Thursday 24 December 2015

season's greetings


Season's greetings to all my blog followers and best wishes for 2016!

Monday 21 December 2015

OED transcriptions - examples (1) - weakforms cont'd

Jack Windsor Lewis kindly informed me that the new OED stuff 'went live' on Dec 9, so one mustn't expect such a major technical upheaval to work smoothly right from the start.
As I wrote in my previous blog, it's a pity we aren't told anything about the speakers. All we get to know in the release notes on pronunciations, written by Catherine Sangster, Head of Pronunciations, is this:
A small number of actor-phoneticians were recruited, and came to our recording facilities in Oxford to read each transcription aloud. Besides having clear voices, suitable accents, and some experience behind the microphone, they needed to be able to read the IPA transcriptions.
I am inclined to think, however, that they are not (sufficiently) phonetically trained to pronounce weakforms in a natural way or to pronounce a schwa whenever the script requires them to.

6. for (prep.)

There's no soundfile for the GB variant and no transcription or soundfile for the GA version.

7. must (aux.)

 Listen to both versions:

For both vowels I'd use the IPA symbol /ʌ/. Why a schwa then in the OED? To answer the question one has to delve into the Uptonian universe of transcription sets. There's a short introduction into this alien galaxy in the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English (~ ODP) written under the editorial baton of Clive Upton, William Kretschmar and Rafal Konopka. On its page xi one finds under the heading "Technical discussion: transcription sets" the announcements that
a) the transcriptions are "broadly phonetic", that
b) the "intention is always to indicate actual sounds to be produced" and that
c) two different sets "are appropriate to the BR [= General British] and AM [= General American] models used".
Here are the two sets as depicted in the ODP:

credit; Oxford University Press
credit: Oxford University Press

As you can see the GA set does not contain the STRUT vowel but only the mid-central schwa. In my humble opinion the representation of a spoken /ʌ/ by /ə/ is neither "broadly phonetic" nor does it "indicate actual sounds".

8. shall (aux.)

The GA transcriptions are missing.

9. to (prep.)

There's no soundfile for /tə/ either in GB or GA.

Sunday 20 December 2015

OED transcriptions - examples (1) - weakforms

In the new "Key to pronunciation" the editors write:
While avoiding strongly regionally or socially marked forms, they are intended to include the most common variants for each word.
Here are some snippets to illustrate what they understand by "most common variants":

1, and (conj.):

2. of (prep.):

The strongform in General American is missing among the transcriptions; however, when you click the "U.S. /əv/", you hear the strongform.

3. him (pron.)

There's no soundfile for the General British weakform /ɪm/.

4. the (adj.)

There are two weakforms in GB, but only one in GA. When you click GB /ði:/ and /ði/, you hear the same soundfile (see waveform below):

5. from (prep.)

The GB weakform is missing; the pronunciation of the GA word contains the LOT vowel.

The addition of soundfiles seems to need some brushing up.

OED's new features

It was not until yesterday that I spotted a new feature in the online version of the OED: audio files are being added. Here's a snippet of the article on 'writer':

credit: OED

When you click the blue play icon you hear a native (?) speaker say the word. It's a pity we are not told anything about the linguistic background of the speaker(s).

Here's an example:

When you click the word "Pronunciation" in front of the icons, you are taken to an explanatory section. In there it says:
The pronunciations given are those in use among educated urban speakers of standard English in Britain and the United States. While avoiding strongly regionally or socially marked forms, they are intended to include the most common variants for each word. The keywords given in this key are to be understood as pronounced in such speech.
Where a word is associated with a particular part of the English-speaking world, further pronunciations in the appropriate global variety of English are also given.
 I'm curious to hear one of these "further pronunciations", but haven't found one yet.

What's also new is the frequency band. When you click the series of eight increasingly larger bullet points, you're taken to another explanatory section (, where the calculations of relative frequencies of words are explained.

Postscriptum: I've just come across Jack Windsor Lewis's latest blog, in which he hails the new features of the OED. So he holds the ius primae mentionis.

Monday 14 December 2015

determined to examine the landmine

Many a German pronounces the English word determine as /ˈdetəmaɪn/. They seem to be misled by words ending in <-mine>, e.g. undermine, landmine, coalmine, which end in /-maɪn/. There's another group of words, also ending in <-mine>, but pronounced as either /-miːn/ or /-mɪn/: amphetamine, antihistamine, chloramine, dopamine etc. And then we have words such as famine, examine or determine ending in /-mɪn/. So it's /diˈtɜːmɪn/ (or alternatively /dəˈtɜːmɪn, -mən/.

Saturday 21 November 2015

ackshly English - pt.2

In the television series Doctor Foster, fairly at the beginning of episode 1, Emma Foster, who's just found a lipstick among the belongings of her husband Simon, asks: "Is this yours?" and he replies: "Yes, actually", to be transcribed as: /ðɪʃʊəz/ - /jes ækʃi/. In a later scene Simon says: "It was real actually." /ɪt wəz rɪəl ækʃli/. Listen:

In The Kennedys, a BBC sitcom, there are some more examples. Tony Kennedy asks his friend Tim, if he happens to know how to get hold of pasta not in a tin. To which Tim replies: "Actually, I do know someone who might have some pasta not in a tin."
In another episode Tony tells his wife Brenda that she's just ruined their car. "You have actually killed the car."
The first sample contains the weakform /ækʃi/ of the adverb, while the second sound track illustrates the strongform variant /ækʧʊəli/.

Monday 16 November 2015

ackshly English

What is this post ackshly about? It's about the adverb actually.
It's not only an adverb but also a weakform word. The strongform pronunciation is usually /ˈækʧuəli/, or in a more traditional manner /ˈæktjuəli/.
To make your conversations in English sound more natural and relaxed, try some of these weakform variants:
  • /ˈækʧuli/, /ˈækʃuli/,
  • /ˈækʧəli/, /ˈækʃəli/,
  • /ˈækʧli/, /ˈækʃli/, /ˈækʃi/, /æʃli/.
 Here are a few sentences containing 'actually': Give them a try!
  1. It actually works.
  2. Prices have actually fallen. 
  3. She's actually glad about it.
  4. His story is actually true.
  5. D'you think ghosts actually exist?
  6. He actually believes his own crap.
  7. I've actually known him for quite a long time.
  8. It actually happened.
  9. You couldn't actually have seen him.
  10. I don't actually like whiskey.

Sunday 11 October 2015

The Red Flag

credit: Oleksandr Rozhkov; Fotolalia
This is an off-topic blog entry.
Many Brits are familiar with these lyrics:

The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its ev'ry fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

I must admit I hadn't been familiar with the song until a few days ago I heard, for the first time in my life, 'The Red Flag', and I was most astonished because the melody sounded ever so familiar to me - it's the German Christmas carol 'O Tannenbaum'. The mind-boggling question is: How are they related?

Saturday 10 October 2015

Minnesotan English

(source unknown)
What's "Dalindyrik"?

Friday 2 October 2015

Word-medial glottal stop

Glottal stops do not only occur at the beginning of words which otherwise start with a vowel, e.g. almond, enter, idea, but may also be heard word-medially before a syllable with an initial vowel. Inserting glottal stops word-medially is by no means unusual. Here's an example taken from a speech Tony Blair gave in 1996 in Blackpool at the Labour Party conference. He said:
Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education and education.
Listen to the way he pronounces priorities.

Wednesday 30 September 2015

voiced interdental /l/

Paul Carley has found a video in which Ed Miliband pronounces the words "Labour" and "Let's" with a voiced interdental /l/.
Miliband says
1. "Labour plan for Britain's future"
2. "Let's make it happen together"

no. 1: "Labour" (credit: BBC News)

no. 2: "Let's" (credit: BBC News)

Sunday 27 September 2015

length becomes lenth

Paul Carley spotted another interesting pronunciation variant - it's that for the word length. LPD3 presents the results of an opinion poll on the BrE pronunciation of it: 48% prefer /leŋθ/, 36% favour /leŋkθ/ and 16% vote for /lentθ/. To the latter pronunciation John Wells adds a symbol indicating that it is a British English non-RP variant. CEPD18 has /leŋkθ/ only. Here are two short sections taken from BBC News of 22 September 2015:

The speaker is Danny Savage.

Monday 21 September 2015

Brian Sewell - RIP

Brian Sewell, art critic, columnist and writer, died in his London home on the 19th of September, 2015. He was not only renowned for his pungent, waspish, rapier-sharp remarks, but also for his 'privileged', genteel pronunciation, whch made quite a few people become prickly. In his words, he had the voice of an "Edwardian lesbian". Well, form your own judgment; there are lots of sound samples on the internet.

Here's a short extract from an interview which must have taken place in or shortly after 1979:


Saturday 19 September 2015

English-French-German jingle

You might want to read this blog by Peter Roach first before you continue with the present comment. One of the followers of Peter's blog asked for the sound files to be supplied. It's a jingle of a windscreen repair company in English, French and German (there may be versions in other languages as well, but I haven't checked this yet). The various rhythms are the interesting part.

Here they are:

Thursday 17 September 2015

listen to (the) unconscious

'Listen to the unconscious'? You may think that I've gone loopy. Whether this is true or not is not for me to decide.
What I want you to do is listen to the word in this recording and tell me if you spot a not too rare phonetic phenomenon.

(My thanks to Paul Carley for the link.)

Tuesday 15 September 2015

epenthetic glottal stop

Sharp-eared Paul Carley spotted an interesting instance of epenthesis. To preserve the sound sample for some time, I recorded it for you to listen to. It's in an interview by BBC Radio 4 with Diane Abbott, Labour MP for HackneyNorth and Stoke Newington.
 Paul found an epentheticglottal stop in the word also in this sentence of hers:
You can also serve - we also serve - we serve on the back benches.
Listen to the sound file:

This is a rather rare instance of epenthesis of a glottal plosive between /l/ and /s/.

Thursday 10 September 2015

mp3 files

Here's a short but excellent introduction, written by Sidney Wood, into the mp3 digital audio compression format. If you're not familiar with what mp3 does to your recordings and to your ears, you should read this intro first. For presentations of sound files on the internet it may at times be necessary to compress the original sound file to save storage space and/or avoid long loading times. Once you've converted a high-quality recording into the mp3-format, you should try to avoid re-encoding it if and when you change the volume or cut and paste it.

MP3directcut claims to allow mp3 files to be manipulated without a further quality loss due to re-encoding. I haven't tested this (and I don't get any royalties for writing about the product). Here's the link to the software, which is free.

mp3DirectCut - direct mp3 editor, splitter, cutter and recorder

Saturday 8 August 2015

Compression and W. R. Evans

I wrote in a postscript to my blog of the sixth of July (see here) that I could not find anything about W. R. Evans, who had used the term 'compression' to describe the reduction of diphthongs to simple vowel sounds. Jack Windsor Lewis in his blog no. 502 of the 7th of August kindly referred me to the journal 'Phonetische Studien', in which Evans had published two articles which dealt with the Bell vowel system.

In volume 2 (1889) on p. 112 of said periodical I found an obituary for William Robert Evans:

Evans was an autodidact in matters phonetic. He "conducted" (as it pleased Evans to call it) the journal The spelling experimenter and phonetic investigator, which appeared in two volumes from 1880 to 1883. Evans ran a small print shop in London. He died from pulmonary consumption in London on the 21st of June 1888.

Monday 3 August 2015

Phonetic difficulties of German EFL learners - pt. 1

I plan to write several blogs on some phonetic differences between German and English and the problems arising from them for German learners, though in no particular order and certainly not exhaustive.

Today's blog first deals with the question: "Which English is to be compared with which German?" Looking back on my thirty or so years of teaching English phonetics and pronunciation at a German university the overwhelming majority of my (almost 2000) students were native speakers of German.
What kind of English should they acquire and what sort of German do they speak? The answers determine the results of the comparisons, and they determine, of course, the patterns learners should aim for.

Among the many variants of English spoken by native speakers two are usually taught at German schools and universities - General British (aka RP) and General American (and - if I'm being nasty - Denglish as a third variant). Textbooks and reference books describe and illustrate at least one of these accents, and school curricula stipulate one of them. As for German variants used by native speakers of German there's also a wide variety of accents, one of them being the codified or reference accent called "Standardlautung" by DUDEN1. This reference accent displays no regional features, is socially unmarked and preferably used in more formal situations.

I will restrict my comparisons to General British (= GB) and German "Standardlautung" (which I prefer to call 'German reference accent' or GRA for short). None of these reference accents can be delimited with great exactness, but when it comes to learning GB as a language in addition to German as one's mother tongue, it's much more important to look for problems and traps.

Next I'd like to draw your attention to pitfalls in the area of spelling. Does spelling cause any interferences? The answer is 'yes'.
We are all too familiar with the inconsistent reflection of pronunciation in spelling. Here are a few examples.
German /yː/ as in Krümel, wühlen, Thymian, Juist, Avenue.
German /v/ as in Suite, Wahl, Vase.
German /ʃ/ as in Busch, Prosciutto2, Chassis, Ski.
German /k/ as in Ochse, Hecke, König, Okklusiv, Quai.
English /eɪ/ as in great, veil, gauge, face, rain, bay.
English /ɔː/ as in law, author, ball, board, door, four, hawk.
English /ʃ/ as in machine, shine, sugar, fascism, schedule, aggression, special.
English /v/ as in very, Stephen, savvy, of.
These inconsistencies make it impossible to guess the pronunciation of a word by simply staring at its spelling.

Native speakers of German intuitively know that initial <w> is always /v/ and that initial <v> is either /v/ or /f/. When they come across English words with an initial <w>, some will automatically associate it with the German letter-sound relation and pronounce it as /v/ or by confusion pronounce English <v> as /w/.

Then we have interlanguage homographs (at least if you ignore capitalisation), eg. G,E<wild> with E/waɪld/ and G/vilt/ or G,E<tag, mine, will, wind, wolf, warm, ...>. Some learners may assume the pronunciation of the English words is identical with the German way of pronouncing them.

Nor must we forget English words that entered the German lexicon and were adapted to the German sound system in some way or other. Here are a few examples:

German pron English pron
family /'fɛmili/ /'fæmli/
laptop /'lɛptɔp/ /'læptɒp/
cash /kɛʃ/ /kæʃ/
camping /'kɛmpiŋ/ /'kæmpɪŋ/
attachment /ə'tɛʧmɛnt/ /ə'tæʧmənt/
job /ʧɔp/ /ʤɒb/
single /'siŋl/ /sɪŋgl/
story /'ʃtɔʁi/ /'stɔːrɪ/
homepage /'hoːmpeːʧ/ /'həʊmpeɪʤ/
action /'ɛktʃn/ /'ækʃn/

It's completely normal to use the Germanised pronunciation of these loans in a German context; you  sound fairly la-di-da, if instead of saying /mainə fɛmili maxt ʃtʁɛs/ you pronounce the sentence like this: /mainə fæmli maxt stres/. If the wind stands fair, an incorrect pronunciation will not cause any misunderstanding, but ... A safe way to avoid spelling ambiguities is /trænskrɪpʃən/. And this means you have to learn to shift your attention away from what is said to how something is said, which is no easy task.

1Duden Aussprachewörterbuch (2000:34f.)
2Prosciutto, though being an Italian loanword, is frequently used by Germans.

Friday 24 July 2015

From the press

Public Radio International has provided us with this breaking news:

"It looks like the distinctive, almost-rolling "R" may be dissapearing [sic] from the Scottish accent.

Eleanor Lawson is a sociolinguist at the University of Glasgow and Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh and has conducted research on the phenomenon.
In words like "car," "cart," and "first," speakers are no longer using the typical "rhotic r" but pronouncing the word more like a British or Anglican English speaker."
I wonder what the Anglican Church has to do with it.

BTW: The two journalists (or whatever they're called) seem to have a cavalier attitude towards spelling.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Is an experiment an expieriment?

Many of my German students of English who claim to speak GB pronounce experiment as  /e/ɪ/əkspɪrɪme/ənt/. Why? They either think of experience or picked up the GA pronunciation variant /-spɪr-/. This variant is attested in LPD3 and Merriam-Webster Online, but not in EPD18.

credit: dandelionmood

Thursday 9 July 2015

Compression no. 2 (revised)

Compression as a phonetic term denotes the reduction of articulatory movements leading to
  1. a reduction of diphthongs plus schwa to diphthongs or monophthongs,
  2. a reduction of diphthongs to monophthongs,
  3. a change from a monophthong to an approximant, 
  4. a change from one vowel class to another or 
  5. coalescence. 
Here are some English examples illustrating the various subtypes:

1.1 a diphthong plus schwa becomes a diphthong: /ðə rɔɪəl fæmli/ -> /ðə rɔəl fæmli/ for <the royal family>
1.2 a diphthong plus schwa becomes a monophthong: /ən aʊər əweɪ/ -> /ən ɑːr əweɪ/ for <an hour away>
2. a diphthong becomes a monophthong: /ænjʊəl/ -> /ænjʊl/ for <annual>
3. a monophthong becomes an approximant: /reɪdiəʊ/ -> /reɪdjəʊ/ for <radio>
4. a change from one vowel class to another: /væljuː/ -> /væljʊ/ for <value>
5. coalescence: /wʊd juː/ -> /wʊʤʊ/ for <would you>

Monday 6 July 2015

Compression as a phonetic term

The term compression in its phonetic sense denotes the reduction of articulatory movements leading to
  • a reduction of diphthongs plus schwa to diphthongs or monophthongs,
  • a reduction of diphthongs to monophthongs,
  • a change from a monophthong to an approximant, 
  • a change from one vowel class to another or 
  • coalescence. 
When was the term first used? The OED remains silent. It was by mere chance that I found a fairly early mention of the term in Notes on Spelling Reform of 1881 by W. R. Evans. On p.11 we read this:
During all the time occupied by these changes - the shifting of vowel-sounds step by step along the scale, the expansion of simple vowels into diphthongs, and the compression of diphthongs into simple vowel-sounds - the written form of the language remained nearly stereotyped as regards any indication of such changes, [...]

For earlier uses of the term it may be worthwhile to check "The Phonetic Journal", which was published from 1873 to 1905. It's a pity I don't have access to this journal.

BTW: I couldn't find anything on this W. R. Evans. The ODNB has but an entry on a clergyman by the same name. If any of my followers can enlighten me, I'd be most grateful.

Sunday 29 March 2015

voice-over speaker on Mrs Bach

I recently watched the film Written by Mrs Bach broadcast by BBC Four. Amongst the academics who were interviewed on the issue of whether Anna Magdalena Bach could have been the composer of several pieces generally attributed to Johann Sebastian, there were two German specialists on Bach. They made their comments in German and accordingly had to be translated. Listen to this extract of the voice-over speaker and tell me if, like me, something strikes you as odd in her enunciation.

Monday 9 March 2015

Some typical pronunciation mistakes by (my) students learning English

Students in my phonetics classes may choose between General American and General British pronunciation (native speakers of English are exempt).

Here are some more or less frequent mistakes which popped up in this semester's viva voces:
  1. word-final fortissification (e.g. bag -> back)
  2. the TRAP vowel is replaced by the DRESS vowel
  3. the word ending <-ction> is pronounced /-kʧən/
  4. /v/ and /w/ are mixed up
  5. word-initial /br, bl, dr, gr, gl, ʤ/ are replaced by /pr, pl, tr, kr, kl, ʧ/
  6. one man, but two /mən/ or /mɪn/
  7. he was /bjurɪd, bərɪd, bʌrɪd/ in a /tɒm(b)/
  8. determined may materialise as /'detəmaɪnd, dɪ'tɜːmaɪnd, 'diːtəmaɪnd/
  9. /dɪs'mɪʃəl/
  10. sentence-final hotel or unfair are stressed  /'həʊtəl/ and /'ʌnfeə/.
Students who claim to speak General British frequently pronounce got as /gɑt, gat/.
For some the phrase Edith's birthday poses serious problems.