John Wells

and now...
If you liked Sounds Interesting, you'll love Sounds Fascinating.

Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Sun, 02 Oct 2016 18:11:00 +0000

soon be out...
Available from the end of September.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Tue, 16 Sep 2014 15:02:00 +0000

now in book form!
Please now see here.

Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 19 May 2014 06:54:00 +0000

click farewell

How come, you might ask, that a word spelled with -c- comes to be pronounced with an l? Why this gross discrepancy between spelling and sound, orthography and pronunciation?

Blame the 1989 Kiel Convention of the IPA, which replaced the click symbols then in use, ? ? ?, by the current ? ? ?.

Because the second syllable of this word is pronounced in Zulu with a voiceless dental click. Unfortunately in some fonts the currently official IPA symbol for this sound looks indistinguishable from a lower-case L.

For further discussion, together with a number of sensible readers' comments, see my blog for 9 Sep 2009.

_ _ _

?In fact over recent months I have increasingly been feeling that in this blog I have by now already said everything of interest that I want to say. And if I have nothing new to say, then the best plan is to stop talking.

So I am now discontinuing my blog.

Thank you, all those readers who have stayed with me over the seven years that I have been writing it. If you still need a regular fix, there are archives stretching back to 2006 for you to rummage through.

Goodbye, au revoir, tschss, hwyl, cze??, tot ziens, ?? ????????, ?????, ?is!

?ts \?t
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 22 Apr 2013 07:05:00 +0000


We can?t agree on how to spell the name of the famous Dutch/Flemish painter(s): were Pieter B. the Elder and his relatives Breughel, Brueghel, Breugel or Bruegel?

As is often the case with foreign names in English, we?re not entirely sure how to pronounce them, either.

In Dutch this name is pronounced ?br???l (subject to the usual regional variation? possible diphthonging of the stressed vowel and devoicing of the velar, not to mention the variability in the second consonant), which is what you would expect for a spelling with eu. In turn, you would expect foreign-language (?) to map onto nonrhotic English NURSE, as happens with French deux d mapped onto BrE d?? or German Goethe ???t? onto BrE ????t?.

Yet on the whole we call the painter not ?br???l? but ?br???l?. Why?

I can only suppose that our usual pronunciation is based on the spelling with eu interpreted according to the reading rules of German. If Deutsch is English d??t? and Freud is fr??d, then Breug(h)el must be ?br???l?.

For the same reason, even though Wikipedia prefers the spelling Bruegel (which would prompt us towards a pronunciation ?bru??l?), most of us, I suspect, tend to spell the name with eu.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Fri, 19 Apr 2013 09:04:00 +0000


I had a phone call a few days ago from someone trying to get in touch with David Rosewarne. The caller thought I might have his contact details. I was unable to help, since as far as I remember I have only met Rosewarne once, and that briefly; the last I heard of him was that he was working in Malaysia, but I do not know where he might be now.

David Rosewarne?s great claim to fame is that in October 1984 he coined the expression ?Estuary English?, in an article published in the Times Educational Supplement.

In doing so he gave expression to the widespread perception that Daniel Jones-style RP was gradually losing its status as the unquestioned standard accent of educated English people. Or, putting it a different way, that RP was changing by absorbing various sound changes that previously had been restricted to Cockney or other non-prestigious varieties.

Two years earlier, in my Accents of English, I had written

Throughout [London], the working-class accent is one which shares the general characteristics of Cockney. We shall refer to this accent as popular London. [?] Middle-class speakers typically use an accent closer to RP than popular London. But the vast majority of such speakers nevertheless have some regional characteristics [emphasis added]. This kind of accent might be referred to as London (or, more generally, south-eastern) Regional Standard.

I added the warning

It must be remembered that labels such as ?popular London?, ?London Regional Standard? do not refer to entities we can reify but to areas along a continuum stretching from broad Cockney (itself something of an abstraction) to RP.

So Rosewarne?s observations in a sense contained nothing new. He muddied the waters unhelpfully by referring to details of vocabulary and grammar (which have nothing to do with ?a new variety of pronunciation?). But the name he coined, Estuary English, was taken up quite widely, gaining resonance eventually not only with journalists but also with the general public, to such an extent that we can now expect to be readily understood if we describe someone?s speech as ?estuarial?.

The estuary Rosewarne was thinking of was of course the Thames estuary, which in a geographical sense might be interpreted as extending from Teddington near Kingston upon Thames (the point where the river becomes tidal) down to Southend-on-Sea (where the Thames enters the North Sea). Rosewarne?s original article says ?the heartland of this variety lies by the banks of the Thames and its estuary, but it seems to be the most influential accent in the south-east of England?; though later writers, particularly Coggle in his Do you speak Estuary? (1993) implied that it covered the entire southeast of the country. It was left to my colleague Joanna Przedlacka to demonstrate that it did no such thing (see her 2002 book Estuary English? and this summary). Przedlacka demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently.

Rosewarne?s suggestion that EE ?may become the RP of the future? led to credulous excitement in the EFL world, particularly in central Europe and South America.

It was in response to media and academic interest in the topic that in 1998 I set up a website ?to bring together as many documents as possible that relate to Estuary English, as a convenient resource for the many interested enquirers.?

One thing I did myself was to consider how we might agree on a phonetic transcription scheme, which would be needed for pedagogical purposes if we seriously wanted to teach this putative new accent. See this article. But no one followed this up by criticizing my proposals or suggesting anything better.

All the excitement gradually died down. I last had cause to update the website in 2007. By the time I retired, in 2006, this was my one-page summary of the issue. EFL teachers, meanwhile, mostly know that we just need to update our pedagogical model of RP in the minor ways outlined in LPD.

Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Wed, 17 Apr 2013 10:03:00 +0000

London place names

Londonist, a website ?about London and everything that happens in it? offers a page of advice on London place names.

Some of the advice is a little surprising.

These names are normally ???ldw?t?, ?b?r?, k??d???n, ?t??z?k, ?klp?m, ?de?f?d, ?d?l?d?. RP usually distinguishes ???l from ??l and ?l (so that Paul ? pole ? Poll(y)), and Aldwych has ??l or possibly ?l, but not ??l. Of course many speakers have the GOAT allophone ?? when dark l follows, as here; and Londoners tend to vocalize dark l, making cold k?od; but I had thought that most would not merge the result with the ??o of l-vocalized called. Hence I am surprised to see Aldwich explained as ?old witch?; though I suppose ?all?d witch? or ?auld witch? would be orthographically awkward. (Anyhow, the main point is that -wych stands for w?t?, not w?k.)

With Clapham, the basic ?klp?m can of course be reduced to ?kl?m? by the regular processes of syllabic consonant formation and glottalling.

The final consonant in Dulwich is, in my judgment, more often d? than t?, though both are possible; it?s odd that the anonymous author should prescribe the voiceless affricate in Dulwich but the voiced one in Greenwich and Woolwich, where the same hesitation between the two possibilities for -ch applies.

That?s ?h??b?n, ?h?m?t?n, ?a?z?lw???, with the usual syllabic-consonant options, plus possible glottalling in ?h?m??n? and weakening in ?a?zl?w?? (or, of course, a more London-y ???zow?f). Initial h is just as likely to be dropped/retained in Holborn as in Homerton.

So, ?pl??st?? (though I?ll allow people from the north of England and the Americans to say ?plst?? if they prefer), ?r??ha?, ?ra?sl?p,?s??k, ?stret?m, ??e?d?n?b??z, ?t?t?n?m, ?w?p??. Regular optional processes generate the variants ?r?v?ha?v, ?stre?m? and ?t??n?m; there is also an archaic variant ?redr?f (Redriff) for Rotherhithe; and if you drop the h in the usual form you'll get an internal linking r, ?r?v?ra?v. The Cockney tube train driver on my AofE recording pronounces his part of London, Wapping, as ?w?p??n.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 15 Apr 2013 07:25:00 +0000

money tree policy

Puns that work for some do not necessarily work for all.

Here?s a witticism from a letter-writer to the Guardian a month ago. But I suspect that this pun doesn?t exactly work for anyone at all, though it is close enough for us to get it.

The Bank of England has a Monetary Policy Committee, which is in the news from time to time.

As we all know, money does not grow on trees, though if it did the tree it grew on would be a money tree.

The pronunciation of monetary is ?m?n?t(?)ri, with variants ?m?n-, -?t-. We can disregard the question of the vowel in the first syllable, which for some (most?) is the same as that of money, while for others it has the spelling-pronunciation vowel of monitor (which immediately destroys the pun). Let?s concentrate on the weak vowels. Is the rest of monetary pronounced as in money tree ?m?ni tri??

Not for those who have a lax happY vowel, phonetically similar to KIT rather than to FLEECE (like me). For me, monetary ends with tr?, which feels and sounds different from my tree tri?. On the other hand my money also ends with ?, which I can readily identify with the second syllable of monetary. If, though, in the second syllable of monetary I had a schwa ? (as many do), rather than my weak ?, then that too would destroy the pun, because this schwa could not be mistaken for my happY vowel.

To make the pun work you need a tense happY (so that -tary = tree), but you also need a lax happY (so that money =mone(t)-). And you can?t have it both ways at once.

A strong, AmE-style suffix vowel in -ary destroys the pun, too, since t?ri could not be mistaken for tree. To save the pun you need not just to weaken but actually to delete this vowel, since t?ri could not be mistaken for tree, though tri might.

All in all, then, standup comics wanting to tell people a joke depending on this pun would have to be remarkably careful in their ?diction?.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Fri, 12 Apr 2013 07:25:00 +0000

listen once more

When my three-volume Accents of English (Cambridge University Press, 1982) was published, it was accompanied by a cassette with recorded specimens. The same tape was also published by BBC English under the title In a Manner of Speaking. Both cassettes have been unavailable for many years.

From time to time, though, I get queries about them. Now, with the agreement of the publishers, I have had the tracks converted to digital form, and plan to make them freely available on the web.

It will take me some time to edit the sound files, but I hope to make them all available within a few weeks. I have thrown together a quick-and-dirty web page to link to them. So far only two sound files are available, out of the twenty or so that will complete the set. Please bear in mind that the recordings all date from 1982 or a few years earlier.

The first is the specimen of RP, a test passage read by my former colleague Susan Ramsaran. (I use the same test passage for specimens of General American, Scottish, and New Zealand speech, to follow later.) The cassette inlay for it reads as follows.

RP is the standard accent of English in England, and the accent taught to overseas learners of English in many countries.

Some of its phonetic characteristics are as follows, with examples from the test passage.

  • LOT has a rounded vowel, [?]: o?clock, stopped, vodka.
  • Non-rhotic distribution of /r/, historical /r/ having been lost except before a vowel: work, hour, later, started, earth tremor, utterly [??tl?i].
  • Linking /r/, though, before a vowel: after I?d had, quarter of; also intrusive /r/ between /?/ and a following vowel: vodka or.
  • Centring diphthongs in NEAR , SQUARE, CURE: steering, air, fury, experience, there, during.
  • Weak suffix in -ary: momentary /?m??m?ntr?/; but not in -ile: hostile /?h?sta?l/.
  • Broad vowel, /??/, in BATH: after, past, vast, ask.
  • The vowels of THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE are all identical: awesome, horse, force.
  • GOAT is a diphthong with a central starting point, [??]: drove, local, momentary.
  • ?Smoothing? may make a diphthong monophthongal when before another vowel: throwing /??r????/ [?r???], diabolical [da?-]; /i?/ and /u?/ may become [?, ?] before a vowel: two o?clock [?t???kl?k].
  • The yod semivowel /j/ is retained after /t, d, n/, sometimes after /s, z/: during, new, supernatural.
  • Words such as really, fury, utterly, fiery end in [?]. (Compare [i] in many other accents.)

The second track is my discussion of RP, and in particular of the specimen offered. Here is what I say. (Phonetic transcriptions are in accordance with the printed book, i?noring the abbreviatory conventions etc. of LPD.)

Here [in the spoken specimen] you can note [...] the rounded vowel in words of the standard lexical set LOT, for example in the words o?clock ??kl?k, stopped st?pt, vodka ?v?dk?. This is a non-rhotic accent, i.e. historically it has undergone the innovation of R Dropping, so we have the pronunciations for example work w??k, earth ???, tremor ?trem?, hour ?a??, later ?le?t?, started ?st??t?d, horse h??s, and so on; in the word utterly ??tl??, so pronounced, you even hear a syllabic l that results from a dropped r. But we retain linking r before a following vowel, as in the phrases after I?d had, a quarter of an hour; compare a quarter past, where there?s no r. And we have intrusive r in the phrase a double vodka or two.
We have separate centring diphthong phonemes in the lexical sets NEAR, SQUARE and CURE. Examples in the passage are the words experience ?k?sp??r??ns, steering ?st??r??, there ??, air ??, fury ?fj??r?, and during ?dj??r??.
Suffix vowels: we have a weak suffix vowel in momentaty ?m??m?ntr?, but a strong one in hostile ?h?sta?l. Words of the lexical set BATH have the ?broad?, that is the long back vowel, ??, as in the words after ???ft?, past p??st, vast ?v??st, and ask ??sk. That?s the same vowel as in the word calm k??m, as you can hear, but different from the vowel of gas ?s. As far as the set CLOTH is concerned, we have the same vowel in off ?f, as in lot l?t, but this speaker says r??? where I personally would say r?? wrath. We have variability within RP, as you know, for this.
We?ve got the same vowel in the sets THOUGHT and NORTH, as you can hear by comparing awesome ???sm? with horse h??s; and the same vowel in words of the set NORTH as in those of the set FORCE, as you can see by comparing horse with force f??s.
The diphthong in GOAT has a central or even slightly front starting point; examples in the words local ?l??kl?, momentary ?m??m?ntr?; and then we have the characteristic RP feature of ?smoothing? in the phrase ?t?? ?kl?k, that is two o?clock, and in ??r??? throwing, though this speaker didn?t smooth in the word quiet ?kwa??t, which she pronounced like that rather than as ?kwa?t. In the word diabolical da??b?l?kl?, on the other hand, she did smooth.
We have historical yod j retained in the words new nju?, and during ?dj??r??, and for this speaker even in the word supernatural ?sju?p??nt??r?l, which I should call ?su?p??nt??r?l.

You can?t leave comments on the recordings on the UCL site — but you can here, if you wish.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Wed, 10 Apr 2013 06:31:00 +0000

I must haplologize
The other day I noticed a reporter on the BBC TV news pronouncing deteriorate as di?t??rie?t. This pronunciation is a variant to which I attach a warning triangle in LPD (?pronunciation considered incorrect?), thereby grouping it with such other mispronunciations as ??ri?vi?s and pr??na?nsi?e??n?.

Googling around, I find people puzzled not only about the correctness or otherwise of ?deteriate? but also about why this (mis)pronunciation should have become popular.

Deteriorate vs deteriate?
I have checked the dictionary and I can't seem to find this word 'deteriate', but I hear all sorts of people say it and I assume (from what they are talking about) this word really is deteriorate.
So why do you think these people think deteriate is a word?
?I think it's probably just their accent or how they were raised to say it, because you're right "deteriate" definitely isn't a word. A lot of people I know say it and it's really annoying. You should just show them this link [to an on-line dictionary entry for ?deteriorate?].
I forgive anyone making mistakes ..., but this pronunciation is not a mistake. It seems to be what a lot of people think is correct. What I wanted to know was, why?

So in this view a word ?exists? only if it?s in standard dictionaries. And the word is its spelling.

And obviously the correct pronunciation is the one which follows the spelling.

There are difficulties with this popular view. No one would claim that we ought to say ?k?pb??(r)d for cupboard, although that is what the spelling suggests. No one argues that we ought to pronounce a w in wrong or a k in know. And what about words that have only just come into use, whether spoken or written, but are not (yet) recorded in dictionaries? How can we follow their established spelling, if they haven?t yet got one? (I imagine all would agree that the onus is rather on the lexicographers to bring their dictionaries up to date.) What about words such as the BrE scarper ?run away, escape, make off in haste?, where it is pretty clear that the usual spelling reflects the (non-rhotic) pronunciation, rather than the other way round?

As for why people tend to simplify di?t??ri?re?t to di?t??rie?t, the answer must lie in the tendency to eliminate one of two adjacent identical consonants — the same tendency we see in ?pr?b(?)li for ?pr?b?bli probably, ?la?b(?)ri for ?la?br?ri library and so on. See my blog for 7 March 2007 concerning ?sf??m??n?m?t?, and that for 1 Mar 2011 about ?kw?nt?t?v.

This phenomenon is not dissimilation; the only term for it seems to be haplology.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 08 Apr 2013 07:06:00 +0000

from Toledo to Laredo

In view of one commenter?s indignation this week about the Ohio placename Lima, pronounced differently from the identically spelt capital of Peru (see screenshot above of the LPD entry), I thought it was time for another repeat. Here?s a blog entry from 2007.

_ _ _

Driving to Gatwick Airport a few days ago to meet an arriving passenger, I passed through the village of Burgh Heath. As on previous occasions when I have travelled that route, I wondered idly how it?s pronounced. Is the first word b?? or ?b?r??

When I got back home I looked it up in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (G. Pointon, 1990), which says it can be either. Just not b???.

I further learnt that Burgh in Norfolk is ?b?r?, but Burgh in adjoining Suffolk is b???. Things are different in the north of England: Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria is metathesized to br?f, which must mean that for many locals it?s more like [br?f].

It?s worse than -ough.

Tomorrow I have to go to Birmingham. To reach my destination the map says I have to look for the road leading to Alcester. Er... what was that? I checked with my brother, who lives not too far away, and he says it?s ???lst?. Then I looked in LPD and found that I agree.

And there?s no call for Americans to feel superior to the wacky British. In the States you never know what will happen with Spanish names. I remember passing through Salida, Colorado. That?s the Spanish for ?exit?, and it was at the mouth of a canyon, so I thought that in English it would be s??li?d?. But the local radio station announcers, who should know, pronounced it s??la?d?.

Even English-derived names can be surprising. I remember driving through Placerville, California, and discovering to my surprise that it was not ?ple?s?v?l but ?pls?v?l.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Fri, 05 Apr 2013 07:11:00 +0000

bravo lima oscar golf

In an on-line forum discussion about what language teachers need to know about pronunciation, one unusual suggestion made was this, from David Deterding:

We should teach them the Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta alphabet. Then, when they cannot be understood [when spelling a word out aloud], they could easily solve the problem. (And it would also be brilliant for telling someone your name.)

I agree that this is something that it is useful to know. I was taught it in my teens, as part of ?corps? at school (= officer cadet training corps, playing at soldiers). I use it from time to time, particularly when giving information over the phone to travel agents, airline call centres and the like.

It is particularly useful for distinguishing letters whose traditional names are easily confused, such as F ef and S es or T ti? and D di?. How much clearer to say foxtrot and sierra, tango and delta.

That?s why in LPD I decided to include the relevant ?communications code name? at the entry for each letter of the alphabet. Before we had the web it could be difficult to lay your hands on the list, though nowadays of course you can quickly access it on Wikipedia. For avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers say, it goes Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Although it?s often known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, it is neither an alphabet (it?s a list of letter names) nor particularly phonetic, and NATO is only one of a number of international organizations that have adopted it.

The list on the Wikipedia page includes a column headed ?phonic (pronunciation)?, which explains the intended pronunciation of each letter name by respelling it in accordance with English spelling conventions, with all the ambiguity that can imply.

So, although Delta is keyed to ?DELL-TAH?, it is normally pronounced by speakers of English as ?delt? (rather than the ?delt?? that could be implied by this respelling). There is no indication of stress in the list given (though there is here), so while anglophones will say Uniform (?YOU-NEE-FORM or OO-NEE-FORM?) as ?ju?n?f??(r)m, francophones, for example, are apparently free to stress it anywhere or nowhere, in accordance with their native habits. On the other hand we English speakers are supposed to stress Papa with final-syllable stress and to say Quebec with no w. No one seems to take any notice of the instruction to pronounce Golf as if it were Gulf. The Wikipedia page has an analysis of the various versions to be found in officially recommended recordings.

The choice of letter names has changed slightly over the years. When I learnt them in the 1950s, N was called Nectar. Clearly, November is an improvement, being less likely to be confused with Victor.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Wed, 03 Apr 2013 07:04:00 +0000

a new sound

I thought that for today I?d recycle a blog entry from seven years ago, seeing that it may well still be of interest.

_ _ _

My colleague Olaf Lipor tells me that the International Phonetic Asssociation is considering recognizing a further new symbol, in order to cater for the voiced linguolabial trill, a sound-type recently discovered to be used contrastively in Caslon and Ki-Flong, languages spoken on the island of San Serriffe.

Linguolabials, articulated by the tongue tip against the upper lip, are very rare in the languages of the world. Nevertheless linguolabial plosives, fricatives, and a nasal are known to occur in a cluster of languages in the island state of Vanuatu. Among these languages are Tangoa and Vao. But until now there had been no report of a linguolabial trill.

The way in which the IPA would symbolize the new sound is with the ?combining seagull below? diacritic, U+033C, thus [r?].

Incidentally, we are hoping to have the Serriffean phonetician Dr Charis Doulos, a native speaker of Caslon and the person who first described the linguolabial trill, come to UCL Phonetics & Linguistics as an academic visitor at this time next year. She will no doubt be willing to act as a language consultant for our practical phonetics class, so that the students can have the opportunity of observing the sound first-hand and of learning to perform it to the native speaker?s satisfaction.

The island of San Serriffe sprang to world fame as a consequence of a feature article in the Guardian newspaper, published on 1 April 1977, the tenth anniversary of its independence. But at that time its native languages had not been thoroughly investigated.

_ _ _

Since writing the above, I have come across a report of an Amerindian language, Santo Domingo Coatln Zapotec, in which this sound is now, excitingly, further attested, though disappointingly not as part of the phonemic inventory:
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 01 Apr 2013 07:36:00 +0000


The village of Atherton in Greater Manchester (formerly, in Lancashire) has recently been in the news. It is quite near where I grew up, so I am confident in saying that it is pronounced ??t?n.

As we know, the spelling digraph th regularly corresponds to two distinct phonemes in English: ? as in thin and as in this. (For the moment we can forget the occasional irregular correspondences, as for example to t in Thomas.)

The rule is easy in word-initial position. In LPD I expressed it like this:

Word-medially, it generally depends on whether or not the word is of Germanic origin:

Since Atherton is obviously of Germanic origin (?farmstead of a man called thelhere?), it is indeed expected that the fricative would be voiced, as also in Brotherton, Netherfield, Rotherham, etc.

As a surname, however, Atherton is often pronounced with a voiceless fricative. I have to wonder how the places of this name in California, Indiana, Ontario and Queensland are pronounced.

Even more surprisingly, Atherstone in Warwickshire, according to the BBC Pron Dict of British Names, has ? (though Wikipedia says it has ). So does Athelney in Somerset. Athelstaneford in Scotland is a law unto itself, being ?a?l?stenf?rd or even ??l??nf?rd. Scottish Atholl is ??l?. And the Athenry whose fields are commemorated in song by Irish nationalists is ???n?ra?; but then the origin of this name is not Germanic but Celtic (Irish tha an R ?the king?s ford?).
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Fri, 29 Mar 2013 08:26:00 +0000

snow joke

The Eastern Daily Press, published daily in Norwich, is the largest-selling regional morning newspaper in the UK.

Peter Trudgill, the UK?s leading sociolinguist, comes from Norwich and is of course the author of The social differentiation of English in Norwich (CUP, 1974). He is also President of Friends of Norfolk Dialect. From time to time he contributes articles on language to the EDP.

I reproduce the most recent, entitled ?Our vowel habits set us apart from the rest?. (As usual, you can click to enlarge.)

Thanks to input from Peter, I was able to cover this point in my Accents of English (vol. 2, p. 337).
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Wed, 27 Mar 2013 07:56:00 +0000

Ansatz von Senilitt

One of the joys of continuing to try to educate oneself throughout life, even as one grows old, is that you?re for ever extending your vocabulary.

My maths education ended at fourteen, when I had done my O levels and entered the classical sixth. I?d had a good grounding in arithmetic, algebra and geometry, extending to trigonometry and calculus. But I have always felt a bit ignorant about, for example, such matters as exponentials and complex numbers and calculations involving them. I can?t process e and i as easily as I can ?, sin ?, and x-1.

Recently, beguiled by Prof. Brian Cox?s eloquent and engaging television programmes, I embarked on his recent book, coauthored with Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe (subtitle: everything that can happen does happen).

So I was looking forward to some challenging new ideas that I might struggle to understand. I hadn?t quite expected, though, that within the first dozen pages I would come across a word I had not met before: ansatz, explained as an ?educated guess?.

Now Ansatz is the sort of German word that I know passively, though I would not claim that it belongs to my active vocabulary. I would take it in my stride if I encountered it in the middle of a German text, perhaps einen neuen Ansatz (zu etwas) machen, ?make a fresh attempt (at something)?. On looking it up I find that it has a whole range of specialist and technical meanings that need not detain us here.

But as an English word, how would I pronounce it? The trouble with knowing German is that I immediately think to myself ?anzats. I map a onto a and syllable-initial prevocalic s onto z. This is not appropriate for English, where a maps onto and syllable-initial s onto s. I have to force myself to anglicize the pronunciation to the ?nsts that British mathematicians would probably say (or possibly the ???ns??ts that I imagine American math (sic) specialists might prefer).

The only English dictionary I have to hand that contains the word is the on-line OED. which confirms ?nsts as the pronunciation. There?s a Wikipedia article on the subject, but it shows no pronunciation.

And what would we say if there were more than one ansatz? What is its plural? Again, my German is good enough to expect it to be Anstze ?anz?ts? (yes, I?ve checked, it is). But when we borrow occasional German words into English we don?t usually at the same time borrow their plural forms: though we may sometimes refer to a wunderkind ?w?nd?k?nd in English (cf German ?v?nd?k?nt), we never speak of wunderkinder, and we get embarrassed about what to call the Lnder of the Federal Republic. So I suspect that if you make more than one ansatz in mathematical discourse they?ll be ansatzes ?nsts?z.

A few more pages later in the book, I did have to skip over Schrdinger's equation. (In calculus I didn't get as far as partial differentials.)

I don't even know how to read it aloud.

Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 25 Mar 2013 07:45:00 +0000

met a what?

On BBC4 TV recently there was an interesting programme entitled Metamorphoses. It was about animals that change their shape and/or lifestyle dramatically in the course of their lives: caterpillars turning into butterflies, tadpoles becoming frogs, and so on.

Metamorphosis, the singular form of metamorphoses, is one of those classical-derived words in which English speakers may hesitate about stress placement. In LPD, following Daniel Jones?s EPD, I give the main pron ?met??m??f?s?s, with a secondary pron ?met?m???f??s?s. M-W Collegiate and K&K give just the first stressing, as does ODP, although the Concise Oxford gives both, as does the OED (2001, for BrE; just the first for AmE).

On the TV programme all the scientists who took part, with just a single exception, gave it antepenultimate stress.

So why do some Brits, at least, want to stress the penultimate? Mainly, no doubt, because of other scientific words in -osis such as psychosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, cirrhosis, symbiosis, meiosis, tuberculosis, osmosis, hypnosis, sclerosis, all of which have penultimate stress, -???s?s.

Those few who know Classical Greek will know the etymon ???????????? metamrph?sis, and in English will know as usual to ignore the classical Greek accentuation in favour of the Latin stress rule. In the Greek spelling the omega (?, ?) in the penultimate syllable shows that the vowel is long and therefore, by the Latin stress rule, stressed.

Classicists and grammarians, though, may know the word apodosis ??p?d?s?s (Greek ???????? apd?sis) ?then-clause?, paired with protasis ?if-clause? and having an omicron (?, ?) followed by a single consonant in the penultimate syllable, giving a Latin and English antepenultimate stress. But then they?ll also know apotheosis (Greek ????????? apoth?sis), which has an omega and therefore penultimate stress like the scientific words. Nowadays those of us who do know it say ??p??i????s?s; but apparently that was not always the case in En?lish.

Under -osis the OED comments ?The older pronunciation of at least some of these words had the stress on the syllable preceding the suffix: see, e.g., the etymological note at apotheosis n.? Under apotheosis we read (OED of 1885) ?The great majority of orthoepists, from Bailey and Johnson downward, give the first pronunciation [sc. p????i??s?s], but the second [sc. ??p??i????s?s] is now more usual?.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Fri, 22 Mar 2013 08:09:00 +0000

villages possessed
Writing about apostrophes in place names led me to realize that I haven?t ever discussed in my blog the question of the spelling of placenames in Montserrat, the West Indian island my partner comes from, which we visit every year.

Many of the former sugar estates or cotton plantations on the island were named after their (former) owners, and many of the villages are named in turn after the estate or plantation where they are located. So a centuries-dead owner called Brade is perpetuated in the village of Brades; the village in which I stayed on my first visit to the island, Tuitt?s, keeps alive the name of the Tuitt who once owned the nearby estate.

Etymologically, then, these are possessives, and accordingly they are sometimes (though inconsistently) written with an apostrophe. See, on the first map, Brades but Trant?s and Tuitt?s.

There is the usual problem in cases where the former estate owner?s name ends in a sibilant. Near Bethel, just to the south of the dotted red line marking the limits of the exclusion zone (access forbidden because of continuing danger from the volcano), you will see a village labelled Harris. However this village, sadly destroyed in the volcanic disaster of 1997, is/was known as ?hr?s?z (well, ?har?s?z). I feel inclined, therefore, to spell it Harris?s. The local school teachers, anxious to be correct, tended to write Harris?. But as you can see, the map makers wrote Harris, apostrophe-free, and this is/was the predominant spelling.

Here?s another map. Again, we have Harris, but also Harris? Lookout. More interestingly, this map shows another village, labelled Farm. But everyone calls/called it fa?mz.

A recent government report reported on plans for geothermal drilling ?between Weekes village and Garibaldi Hill?. I can tell you that the name of the village is pronounced ?wi?ks?z.

There?s another village, one still unaffected by the volcano, called fr?ts (actually, Upper and Lower). How is it spelt? Either Friths or simply Frith. (Bear in mind that in Caribbean English you tend to get t for standard ?, so fr??s simplifies to fr?ts.)
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Wed, 20 Mar 2013 10:42:00 +0000

apostrophes again

It?s apostrophe-moral-panic time again. (For previous episodes, see for example my blog for 7 Dec 2011. )

As you may know, I am something of a campaigner AGAINST the possessive apostrophe. I am on record as saying

People, even literate ones, get very confused about apostrophes. Let's abolish them.

I have pointed out the absurdity, on the London Underground, of having adjacent stations officially called Earl?s Court (with an apostrophe) and Barons Court (without one).

Before reading further, see if you know, or can guess, which of the following Underground stations are written with an apostrophe, and which not. Then check with the official tube map.

  • Parsons Green
  • Kings Cross
  • Colliers Wood
  • Carpenders Park
  • Queens Park
  • Canons Park
  • Golders Green
  • Gallions Reach
Oh, and are any of these possessives plural? If so, the apostrophe, if required, ought to go after the s, not before it. Yes, you need to know whether Queens Park is like Queen?s College, Oxford, commemorating one queen, or Queens? College, Cambridge, commemorating two.

Suppose you are on a shopping trip, and want to visit the ?be?k?z. Should that be the baker?s (?the shop of the baker?) or the bakers? (?the shop of the bakers?)? Or is it just the bakers you want to visit, i.e. the people who bake, rather than their shop?

The possessive apostrophe has no phonetic correlate. You can?t hear it in speech. Therefore we could perfectly well get along without it in writing.

Ah, you will say, but sometimes it has a real usefulness, to distinguish between a singular and a plural possessor. The Guardian Book of the English Language (2007), edited by my former student David Marsh, puts it like this:

Nonsense. You can?t tell these apart in speech. In speech, if ambiguity threatens, we disambiguate by paraphrasing. It makes sense to do the same in writing: the investments made by

  • my sister and her friend
  • my sister and her friends
  • my sisters and their friend
  • my sisters and their friends.

On the BBC1 TV news yesterday my colleague Rob Drummond insisted, correctly I believe, that whether or not a street sign has an apostrophe is really no big deal, and that many apostrophes are ambiguous at best and unnecessary at worst.

But I believe he didn?t go far enough. I would argue myself that the possessive apostrophe gives people such problems and is of such little importance that we would do better simply to abolish it.

It would be absurd to force Boots the Chemist to introduce an apostrophe into their name, even though Boots started as the shop of one John Boot. With the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury?s (sic) there is even an issue over what apostrophe would logically be required. The company was indeed founded by one Sainsbury (and his wife ? that makes two), but there are now several Sainsbury family shareholders, not to mention many non-Sainsburys, of whom the largest is the Qatar Investment Authority.

American readers can meanwhile meditate about Bloomingdale?s (sic) and Barneys New York (sic).

There is one circumstance in which a possessive apostrophe does have a phonetic correlate (and might reasonably therefore be retained): after a stem ending in a sibilant with no following letter e, as in church?s. Even here, however, the possessive singular is pronounced identically with the plural (and possessive plural): church?s is homophonous with churches and churches?, and could therefore be identically spelt. The only really awkward cases are proper names like Ross?s, complementing the already awkward Jones?s (or Jones?), this possessive being homophonous with the Joneses we may be tempted to keep up with. There?s no problem in writing St Georges or St Johns.

At least if we officially abolished possessive apostrophes then those who worry about such things would no longer be tormented by superfluous ?greengrocers?? apostrophes and by people who write it?s when they ought to write its.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 18 Mar 2013 08:12:00 +0000

carrying dogs

English intonation is at the interface of phonetics and pragmatics. To describe the tunes you have to be able to analyse the changing pitch of the voice and the associated stress patterns, which is phonetics. To describe their meanings you have to be able to account for language use and contextual meaning, which is pragmatics. I feel confident about the phonetics, less so about the pragmatics.

Yesterday as I came up the escalator at Vauxhall tube station the man in front of me was carrying a medium-sized dog. He was complying with the instruction displayed at the foot of every escalator on the London Underground.

Eighteen months ago Language Log carried an interesting posting by Mark Liberman on this topic ? in fact an expansion of one he posted as long ago as 20 Aug 2006

I've never figured out a really convincing explanation for why stressing "dogs" seems to encourage the interpretation "everyone must carry a dog", while stressing "carried" encourages the interpretation "if you have a dog, you must carry it".

Nor have I. I think this puzzle was first pointed out to me by Michael Halliday in about 1964; he didn?t have a satisfactory explanation, either.

If spoken, to carry the intended message this sentence must have the nuclear accent (?phrasal stress? for Liberman) on the verb:

  • (?)Dogs must be ?carried.

If you say it with the nucleus on Dogs, you encourage the interpretation ?you can't use this facility unless you are carrying a dog", rightly characterized by Liberman as absurd:

  • ?Dogs must be (?)carried.

But why?

Please, pragmatics people, do go ahead and expatiate on the ?implicit universally quantified agent? by everyone and on the deontic modal must, because I don?t know how to, or at least not how to tie them up with the presence/absence of sentence accents.

In section 2.21 of my English Intonation, the section entitled Topic and Comment in the Tone chapter, I wrote

The topic is typically said with a non-falling tone (a dependent fall-rise or rise), the comment with a falling tone (a definitive fall).

OK, dogs is the topic, must be carried the comment; and we get the correct interpretation if we say

  • \/Dogs | must be \carried.
  • /Dogs | must be \carried.

? but this doesn?t explain why

  • \Dogs must be ?carried.
pushes us towards the absurd interpretation.


  • \Safety boots must be ?worn.
or the injunction below ? where the corresponding interpretation is not absurd at all, but the intended one.

Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Fri, 15 Mar 2013 09:56:00 +0000

ineptness in Rome

I was not impressed yesterday evening by BBC TV?s live coverage of the long-awaited announcement from St Peter?s Square. Wouldn?t they have done better to send a commentator with at least just a very elementary knowledge of Latin, so that he would have been able to tell us, live, that the new pope had chosen the name Francis? And wouldn?t it have been better to have chosen as our commentator?s Italian interpreter someone who at least knew the words of the Lord?s Prayer and the Hail Mary in English, rather than one who had to stumble through them as if he was hearing them for the first time?

I?m not usually a fan of the Daily Mail, but this time they?re right. (Thanks, Alex Rotatori.)

The radio arm of the BBC, on the other hand, had excellent coverage with an informed commentator.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Thu, 14 Mar 2013 10:25:00 +0000


?If you?re tempted to use a fancy word, make sure first that you know what it means,? is excellent advice from the English teacher to the teenager writing an essay in school, but also a sensible maxim for any journalist.

Here?s Aidan Foster-Carter, in Saturday?s Guardian. I should say that he?s billed as ?honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance writer, consultant and broadcaster on both Koreas?, though the University of Leeds website seems to have no trace of him.

According to LDOCE, jejune means ?too simple? (of ideas) or ?boring?, and is pronounced d???d?u?n. The OED expands on this:

Perhaps Mr Foster-Carter does indeed find the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un kim d??? ?n, simple and boring, intellectually unsatisfying. I?ve an awful suspicion, though, that he merely wants to characterize him as young and callow.

The OED indeed notes a further, etymologically unjustified, sense (first citation 1898):

Etymologically, we classicists know, jejune comes from the Latin j?j?nus ?hungry; empty; scanty; dry,meagre?. For Cicero, someone who is j?j?nus hasn?t had their breakfast. This meaning is preserved in the French jene ?n ?fast?, whence the familiar (petit) djeuner ?breakfast?. Nothing to do with jeune ??n ?young?, from Latin j?v?nis.

Now we see why people can occasionally be heard pronouncing the word in a sort-of-French way, as ????u?n. I wonder if perhaps Mr Foster-Carter is one of them.

In anatomy, the jejunum d???d?u?n?m is part of the small intestine.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Wed, 13 Mar 2013 07:49:00 +0000

a prophetic patronymic?

The minor prophet Hosea is known in BrE as h???z??, rhyming with nonrhotic oh dear ?? ?d??. So is the eponymous book of the Old Testament and the corresponding (rare) forename.

In LPD I gave the AmE version as ho??zi??, following K&K though ignoring the variant ?ho?z?? that they also mention.

I now see that Wikipedia claims that it is pronounced ho??ze??, and indeed the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster?s Collegiate gives both -?ze?- and -?zi?-, in that order. I have never heard the -?ze?- form in BrE, and assume that in AmE it is a recent spelling pronunciation, perhaps influenced by Spanish names and involving contamination from Jos.

Just as the forename Richard has given us the patronymic surname Richardson, while David, Robert, and John have given us Davidson, Robertson, and Johnson, so Hosea has evidently given rise to the (again, rather rare) surname Hoseason.

Or so I assumed when I first encountered this surname. The BBC Pron Dict of British Names, however, gives no fewer than three possible pronunciations, none of which is the h???z??s?n that the putative etymology would imply. They are h???si?z?n, ?h??si?e?s?n, and ?h??si?s?n.

The Oxford Names Companion confirms the etymology, locating it as originating from Shetland: a patronymic from Hosea, which was ?probably originally Osie, a dim. of Oswald?, but ?later altered by association with the name of the biblical prophet?.

Be that as it may, the name has now acquired a much higher profile in BrE because of the holiday company Hoseasons, which operates throughout the UK and advertises widely on television. The ads call it h???si?z?nz, as if the name was a compound of season, and so I think do its employees and its customers.

Their website protests, to no apparent effect:

The Hoseasons we know and love today began with one small boatyard on the southern broads owned and run by Oulton Broad harbourmaster Wally B Hoseason. (So no, it isn?t a made up name, it?s from the Norse ?Son of Hosea?.)

Interestingly, we seem to have no surnames that are patronymics of other minor prophets: no *Amosson or *Joelsson, still less any *Nahumson or *Zephaniahson. Presumably during the period of surname formation there were not many men around called Amos or Joel (though there are a few now, and have been for a few hundred years).
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Mon, 11 Mar 2013 07:58:00 +0000

what were all the row?

I?ve had a song running tiresomely and unseasonably through my mind over the last few days, a song I don?t think I have heard or sung for sixty years or more, not in fact since we learnt to sing it when I was at prep school.

The snatch I remember starts out as Good King Wenceslas but then morphs into something else.

"Good King Wenceslas looked out," sings we with splendid power:
Several neighbours looked out too, to see what all the row were!
We sings forte (sounded like a hundred),
Even in the soft bits how we thundered!

With the modern resources of Google and YouTube I was able to track it down. It proves to be a comic song entitled ?The Carol Singers?, by T. C. Sterndale Bennett and Charles Haynes.

The full text is to be found here, and there is a performance of it here.

As you can see, it is written in a style that Jack Windsor Lewis calls ?linguistic slumming?, with non-standard -s endings on non-third-person-singular verbs, were for was, ?h?nd?(r)d for hundred and the like.

?And some rather tortured rhymes. There is no w in power ?pa?? when spoken rather than sung. This is for the same reason as applies to the lesser of two weevils joke (blog, 31 Aug 2010), and no matter how much you resist the tendency to smooth a?? towards a? ~ a?, it can never really rhyme with row were ?ra? w??. Note that were has to take its strong form w?? here, with the long/strong vowel, not just because it is sung but also because it is ?stranded? (followed by a syntactic gap ? see blog, 28 May 2008).
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Fri, 08 Mar 2013 10:19:00 +0000


The news we heard two or three weeks ago about the human remains identified as those of Richard III meant that several newscasters and commentators made use of the word skeletal. Those I heard on BBC R4 all pronounced it with penultimate stress, as sk??li?tl?. There is, though, an alternative pronunciation, with initial stress, ?skel?tl?.

So this is a word like palatal, in which uncertainty about the quantity of the penultimate vowel leads to rival pronunciations, one having the antepenultimate stressing and penultimate vowel reduction predicted if the penultimate is short (?pal?tal, ?skel?tal), the other having the penultimate stressing to be expected if that vowel is long (pa?le?tal, ske?li?tal). In the case of palatal, phoneticians and linguists have settled for the first, although anatomists prefer the second (blog, 21 March 2011).

Since skeleton is derived from the Greek ????????, where the epsilon spelling of the penultimate vowel indicates a short vowel, the regular pronunciation according to the Latin stress rule is indeed the usual one, ?skel?tn?.

Actually, the adjective-forming suffix -al is normally disregarded for purposes of the stress rule: we keep the stress on the adjective in the same place as it has for the naked stem, thus from ?person we form ?personal (despite the long ? in Latin pers?na). From ?universe we have ?uni?versal, because the extra syllable in the adjective means that Chomsky and Halle?s Alternating Stress Rule comes into play. So in skeletal, which does not involve an extra syllable compared with skeleton, it would be expected that the stress would be located on the same syllable as in skeleton.

And please don?t ask about adjectival, because I don?t understand why it?s ?d??k?ta?vl?, either.
Author : (John Wells)
Publ.Date : Wed, 06 Mar 2013 10:08:00 +0000