UCL Division of Psychology & Language Sciences

John Wells
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John Wells’s phonetic blog archive 1-15 September 2008

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11-15 Sep. I was in Gniezno with no web connection


Wednesday 10 September 2008


We recently had the outside of our house treated with a protective spray-on coating. The salesman who persuaded us to allow his company to carry out the work pointed out to us that we could set our minds at rest about the quality of the product, because it was approved by the British Board of Agrément.

British Board of what?

Of Agrément. The salesman pronounced it ˈægrəmənt.

From its website:

The BBA is the UK's major approval body for new construction products and installers. Our Agrément Certificates are recognised by specifiers and other industry decision-makers as proof that the products covered by them have been rigorously assessed, will allow compliance with Building Regulations to be achieved and will last for a defined period.

This word is not to be found in any of the dictionaries I have to hand.

Consulting the on-line OED, however, I find that the word is indeed recorded, but not in this meaning.

The OED gives three meanings. The first is as an alternative to agreement sense 9.

9. Mostly pl. Agreeable qualities, circumstances, or accessories. Now treated as Fr., les agréments.

The second is musical, the third diplomatic.

2. Mus. pl. Grace-notes; embellishments.
3. The approval given by the government of a country to a diplomatic representative of another country.

But there is no mention of this commercial sense.

You read it here first.


Tuesday 9 September 2008

Freeing up spelling

This year we mark the centenary of the founding of the Spelling Society, formerly the Simplified Spelling Society, and tomorrow evening, Wednesday, we shall be holding a centenary dinner exactly one hundred years after its foundation meeting.

Since I will be leaving for Poland on Thursday morning I decided I had better get a press release issued in advance. An article duly appeared in yesterday’s Times, though unfortunately with a headline that was invented by the journalist and does not reflect my views (“Let pupils abandon spelling rules, says academic”).

What I actually called for was some freeing up of the rigidity of English spelling. Just as we have a free choice (in BrE) between organise and organize, let’s allow people, if they wish, to spell the pronouns I and you as i and u, as has already become frequent in text messaging. Let’s allow people to omit the misleading final e of have and give (compare save, drive). Lets abolish the apostrophe, or at least make it optional.

Sparked by the Times article, copy-cat reports appeared in several other daily papers. As a consequence, a whole string of radio and television stations contacted me for an interview. Yesterday I did seven radio interviews and one television interview, and today a car is due to pick me up at 06:30 to take me to yet another studio for the first of another batch.

You can listen to the five-minute contribution on the BBC World Service here. To the producer’s surprise and chagrin, the first thing my intended opponent from the Queen’s English Society, Ian Bruton-Simmonds, said was that he agreed with me. So it wasn’t as confrontational as the BBC had hoped.


Monday 8 September 2008

More mysterious epenthesis

Next question: why is someone from St Kitts in the Caribbean known as a Kittitian kɪˈtɪʃn?

Answer: I don’t know, and I suspect the OED doesn’t really know either, though it suggests that Kittitian is modelled on Haitian. (But Kitts : Kittitian is not really like Haiti : Haitian.)

And why are purveyors of tobacco known as tobacconists? Or for that matter people from Toronto as Torontonians? While members of LASSO, the Linguistic Association of the Southwest (US), according to Ryan Denzer-King, are addressed as Lassovians, and, as Nigel Greenwood points out, old boys of Stowe (public school) are simply known as Stoics.

Nigel Greenwood suggests that Shanghainese, from Shanghai, is presumably by analogy with Chinese (although I have to point out that the base form China contains an n, whereas Shanghai doesn’t, or at least not in the right place). In the east Asia area there are also Java - Javanese, Sunda - Sundanese, and Bali - Balinese, all with an n of no obvious origin unless indeed China - Chinese is somehow responsible.

The OED speculates that tobacconist, with -n- inserted between tobacco and -ist, is “perh. suggested by such words as Platonist, with etymological n”. For Torontonian it merely says “f. Toronto, capital of the province of Ontario in Canada + -n- + -IAN”.

Yeah, right.*

*(the phrase that proves that two positives make a rather negative evaluation)

This is the first blog posting I have uploaded from a moving train. On the east coast Scotland to London line, National Express offer free wi-fi.

Kittitian flag


Friday 5 September 2008

Mysterious derived forms

Tan Ai-Kiang Ludwig asks why Harrow gives us the derived form Harrovian while Congo gives us Congolese.

The brief answer is that I don’t know, and I can’t find any answer in reference books or on the web.

Harrovian may well be modelled on Peruvian (from Peru). The OED says that Peruvia (1566) was a Latinised form of Peru. In classical Latin the two letters u and v were not distinguished, and the corresponding sound was u or w depending on whether it was vocalic or consonantal. You can see how a w glide would be natural between u and a following vowel. But by the fifth century AD consonantal u had become fricative. So a further thousand years after that, when Peruvia was coined, there was no phonetic reason to epenthesize v. And in Spanish the adjective is just peruano; but the French have péruvien.

The OED dates Harrovian to 1864. Harrow School, like other great public schools, taught Latin to all its pupils and must have invented the Latin name Harrovia for itself. I expect there were other British proper names similarly latinized with -v-, but I can’t offhand think of any.

Another interesting formation, and forty years older, is Monrovia, capital of Liberia, named in 1824 after the American President James Monroe. Unlike with Harrow, there is no letter w here to provoke a Latinizing v.

Shavian ˈʃeɪviən, for the writer George Bernard Shaw, is more recent (OED: 1905). And Fitzrovia, for the area around Fitzroy Square near Euston, is a mere half-century old (OED: 1958).

(Do you think anyone would give Waugh an adjective Wavian? No? Neither do I.)

Congolese must come from French congolais, but where the French took the epenthesized lateral from I cannot imagine. Compare the dwellers in Idaho, who are straightforwardly Idahoans.

Fans of Doctor Who are sometimes referred to as Whovians. During the 1980s the Doctor Who Fan Club of America published the Whovian Times as its newsletter.


Thursday 4 September 2008


Nowadays it is not unusual to see the German prefix über in English. This is no doubt based on Neitzsche’s Übermensch (superman), which the OED dates in English to 1902. The OED also records Überfremdung and überhaupt, and non-prefixal use of the preposition in über alles. But nothing more.

This is from The Independent on Sunday, 31 August:

So uber is starting to be used productively, like its Latin and Greek cognates super- and hyper-.

Some more examples, off the web, each linked to its source: uber-wiki, uber-secret, uber-moderniser, uber-fans, uber-laptop.

The Macmillan Dictionary website cites über-successful, über-modern, über-trendy, über-rich, über-popular, uber-freelance, ubernanny, uber-defensive, uber-hip. According to this site

The prefix often has slightly negative overtones, i.e.: the idea of 'excessively'.

Wikipedia points out, quite rightly, if in slightly odd English:

An expression like "über cool" sounds rather awkward in the ears of a German. They would rather use "obercool", where "ober" means "upper", "higher" or "superior". For example the German word for "first lieutenant" is "Oberleutnant" (as opposed to just "Leutnant" for "second lieutenant").

How do we pronounce it in English? In German it’s yːbɐ, but we don’t have in English. So we’re generally content with uːbə or possibly juːbə. And we spell it without an umlaut, too.

Actually, though, I think that I myself usually pronounce it with . This is either because I know German, or because I’m showing off, or both.

Although the first syllable of English uber bears a (lexical) secondary stress, the (lexical) primary word stress remains on the second element, thus ˌuːbəˈdʌl etc. That is, uber words are double stressed. In connected speech, of course, you can get accent shift or contrastive accentuation.

His 'speech was 'uber-'dull.
He gave an 'uber-dull 'speech.
It 'wasn’t just 'dull, | it was 'uber-dull.


Wednesday 3 September 2008


In the new film The Duchess, to be released later this week, Keira Knightley plays the role of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806).

Peter Roach alerted me to discussion in the media about the pronunciation of this name. He had heard Keira Knightley interviewed on BBC R5, where she said that at the period in which the film was set it should be dʒɔːˈdʒeɪnə, “because of the affected style of the time”. Later the interview was repeated on BBC R4 and I heard it myself. (It is supposed to be available in a podcast, but at the moment the link doesn’t seem to be working.)

Jane Setter says she saw the actor Dominic Cooper, who plays Earl Grey, on TV and that he pronounced it dʒɔːˈdʒeɪnə too.

Nowadays, given this spelling, we would expect ˌdʒɔːdʒiˈɑːnə. But the dʒɔːˈdʒeɪnə form is apparently documented in Amanda Foreman’s biography of the duchess (which I am told is based on her PhD thesis, but have not read).

This seems to me to be entirely likely. After all, the Spanish Armada, nowadays unquestionably called the ɑːˈmɑːdə, is recorded as “old-fashioned -ˈmeɪd-” as recently as Daniel Jones’s twelfth edition of EPD, 1963.


Tuesday 2 September 2008

The GOAT in rhotic

Kilian Hekhuis writes to express surprise that rhotic (blog, 28 Aug) is shown as having the GOAT vowel. He would have expected it to have the vowel of LOT, which is how he says it himself.

You can see his reasoning. After all, -otic has the LOT vowel in antibiotic, asymptotic, demotic, erotic, exotic, hypnotic, narcotic, necrotic, neurotic, osmotic, patriotic, quixotic, sclerotic and semiotic.

Note, however, that (with the exception of the maverick Cervantes-hero-derived quixotic) these words all involve the ending -(o)tic attached to what etymologically was a separate morpheme. Thus demotic includes the same Greek stem as democracy and demagogue, neurotic the same as neuralgia.

But rhotic is not derived from a stem *rh- plus -otic. Rather, it is related to rhō, stem rhōt-, the name of the Greek letter Ρ, ρ (= r). The name of this letter also lies behind rhotacism and rhotacize, which certainly have the GOAT vowel.

Hence my pronunciation ˈrəʊtɪk. For what it’s worth, all the pronunciation dictionaries agree with me, as does the Concise Oxford.

Plus... it avoids the awkward potential homophonic clash with erotic.

Rhotic (blue) and non-rhotic (red). Why didn’t I ever think of drawing a map like this? (It’s by Pétur Knútsson. Click to enlarge.)


Monday 1 September 2008

Excuse my excuse

At the moment I’m marking phonetic transcriptions of English from dictation, which is rather depressing.

The first two words in the test passage were excuse me, which I dictated in a perfectly ordinary way, as ɪkˈskjuːz mi. Among the versions I was offered by the examinees were ɪˈkjus me, ɪˈkjʊz ˈmiː, ˈıkskjuz mi, and several cases of ɪkˈskjuːs mi. Now these are proficient speakers of English, often professional teachers of the language, students of phonetics. And this was from my very clear, slow, repetitious dictation, so all they had to do was listen and transcribe. Those who were NNSs didn’t have to work out that excuse is a verb here, not a noun, and therefore has final z, not s.

(That’s assuming they actually know about the s ~ z noun~verb alternation in use, abuse, excuse, refuse, house. But not in ease, tease, phase, pause, bruise, cruise, surprise (always z) or in base, case, promise (always s). And in advice~advise we have the same alternation but change the spelling. And in practice~practise both noun and verb have s, but we Brits change the spelling. In choice~choose there is a vowel change in addition to the consonantal alternation, reflected in spelling. And in close it’s mainly an adjective~verb alternation kləʊs ~ kləʊz, as it is in diffuse and loose~lose luːs ~ luːz, this latter pair with a spelling change. And used is juːzd when it means ‘employed’ but juːst when it means ‘accustomed’. Ah, English!)

In these dictation exams candidates tend to regard the nonsense words as a big challenge, while assuming the English will be easy to do. In practice, almost everyone does better on the nonsense than on the English.

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