Wednesday 27 February 2013


How does one pronounce above in General British?

credit: net_efekt
LPD3 offers /ə'bʌv/ and so do CEPD18 and ODP. The word is not labelled as an item belonging to the group of weakform words. But why should there be no weakform pronunciation? Try to say these sentences in a manner as relaxed as possible and not too slowly:
  • above all, keep in touch
  • above all, she was his floozie
  • and above all, aim for the best.
Depending how formal or relaxed one's speech is, above all can be pronounced as
[əbʌv, əbəv, bəv, bv̩] + [ɔːɫ].

So and above all, aim for the best may materialise as [ən əbəv ɔːɫ eɪm fə ðə best].

Monday 25 February 2013

The alternating schwa

The universe seen through a CV telescope
The schwa is an interesting vowel resting in the centre of the vowel universe. It's also a lightweight vowel - hardly ever (!) stressed. Why the exclamation mark? Look at this entry in LPD3:

A more detailed description of words containing stressed schwa can be found in this blog post by Jack Windsor Lewis.

The schwa is often called a neutral vowel because with this vowel "the vocal tract is in its neutral configuration" (Laver 1994:2801). Neutrality also indicates that the schwa levels out vowel differences or, to put it differently, the schwa does not serve to distinguish word meanings in the same way as other vowels do. Look at this minimal set:
gist - jest - joist - joust - deuced - just
/dʒɪst/ - /dʒest/ - /dʒɔɪst/ - /dʒaʊst/ - /dʒuːst/ - /dʒʌst/
When I replace one of the vowels with any of the others I get a different word with a different meaning. Not so when I replace /ʌ/ with /ə/ in just.
credit: Nicolas Munoz

Or take this sentence:
/ðə kwək brən fəks dʒəmps əvə ðə ləzə dəɡ/
It isn't too difficult to understand, is it?

Some of you may be familiar with the song German children sometimes sing:

Drü Chünüsün müt düm Küntrübüss
dü süssün üf dü Strüßü ünd ürzühltün süch wüs,

(Three Chinese with a double bass
sat in the street and talked to each other,

Then they substitute <ü> for any other German vowel until they get tired of the game.

 In English polysyllabic words many (but not all) unstressed syllables contain schwa vowels:
  • /prɪn(t)səp(ə)l/ (but also /prɪn(t)sɪp(ə)l/)
  • /ɪnhɒspɪtəb(ə)l/
  • /fəntæstɪk/ (but also /fæntæstɪk/)
With morphologically related words one has to learn which syllables contain the schwa vowel, e.g.
anatomy - anatomical
audiology - audiological
biology - biological
botany - botanical
diachrony - diachronic
etymology - etymological
phrenology - phrenological
With a few words there's even an alternative pronunciation with a schwa shift. Probably the most well-known word is /kən'trɒvəsi/ or /'kɒntrəvɜːsi/ or even /'kɒntrəvəsi/. Others are garage, inventory and harass. Can you find more words with at least two accepted alternative pronunciations illustrating schwa shift?



Ed Kerala /ˈkerələ/

Line 3 Col 1 Line 3 Col 2 Line 3 Col 3 Line 3 Col 4

1Laver, J. (1994), Principles of phonetics, CUP

Saturday 23 February 2013


In my blog on interlingual quasi-homophones I mentioned three intralingual examples:
  1. /ˈprɪntsəpl/
  2. /ɡəˈrɪlə/
  3. /henriˈetə/
The last item was taken from a sketch series called A Bit of Fry and Laurie:

Fry: Am I right in thinking that you have a daughter?
Laurie: Yup. /henriˈetə/
Fry: Did he? Did he? I'm sorry to hear that. That must have hurt. That must have hurt like hell on a jet ski. 

Friday 22 February 2013

ecclesiastical attire

Maybe I should apologise for not being an expert in ecclesiastical attire terminology: cassock, tippet, surplice, rochet1, etc. are all alien to me. This explains, but does not excuse, my incomprehension of a joke published by the regular blog follower Limey in the comments section of this blog post:

At what kind of shop does a padre buy his albs?
At an army surplice store.

I was completely puzzled. I know what an army surplus store is, I wondered if 'albs' was a variant of alba, a term I had heard of and vaguely recall as some sacerdotal clothing, but apart from that .... no clue whatsoever. Limey kindly put me on the railway track to Comprehension Station.

surplice = surplus as /ˈsɜːpləs/

This is a surplice:

And this is an alb:

Moral to the story? Jokes may increase your word stock.

1 /ˈkæsək, ˈtɪpɪt, ˈsɜːpləs, ˈrɒtʃɪt/

Thursday 21 February 2013

interlingual quasi-homophones

You are certainly familiar with the concept of homophony and know loads of English homophonous words, phrases or even sentences such as
  1. /ˈprɪntsəpl/
  2. /ɡəˈrɪlə/
  3. /henriˈetə/
Today I'm going to look at quasi-homophones in English and German, i.e. words which have very similar sound structures in the two languages. Here's an example. It's an advert by a German local street cleaning company. Translated literally the text says "we sweep for you", but the pun exploits the sound similarity between English care and German kehr, the imperative form of kehren (to sweep).

credit: Berliner Stadtreinigung
Not all such pairs are puns. Some are genuine English words imported into the German language and, whether you regret it or not, are tied into the corset of the German sound system. Others are similar by mere chance. Here are some goodies:

  1. kɛʃ - cash
  2. føːn - fern
  3. kɛmpɪŋ - camping
  4. ʧɔp - job
  5. fɛmili - family
  6. haːtʋɛɐ, haːɐtʋɛɐ - hardware
  7. blɛkʧɛk - blackjack

Monday 18 February 2013

phonetic exercises - no. 1 (minimal sets)

This is going to be an irregular series of exercises in phonetics of varying degrees of difficulty. Today I'd like to start with minimal sets (or commutation series). If you're unshore what such sets/series are, take a quick look at my blog of the 13th of February 2013 first.

Here we go then!

Ex. 1: Find as many CVC words (i.e. monosyllabic words with any initial consonant, the monophthong /ɒ/ and the final consonant /t/. The accent assumed is GB (= General British). You should have at least 10 words in this set. I found 14 - beat me!

Ex. 2: The syllable structure is CVC again; this time the initial C is /n/ and the final C is /t/. The vowel (either mono- or diphthong) varies. Can you find more than 6? I have 9.

Here are my solutions: (press the left mouse button and highlight the area below this line)

Ex. 1:
cot – dot – got – hot – not – lot – motte – pot – rot – shot – sot – tot – what – yacht 

Ex. 2: gnat – knit – knot – net – nut – knight – naught – knout – note

Saturday 16 February 2013

nock ein knocken pun

credit: nicolasnova

Knock, knock!
Who's there?
Ze Gestapo and vee aske ze qvestions!

Friday 15 February 2013


credit: CollegeDegrees360
As you will have noticed, I've been tinkering with my blog layout. It seems that as a result some of the videos don't work any longer; you see the picture but can't play the sound. I don't know why this is so; I've checked the html code: the videos are still defined as videos. Additionally only some of the videos are affected by this problem.

If anyone out there has a more elegant solution than just re-coding the videos, don't hesitate to tell me. I'll be more than grateful.

Thursday 14 February 2013


Question: What do you call a pissed-off German?


Wednesday 13 February 2013

a minimal chain reaction

credit: FracturedPixel
A minimal pair can 'propagate' and the result of such a recursive process is a minimal set.
Here are a few sample sets:

S1: bat - cat - chat - fat - gat - hat - lat - mat - Nat - pat - rat - sat - shat - tat - that -  vat
S2: tick - tiff - tig - till -  Tim - tin - ting - tip - 'tis - tit - tizz
S3: pat - pet - pit - pot - out - putt - part - peat - port (hyporhotic accents)
S4: litres - leachers - leaguers - lemurs - levers - leaders
S5: dissection - dissension - deception

Tuesday 12 February 2013

a minimal linguistic unit

credit: cordelia mclellan
This very short blog is about


What characterises a minimal père in the phonological sense of the term?
  1. Two words with distinct meanings.
  2. They differ by one sound feature only.
  3. This sound feature must occur in the same position of each word.
So cellar - feller form a minimal pair, but seller - speller, seller - cellar or cellars - zealous (in hyporhotic accents) do not.  ‘Incense – in’cense or ‘discourse – dis’course are true stress minimal pairs (see also here), but 'present - pre'sent are not.

For some delimitation problems related to minimal pairs see John Higgins's pages on the topic. On his webpages you find a comprehensive list of minimal pairs sorted by vowels and consonants. To give you an idea, here's a screenshot of the table for consonant pairs:

credit: John Higgins

Monday 11 February 2013

a German doctorate

credit: Andreas Schepers
After a German university had voted to strip Education Minister Annette Schavan of her doctorate she had to resign. So far so good or bad - depending on one's perspective. Germany's 'Mutti' then had to find someone to replace Frau Schavan. Her successor is called Dr. Wanka - Johanna Wanka. Don't you dare!

Saturday 9 February 2013

Patricia Hughes, R.I.P.

credit: BBC

I just received the news that one of the most distinctive voices of the BBC can no longer be heard - Patricia Hughes has died at the age of 90 at a nursing home in Winchester, Hampshire.
I wrote three blog entries on aspects of her enunciation, which can easily be found if you search my blog for her name. Jack Windsor Lewis made some interesting and detailed observations on her amusing story about an event related to her job with Auntie Beeb to be read here and here.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Minimal pairs galore

I received John Higgins's Don't Ask the Admiral to Show you his Pinnace this morning - a "light-hearted tour of minimal pairs" as the endorsement on the back cover of this booklet of about 50 pages reveals.

The booklet is mainly about minimal pairs and the problems non-indigenous speakers of English may encounter when using them. Germans, for example, tend to have problems with /v/ and /w/, e.g. when they talk about N. Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Whale or about whether a certain worse is verse (or is it the other way round?). I particularly like John Higgins's quip about a pole vaulter; it's to be found on p. 41.

If you share John's love of minimal pairs (of which he has collected more than 90,000), homophones and homographs, go to his website.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

triple P

It's my pleasure to announce the publication of the 3rd edition of Practical Phonetics and Phonology (abbreviated to PPP3) by Beverley Collins and Inger M. Mees. After only less than 3 years did the authors and the publisher feel the need to embark on the gestation and production of a new edition. And the new 'baby' has grown - from 305 to 330 pages. The well-established 'skeleton' consisting of four main sections has been retained: Introduction - Development - Exploration - Extension.

It's not a book on theoretical aspects of phonetics intended for the initiated phonetician but rather addresses the needs of students - hence the subtitle "a resource book for students".

If you liked the 2nd ed., you will in all probability also like the 3rd. May the baby thrive!

PS: I wonder what's hidden behind the glass wall.