UCL Division of Psychology & Language Sciences

John Wells’s phonetic blog
Archive 1-15 June 2007



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John Wells

Native speakers of British English, do please complete the 2007 pronunciation preference questionnaire and get your friends, family, colleagues, and/or students to do so too.

Friday 15 June 2007

Rush Limbaugh and Lars Porsena

Those who study the text of the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation closely will have noticed that there are one of two entries in which the respelling version of the pronunciation does not agree with the IPA version.

One such is the name of Rush Limbaugh, the American radio talk show host or ‘shock jock’. According to the OBGP it is pronounced

limbaw /ˈlɪmbaʊ/

I emailed Catherine Sangster, one of the authors, to ask which was correct. She says it is the respelling, so that the IPA ought to read /ˈlɪmbɔː/.

She adds that the name is on the BBC database. Their original source was the US Library of Congress's SayHow database, which she says is pretty reliable for American names.

Another entry that surprised me somewhat was that for Lars Porsen(n)a, the legendary Etruscan chieftain, which the OBGP says should be stressed on the second syllable. But I bet that the context in which most English speakers have heard the name (if they ever have) would be in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:

Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it,
And named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and west and south and north,
To summon his array.
— in which the scansion clearly requires it to be stressed on the first syllable, /ˈpɔːsənə/.
...Before the gates of Sutrium
Is met the great array.
A proud man was Lars Porsena
Upon the trysting day.

Rush Limbaugh

Murcius Scaevola before Lars Porsenna
(Hans Baldungs, 1531)

Thursday 14 June 2007

Double Dutch dactyls

Marc van Oostendorp (who has his own extensive linguistic website) sends me a Dutch version of the verses about the stressing of Vladimir Nabokov’s name (blog, 11 June):

Vlinder- en kindervriend
Vladimir Nabokov...
Lezer, uw uitspraak doet
Pijn aan mijn oor.

Volgens de Russische
Moet het Vladimir
Nabokov zijn hoor!
Translation: Lover of butterflies and children,
'Vladimir 'Nabokov...
Reader, your pronunciation
hurts my ear.
According to the Russian
it ought to be Vla'dimir Na'bokov!

It was written by the Dutch poet Jan Kal. Instead of the nonsense we find in the first line of the English version, it has an apt allusion to Nabokov’s interests.

Marc van Oostendorp

Portrait of Jan Kal
Chris van Houts, Amsterdam

Wednesday 13 June 2007


When I was a boy growing up in the country (well, in industrial Lancashire actually) my mother made sure that my brothers and I could identify wild flowers.

Many of them have names ending in -wort: those I can still recognize include bladderwort, crosswort, liverwort, milkwort, mugwort, nipplewort, pennywort, ragwort, St John’s-wort, sneezewort, stitchwort, woundwort. She pronounced them all with [-wɜːt]. Naturally I do the same. This is also the only pronunciation given in most dictionaries, the only form in Daniel Jones’s EPD. the only BrE form in the current version of EPD, the only BrE form in the ODP.

Yet I repeatedly hear people speaking of St John’s-[wɔːt] and other “warts”. I have even had to correct Glen on this point (blog, 1 June).

This new form [wɔːt] is presumably a spelling pronunciation. Yet its rise is mysterious: you would think that the large number of common words spelt with wor- and pronounced [wɜː] — word, work, world, worm, worse, worth — would rather reinforce the traditional pronunciation, the one my mother used.

St John’s wort

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Compression anomalies

English seems to have a rule barring the compression of [i, u] to [j, w] when followed by a strong vowel, though it is fine before a weak vowel.

Hence we can compress radiant to two syllables, [ˈreɪdiənt] > [ˈreɪdjənt] but can’t really do the same with radiate [ˈreɪdieɪt]. We can reduce mutual but not bivouac.

At least, that’s the rule I’ve been teaching people for many years.

It also explains why sierra, fiesta, Bianca, Kyoto, which are all disyllables in the original language, get expanded to three syllables in English. Spanish [ˈsjerra] becomes English [siˈerə], etc.

Given this, you would expect that French borrowings such as moiré, joie (de vivre) would be subject to the same pressure. But for some reason we’re happy with [ˈmwɑːreɪ, ʒwɑː], and don’t feel any need to expand them to *[muˈɑːreɪ, ʒuˈɑː] — even though English has no native words with /mw-, ʒw-/. Funny.


If you read German, do have a look at Phonetik-Blog. If you like this, you’ll like that.

Monday 11 June 2007

Vladimir Nabokov

Stimulated by my reference to Putin’s first name (blog, 8 June), Nigel Greenwood reminds me of a New Statesman competition in which a prize-winning entry concerned the pronunciation of the name of the well-known novelist (author of Lolita) Nabokov. Entries for the competition had to be in the form of double dactyls, i.e. a poem of eight lines, each stanza having three lines with the rhythm 'tum-ti-ti 'tum-ti-ti and one with the rhythm 'tum-ti-ti 'tum. The first line is nonsense, one line of the poem must consist of a single word, and the eighth line must rhyme with the fourth. The winning entry ran as follows:

Higgledy piggledy
Vladimir Nabokov —
Wait! Hasn't somebody
made a mistake?

Out of such errors, Vla-
dimir Nabokov would
paragraphs make.

Apparently Nabokov himself characteristically liked to point out that his first name rhymed with Redeemer.

Just so that you know, in Russian his name is pronounced [vɫʌˈdʲimʲɪr nʌˈbokəf].

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

Friday 8 June 2007

(Dis)putin(g) at the G8 meeting

With the G8 leaders in the news, it is time to admire the competence of BBC newsreaders in pronouncing their names, particularly when contrasted with the incompetence of many other commentators.

First, Putin. His name is properly pronounced in English as /ˈpuːtɪn/, not /ˈpjuːtɪn/. After all, in Russian he’s spelt Путин, not *Пютин. In Russian phonetics, that’s [ˈputʲɪn]. But English-speakers get misled by the spelling and pronunciation of words like computing.

His first name, Vladimir, is properly stressed on the SECOND syllable. But people who don’t know that tend to assume it’s stressed on the first.

And then there is Angela Merkel. The BBC radio newsreader this evening called her /ˈæŋgelə ˈmeəkəl/, which is spot on as an anglicized form, and certainly much closer to the German [ˈaŋgela ˈmɛʁkəl] (= [ˈmɛɐ̯kl̩]) than the /ˈændʒələ ˈmɜːkəl/ (= [ˈmɜːkɫ̩]) that we hear from the less knowledgeable.

Her name is actually a good demonstration of how German spelling does not always enable you to predict the pronunciation (though admittedly it usually does). Some German women bearing the name Angela stress it on the second syllable rather than the first. And the spelling -erC is notoriously ambiguous as between the long vowel of /eːr/ (Pferd, Wert) and the short one of /ɛr/ (Berg, Werk, Mertens).

Vladimir Putin

Angela Merkel

Thursday 7 June 2007

Reigning again

A quote from yesterday’s London freesheet Metro:

The 52-year-old [shopaholic] was so well known in upmarket fashion stores in her home town they often gave her the ‘Princess Diana treatment’ and closed the shop to give her a free reign.

(My emphasis added). This should, of course, be free rein. It is based on the metaphor of freeing control over a horse: letting the reins that usually check or manage it hang free.

As everyone knows, rein, reign and rain are all homophones: /reɪn/.

The Eggcorn database comments as follows:

As horses and carriages have become rare as a means of transport, the metaphor controling or restricting their movement with the help of reins has lost its transparency. The homophone reign, in the sense of the exercise of power, is in the process of supplanting it.
The thoroughness of the re-interpretation in the occurrences of the rein > reign substitution varies. Free reign is entering mainstream usage...

I am rather shocked to find that Google delivers only slightly fewer hits for “free reign” than for “free rein”: 785,000 as against 824,000.

In this particular case the allusion to Princess Diana might have subconsciously reinforced (sorry!) the choice of reign.

And so we move on to rain. I am sorry to say that there is a brand of bottled water by the name of Reignwater. It is targeted at Christian evangelical organizations. “This Scripture-labeled water is another way for believers to plant God’s seed, and to bless those who are spiritually thirsty.” And you thought it was only Catholics who went in for holy water.

Still on a religious note, I won’t start on the possibilities opened up by the archaic sense of reins, meaning kidneys. “Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just: for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins.” (Psalm 7:9). Or perhaps reigns.




Wednesday 6 June 2007

New appointee

Since my retirement last September there have been only three full-time members of academic staff at UCL doing the kind of phonetics that I did: Michael Ashby, Jill House and John Maidment. Jill and John are retiring at the end of this academic year (though Jill will continue to do some teaching).

I was therefore delighted to learn that the UCL Department of Phonetics and Linguistics has made a new appointment: Dr Bronwen Evans, who will take up a post as Lecturer in Phonetics at the beginning of September.

Like me, she is a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge. After a BA in Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics there, she did an MSc in Human Communication Science at Newcastle and then came to UCL as a Research Fellow.

You can see her list of publications here.

She is currently working on a number of topics within the area of plasticity in speech perception and production: how learners acquire new phonetic categories, vowel change in female speakers of RP, the sociophonetics of vowels in Gujarati English, and accent accommodation (how speakers from different regional backgrounds change their accent when interacting with each other). See here.

Despite her very Welsh-sounding name, Bronwen comes from Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the English midlands. I wish her all the best in her new post.

Bronwen Evans

Tuesday 5 June 2007


We’ve had several very enjoyable cruising holidays in the past, and are thinking of going on another one next year. We are in the middle of making a booking and selecting a suitable cabin.

On the ship we’re thinking of going on, the decks are called (in order from lowest to highest) Plaza Deck, Emerald Deck, Promenade Deck, Dolphin Deck, Caribe Deck, Baja Deck, Aloha Deck, Riviera Deck, Lido Deck, Sun Deck.

I was struck by the fact that the ‘cruise consultant’ I talked to on the phone — who is based in Birmingham — referred to the Baja Deck as /ˈbɑːʒə/.

This is an American ship, and the deck names have obviously been chosen so as to appeal to the American cruise market. I conjecture that the reason the cruise company chose Baja as the name of a deck is that for Americans this name has connotations of romance, foreign travel, and tropical vacations.

This is because Americans know Baja as a short form of Baja California, Lower California, which is a Mexican state. It is where Tijuana is located. In Spanish it is pronounced [ˈbaxa]. In American English this becomes /ˈbɑːhɑː/.

But to Brits Baja has no exciting connotations; we don’t know what it means or how to pronounce it and so just give it a spelling pronunciation perhaps vaguely based on French.

Americans with even a modest level of education have typically studied some Spanish and so know that in that language the word means simply ‘low’. You might wonder why the cruise company chose it as the name of a deck that is actually fairly high up.

Baja deck

Monday 4 June 2007


My travels by train have recently taken me several times through Cheshunt, Herts. The old BBC Pronouncing Dictionary, LPD, EPD, and ODP all agree that this is pronounced /ˈtʃesənt/. LPD and EPD also give, as second choice, the spelling pronunciation /ˈtʃeʃənt/.

I have been interested to notice that while some of the (recorded) station announcements and (live) on-train announcements do indeed call it /ˈtʃesənt/, others call it /ˈtʃezənt/. (None of them go for /ˈtʃeʃənt/, which I think would be used only by those who are unfamiliar with the place.)

So while the locals are solid against the palatoalveolar /ʃ/, they seem to be undecided about the voicing of the alveolar fricative.

The form recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) was Cestrehunt.

Could it be that a historical /h/ protected the /s/ against intervocalic voicing, and that now that the /h/ has been lost the protection is no longer effective? Or is that too fanciful a mixture of spelling and pronunciation?

Compare Bosham, Sussex, which is /ˈbɒzəm/. Cosham, Hants., traditionally /ˈkɒsəm/, has (according to Wikipedia) changed to /ˈkɒʃəm/ within the last fifty years. Lasham, Hants., too, can go either way, /ˈlæsəm/ or /ˈlæʃəm/. Chesham, Bucks., on the other hand, is unvaryingly /ˈtʃeʃəm/.


Friday 1 June 2007

Recording pronunciations for the dictionary

At the moment I’m spending two or three full days each week in a recording studio, monitoring the recording of pronunciations for words in a dictionary. This is of course unutterably tedious, but is very important for the many dictionary users who want to hear what a word sounds like rather than just read a transcription.

Most ordinary headwords were recorded for the dictionary publisher’s database years ago. So what we are doing now is the rarer words, and in particular proper names.

The publishers have recruited a number of actors (male and female) to speak the pronunciations, and one of the qualifications they were supposed to have was the ability to read IPA.

Some can, some can’t. Some just “did IPA” as part of “dialects” at drama school fifteen years ago, and have by now forgotten anything they may have learned. They attempt to work just by reading the orthography. As you might expect, I have to jump in repeatedly to correct them.

But yesterday’s actor, Glen McCready, can read IPA! It’s still tedious work, reading out one transcribed word after another, but at least he gets them right (except for occasional slips, which can happen to anyone). We sailed through the lists, and managed to record 4,000 individual words in the course of the day (whereas the previous day, with a less competent reader, we did only 2,500).

As is well known, many English placenames are pronounced differently from what the spelling might suggest: and we have to get them right.

For British English, I think it important to cover Welsh placenames as well as English ones, and this poses special problems for those who know no Welsh. We do of course anglicize them. (Jack Windsor Lewis thinks I don’t go far enough in this.) Glen coped well with Froncysyllte, site of the famous aqueduct carrying a canal across the river Dee, as well as of an internationally known male voice choir. Semi-anglicized, that’s [ˌvrɒnkəˈsʌɬteɪ].

Glen McCready

Pontcysyllte aqueduct, Froncysyllte

Côr Meibion Froncysyllte

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