UCL Division of Psychology & Language Sciences

John Wells’s phonetic blog archive January 2008

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John Wells


Thursday 31 January 2008

Who are all liars?

An ad for easyJet on Classic FM enumerates some of the many attractive features of Greece, including ˈkriːʃn̩ olive groves.

I don’t know if this is phonetics or more properly morphology, but surely the adjective from Crete is more usually Cretan ˈkriːtn̩.

At first I assumed that Cretian was simply a mistake. A check in the OED, though, shows that things are more complicated. Here’s the OED’s etymology for Cretan, a. and n.

ad. L. Crētānus. The forms used in the various translations of the Bible are, in Acts ii. 11 Cretes (Middle English (a 1400, ed. A. C. Paues), Geneva and A.V.), in Titus i. 12 Cretayns (Tindale and Coverdale), Cretyans (Cranmer), Cretians (Geneva and A.V.); Reims and Douay have Cretensians, and R.V. Cretans in both places.

My Cassell’s Latin Dictionary (1887, last revision 1928) confirms Crētānus, and adds a variety of other forms for a dweller in Crēta, Crētē, noun or adjective — among them Crēs, Crēsius, Crēticus, but no *Crētiānus.

So it’s really just the Geneva Bible and the Authorized Version (aka the King James version). Here are the AV verses in question, courtesy

Acts 2:11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
Titus 1:12 One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, the Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.

Despite this authority of holy writ, at least during the period 1611-1881, “all Cretians are liars” gets only 89 hits on Google, while “all Cretans are liars” gets 11,600.

There’s also a metrical foot called a cretic (ˉ˘ˉ). Another fascinating fact: in Modern Greek the word for ‘Cretan’ (Κρητικός) and the word for ‘critical’ (κριτικός) are homophones.

Anyhow, I think an olive grove ought to be Cretan.


Wednesday 30 January 2008


Prompted by my discussion of chorizo, Nigel Greenwood draws my attention to the entirely unrelated word that follows it in the NSOED (Shorter Oxford), namely chorizont, meaning ‘a grammarian who ascribed the Iliad and the Odyssey to different authors’. According to this dictionary, the pronunciation is kɔːˈraɪzɒnt (as we would nowadays write it).

As Nigel points out, this would be a great word in Scrabble if a previous player had entered horizon.

I checked in the big OED (2nd ed.), where I found that the headword was the corresponding plural form, chorizontes kɔːrɪˈzɒntiːz, defined as

in ancient Greek, ‘A name given to those grammarians who ascribed the Iliad and Odyssey to different authors’ (Liddell and Scott). So (in this or analogous senses) the sing. chorizont; also, chorizontal, chorizontic adjs.; chorizontist.

All the citations are dated between 1868 and 1887. The latest is

1887 Athenæum 12 Feb. 218/3
We...knew that he [Prof. Jebb] was a ‘chorizont’.

The ‘analogous cases’ are other instances of disputed authorship, e.g. Shakespeare and Bacon.

Why the discrepancy in pronunciation between singular and plural? We see the same relationship when we compare horizontal ˌhɒrɪˈzɒntl̩ and horizon həˈraɪzn̩. Putting it another way, why don’t we pronounce horizon ˈhɒrɪzn̩? (Compare Amazon.)

The answer appears to be that the Greek suffix -ίζ- -iz- has a long vowel, which according to Chomsky and Halle’s main stress rule attracts the stress to the penultimate. (Stress the penultimate vowel if it’s long or followed by two consonants.) But when we add a further suffix, the new penultimate vowel, the one in -ont-, attracts the stress in turn because it is followed by two consonants. The now unstressed long i weakens.

Horizon is etymologically a neuter present active participle, chorizont a masculine or feminine ditto. Despite the similarity of form and meaning, they appear to be etymologically unrelated. The first is from the stem of ὅρος hóros ‘boundary’, the second from χωρίς khōrís ‘apart’.

* * *

Jack Windsor Lewis points out that the Oxford BBC Pronunciation Guide agrees with me about chorizo, too.

The entry for χωρίζω in Liddell and Scott’s
Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon


Homer: one or two?


Tuesday 29 January 2008


A current television advertisement entices us to eat a particular brand of pizza by telling us that it is topped with tʃəˈrɪtsəʊ (a kind of sausage).

So our confusion about the letter Z continues (blog, 3 Jan.). OK, the ad is indeed about pizza, in which — as everyone knows — the letter z, or rather double zz, is pronounced ts.

But pizza is Italian, chorizo is Spanish.

If there were an Italian word pronounced tʃoˈɾitso it would probably be spelt ciorizzo. The sequence cho- would not be found in an Italian word.

However, as I say, chorizo is actually a Spanish word. And in Spanish the letter z corresponds to θ or s, depending on the kind of Spanish involved. Hence the Spanish pronunciation of chorizo is tʃoˈɾiθo (or in Andalucia and the Americas tʃoˈɾiso).

In English, though, z always means z. We don’t generally know about Spanish phonetics. Anglicized, chorizo becomes tʃəˈriːzəʊ. At least, that’s what I put in LPD (first and subsequent editions). Am I wrong?

EPD agrees with me; so does Merriam-Webster. ODP doesn’t have the word.

Even Wikipedia agrees with me, so I must be right.


Monday 28 January 2008

Notes on the accent of Grand Turk


These are notes based on informal observations of the speech of our taxi-driver-cum-tour-guide on Grand Turk island, part of the British Overseas Territory of Turks and Caicos, lying to the north of Hispaniola and to the southeast of the Bahamas. He told us he was a native of Grand Turk.

Our driver consistently pronounced town as taːn. I think this was probably the same vowel as he had in pass paːs, but I was unable to test this by eliciting for example mouth and bath. This monophthongal MOUTH vowel is not uncommon in the north of England, but I have never before heard it from a West Indian (though it has been reported by others writing on Bahamian).

He said coffee with a definitely back, mid, rounded vowel similar to RP thought: ˈkɔːfi. (Compare Jamaican speech, where coffee typically has the same vowel as pass.)

His PRICE vowel, at least before a voiceless consonant, was very narrow: right rəit, like ləik. Peter Trudgill reports this for various remote islands (New-dialect Formation: The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes, Edinburgh U.P. 2004, p. 52).

His accent was consistently non-rhotic. His NEAR vowel was wide, thus here hiɐ. His NURSE vowel was open, back, and lightly rounded, thus first fɒːs(t), Turk tɒːk.

When he pointed out the Anglican church, it sounded like ˈẽlɪkən.

But casual notes from a forty-five minute tour are no substitute for a proper analysis.

There are some general comments on Turks speech in Trudgill’s ‘The history of the lesser-known varieties of English’, in R. Watts and P. Trudgill (eds.), Alternative Histories of English, Routledge, 2002, p. 37.

The speech of the islands is often described as being very close to Bahamian English.
...[John Holm] reports (personal communication) that certain students at the College of the Bahamas in Nassau where he taught in 1978-80 were said by other students to have ‘Turks accents’.
Turks Islanders claim that people in the Caicos Islands speak differently [from them]...

I’m kicking myself that I did not notice or elicit the pronunciation of the only town, Cockburn Town. I bet it contains only one /k/ and rhymes with Oban, as claimed in Wikipedia.


Saturday 26 January 2008

Claude Piron 1931–2008

I was sorry to hear of the death last Tuesday of Claude Piron, the Swiss polyglot linguist and psychologist.

A graduate of the University of Geneva School of Interpretation and Translation, he was employed by the UN in New York in the fifties as a translator into French from English, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. Subsequently he worked for the World Health Organization in East Asia and then in Africa. In 1969 he started a psychotherapy practice in Geneva, lecturing at the University of Geneva in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences from 1973 until his retirement in 1994.

It was through our shared interest in Esperanto that I knew him. He was the author of Le défi des langues [The Challenge of Languages] (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994), in which he drew on his experiences to argue for a simple logical solution to the language problem, through the use of Esperanto. Here Piron broke new ground by arguing that reactions to the notion of Esperanto are often based on psychological resistance rather than on rational arguments: on the psychological defence mechanisms of denial, projection, and rationalization. He later developed these arguments in an article Psychological reactions to Esperanto.

He was also a prolific author, writing not only a number of full-length detective stories in Esperanto, but also short stories for beginning students of the language, these latter in a remarkably clear and simple style. He argued for this kind of language, and against literary obfuscation, in his influential La Bona Lingvo [Good Language]. Not surprisingly, he enjoyed a wide readership in the Esperanto-speaking community.

One thing about him that I really admire is that despite being in his seventies he was thoroughly in tune with modern developments. His own website carries the full text of dozens of his articles, original or translated, in some 26 languages. Alas, he died before he could upload all the book-length works. But one last thing to remember him by is the collection of video clips that he uploaded onto YouTube. This one is in English.

While I’m on the subject of Esperanto, I’m pleased to note that seven British Members of Parliament have just nominated the World Esperanto Association (UEA) for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.


Friday 25 January 2008

Minimal pairs in action

At dinner on the cruise ship for dessert one day some of us had ordered cherry tart (the posh Frenchified menu called it a clafoutis). But the waiter, who was Thai, brought us what looked like Black Forest gateau instead. We protested, and he took it away and brought us the correct order.

He explained that it wasn’t his fault. He had asked the kitchen for tart tɑːt. But they had given him torte tɔːt.

Very few of the catering staff on the ship were native speakers of English. This was English as a lingua franca in action. It failed.

(At least, I suppose we have to say it’s English. The words in question are loanwords.)

Distinguishing between minimal pairs, in perception and in production, is not just a classroom exercise. And don’t say that bothering about that sort of thing is not important, and that the only thing that matters is communication, that the context will sort things out. Sometimes communication breaks down precisely because the context does not sort things out. Getting it wrong has a practical consequence.

In this case, the result was inconvenienced customers and an indignant waiter convinced it was not his fault.

Le clafoutis est un flan aux cerises de texture moelleuse.
Une tarte est un plat culinaire constitué d'une pâte et d'une garniture sucrée ou salée.

Eine Torte ist ein feiner, aus mehreren horizontalen Schichten bestehender Kuchen, der nach dem Backen des Teigs mit Creme und/oder Früchten gefüllt und anschließend verziert wird.


Thursday 23 January 2008

A voice coach replies

Eric Armstrong, who is a voice, speech and dialect coach, trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company and now working in Canada as Associate Professor of Voice at York University, writes in reaction to my blog entry of 21 Jan.

I was pleased to see your post on Actors and Accents. I'm not in the least surprised by your point of view. Far too many of my colleagues haven't enough knowledge to teach basic phonetics effectively, and essentially pass on what they were taught, continuing a tradition of ignorance that is decades if not centuries old.
"It seems clear that the speech and drama world is still a land of fantasy, not facts."
This is true, and perhaps to be expected. Actors are creative artists, not scientists. Most voice and speech trainers come to their work from the world of the theatre, not from the world of science, and their clients are uneasy with the world of science. In fact, many actors have made it clear is that the reason they were drawn to their art was because of their disdain for science and math. To them, phonetics seems an odd combination of science and math-like symbols, things that they have failed at in the past, and notions that make them uneasy, fearful and angry.
As I'm sure you're well aware, there are many types of learners in the world. We aren't all blessed with "good ears" — so few seem to be auditory learners. I find that many actors are kinesthetic learners more than auditory ones, but there are also visual learners. The world of actor training is immersed in metaphor and imagery, as is the world of the professional actor. This is the language of art, not science, and it is used in an uninhibited manner — splashing around in the pool of metaphor — in order to reach a goal that may be beyond a performer who has a resistance to more linear thinking, rational explanation and concrete examples. Many high level actors work in an almost child-like sense of wonder, playing their way into new roles, with new physicalities and vocalizations. Short attention spans are, unfortunately, the norm. There are some who clearly have great ears, brilliant minds, agile tongues, and open hearts. As a colleague of mine once retorted, "We used to call that 'talent'."
Part of the problem the established voice and speech community faces in trying to embrace greater phonetic detail and more accurate usage of the tools available to us from the worlds of linguistics arises, I believe, from deeply held beliefs about the systems and methodologies in which people have been trained. When new data is presented to these trainers revealing that their teaching methods are ineffective, cognitive dissonance, uncomfortable feelings arising from having two conflicting ideas or beliefs, forces them to justify what they have been doing in the past, and to devalue the new information. Often the systems and methods learned by trainers are the life work of their mentors, and so rejecting the concepts they learned means rejecting what is, in many ways, a beloved parent figure for them.
I think there is hope for the future of the speech and drama world. Teachers like Dudley Knight and Phil Thompson have found ways to bring greater phonetic detail into the conversation while keeping an actorly playfulness in their teaching. Their greatest innovation is in guiding the people they work with to explore the world of sounds available. One small example: making noises through gibberish play called "omnish", an imaginary language of all the world's sounds. Actors love the kind of exploration where they do an oration in Omnish, and another actor provides simultaneous translation. Yes, to a scientist, it must sound silly. But silliness has great value to an actor! It frees her up, lets her connect to those new sounds in a joyous, unfettered manner, stripping away all those value judgments of sounds (and ultimately symbols) as being "mere math". And once she can hear those sounds in her own mouth, to feel the physical action required, the visualize the action of her articulators, she is ready to begin to learn how to write them down systematically with IPA.
There is no defense of inaccurate metaphor, I think. But actors need metaphor, and a trainer of actors is sorely lacking if they don't have it in their arsenal.

Many thanks for this thoughtful and valuable reaction.

Eric Armstrong
See his occasional blog


Wednesday 23 January 2008

Heard in lectures

Yesterday I attended two public lectures at UCL. In each case the subject matter was at times rather above my head, but there were plenty of interesting phonetic observations to be made on the lecturer’s pronunciation.

The first talk was on how the effect of colour can be created at a submicroscopic level without dyes or pigments, as is found naturally in mother-of-pearl and iridescent butterfly wings. The speaker was a nanotechnologist.

As he was introducing his subject my ears caught something that sounded like ‘Platonic crystals’. My reverie about chaste loving relationships was interrupted when his Powerpoint display showed the spelling of the word: photonic. It’s interesting that where the speaker actually pronounced f my ears and brain perceived pl, so as to enable me to identify this item (wrongly) as a known word. Since for him it was not only known but very familiar, the speaker pronounced its first syllable as fə- rather than fəʊ-.

I can confirm that the prefix nano- is pronounced ¦nænə(ʊ). It has secondary stress unless contrasted with non-nano, in which case it receives the primary stress. Examples: nanopolymer, nanomaterials, nanotechnology, nanochemistry; but always primary stress in nanometre (= a billionth of a metre).

One interesting and unusual pronunciation: silicon as ˌsɪlɪˈkɒn, presumably to avoid possible confusion with silicone (blog, 4 Dec 2007).

You can read about this new technology here.

The second talk was on cognition. The speaker’s native language was French, but he spoke English fluently and fully intelligibly.

He had a number of typical French (mis)pronunciations: uvular /r/, no contrast between ɔː and əʊ (law–low), occasional spelling-based oddities such as ˈɒðə other, infɔːmation, ripresent, together with word stress errors such as cha'racterize, satis'fy. But most word stresses were OK, and he had a good robust contrast in iː–ɪ with its high functional load.

This was a good demonstration of the point that in EFL you can get away with quite a few pronunciation ‘errors’ as long as your speech overall is fluent, with good rhythm and acceptable intonation.

illustration by Robin Chavalier


Tuesday 22 January 2008

Accents and actors

Long ago, when I was young and unknown, I spent a lot of time looking into material I might draw on for the work that eventually became Accents of English (CUP 1982). As well as pursuing all the written stuff I could lay my hands on, I enrolled in an evening class in Accents and Dialects at the City Lit, taught by drama teacher whose name I have forgotten. (You can read the details of the present course here. Little seems to have changed.)

Each of the weekly three-hour sessions began with extensive warming-up exercises (going bɑː bɑː bɑː, biː biː biː, buː buː buː and the like). We then had a little bit of theory, and a coffee break. The second half was taken up by play-reading to practise what we had learned (or what the teacher could demonstrate, or what we could do anyhow).

The ‘theory’ consisted mainly in learning the IPA symbols for RP.

People in the class obviously enjoyed it, and had an opportunity to imitate the speech varieties demonstrated to them. But for my own purposes I concluded that on this evidence the speech and drama people couldn’t offer me anything of serious phonetic interest.

Steve Disney draws my attention to an article in yesterday’s Guardian: 'Be generous with your diphthongs'. It concerns a new CD set, Access Accents, published by Methuen, the work of Penny Dyer, former head tutor of speech and drama at RADA, and the actress Gwyneth Strong.

It seems clear that the speech and drama world is still a land of fantasy, not facts. Here are some quotes from the article.

As well as explaining the more technical aspects of how to produce a particular accent, [Dyer] looks at its history and explains her environmental theory of accent formation. For instance: she likens the directness of Geordie to the way that, in the north-east, the wind whips off the North Sea and smacks you in the face; she tells an actor struggling with received pronunciation to imagine walking across a manicured lawn in England; and for south Wales, she imagines the intonation rising to the tops of mountains and then descending to the bottoms of valleys.

(I can’t wait to study the ‘more technical aspects’.)



Penny Dyer


[On American:] The accent's colourful 'r' sound needs speedy contraction in the tongue - imagine riding a horse at full gallop and pulling back hard and short on the reins.
The letters 'p' and 'b' are softened by tapping the tongue lightly on the bottom teeth.
[On Welsh:] When in doubt, sing. For some vowels, the tongue forms a curled, daffodil shape, eg 'u' sounds ("you") and 'e' sounds ("here").

For a recent project we were looking for actors with a good knowledge of phonetics. You can see why we found it so difficult to recruit suitable people. Fortunately we found Glen McCready (blog, 1 June 2007). There are also actors who have done a proper phonetics course at a university, including the excellent Josette Lesser, one of our regular tutors on the UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics.

I wish someone could persuade the drama schools of the value of real phonetic knowledge. Can’t they see what nonsense it is to talk of tapping the tongue on the bottom teeth in order to make an American p sound (or rather, letter)? Or curling the tongue into a daffodil shape for an 'e' sound?

We lucky people who know phonetics can simply say that in parts of south Wales here is pronounced [jœː]. End of story.

End of rant.

Glen McCready

Josette Lesser


Monday 21 January 2008

Languages in the northeastern Caribbean

You may be wondering where I've been over the last two weeks. Today's blog entry may give you a hint.

One of the Leeward Islands, St Martin (Sint Maarten, Saint-Martin), is divided into a Dutch part and a French part. The official languages are Dutch, English, and French. (By the way, the islands we call the Leeward Islands are called the Windward Islands by the Dutch. It depends on where you are standing.)

Road sign in English and French only

However, virtually the only Dutch to be seen in public signage is in street names.

Otherwise, the language in the Dutch part is English, and what you mostly hear on the street from the locals is a form Caribbean English creole. In the French part of the island, as you might expect, everything is in French.

This cash machine (ATM) in the Dutch part is trilingual, but French is not one of the languages.

The uppermost language in this display is actually Papiamento, no doubt for the benefit of Netherlands Antilles citizens from the ABC islands off the coast of Venezuela, whose language it is.

In St Thomas (American Virgin Islands) the only official language is naturally enough English. However the local dialect is a Caribbean English creole comparable to that of the other Leewards, which means it sounds more British than American. Other matters unusual for an American territory are that they drive on the left...

...and that many of the street names are Danish.


This is because the US Virgin Islands were Danish until purchased by the Americans in 1917.


Friday 4 January 2008

Letters to the Independent

As I mentioned two days ago, a letter of mine was printed in the Independent newspaper. One or two readers of this blog have asked to read it. Unfortunately the Independent’s website does not include many letters, either current or archived, so I cannot merely refer you to a URL. PS: \Yes, | I /can.|| Nigel Greenwood has found it on the Indie website after all.

The thread concerned English spelling. It started with a letter from Masha Bell, author of Understanding English Spelling (Pegasus Educational, 2004). Her letter is available on-line, so if you wish you can read it there.

A reply came from Ray Luff of Southwick, who argued inter alia:

[...] English spelling is inconsistent but probably no harder to learn than gender, case and associated inflections that are a feature of other (European) languages; conversely, English grammar is relatively simple. Are German children disadvantaged because they have to cope with three genders, or Russian children because they need to learn six cases? I doubt it.
[...] Sure, we could write British English using the International Phonetic Alphabet. So could the Americans, the Scots, the Australians, the Indians. And the result would be the Balkanisation of English, numerous mutually unintelligible written versions of the same tongue. Where would be the advantage in that?

My letter was a rejoinder to these two points.

Ray Luff's letter betrays an unfortunate confusion between languages and writing systems. Gender, case, and other such grammatical systems are part of language, acquired by children before they learn to read and write. Spelling, on the other hand, is merely part of the writing system. You can speak English perfectly well without being able to spell it correctly. (Indeed, recent research suggests that dyslexics may excel at entrepreneurship.)

It benefits no one that English-speaking children have to memorize thousands of inconsistent and illogical spellings. Losing the difference between break and brake or writing the past tense of read differently from the present tense would not lead to the balkanization of English, but rather to an improvement for everyone.

To be fair to Mr Luff, he may have thinking mainly of French, where the writing system is indeed complicated by the need to take account of gender (and number) even when these features are not reflected in speech: je l’ai vu if the object is masculine, je l’ai vue if it is feminine. And many final written consonant letters do not correspond to any spoken consonant sound. The French writing system is nowhere near as crazy as that of English, but it is not nearly as straightforward as that of German, Russian, Korean, or many other languages, where with minor exceptions if you know how to pronounce a word you also know how to spell it.


Thursday 3 January 2008

C and Z in foreign names

I recently watched some ski-jumping on the digital television channel British Eurosport. The anonymous commentator coped pretty well on the whole with the many non-English names that inevitably came up. In particular, he knew the spelling-to-sound value of the letter j — the same value as in IPA — in the whole swathe of central European languages from Norwegian through Finnish and Polish to Croatian. He didn’t, for example, make the mistake of calling the Czech competitor Janda ˈdʒændə or ˈʒændə instead of ˈjændə.

Foreign sounds were mostly mapped onto English sounds, which is fair enough. But the commentator was also sufficiently familiar with German phonetics to supplement the English consonant system with not only x but also ç, and in the correct German distribution to boot.

He even produced a very creditable ˈmaʊɪʃ for the Polish ski-jumper Małysz.

Where he really fell down — and he is not the only one — was over the letters c and z. Given his apparent familiarity with German, it was disappointing that he referred to Schlierenzauer as ˈʃlɪərənzaʊə, treating the z as if it were English. (In German the last part is pronounced -tsaʊɐ.)

Then, oh dear oh dear, we heard that the next meeting would be in ˈlɪbərek. But the Czech city of Liberec is pronounced with final ts, not k.

Why this reluctance to use an alveolar affricate? Heavens to Be[ts]y, it’s as bad as when we used to hear about [k]lav Havel.

Liberec town hall


Wednesday 2 January 2008

Remarkable pronunciations

I always keep one ear open for interesting or remarkable pronunciations, pronunciations you will not find in reference books. Here are two recent examples spotted in the wild.

  • On BBC R4, fissiparous as ˌfɪsɪˈpeəriəs instead of fɪˈsɪpərəs — this has to be right up there with ˈgriːviəs for grievous.
  • From a commentator on British Eurosport TV: biathlon as ˈbaɪəθlɒn — everyone else (I think) stresses this word on the second syllable, -ˈæθ-.
    We can agree to differ on whether or not to weaken the last vowel. Personally, I say baɪˈæθlən.

* * *

With reference to the reorganization of phonetics at UCL (blog, 1 Jan.), Petr Rösel of the University of Mainz writes:

Dark forces seem to be at work in Germany as well. These forces seize phonetics and seem to be about to wipe it away. Institutes of phonetics become a part of a department which in turn is merged with a larger research and teaching unit in order to achieve some sort of synergy.
It reminds one of the controlled process of homeopathic dilution: phonetics is de- concentrated and vigorously shaken until nothing is left of it. And if it’s not institutes of phonetics that dissolve into insignificance then it’s pronunciation training that becomes a quantité négligeable in the eyes of ministerial beaurocrats as well as heads of English departments and deans of faculties who are grimly determined to put the Bologna process into action by designing new bachelor and master courses with teaching goals some of which one is inclined to call fraudulent.
We as phoneticians, however, have our share in this and we must beat our breasts collectively for having failed to make clear enough how important our academic undertakings are.

* * *

There’s a letter from me in today’s Independent.

The biathlon

Homeopathy: diluted out of existence


Tuesday 1 January 2008

Changes at UCL

In June 2007 the UCL Council endorsed the Provost’s decision to disestablish all departments in the Faculty of Life Sciences.

This means that as from today the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics ceases to exist.

The Department of Phonetics, founded in 1911-12 and in 1971 merged with Linguistics to form the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, was a part of the Faculty of Arts until 1998, when we transferred to the Faculty of Life Sciences.

As with the rest of Life Sciences, the plan now is that the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics will cease to exist as such. The Head of Department, Dr Valérie Hazan, has stepped down. All staff will transfer to one of various ‘Research Departments’ within the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences of the Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences. The phoneticians will join the Research Department of Speech, Hearing and Phonetic Sciences, headed by Dr Andrew Faulkner. The phonologists and other linguists will be in a Research Department of Linguistics, headed by Dr Hans van de Koot.

One effect of this change will thus be to undo the 1971 merger, which was praised at the time for bringing the two disciplines together. (I do hope that linguistics undergraduates will still have to learn some phonetics.)

The staff of the Dept of Human Communication Science (= speech and language therapy) will mostly go into a Research Department of Language and Communication.

A number of Research Managers are being appointed. If you take the job descriptions literally this could be more worrying. Here’s part of what Human Resources says:

UCL expects managers to review activities for which they are responsible to ensure that they support UCL’s corporate goals and faculty/departmental plans and aspirations. Examples of such changes may include moving into new areas of research, . . .

This sounds potentially pretty sinister. So managers will tell academics which research areas they are to ‘move into’ so as to support ‘corporate goals’? What happened to academic freedom? This no longer sounds like a university, more like a business corporation.

The documentation I have seen says absolutely nothing about teaching or how it will be organized.

Although these changes were announced as taking place from the start of the new calendar year, i.e. today...

1 JANUARY 2008 Research Departments and Divisions will formally be established. Legacy arrangements will continue for administrative and technical support services. is clear that in practice there will be a somewhat protracted period before the new structure comes fully into play. What do the header and footer on this page still say? Have a look: Phonetics and Linguistics. Who owns the server onto which I load these blog files? Examine the URL: What does the UCL website say on the matter?

Answer to the last question: nothing. The UCL A-Z listing of departments contains no reference to the new structures. The Faculty listing is equally silent.

Nevertheless, I imagine that quite soon UCL will get its act together and the ‘legacy’ arrangements will be phased out.

I’m relieved to see that the name Phonetics is being preserved — adjectivally, at least — in the title of the new Research Department of Speech, Hearing and Phonetic Sciences. I wish all the best to the new Head of Department, Andy Faulkner.

Prof. Daniel Jones,
founder of the UCL Phonetics Department

Dr Andrew Faulkner,
head of the new UCL Research Department of
Speech, Hearing and Phonetic Sciences

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