UCL Division of Psychology & Language Sciences

John Wells

John Wells

John Wells’s phonetic blog

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Friday 27 February 2009

In dead shtook

In response to yesterday’s posting, Stephen Bullon writes

You mention schtick and schtum, which have an earliest citation of 1961 and 1958 in OED. But there’s another ʃt word: shtuk/schtuck (and other spellings), in OED with a 1936 citation (though it's spelled stook in the citation itself). Unlike the other two, the origin is "unknown: app. not a Yiddish word".

This word can be glossed as “trouble”. To be in (dead) shtook is to be in trouble. A 1975 citation in the OED reads

The scheme went awry, landing David in shtuck with the Law and jeopardising his lucrative future.

I note that Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang has an entry stook v. [20C] (S.Afr.) to stir up trouble. But it doesn’t seem very plausible as the origin of our ʃtʊk.

Another ʃt word, which through delicacy I hardly like to mention, is shtup ʃtʊp, meaning to copulate with. (OED from 1968. Citation from the novelist Philip Roth: “Why, of course he was shtupping her.”)

What about the spellings of the ʃt words?

Stephen, being a lexicographer, has access to corpuses (corpora) denied to the rest of us. He reports,

In the corpus I currently use, approximately 1.5 billion words, the spellings schtick and schtum are the most frequent, with 141 and 46 citations respectively (shtick has 131 and shtum 19).
For the (app.) non-Yiddish and possibly older schtuck, my corpus has 3 citations each for shtook, schtook and schtuck.

He asks further

Do you know why we persist with these scht spellings? Are they simply an attempt to make a Yiddish/German-sounding word look more Yiddish/German?

I should think probably yes. Wahrscheinlich stimmt das.



Thursday 26 February 2009

A phonotactic development

Fifty year ago, when I were nobbut a lad fettling me English phonetics, my teacher John Trim gave us the usual lecture on phonotactics. In those days, there were no English words beginning with the consonant cluster ʃt. It was ruled out, not possible, not well-formed.

Things have changed.

In yesterday’s Guardian Simon Hoggart (yes, he of the undetectable glottal stop) tells us of one Andrew Mackinlay,

whose schtick is to appear permanently on the brink of madness.

Last month a sports writer in the same paper reported

certainly the two committee men approached yesterday were determined to remain politely schtum.

...while on 9 May 2006 Simon himself wrote

Gravely [Tony Blair] informed us that discussions with Gordon were secret, sacrosanct and he would keep schtoom. Moments later he was merrily describing an apparently non-sacrosanct chat.

The earliest citations in the OED, which prefers the spellings shtick and shtoom, are barely half a century old.

shtick 1. An act or stage routine; a joke, a ‘gag’. Hence transf. (freq. slightly derog.), a patter, a ‘line’; a gimmick or characteristic style. orig. Theatr. 1961. [Yiddish, f. G. stück piece, play.]
shtoom A. adj. Silent, speechless, dumb. Esp. in phr. to keep (or stay) shtoom. Occas. also as n. 1958. [Yiddish, f. G. stumm (also used) silent, mute.]

It’s not clear to me whether these Yiddish borrowings came via New York (as appears to be the case with chutzpah), or direct from the large-scale immigration of east European Jews to London between about 1880 and 1914. Either way, it is somewhat surprising that the words had to wait until the first-generation immigrants, the Yiddish speakers, were elderly or dead before we started to hear them in use in general English.

The words are both in LPD and both in LDOCE. But only shtick is in CPD: at Cambridge they’re keeping schtum about schtum. Same with ODP.

There’s some hesitation about the spelling: schtick or shtick, and shtoom, schtoom, shtum or schtum. (The spellings with scht- are a bit of a nonsense, anyhow, since the corresponding German words are spelt simply st-.)

But there’s no hesitation about the pronunciation. Both words have the cluster that used to be impossible: ʃtɪk, ʃtʊm.


Wednesday 25 February 2009


The winner of the best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars was the Japanese film Okuribito (Departures). At the ceremony we heard the director and cast speak. Here’s the YouTube clip.

Masaki Taniguchi wrote

Did you hear the Japanese winners' pronunciation, which sounded like ˈsaŋk juː | aɪm ˈbeɾi ˈbeɾi ˈhappiː? I was disappointed and wanted to ignore it, but a colleague who teaches English to children in a primary school has emailed me, saying she was really worried about the winners' pronunciation. They may be great artists, but if so how could they not make a little more effort to learn proper English?

Listen to the clip and you’ll hear that Masaki omitted a few words from what the director said after ˈsaŋk juː. He continued tuː ˈɔːl ˈdʑiː aˈkadəmi.

This is phonetically interesting: why would a Japanese speaker of EFL pronounce an affricate in place of ð in the?

The answer lies in a detail of Japanese phonology and its intersection with English. Like many others, the Japanese find English θ, ð difficult and tend to replace them with s, z. However, Japanese z is often pronounced as an affricate, dz, particularly before a high vowel. Furthermore, Japanese (d)z undergoes palatalization to when followed by i. (Incidentally, this also involves a neutralization of the contrast between z and d, both of which become in this context.) Hence in the we have ð → z → dʑ.

A little bit later there’s a classic ɸɯː for who, caused by the Japanese allophonic rule which makes phonemic h into phonetic ɸ when followed by the high back vowel.


Tuesday 24 February 2009

Hen Wlad

Enthused, if that is the right word, by my phonetic transcription of Calon Lân (blog, 30 Jan), John Cowan suggests that I could do for it what the Swansea poet Nigel Jenkins did for the Welsh national anthem. I won’t rise to that bait, but I will have a go at transcribing the first verse of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of my Fathers) and Jenkins’s “English phonetic version”, as I think they might be pronounced by people in south Wales.

Here they are in ordinary spelling.

Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi,
Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri;
Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gwladgarwyr tra mad,
Dros ryddid collasant eu gwaed.
Gwlad, gwlad, pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad.
Tra môr yn fur i'r bur hoff bau,
O bydded i'r hen iaith barhau.
   My hen laid a haddock, one hand oiled a flea,
Glad farts and centurions threw dogs in the sea,
I could stew a hare here and brandish Dan's flan,
Don's ruddy bog's blocked up with sand.
Dad! Dad! Why don't you oil Auntie Glad?
Can whores appear in beer bottle pies,
O butter the hens as they fly!

And here they are in transcription. I have not marked stress: Welsh words of more than one syllable have penultimate stress, with one or two exceptions which include the last word, barhau, which is stressed on the final syllable. I have ignored vowel length, which is generally predictable. In the English I have used a quantitative transcription system for the vowels, representing the local TRAP vowel as a, the STRUT vowel as ə, and diphthongs as vowel plus j, w. The diphthongs include iw as in tune. I’m not sure about the most appropriate way to transcribe the English PRICE diphthong and the two corresponding Welsh diphthongs of tai and tei: I have written them all here as aj.

maj hen wlad vən hadaj ən anujl i mi
gwlad bajrð a xantorjon enwogjon o vri
aj gurol rəvelwir gwladgarwir tra mad
dros rəðid koɬasant aj gwajd
gwlad | gwlad | plajdjol ujv im gwlad
tra mor ən vir ir bir hof baj
o bəðed ir hen jajθ barhaj
   maj hen lejd ə hadək wən hand ojld ə fliː
glad faːts and sentiwrjənz θriw dogz in ðə siː
aj kud stiw ə heə jəːr and brandiʃ danz flan
donz rədi bogz blokt əp wið sand
dad | dad | waj doːnt iw ojl anti glad
kan hoəz əpiər in biə botl pajz
o bətə ðə henz az ðej flaj

Nigel Jenkins’s version, when used by monoglot English speakers joining in in chorus, is supposed to look and sound quite convincing, provided you don't start giggling. (Try singing along with Katherine Jenkins here.)

Who’s going to write a corresponding Welsh version of God Save the Queen? It could be called Goed sef fy ngwin (“woods, namely my wine”).


Monday 23 February 2009


The Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart has been explaining to us how to say Gstaad, the name of the Swiss village he has been visiting.

You pronounce it 'Shtard, with just a tiny pause before the "s", like an undetectable glottal stop.

It’s funny, really, isn’t it, how difficult an educated non-phonetician finds the task of describing a voiceless velar plosive in an unfamiliar context.

If you can tell that the name begins with “a tiny pause”, how can the pause be “undetectable”? If it’s undetectable, how can it be right to call it a glottal stop?

Gstaad is pronounced kʃtaːt, as OBGP or LPD or even Wikipedia would have told him. (That’s Hochdeutsch. I expect the Swiss would claim it has devoiced lenis initial and final consonants, as implied by the spelling.) EPD even reckons you should say kʃtɑːd in English, with that tricky non-English initial cluster. ODP has never heard of the place.

You can also anglicize it to gəˈʃtɑːd, but I don’t think even Simon Hoggart would have identified the phonetic string as a glottal stop.



Friday 20 February 2009

Feedback: Bombardier, sparkring

Some feedback on recent posts.

I’m getting conflicting reports from Canadians about how they pronounce the name of the Canadian conglomerate Bombardier.

Eric Armstrong says

Here in Canada, we hear Bombardier's name on the news very frequently. The CBC (truthfully, the only radio station I really listen to) says [bɑːmˈbɑːrdi.eɪ] enough that I'm pretty sure that's how I'd expect others to say it, though I can't say that I've ever heard it spoken of by anyone in casual conversation. But I don't talk about trains and planes very often... And as someone who spent a summer of his teens in the Royal Canadian Artillery, we said Bombardier [ˌbɒmbəˈdɪər] . I don't recall seeing it written, though I'm sure I must have seen it daily. But in my mind, there was only one "r" in the spelling, the one at the end, because the first one was completely silent. Of course, I was a mere Gunner at the time, and a reservist at that.

That would make bombardier like governor and surprise, with r-dissimilation in some rhotic speech.

Chris Harvey, however, weakens the first vowel.

In Canadian English, we typically pronounce this as [bəmˈbɑɹdje], with the stress on the second syllable. Those who speak French well might use French pronunciation in the middle of an English sentence [bɔ̃baʁdzje].

(I note the typical Canadian French affrication of t, d before i, j, y. I always remember the French Canadian pronunciation of attitude as atsitsyd. See picture.)

Harry Campbell doesn’t trust my Google statistics.

I wish I understood how Google worked. I have noticed that its propensity for guessing what you might have meant, which is useful in small doses, has started to become a nuisance. You put in "sparkring" and it cleverly thinks you might have meant sparkling, so shows you the top hits for that too. But what does the number of hits mean? You enclose "sparkring" in quotes to show you really literally mean that, and you still get "spark ring", and the page still says 944,000 hits for ""sparkring" soda -engrish". But when you start clicking through the pages, the number suddenly drops to 48, and that still includes "spark ring", some item of conjuror's equipment apparently. Given that the hits for "sparkling soda -engrish" and ""sparkling" soda -engrish" are only fractionally higher than sparkring at 946,000, I can only conclude we're looking at some kind of Google artifact here, an example of machines trying to be too clever for their/our own good.

It’s like MS Word’s tiresome habit of assuming that every time you start a line with 1. you want to create an ordered list and that every time you write 4th you want to superscript the th. I switch off most AutoFormat options in Word: is there something similar one could do for Google?

ICPhS, Montréal, 1971
Ça, c’était ma première visite au Canada.


Thursday 19 February 2009

Sounds and letters

We all know how difficult it can be to get beginners in phonetics to grasp the difference between sounds (that can be heard) and letters (that can be seen but not heard).

What does surprise me, though, is the tendency of some learners of EFL to confuse the spellings of words which they (but not native speakers) may pronounce identically.

Here are two photos from the Engrishfunny site that illustrate the point.

OK, we know that the Japanese have difficulty in hearing and pronouncing the difference between the sounds l and r. But why does that mean confusing the letters l and r? You wouldn’t think that the letters could be confused visually.

I well remember an eminent Japanese phonetician, now dead, who published a conference leaflet including an apprication form [sic]. None of his subordinates dared correct the proof, because to do so would have shown disrespect to an older scholar. Perhaps no one working for the Chandelier soft drinks company dares correct whoever designed the label above.

Google reports nearly a million hits for "sparkring soda -engrish".

Japanese learners of EFL also have a problem distinguishing the vowels æ and ʌ. As you can see, this can lead to confusion of the letters a and u.

English native speakers not familiar with Japanese learners’ problems would probably have considerable difficulty identifying this strange jucket with the usual jacket.

In these two cases we can’t blame the chaotic English spelling system, because almost without exception the spellings l, r and a, u relate consistently to the corresponding sounds.


Wednesday 18 February 2009

Two Safinas and Obama’s elf

A rising star in the women’s tennis circuit is Dinara Safina. Until recently, the commentators on the television channel Eurosport called her səˈfiːnə, with penultimate stress. Someone must have had a word, though, because they have now switched rather self-consciously to giving her name initial stress, ˈsæfɪnə.

The commentators describe her as a Russian, but according to her Wikipedia entry she is actually of Tatar ethnicity. Her full name in Tatar is given as Динара Мөбин кызы Сафина, or in Latin letters Dinara Möbin qızı Safina. (Tatar is a Turkic language.) And her surname in Russian is given as Сáфина, with a mark showing stress on the first syllable (Sáfina).

This makes her different from the other well-known bearer of the surname, the Italian tenor Alessandro Safina. I have checked with his publicity people, and he indeed has penultimate stress: Italian saˈfina, or anglicized səˈfiːnə. Unlike the tennis player.

There may be one or two of you who have not yet seen this excellent new mondegreen (blog, 6 Sep 2006). It comes courtesy of YouTube, Language Log, and Facebook. Click on the picture and listen. (The only detail that spoils it is the non-voicing of the sibilant.)

Dinara Safina

Alessandro Safina


Tuesday 17 February 2009


In the British army, a bombardier is the equivalent in the artillery regiments of a corporal in other regiments: a non-commissioned officer ranking below sergeant and above lance-bombardier (= lance-corporal). The word is pronounced ˌbɒmbəˈdɪə. The first citation in the OED is dated 1560, and as with other French borrowings of that period the pronunciation has been comprehensively anglicized.

A company called Bombardier has been in the news recently. I was surprised to hear it repeatedly pronounced as if French, or as a modern French borrowing, bɒmˈbɑːdieɪ.

It turns out that Bombardier is not so much a company as a conglomerate. Why has it been in the news? Three reasons: (a) because it has been named as the manufacturer of new rolling stock to be introduced on one of our main railway lines, (b) because it has announced closures at its Belfast factory, and (c) because it is the manufacturer of the Dash-8 aircraft, one of which crashed near Buffalo, NY, last week.

It is described as “a Canadian conglomerate”, which gives a clue to why it should be pronounced as it is. I find that it was founded by one Joseph-Armand Bombardier in 1942, at Valcourt, PQ. It was originally called L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée. He was a French Canadian, and that is why the company he founded, and its successors, are pronounced as they are. The actual French pronunciation is bɔ̃baʁdje. (I imagine that in AmE it will have final stress, ˌbɑːmbɑːrdiˈeɪ. Wiktionary gives only an NCO-style pron.)

The OBGP shows only the NCO pronunciation, and so do all three pronunciation dictionaries. We need to update them.

Bombardier’s first product, a snowmobile


Monday 16th February 2009

An epiphany

One of my Facebook friends, an accountant from Birmingham, has just had what seems nowadays to be known as an “epiphany”: a sudden realization.

XXX is truly shocked that so many of her acquaintances seem to think there's a difference between the u in put and the u in cut. I don't understand :(

The first of her friends to comment wrote

The Standard English pronounciction [sic] for the vowel sounds in 'put' & 'cut' is the same as those in 'took' & 'tuck' - regional accents may vary!

To which she replied

To me all those vowels are exactly the same and I can't even imagine a difference :( hang on a minute, are you saying I've got a Brummie accent?! :P

So I said

I could give a lecture about this, or several... Yes, southerners, RP speakers, Americans, Australians (nearly everyone in fact except English midlanders and northerners) make a difference between the vowel of 'put' and that of 'cut'.

and she said

This week is honestly the first time I've been aware of it. Now I need to find a person who speaks properly to demonstrate for me!!

Her friend from Leicester comments

I pronounce them the same. Mind you, we have our own 'u' sound in Leicester, so I think I deserve a prize for having dropped that for something else, even if I apply it to both 'cut' and 'put', 'cud' and 'could' ;)

It’s interesting that native speakers quite easily notice phonetic (realizational) differences between their own speech and other people’s, implicitly or explicitly, but are very slow to become aware of phonological (systemic) differences. In my experience, Americans quite often find it hard to believe that we British distinguish the vowels of bother and father, the Scots are surprised that the rest of us don’t have good and food as rhymes, as even we non-rhotic English can find it quite difficult to get our heads round the fact that most speakers of English (but not us) distinguish stork from stalk.

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