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).


  1. @Alex: In the transcription of the Italian version of beatificatione there seems to be one /ts/-cluster too many.

  2. Kraut, when /ts/ occurs between vowels, in the standard accent of Italian it's always geminated: 'istruzione'('education') /istrutsˈtsjone/, NOT /*istruˈtsjone/. Also, it's 'beatificazione', NOT 'beatificatione'.

  3. @Alex: Wasn't aware of this as I don't speak a single word of Italian. Well, not quite true: I've learnt the expression Bunga Bunga ;)

  4. Yes, unfortunately that phrase is quite common these days...

  5. Alex - I realise this is probably two years too late, but I always understood (and my knowledge of Italian is not much better than Kraut's!) that the geminated /ts/ or /dz/ was represented as /tts/ or /ddz/, not by /tsts/ or /dzdz/, which seems to imply that the two /t, d/ are separately pronounced, and that there is a clear fricative pronounced between them. Am I wrong?

    1. Graham, thanks for commenting!

      Linguists in Italy fluctuate between the two transcriptions, although the /tts/ and /ddz/ variant is probably better, as you point out.

    2. Btw, many thanks for adding my blog amongst your favourite links!