Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Baltic port of Kiel

port of Kiel
 John Wells drew my attention to a BBC Radio 4 series on WWI called "1914: Day by Day". In its first episode entitled "Omnibus" one of the presenters consistently pronounced the name of the German Baltic seaport Kiel as ['khiɛɫ]. I don't mind the dark ell nor would I mind a slight schwa, but a diphthong with an [ɛ]? Tsk, tsk! It's [khiːl].The presenter is Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History at Oxford University; she should know better.

Listen to her making the following statement: "The British Navy is on a visit to the German base at the Baltic port of Kiel."


Thanks to Sidney Wood for pointing out some mistakes to me. I've tried to eradicate them.


  1. Breaking in a word like "Kiel" is perfectly acceptable in GB. What might be regarded as a bit unusual is the realization of the vowel just before dark [ɫ].

  2. I'd say a diphthong rather than bisyllabic, with an [ə]-like glide to the dark [ɫ]. The ['khiəɫ] pronunciation is what you'll most likely hear in SE England (and possibly elsewhere too). I checked Daniel Jones' "Outline" (late reprint 1957 of the last edition) and his EPD of the same year. He didn't mention any [ə]-like glide, so did he reject it as non-RP, or did he just omit it? Was ['khiəɫ] a regional pronunciation until the 1950s? Gimson, in the 1966 reprint of 1962, noted " ... in the case of /i:/ + [ɫ], a central glide between the vowel and [ɫ] is often noticeable ... ". Was there a change in progress, or was Gimson just more generous than Jones?

    As to your quoted phrase from the program, this does strike me as an idiosyncratic pronunciation. Instead of an [ə]-like glide, she seems to be saying an [ɛ]-like glide, ['khiɛɫ] rather than ['khiəɫ]. I can't think why she would do that, unless it was a reading pronunciation: Kiel > kee+ell. But I can't think why she'd do that. Something certainly seems to have gone wrong just there, maybe an accent adviser intervened and put her off. Just guessing.

    Petr, do you have a link to the whole program?

    1. Sidney: You're right. I should have written 'diphthongal', not bisyllabic.
      I'm gonna correct this.
      And here's the link to the first episode: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b048jchd

    2. Thank you for the ref.

      Please, not mistakes. It wasn't an irrelevant topic. The sequence /i/+[ə]-like glide+[ɫ] (as in Southern BE Kiel, yield, sail etc) can easily be pronounced as a trochee, most likely in humorous verse, but there are probably many instances when you're not sure what you've heard. And in your quoted recording, "Kiel" could be heard as bisyllabic by some, and not by others. It's in noman's land as it were.

  3. Moving off topic, it's impossible to tell here if she's speaking RP or regional home counties SBE. That one sentence "The British Navy is on a visit to the German base at the Baltic port of Kiel" doesn't contain anything to distinguish them. RP has given up features like unsharp HAPPY vowel (in "navy"), tensed FACE vowel ("navy, base") During recent decades, RP has started tensing the TAUGHT vowel from [ɔ:] to [o:] ("Baltic port"). So the speaker's ['nɛivi bɛis] and ['boɫtɪk 'ˀpo:t] could be either. Fifty years ago that would've been unquestionably regional and enough to make a half sober colonel query your ability to speak English. Today? All that's uniquely RP here is [ɒ] for LOT rather than regional SBE [ɔ], but the only instance here is weak "on" and so inconclusive. We'll have to listen to the program and wait for a MOUTH vowel.

    1. It turns out that Margaret MacMillan is Canadian and rhotic. So we'll have to say that one sentence is insufficient to distinguish between RP, home counties regional or Toronto Canadian .... "German" and "port" are potentially rhotic, but I can't hear that they are spoken with a rhotic accent. There are also numerous other voices, with a wide range of accents, including rhotic northern, presumably Lancashire. You live and learn.