Wednesday 25 May 2011


The eruption of the Grímsvötn volcano (for more on how to pronounce it, click here), which has for some days now been causing disruption throughout northern Europe, got me thinking about the pronunciation of the Icelandic capital Reykjavík. In Icelandic this is ˈɾeːicaviːk (listen to the pronunciations on Forvo); in English it can be variably pronounced ˈreɪkjəvɪk (that’s the pronunciation I use), ˈrekjə(ˌ)vɪk, ˈraɪkjə(ˌ)vɪk, -(ˌ)viːk. But what about in Italian? Well, The DOP (=Dizionario Italiano Multimediale e Multilingue d’Ortografia e di Pronunzia) (2010) keeps schtum whereas Canepàri’s DiPI (=Dizionario di Pronuncia Italiana) (2008) has the following entry:

Reykjavík ˈrɛikjavik, ↓-ˈvik, ↓-ˈkja-

The arrows pointing downwards, according to the typographical conventions used in the dictionary, indicate that those variants are to be regarded as “trascurate” (“slovenly”) and “da evitare” (“to be avoided”), and are more “frequenti” (“frequent”) after the comma (,). This means, then, that both native and non-native speakers of Italian should eschew the variants with penultimate and last-syllable stress as they are generally considered incorrect in Italy. (I take the symbol ↓ to have the same value as the warning triangle used in LPD to mark pronunciations considered not correct.)

I have to say, though, that I totally disagree with Mr Canepàri: pronunciations like (ˌ)rɛiˈkjavik and (ˌ)rɛikjaˈvik are, I suppose, almost as widespread as the one he considers correct – especially (ˌ)rɛiˈkjavik. As far as (ˌ)rɛikjaˈvik goes, many Italians think that as Reykjavík is spelt with an “accented i”, they should put the stress on the last syllable – but í in Icelandic is just a letter which is used to represent the sound i, different from i which represents ɪ.

Also, lots of Italians use e rather than ɛ in the first syllable, and some go so far as to ‘delete’ the i completely. I say, for instance, reˈkjavik and only rarely (usually in careful speech) do I say ˌreiˈkjavik. Why aren’t these pronunciations recorded in the DiPI?

Prescription dies hard in Italy!

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Ciao, Loretta. Rest in peace.

Friday 20 May 2011

Britain and its glottal stops

Yesterday’s conference at the Università degli Studi della Tuscia (see my blog for last week) was fun and entertaining. Both students and lecturers welcomed me warmly and listened with interest to what I had to say about RP and its changes. They all paid close attention to phenomena like smoothings, compressions, CURE lowering, yod coalescence, GOAT allophony, T voicing, and R sandhi.

Halfway through the seminar, though, most of the students and teachers present became incredulous and greatly surprised when I explained that in current RP the pronunciation of t in words like Britain tends to vary a lot. As my readers will know, some speakers realize the sound as alveolar t (not many, I think); others produce a glottal stop, ʔ: thus ˈbrɪtn̩ vs ˈbrɪʔn̩. Here t and ʔ are said to be in free variation, since the realisation of one allophone rather than the other appears to be a matter of pure chance.

To prove that this is true, here are two video clips from the BBC in which you can hear Nicholas Witchell, BBC News royal correspondent, pronounce Britain only with glottal stop:

i) listen here at 00.13, 00.15, and 03.24; and

ii) here at 00.52 and 01.17.

Here’s another video, with BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, in which Britain is realised as ˈbrɪʔn̩ (at about 00.15 seconds and 01.38 minutes into the clip), and Brighton is ˈbraɪʔn̩ (at 01.45 and 02.14).

And finally, here’s the Queen’s speech in Ireland in full, in which at around 06.01 one can hear her pronounce written as ˈrɪʔn̩.

The fact that both the Queen and not-so-young BBC correspondents like the ones mentioned above all use glottal replacement before syllabic nasals (also read here) is clear evidence that this phenomenon has been in RP for many years now and that it’s not a “new” pronunciation, as some people still claim.

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In other news, Arnold Zwicky, Visiting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University and Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Ohio State University, has recently posted a huge list of popular language blogs and web resources on his Arnold Zwicky’s Blog. And I’m extremely pleased to say that he included this blog, too. Thanks very much, Arnold!

Tuesday 10 May 2011

English RP seminar

Next week I’ll be at the Università degli Studi della Tuscia to conduct a half-day English phonetics seminar entitled Received Pronunciation: Changes in Recent Times and in Progress.

The idea of hosting this conference was pretty much my own, to be honest. About a month ago, I asked lecturers and professors at the university if they were interested in offering their students a seminar on the phonetics of current RP. My proposal was immediately welcomed enthusiastically by everybody there and so I started working on it, trying to think about what I could discuss during my talk.

As my readers will remember, in one of my earlier posts I have already dealt with the importance of teaching English phonetics and phonology in schools and universities – and I’ll make sure I reiterate this argument during next week’s conference, too. Unfortunately, as I complained back in June, in Italy teachers of EFL prefer to invest all their efforts in teaching mainly grammar and vocabulary, relegating pronunciation to a less important position. That’s because most of them are of the opinion that English phonetics is difficult, that students don’t understand it, and therefore that it is useless for them to teach it. My impression is, though, that they refuse to teach it simply because they don’t know anything about the subject and this may be due to the fact that they didn’t get the chance to study phonetics and phonology when they were language students at university. Students, on the other hand, tell their teachers that they don’t like IPA symbols because they look strange and obscure. Most of them are not even aware of the existence of a standard form of British pronunciation (RP or whatever you want to call it), which is what they are used to listening to in class – at least in Italy. Furthermore, they are not taught to use pronunciation dictionaries since, they argue, these don’t contain the meanings of words – only mysterious symbols you have to decrypt. And that takes time, of course, and can be incredibly daunting. Finally, some students/teachers are not aware that adjectives like neutral or standard relating to accents can be synonymous from a sociolinguistic point of view.

Against this gloomy and depressing background I can confidently state that there are also some teachers out there in Italy who are interested in English phonetics and who think that teaching students pronunciation in order to communicate successfully with native speakers and – more importantly – understand them is absolutely essential.

English phonetics is fun and incredibly interesting – and I’ll try to make this clear, too.

One last point I’ll be discussing is language change and the fact that 50 years ago RP sounded differently than it does now. (This may be obvious for most of my readers though not generally for Italians, whose language hasn’t changed much phonetically in the last half a century or so.)

To take an example: how do you pronounce Honduras? Is it hɒnˈdjʊərəs or hɒnˈdʒʊərəs? Well, I have to admit that I use both, contrary to a BBC weatherwoman who on Sunday I heard pronounce it as ˈhɒndʒʊrəs. Now, was this a mere slip of the tongue on her part or does that indicate a stress change in progress in contemporary RP? Well, I don’t know if I’ll be able to provide an answer to that during my seminar...

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Current (phonetic) affairs

This week I’d like to draw your attention to some pronunciations connected with the recent political and social events. Let’s start, of course, with the British Royal Wedding.

As this BBC article put it, “crowds outside Westminster Abbey were stunned by the dress chosen by the Duchess of Cambridge as she stepped out of the wedding car”. Philippa Lepley, wedding dress designer, interviewed by the BBC during the ceremony, defined it so:

“It’s very understated, quite classic and timeless. It’s almost Grace Kelly-esque.”

What I noted in particular was the way she pronounced the adjective Grace Kelly-esque. When compared with Kafkaesque, for instance, which some speakers of RP pronounce as ˌkæfkərˈesk, thus with r-intrusion, Grace Kelly-esque can only be pronounced ˌɡreɪs ˌkeliˈesk – and that’s the way Ms Lepley pronounced it. This is because in RP intrusive /r/ is heard only after the non-high vowels ɔː, ɑː, ə and the diphthongs terminating in ə. This phenomenon can also operate word-internally before a suffix, but not if the vowel before that suffix is i: thus ˌɡreɪs ˌkelirˈesk is not possible.

Last Sunday, Pope John Paul II was declared blessed by the Roman Catholic Church. All BBC newsreaders announced his biˌætɪfɪˈkeɪʃn̩ – except one. Karin Giannone pronounced the term beatification ˌbeətɪfɪˈkeɪʃn̩, a pronunciation which is not acknowledged by any of the dictionaries I have to hand. May she have been influenced by the Italian ˌbeatifikatsˈtsjone? According to Wikipedia, Mrs Giannone can speak Italian very well – and her surname sounds Italian, too!

Finally, Osama bin Laden’s death. There were scenes of rejoicing outside the White House last Monday, after President Obama announced to the world that America’s most feared terrorist had been killed. In order to celebrate, Americans took to the streets carrying placards reading “Thanks Obama”, “Thanks America” and “Carry on U.S.A.”. One of these was particularly interesting from a phonetic point of view. Here it is:

This is obviously a witty game on words: in American English the words bin and been are usually homophonous, sounding both more or less like bɪn. In RP, this is only possible with some speakers, most having bɪn for the former and biːn for the latter (although some BrE speakers have biːn as the strong form of the past participle of be/go and bɪn as the weak form).