managed to watch the full report by Alastair Leithead in the 10 o’clock news bulletin presented by Mike Embley on BBC World News. During the programme, the presenter spoke of the new Egyptian PM addressing the crowd in ˈkaːrəʊ. Now, this is the smoothed and compressed pronunciation of ˈkaɪrəʊ. But just how do we go from ˈkaɪrəʊ to ˈkaːrəʊ?
First, we should note that when in a word a vowel sound is followed within the same syllable by r, a schwa sound may develop before the liquid. So from ˈkaɪr.əʊ we get ˈkaɪ.ər.əʊ. This phonetic process is called ‘breaking’ and it’s very common in RP.
Then, the aɪ+ə sequence is smoothed, meaning that the second element of the diphthong is lost, thus ˈka.ər.əʊ. Next, the compression process squashes the first two syllables into one: ˈkaər.əʊ. Lastly, the monophthongization process removes the second element of the resulting aə diphthong, with compensatory lengthening of the a element. Thus: ˈkaːr.əʊ. And that’s exactly what I heard yesterday.
During the same programme, Mike Embley also used other fully smoothed and compressed pronunciations, amongst which I remember ˈraːʔ pəˌliːs for ˈraɪət pəˌliːs (riot police) and aː, if not ɑː, for aʊə (hour).
The phonetic process of ‘breaking’ is acknowledged by all the three current pronunciation dictionaries (ODP, LPD, and CPD), but it’s dealt with in different ways. Next week we’ll look into that more closely.