Friday, 21 January 2011

Dr h.c. Alexander John Ellis

Alexander John Ellis was born on the 14th of June 1814 in Hoxton, a district which today is part of the London Borough of Hackney. Ellis is one of the fathers of modern phonetics. Having been born as Alexander John Sharpe (his father's surname was Sharpe) he exchanged it for Ellis in 1825. He had sought for financial support from one of his mother's relatives. This was granted to him under the condition to adopt his mother's maiden name Ellis. He was educated at public schools in Shrewsbury and Eton and later went to Trinity College, Cambridge. Four months before his death which occurred in Kensington on the 28th of October 1890 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge.

He was trained in mathematics and the classics, but became one of the leading phoneticians of his time. His major opus is the five-volume On Early English Pronunciation (= EEP) which was published between 1869 and 1889. He also was the author of smaller works on music, e.g. a booklet on Speech in Song of 1878.

Moreover, he became interested in daguerrotypes. During a travel around Italy in 1840 to 1841 he assembled many daguerrotypes of Italian architecture; they were intended to be published in a book called "Italy Daguerrotyped" - a project that was never realised.

I should like to concentrate, however, on some central tenets of his book  EEP.
1. Social class divisions:
  1. 'Upper ten' (the court and nobles)
  2. 'Middle class' (the professional and studious)
  3. 'Commercial class' (the retail tradesman)
  4. 'Young men and young ladies' (servants, porters, mechanics etc.)
  5. 'Dangerous classes'
2. Ellis points to data collection problems:
  1. He is aware of the observer paradox.
  2. He is also well aware of the volatility of his data ("the sounds of language are very fleeting")
3. Data selection problem and insecurity:
  1. Ellis points to the fact that there’s a great deal of variation as far as pronunciation of one and the same word is concerned. So he takes a descriptive stance.
  2. He introduces the conception of a mean incorporating variation.
4. He sets up (at least) two categories of pronunciation:
  1. received pronunciation
  2. dialectal pronunciation
5. Regional distribution of received pronunciation:
  1. r.p. is regionally unmarked.
6. Ellis's two caveats:
  1. there's a certain degree of "regional colouring" of r.p.
  2. "received speech is altogether a made language, not a natural growth".


  1. Joseph Wright dictated the Dialect Test to AJ Ellis, but he didn't trust Ellis's findings since the Dialect Test for his home village of Windhill was so inaccurate.

  2. It's perfectly understandable that Joe Wright didnt trust Ellis's dialect stuff. It was largely supplied to him by volunteer helpers, not his personal observations. He was trying to do SOMETHING where others had done almost nothing so one has to be as patient as possible in judging his very primitive efforts.