UCL Division of Psychology & Language Sciences

John Wells

John Wells

John Wells’s phonetic blog archive 1-6 March 2009

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Friday 6 March 2009

Canaan and Sinai

Apropos of naïve (yesterday’s blog), Jérôme Poirrier writes:

I am under the impression that a lot of people make the ɑː to change also in a word like Naomi (as naɪˈəʊmi). As a foreigner, I am unsure of that, since there are also a great many people who do not resort to a foreign value for the a and say neɪˈəʊmi.
The corpus of such words in everyday vocabulary is extremely low; but more data should be gathered by listening to the way anglophone media pronounce chains of vowels in Hawaiian and Polynesian proper names...

OK, let it be gathered. Who’s first?

Some people may be surprised to hear this, but the traditional RP form of Naomi has initial stress, ˈneɪə(ʊ)mi. You won’t find anything else in Daniel Jones. As far as I can see, Jack Windsor Lewis was the first to record the penultimate-stressed form, in his CPD (1972). So for traditional RP (and for me), Naomi does not illustrate the point at issue, which is the unstressed prevocalic vowel(s) spelt a.

There are, however, two Biblical names that are perhaps relevant: Canaan and Sinai. These words each have initial stress. For foreign words of this vintage, long a would be expected to be read as (as in Amos, Salem, Jacob, Emmaus), not as ɑː.

Here’s the twelfth edition of EPD (Daniel Jones’s last, 1963). Focus on the penultimate vowels Canaan, Sinai.

What we find in both of these cases is a tendency to reduce weak to i, and perhaps further to j or zero.

(Who would believe that Sinai used to rhyme with tiny?)


Thursday 5 March 2009

O come, O come

It’s the wrong time of year to be asking this, but have you noticed how some people pronounce Israel as ˈɪzraɪel when singing? The hymn that I notice it in is the the Advent hymn

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel!

with its refrain

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

In LPD I said that Israel, in speech normally ˈɪzreɪl or ˈɪzriəl, is “in singing usually ˈɪzreɪel”.

But on reflection I certainly ought to have mentioned this further possibility with -aɪ-.

Listen, for example, to the Irish singer Enya (using slightly different wording from the usual Anglican one):

Where on earth could this treatment of the second vowel have come from? It’s not straightforwardly based on the spelling; there are all sorts of vowel sounds that correspond to the spelling a, but is not one of them.

On reflection I think that we have a tendency (perhaps ‘rule’ would be to put it too strongly) to change ɑː to before a following front vowel (a position from which it is usually shielded by a linking or intrusive r). It’s a kind of anticipatory articulation.

We see this in the word naïve. On the basis of the French it ought to be nɑːˈiːv. In practice people mostly say naɪˈiːv.

If we assume a starting point ˈɪzrɑːel, based on the spelling or the Latin or Hebrew pronunciation (real or imagined), then my proposed near-rule would make it ˈɪzraɪel. QED.

(Or is Enya actually singing her version of ˈɪzrɑːel?)


Wednesday 4 March 2009

Utopia and dystopia

As any fule kno, the word Utopia was invented by Sir Thomas More in his book of the same name, published in 1516.

A fruteful and pleasaunt Worke of the beste state of a publyque weale, and of the newe yle called Utopia; written in Latine by Syr Thomas More knyght.

More’s imaginary land is depicted as enjoying a perfect social, legal, and political system. Later generations have extended the meaning of the word to cover any ideally perfect country or situation.

Etymologically, More built his word from the Greek οὐ ū ‘not’ plus τόπ(ος) tóp(os) ‘place’ (as in topic, isotope).

Theoretically it ought to be pronounced with uː-. But in practice it is pronounced juː-, exactly as if it were the prefix eu ‘good’, Greek εὐ. According to the OED, More himself made a pun upon this.

Vtopia priscis dicta ob infrequentiam, Nunc ciuitatis śmula Platonicś..Eutopia merito sum vocanda nomine.

Be that as it may, it is as utopia that we know this word.

Words with eu- can have regular antonyms with dys-, from the Greek δυσ- ‘bad’. Thus we have eupeptic - dyspeptic and euphoria - dysphoria. Hence we get the relatively modern coinage dystopia, an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible, which the OED dates to John Stuart Mill in 1868.

If the prefixes u- and eu- were not pronounced identically, we would not have had the irregular pair utopia - dystopia.

Sir Thomas More


Tuesday 3 March 2009

Mirror, mirror

Over the nearly three years that I have been doing this blog quite a few people have complained to me about two points:

  • that they cannot leave comments on the blog (the only thing they can do is to email me, with a comment that I might or might not pass on); and
  • that the RSS feed either doesn’t work or isn’t very good.

These are consequences of the fact that the blog is hosted on our UCL departmental server, which doesn’t offer these facilities.

So for all this week I shall be mirroring the blog on another server, namely on Google’s dedicated blog server. You can find us not only on the UCL site but also at, and on that site you can, if you wish,

  • leave comments (provided you register first, with a nickname if you prefer anonymity), and
  • enrol as a “follower”, which means you will have a page on which you will be alerted each time there is a new posting on my blog or on others that you follow, with the title and first few lines of each posting.

For me the blogspot site will also have the advantage of automatic archiving rather than the hand-coded archiving that I have been doing till now.

There are several things we need to check with the new site. You can help by telling me whether they work for you.

  • Most importantly, IPA symbols. I am not sure how blogspot handles fonts for Unicode characters not included in the basic font, which is Verdana. Perhaps it depends on the browser or the fonts installed in the system. The IPA symbols come out satisfactorily on my screen. Do they on yours? I have also (on my other blog, which has always been on blogspot) used Cyrillic, Hebrew, Japanese katakana and Korean hangŭl, all of which come out OK. I haven't yet tried polytonic Greek or Chinese.
  • There are several details of layout I haven’t yet tested on the new site. In particular, I am not sure how it will cope with tables (which also allow one to have more than one column of text, for example).
  • The blogspot editor makes it easy to embed links, images, and videos. I must see how it copes with sound files. I haven’t yet found whether it is possible to link to an image, and if so how to do so, other than messing around with the HTML by hand.

If everything turns out to work satisfactorily on the blogspot site, I may transfer to it entirely in a week or two. If it proves unsatisfactory, I won’t. If I do, I’ll put a redirect on the old url, of course.


Monday 2 March 2009

Zhoozh it up

Fired by the discussion of initial ʃt, Harry Campbell mentions an even stranger recent acquisition: a word we can agree neither how to spell nor how to pronounce: but let’s list it as ʒʊʒ zhoozh, as in to zhoozh something up, meaning to make more attractive, smarter, more exciting, to jazz it up.

The OED gives only the pronunciations ʒʊʃ and ʒuːʃ and the spellings zhoosh and zhush. Someone ought to tell the OED that many, perhaps most, of the people who use this word pronounce it with a final voiced consonant, ʒ. And I am not sure that I have ever heard it pronounced with rather than ʊ. I think the usual pronunciation is indeed ʒʊʒ, which twice violates the usual phonotactic constraints on ʒ, a consonant usually confined in English to intervocalic position, as in pleasure ˈpleʒə.

Although I know this word passively, it is not one I would actively use myself. Stylistically it strikes me as not just slang but camp slang (and I may be gay but I have never been camp). Indeed, the OED’s first citation (1977) is from Gay News, from a sentence which is written entirely in Polari, and which sounds as if it is a quote from Julian and Sandy in Round the Horne.

As feely homies..we would zhoosh our riahs, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar.

According to the Wikipedia article on Polari,

"Zhoosh" has entered English more recently, especially through the TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Its initial consonant, unique in that position in English, has led new users to generate variant spellings such as "zoosh", "soozh", "tszuj" etc. The word begins and ends with the same phoneme, the "zh" sound as in the word "measure".

...which I agree with.

In a letter to the Guardian in 2003, W. Stephen Gilbert says

you might zhush up a tired salad by adding some garnish, or stick some zhush in an article for the Guardian by adding a couple of dubious jokes.

But if he were to use that word in an article for the paper,

some po-faced sub [would] remove it on the naff grounds it wasn't in the desk dictionary.

It clearly ought to be. Sorry I didn’t pick it up in time to make it into the third edition of LPD.


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