Thursday, 31 March 2011

Robert Peston's blitzspeak

In my blog entry of the 27th of March I began to analyse Robert Peston's way of speaking. He is Business Editor for BBC News, and he's won several awards over the last 2.5 decades:
  • 1986 Wincott Young Financial Journalist of the Year
  • 1994 Investigative Journalist of the Year
  • 2005 Wincott Senior Financial Journalist of the Year and London Press Club's Scoop of the Year
  • etc., etc.
He should also be nominated as blitzspeaker and best speech retarder.
In my blog entry mentioned above the sentence I analysed was: "I mean the way I tend to see things is - erm - that on the one hand plainly conditions - uh - economically, financially are a bit better than they were."
Listen to the very next sentence of RP's presentation:


It makes fairly heavy demands on the listener's listening abilities, does it not? Can you sort out this torrent of sounds?

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Robert Peston's fillerisms and rubati

Members of a specialist group recently discussed the question of what to call the lengthening of words in order to gain planning time. There are, as we all know from personal experience and/or habit, various techniques to avoid silence when we are both speaking and in the planning stages of an utterance. This planning may take longer than expected. Robert Peston has been mentioned in this connection.
Robert Peston is a British journalist who has been Business Editor for BBC News since 2006. One member of the group wrote that RP's way of speaking is "[...] an interesting phenomenon which makes quite heavy demands upon the radio or TV listener and makes P's utterances markedly more difficult to process. It's a good illustration, if we needed one, of the contribution that weak quality / weak stress makes to skilled listening in English: downgrading the meaning-bearing value of a syllable and/or signalling a possible function word."
YouTube supplies plenty of sound files illustrating his speech style.
Let's listen to how RP handles the problem of gaining time:

What he says is "I mean the way I tend to see things is erm that on the one hand plainly conditions er economically, financially are a bit better than they were". The sentence lasts for about 11s.

 The phrase "I mean the way I tend to see things" contains 9 words and lasts about 1.78s (allow for rounding errors). The final phrase "economically, financially are a bit better than they were" also contains 9 words and lasts for 2.2s. It's not what I would call lento speech. On the other hand the words "is", "plainly" and "conditions" are comparatively long as are the pauses in the sentence. And we have two 'erms" in it.
Here's the link to the video clip.
BTW: I do not intend to indicate that this one sentence is representative of RP's speech style in general. More to come in a future blog entry.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Exercises in the shifting sands of stress

Start with the following exercise. Students will easily grasp the system behind the shift in stress:

1. Have you ever been to Berlin?
2. Gorbachev was requested by Reagan to tear down the Berlin Wall.
3. How old are you? - I'm seventeen.
4. I've been living in London for seventeen years.
5. I like the sound of a clarinet.
6. He then played a clarinet solo.
7. His BMW was second-hand.
8. She bought a second-hand car.
9. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon.
10. He had his usual afternoon nap.
11. This part of the coast is very picturesque.
12. He gave a picturesque account of his trip to Madagascar.
13. Fancy going out for a Chinese?
14. It's difficult to find healthy food at a Chinese buffet.

Now shuffle these sentences and have your students read them again. Then present them with one member of a pair only. Have them thumb through LPD 3 and look for more words with shifting stress. John Wells marks those by attaching the symbol ◄ after the transcription. Additionally, ask them to read the information box on page 284 of LPD 3.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

R & R #3

Part II of the book Rhymes and Rhythm deals with stress assignment rules for words (including compounds) and phrases. This part comprises about 24 pages of the book.
Ch. 2 (= the first chapter of this part) deals with stress in mono- and polysyllabic verbs. The author divides stress in verbs into 7 subsections. In a parenthesis (p. 24) he writes: "Note that the numbers 1-7 correspond to the different subsections in this main section." In these subsections, however, the numbers are not repeated, although it would have made cross-referencing easier.

Here's the list of verbal stress patterns (with examples taken from p. 24; ˌ = secondary stress; ' = primary stress; - = unstressed):
1 -' surprise
2 -'- develop
3 ˌ' reload
4 ˌ-' introduce
5 '- tremble
6 '-- estimate
7 '-- realise [sic]

When you check the respective subsections variants of a particular pattern can be found, e.g. type 
6: besides '-- the reader is presented with the pattern -'--  as well, e.g. negotiate, accelerate.
Type 7 lists realize (here spelled with 'z') but also -'-- as in monopolize and --'-- as in institutionalize.
Verbs that are most likely to be mispronounced by advanced German EFL learners belong to type 4. Many of them use '-- for introduce or undergo.
When you do the exercises of this second chapter your are advised by the author (and I strongly support this) to listen closely to the rhythm of the sentences which contain such verbs, and when you repeat them you should make sure you shorten weak syllables, e.g.
CONrad comPOSED a conCERTo for TRUMpet

Sunday, 13 March 2011

new book on phonetics out soon

credit: Hodder Education
Hodder Education announced the publication of a new book on phonetics, which is due out on the 29th of April this year. List price is £21.99 (Amazon UK grants you a 15 per cent discount). 
Here's the table of contents:

1. Starting phonetics
2. The role of the larynx
3. Place of articulation
4. Manner of articulation
5. Airstream mechanisms
6. Describing vowels
7. Further parameters of variation in vowels
8. Further parameters of variation in consonants
9. Connected speech - segment dynamics

10. Beyond the segment

credit: University of Westminster
The author is Patricia Ashby (alias Patricia Scott Sheldon). She is Principal Lecturer in Phonetics at the University of Westminster. She has worked at Westminster since 1975. 
I look forward to reading the book.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


Dear followers of my blog!

I should like you to pause for a moment and spare a thought for those Japanese people who suffer from this centennial catastrophe.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

baby talk

Just found this video clip:

The baby, Emily (?), seems to be less than a year old. The video was uploaded to YouTube by a gentleman who calls himself stanqoo. I'm tempted to say that Emily's pronunciation is better than that of some of my students, but no -  I'm not going to say this.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

some French weak-forms

I'd like to come back to the interview recently given by Professor Peter French on forensic acoustics. His speech style displays some features typical of colloquial English which, at times, make it difficult for EFL speakers to understand such an enunciation. I'm not saying, however, that Peter French's talk was difficult to understand; quite the contrary!
Fairly at the beginning of the interview - at about 1:13 minutes - he says: "[...] thirteen murders, which were carried out principally in West Yorkshire [...]." Listen to this part and concentrate on the words "which were":

Now look at the time-amplitude wave of these two words (it's a stereo recording):
The "which" [ʍʧ] is approx. 63ms long (it's the aperiodic part of the waveform), and the "were" [wə] lasts about 52 ms. Listen to them (the segments were amplified by me). You hear the two words together three times, then separately:


I don't expect the weak-form of which = [ʍʧ] to have been recorded in CPD, EPD, LPD or ODP.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

police, send the please!

John C Wells in his blog of the 2nd of March drew our attention to a BBC Radio 4 interview of Peter French by Dominic Arkwright. Professor French is Honorary Professor of York St. John University at the Dept of Language & Linguistic Science, University of York, and director of J P French Associates, a forensic laboratory specialising in the analysis of speech, audio and language. I made a recording of that interview for later listening.

Two things struck me right away. At around 8:52 minutes of the recording Peter French talks about mobile phone 999 calls. At one point he says: "So very often what you hear is the victim phoning up saying "I'm under attack. Please send the police" or ...". Listen to the section "please send the police":


Please and police are almost identical.

The second striking feature was French's pronunciation of the adjective adhesive in the phrase "self-adhesive envelope flaps" at about 2:03 minutes. Listen to that one as well:


One of John Wells's blog followers (= mallamb) points to the fact that Peter French drops the /h/ in this word. This, of course, doesn't turn Professor French into an aitch-dropper.

(photo credit:
(sound credit: BBC Radio 4)