Archive 17 of JWL Blog


Readers who need explanations of any of the abbreviations used may find them at Section 1 of the Home Page.

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30/03/2009Some British/American contrasts#170
26/03/2009ROACH 2009#169
24/03/2009Secondary Stress Marks#168
18/03/2009John WALKER#167
07/03/2009NAOMI, CANAAN and SINAI#166
06/03/2009HAROLD PALMER b 6 Mar 1877#165
05/03/2009Neutralisation, ISRAEL, UTOPIA#164
25/02/2009Linguistic Suggestionisms#162
23/02/2009Worst-Ever Book-title Translation#161

Blog 170

The 30th of March 2009

Some British/American contrasts

I’ve recently re’d the two books by Barack Obama and when I came to the second I was inclined to note in The Audacity of Hope various linguistic/cultural differences between British American English locutions reflected in his writing. I list them below for people to see how they struck me and perhaps to compare their impressions with mine. Some British readers may even find a few of these comments useful elucidations.
(These page-by-page notes are on more or less essentially linguistic Americanisms: they dont include items that are simply references to American history no dou’t gen’rally familiar in the US such as (at p.95) Dred Scott on whom a Supreme Court decision it seems judged to have, as an ex-slave, no legal rights, or (at p. 61) Cotton Mather the Puritan Minister involved in the Salem witchcraft trials.)

16 metastasize ie spre’d, escalate OED “Chiefly US”
43 etc staffers ie staff-members
49 GOP ie Grand Old Party ie Republicans (OED 1876...)
49 UPI ie United Press International
49 “we stopped at TGI Friday’s...”Originally US now international restaurant chain     short for "Thank goodness (aut cet) it’s ..."
64 NASCAR (track) ie National Association of Stock Car Racing
76 “(sitting down for a) visit ie UK “chat”
80 cloture is glossed in text as “cessation of debate”
81 cot ie a wheeled stretcher
94 pork barrels ie vote-catching central funds for local projects
94 logrolling ie political mutual assistance
106 class valedictorian ie student honoured with giving address at graduation                 ceremony paradoxically called “Commencement”
111 pols ie politicians
113 RV ie recreational vehicle
113 PAC ie political action committee
115 jibe with ie chime with
117 NRA ie National Rifle Assoiciation
117 NAFTA ie North American Free Trade Association
118 AFL-CIO is the US equivalent of the TUC: The American Federation of Labor     and Congress of Industrial Organizations ... is a national trade union center  
118 SEIU ie The /Service Employees International Union/ is the largest and fastest     growing union in North America" according to their own website
118 AFSCME ie American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees: Largest public employee and health care workers union in the United States (according to its own website) 
118 UNITE HERE: UNITE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and             Textile Employees) and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees             International Union) merged on July 8, 2004 
118 Teamsters ie truck drivers union
141 TGIE ie Tibetan Government in Exile
143 khakis ie light-brown trousers
153 FDIC ie Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
181 a slew of good ideas (self explaining) 
192 the Gilded Age ie US period about 1879 to 1893 of wealth polarisation etc
201 at a rapid clip (self explaining)
210 carpet-bagger ie incomer seeking political or financial advantages (pretty well     known in the UK but only of US contexts)
211 a kook, an extremist (more or less self explaining)
215 gangbanger ie violent street gang member (OED). Possibly misinterpretable by     many Brits!
227 stroller ie pushchair
229 FEMA ie Federal Emergency Management Agency
236 catching a cab
236 Latina woman (more or less self explaining)
238 transformative (more or less self explaining) perhaps idiosyncratic’ly a personal     favourite expression
242 whupped (their children’s behinds) [not in the OED] 
248 firehouses ie fire stations
249 hoppin’ John ie "a rich bean dish made of black-eyed peas simmered with spicy sausages, ham hocks, or fat pork, rice, and tomato sauce".
249 collard (greens) ie a variety of cabbage with no heart [OED “dial. & US”]
250 re-habbing (more or less self explaining)
254 barbershops ie hairdressers (of course pretty familiar but re US only)
255 back story and racial steering (more or less self explaining)
258 GEDs ie general educational development (test results)?
258 nail technician droll euphemism for manicurist incipiently familiar here
262 busboys ie waiters’ assistants
263 bellmen (more or less self explaining) cf bell-boy ie hotel page [not in OED]
267 a valet at a ... restaurant ie who parks the clients’ cars for them
276 set afire ie set on fire cf US atop for on top of
279 dickering ie haggling
306 blue-water navy ie national navy considered necessary for defence
312 calculus ie calculation (apparently; OED classifies this sense as obsolete)     
326 op-ed ie newspaper page opposite editorial hence of personal comment etc
331 (aid of two) canes ie walking sticks
348 scool potlucks cf OED “N. Amer. A communal meal to which those invited all     bring a dish to share”
349 playdate OED: A social engagement arranged so that children may play                 together.
350 (gave me a) high five ie palm to palm slap with extended fingers as gesture of         mutual solidarity etc
351 lawn chair  ie a deckchair. OED: “N. Amer., a garden chair, esp. a reclining             garden chair”.
358 infomercial OED:  “(orig. and chiefly U.S.). An advertising film (usu. shown on     television) which promotes a product, service, etc. in an informative and                     purportedly objective and spontaneous style”.
359 a tad bit nervous cf OED colloq. (orig. and chiefly N. Amer.). A small amount;     freq. used advb. in the expression a tad, a little, slightly. Unfamiliar kind of use.

Other things I noticed were 
absent used as a preposition in the sense (OED “orig. and chiefly U.S. Law”) “in the     absence of ”
and solid spellings where we shd use hyphens after prefixes like pro and semi

PS Many thanks to Graham Pointon for elucidating the abbreviations that had eluded me in my original draft of this blog and to Nigel Greenwood for his help.

Blog 169

The 26th of March 2009

ROACH 2009

A quarter of a century ago I had the pleasure of reviewing for the Journal of the International Phonetic Association a new book by one of the most distinguished of British phoneticians of recent times, and a decade-long colleague of mine at Leeds University, Peter Roach. It was called English Phonetics and Phonology: a practical course. I greeted it as making “a first class job of filling a notable gap” as an “EFL course at an intellectual level suitable for university use”. It has been a great success, since appearing in new editions in 1991, in 2000 and now again today. It has changed amazingly little showing how well it had been conceived in the first place. Indeed the excellently clear illustrative materials are virtually unaltered from their 1983 form, recorded then for the most part by the author and his wife Helen plus a few items from two other voices, one male and one female.
The Cambridge University Press blurb unsurprisingly puffs up the new additions that have been made amounting to apparently only a few pages of matter but it’s quite right in saying that its references have been updated, notably in its Bibliography. A new chapter has been designated by a doubling of the extent of a three-page former account of varieties of spoken English but it has nothing to compare with the extensive treatment of that topic in Collins & Mees 2008, Practical Phonetics and Phonology, a work that gets generous recommendations in this one.

Mention of that book with its similar title and aims (but hitherto different dimensions) brings me to refer to the great glory of this new edition: its appearance has been hugely improved. The CUP designers have done it proud by making it look as dignified and substantial as it deserves. Externally it is now a couple of centimetres taller and broader by a full four centimetres with a well-designed cover. Internally the very uncluttered indeed elegant look the extra space gives it is much enhanced by the conversion of all the phonetic symbols to presentation in an agreeable blue colour. These are very well proofre’d with virtually no misprints: there’s an isolated trivial one at suggest on page 183 and strictly-speaking a very minor wrong symbol has been used (a haček instead of the correct IPA breve) over some letters at pp xi, 38 and 202.

Not everyone will like every aspect of this book. Some may object to  the minute vowel indicators and their placings on diagrams as involving spurious precision. Some may not like “BBC” to identify the accent described especially in expressions like “Most BBC speakers have rounded lips for ... (p.42)” which for an uneasy moment may suggest to them the Corporation rather than the accent. Some may think the hand-drawn look of the lines in the grey-filled-in staves used to convey pitch patterns look too amateurish or arbitrary. Some may think the space devoted to rise-fall tones excessive. Some may think American pronunciation gets too little attention. Some may regret the absence of a glossary of technical terms with indications of pronunciations of some of them. Some may think a few items provide unsuitable models eg Aberystwyth with schwa in its last syllable, Huddersfield with its s as /s/, gardener with three and comfortable with four syllables. And so on. No-one can please everybody. What is absolutely certain is that what this book sets out to do it does brilliantly successfully. It's full of wise comments and insightful observations.

I’ve omitted to mention until now what for many will be the most welcome news of all about this new edition. Additional exercises and other supporting material are promised for a new website with “links to useful websites”, a discussion site, talks by Roach and a glossary! This will be found at But dont get too excited because today that has only taken you to the blurb for the book where it sez they “are available”, but not yet it seems, and no indication has yet been offered at this time of writing of when we might get to see it. Come on, CUP!

Blog 168

The 24th of March 2009

Secondary Stress Marks

The Wells blog of the 23rd of March delt ideally with the question of the indication of secondary stresses in English polysyllables. I shd just like to add that from time to time one finds it convenient to quote words with stress marking only. In such situations it’s sometimes useful to be able eg to contrast `moderate and `modeˌrate, `necessary and `necesˌsary, `secretary and `secreˌtary etc in full transcriptions of which the secondary stress mark wd be superfluous.

His blogs of the 18th and 19th of March discussed with his usual clarity and good sense the question asked of him why in LPD he represents the dress vowel as /e/ rather than /ɛ/. My attention was drawn to his remark “An important principle of good phonetic transcription is simplicity”. While I don’t in the least disagree with this, I was mildly puzzled that he shd contiue thus:
“As Ladefoged formulates it,
A simple phonemic transcription uses the smallest possible number of different letters. [D. Abercrombie, 1964, English Phonetic Texts, London: Faber & Faber, page 19.]”
Ladefoged may well have used such a (rather unremarkable tho praps not necessarily universally accepted) formulation but I don’t remember him doing so and I can’t see why this ascription wasnt made simply to Abercrombie. Tho it was no doubt embraced by Ladefoged, he probably didnt originate it and it doesn’t derive from the old Principles of the International Phonetic Association in any of its dozen evolving versions culminating in Jones’s fifty-page booklet of 1949. This contained a page or so of “Principles of Vowel Representation” beginning at p.7 which were not fully endorsed in the new Handbook of the IPA of 1999: “When a vowel is situated in an area [sc of the CVs diagram] designated by a non-roman letter, it is recommended that the nearest appropriate roman letter be substituted for it in ordinary broad transcriptions if that letter is not needed for any other purpose. For instance, if a language contains an ɛ but no e, it is recommended that the letter e be used to represent it”. 

The Handbook has less than a single page of comment at its §6 p.30 on “IPA transcriptions for a language”. There it does say, tho, “[f]or instance, the vowel phoneme of get in [what its contributor unfortunately terms] Standard Southern British English has allophones, according to phonetic environment, which mostly lie between cardinal vowels [e] and [ɛ], some realizations being closer to one and some to the other. It is therefore permissible to choose either symbol as the one to represent the phoneme”.

At the 19th of March §3 Wells sed “The vowel of English DRESS varies considerably. A former RP quality, now obsolete, was very close to cardinal 2 [e]”. This set me wondering whether this variant is still to be he’rd from anyone in public life or at least some well-known speaker cd be quoted as having displayed it within the last generation or so. Perhaps someone could be found using it eg in some of the recordings we have going back up to sixty or seventy years, say from a copy of an old cinema film. I feel some such illustrative sound file wdve brought to life in welcome fashion the recent comments.

Blog 167

The 18th of March 2009


John Walker was born on the 18th of March 1732 in a small village in what was later to become part of the north of Greater London. He had some education at a grammar school but while still in his teens began two decades of work as an actor. He played at first in provincial towns but later mainly in London working with Garrick and others, though not in the grandest roles. In 1769 he turned to teaching and writing, very soon concentrating on matters of “elocution” on which he became quite famous and sought-after as a lecturer. His Elements of Elocution (1781) and The Melody of Speaking Delineated (1787) were important and influential works. His Rhyming Dictionary (1775) was a great popular success and his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791,1797) was “the most successful and authoritative pronouncing dictionary of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century... It was reprinted over 100 times up to 1904...” (DNB). It contained over 75 closely-packed pages on general pronunciation matters in its preface. The dictionary proper incorporated often very substantial notes about words on whose pronunciations opinions were divided, frequently quoting a dozen or so other “orthoepists” (an awkward, now fortunately largely discarded, word offered as pronounced /`ɔːθəʊepɪsts/ etc by the dictionaries) in doing so.

In this Walker took over from William Kenrick (1729–1779) a system of printing “figures placed over vowels, to indicate their different sounds”. Thus “a” with superscript small numeral 1 above it in the same line stood for /eɪ/, with a superscript 2 for /ɑː/, with 3 for /ᴐː/ and with 4 for /ӕ/ and so on. This system worked well for most of the phonemes but it lacked any satisfactory way of explicitly indicating/ə, ɜː, ɪə, ɛə/ or /ʊə/ if those transcriptional traditional representations wdve indeed been appropriate for eighteenth-century usages. Walker’s treatment of unstressed syllables was no doubt marred by too much regard to Dr Johnson’s unfortunate pronouncement that “the most elegant speakers ... deviate least from the written words” even tho he actually referred to that dictum (p. 4) as “indefinite and uncertain...” It was an idea that seemed still to influence Alexander Melville Bell (born 1819, whose handling of English unaccented vowels was among things of his Sweet very rightly criticised) and even probably the committee that decided in 1882 on how the NED/OED originally delt with pronunciations. Besides Kenrick’s he referred very interestingly to the opinions of a dozen-or-so more-or-less contemporary grammarians and lexicographers including Nathaniel Bailey, James Barclay, James Elphinston, (Dr) Johnson, Stephen Jones, (Bishop) Robert Lowth, Robert Nares, William Perry, Joseph N. Scott and Thomas Sheridan.

He remarked in a rather prolix note at the verb collect that “when these words are pronounced alone with deliberation, energy and precision, the o in the first syllable preserves nearly its true sound; but this seems to slide insensibly into short u the moment we unite these words with others, and pronounce them without premeditation. The deliberate and solemn sound is that which I have given in this dictionary...” However, at command, on the same topic, he says of foreigners “it would always be better for them to adopt the u...”. Nevertheless his dictionary exercised enormous influence for generations. Its help was highly valued by Isaac Pitman in preparing his system of shorthand. It was nearly a century before the great advances made in the works of Alexander Ellis, the greatest phonetician Britain had so far produced, were to supersede its account of English speech. Besides Johnson’s influence it suffered from several crackpot “principles” of his own (including “analogy”) to which appeal was made in frequent ill-judged condemnations and calls for “reformation”. For example because biped ends /-ed/ he “allows” only that ending to the word centipede despite its spelling. His decision to record only the rhetorical versions of weak syllables me’nt that one didnt know whether in ordinary speech he considered the everyday pronunciation eg of saucepan to be /`sɔːspən/ or /`sɔːspӕn/ or of icon to be /`aɪkɒn/ or /`aɪkən/. He also from time to time made ill-judged appeals to Latin or Greek quantity and ventured some inept comments on word derivations. However, these flaws certainly didnt nullify his remarkable achievements.
Walker died at Tottenham Court Road London on the 1st of August 1807.

Blog 166

The 7th of March 2009


John Wells remarked in his blog of Friday 6 March 2009:
… the traditional RP form of Naomi has initial stress, ˈneɪə(ʊ)mi. You won’t find anything else in Daniel Jones. As far as I can see, Jack Windsor Lewis was the first to record the penultimate-stressed form, in his CPD (1972).
As I quite often find some difficulty interpreting the abbreviatory conventions in his splendid LPD, I have great sympathy for his apparent doing so in interpreting mine in my CPD.  However, I feel I shd point out that the entry for Naomi there didnt aim to convey that the form of the word with stress on its second syllable was a common enough variant in GB (=“RP”) to be worth including in a “concise” dictionary at that time but that it was a common variant form in GA as was to be understood from its coming after the vividly expressive sign “$”. At my time of writing, as a proper noun the word cdnt be found in the big Webster but the few authorities available differed eg Random House preferred second-syllable stress but the Century Cyclopedia of Names gave front stress first. Now Webster Online does include the item perhaps a little surprisingly with no front-stress alternant. As to GB, I seem to hear its currently most famous bearer, the fashion model etc Ms Campbell, widely referred to as Na`omi.

Regarding Canaan and Sinai, John Walker in 1797 advocated three syllables for both of them as also even for Isaac. I think I had the impression that during the 1967 war in that area /`saɪnaɪ/ was typical of American reporters and /`saɪnjaɪ/ of British but it seems now that most people use the yod-dropping version. As well as Jones’s surprising “old-fashioned” /`saɪnɪ/ the American Century Cyclopedia in 1899 gave /`saɪneɪ/.

The spelling <aa> is very uncommon but it has quite a variety of interpretations. The expected /ɑː/ occurs in forei’n loans eg in aadvark, Afrikaans, Baathism, bazaar, kraal, naan, salaam, Staatsoper and Traansvaal. So too for haar, the local word we sometimes hear from weather forecasters for a kind of damp east-coast fog. Also in BAAP. But /ӕ/ is usual in NAAFI and WAAF. In Aaron it’s /ɛə/ and in Baal it’s /eɪ/ while it’s /ə/ in Isaac and Balaam /`beɪləm/. You can’t say our spelling isn’t intresting.

Blog 165

The 6th of March 2009

HAROLD PALMER b 6 Mar 1877

Harold Edward Palmer was born on the 6th of March 1877 the son of a schoolmaster who later became a businessman and newspaper proprietor. He was mainly educated at home. His first significant employment was in 1899 editing his father’s local paper at Hythe in Kent. By 1902 he was teaching English at Verviers in Belgium and soon started upon his long list of publications. The most extensive of these were in the field that was to become known as applied linguistics but he also made significant contributions to phonetics. He joined the International Phonetic Association in 1907 and between 1910 and 1938 made 20 or so varied contributions to its journal Le Maître Phonétique. These impressed Daniel Jones who, in due course, admiring his “most original and inventive mind”, gave him work (intially part-time but later full-time) in his Department at University College London, despite his complete lack of formal qualifications. He later did so for Roger Kingdon who was to make great strides in describing English intonation starting from Palmer’s insights.

Jones and Palmer first actually met purely by chance while they were travelling on a boat between Ostend and Dover in 1912. They became good frends which is perhaps surprising in view of the fact that their temperaments were so very different — he rather mercurial and Jones very staid. Until the outbreak of the first world war Palmer stayed teaching in and publishing from Belgium. Then he had to make a dramatic last-minit escape with his wife and dauter after the arrival of the German army, being obliged to abandon his home at truly minimal notice.

While working at UCL he produced his very influential short book of 105 pages English Intonation (1922). With it he re-vitalised English intonation studies which had been making little meaningful progress. He rejected stave-enclosed over-detailed continuous representations of pitch patterns in favour of a return to the John Walker tradition of concentrating attention on the tones involved. In doing so he introduced the terms tone-group, nucleus, head and tail which were to become very familiar in British descriptions of intonation structure. His influence has been so strong that the questionable aptness of the radial associations of the term nucleus in reference to something as completely linear as intonation has long been unchallenged. He dedicated the book to his UCL colleague H. O. Coleman but any debts to his writings were not obvious. Coleman conveyed tones by numbers much as Pike was to do. Palmer himself chose over-pictorial types of tone symbols like and an idiosyncratic unconvincing classification of heads neither of which anyone subsequently adopted. Compare on this website §2.4.6. However, his handling of the subject was more satisfying than anything known earlier and made a beginning that was invaluable. The book was only published after he’d left for Tokyo where he’d been invited to head up a new Institute for Research in English Teaching.

He followed his intonation book with his larger and similarly pioneering Grammar of Spoken English (1924) in which examples thruout were presented not only with phonemic but also with tonological notations. Then followed a joint publication with the American J. Victor Martin the Dictionary of English Pronunciation with American Variants (1926). It was of modest size, containing only about 9,000 entries, but again the first work of its kind. Among his very numerous other publications was a ground-breaking Grammar of English Words (1938) which was a small-scale precursor to what, stemming directly from his ideas, became probably the most valuable and deservedly most commercially successful major publication in the history of EFL. This was what was to become known as the Advanced Learner's Dictionary. It was first published in Tokyo in 1942 as an Idiomatic and Syntactic English Dictionary having been principally written by his most valued associate in Japan, A. S. Hornby, tho initiated by Palmer in the 1930s.

He returned to England in 1936 continuing as an indefatigable writer of textbooks and articles on language teaching but he didnt produce any new work in the field of phonetics in the remaining decade or so of his life. He died on the 16th of November 1949.

Blog 164

The 5th of March 2009

Neutralisation, ISRAEL, UTOPIA

So-Called Neutralisation

References to the final /i/ of happy etc simply as “neutralised” seem to involve a rather unfortunate ambiguity. In current GB (regionally-neutral British usage) the predominant quality of this vowel is usually a relatively fairly short (tho by no means always necessarily so) fairly close front vowel clearly assignable to the /iː/ phoneme rather than to the /ɪ/. In running speech, speakers who can be observed to have this normal value will naturally occasionally in some contexts be heard to produce it in forms that are not distinguishable from their /ɪ/ phoneme. I have certainly observed that in playing back recordings of my own speech. However, it is not by speakers in general regularly articulated in such a form ie the distinction is not regularly neutralised. That the happy vowel shd be described as “neutralised” seems also to make it out to be too much of a special case. All non-deliberate speech exhibits frequent ambiguous articulations of many items such as those involving the qualitative contrasts /ɪ~ɪə, ɪ~ə, ɛ~ӕ, ɒ~ɔː, ʌ~ə, əʊ~ʊ, ɔɪ~ɔː/ etc.

Recognition of the parallel /uː~ʊ/ alternation has ment that the lexicographers, understandably eager to embrace /i/, have had to acknowledge that there’s an undeniable parallel relationship with the weak vowel corresponding to their /uː/. So far they’ve only proceeded half-heartedly in this regard but it’s quite difficult to see how they can justify not showing /u/ ending many words particularly those like Andrew, Bartholomew, cuckoo, curlew, emu, Lulu, Matthew, Hebrew, igloo, issue, juju, nephew, residue, sinew, value, voodoo, w, Zulu etc. LPD3 and EPD do have /-u/ as the sole transcription of thank you and as a second form at w. LPD3, but not EPD, has /jud/ and /hud, ud/ as weakforms respectively of you'd and who'd. 
Compare on this site §12.2.9 third paragraph, Blog 01, §4.1.9. 

Israel etc

John Wells, in his blog of Thursday 5 March 2009, remarked
In LPD I said that Israel, in speech normally ˈɪzreɪl or ˈɪzriəl, is “in singing usually ˈɪzreɪel”. But on reflection I certainly ought to have mentioned this further possibility with -aɪ-... I think that we have a tendency (perhaps ‘rule’ would be to put it too strongly) to change ɑː to aɪ before a following front vowel.
I very much agree. This reminds me of a connected observation that’s perhaps worth a comment. I’ve noticed on countless occasions that native Arabic-speakers, even those who have what one might well call a perfect command of English, seem invariably to have their own version of the word Israeli typically /ˌɪsrɑː`eɪli/ always with four syllables inste’d of the normal English three, the second vowel being /ɑː/. This is so universal that one is tempted to wonder whether it’s some sort of point of honour to do so. I havnt particularly noticed Israelis themselves doing so. It does of course correspond to what a German native speaker sez. It appears from LPD3 that we mostly dont submit the comparable word Ismaili to similar shortening. Incidentally, for sabra (one born in Israel) LPD3 and EPD agree on only /`sɑːbrə/ but ODP gives /`sabrə/ as a subvariant. MWeb Online has only /ɑ/. OED2 has only /ӕ/.


On another recent Wells topic (Wednesday 4 March 2009):
I can’t think what theoretical principle he had in mind when he sed “Theoretically [Utopia] ought to be pronounced with uː-. But in practice it is pronounced juː-, exactly as if it were the prefix eu...”. As Utopia is an English  word, whencever derived, I dont see the point of the remark. That the other Greek prefix eu- has an identical sound in English is surely simply coincidence.  In the general run of words one finds the vowel letter <u> word-initially before a single consonant (other than /r/) as /ju(ː)/. We dont refer to */uː`lɪsiz/ or */uː`tensl/ for Ulysses or utensil.

Blog 163

The 1st of March 2009


Alexander Melville Bell was born on the 1st of March 1819. Like his father before him he tried his hand at several occupations before settling upon a phonetics-centred career during which he produced a variety of publications. From 1843 to 1865 he held a lectureship in “Elocution” at Edinburgh University. He then transferred to an equivalent post at University College London for five years.

His most significant and original work Visible Speech: the Science of Universal Alphabetics Or, Self-interpreting Physiological Letters, for the Writing of All Languages in One Alphabet was published in London in 1867. For this he created a set of completely non-alphabetic symbols to represent the sounds of speech — directly basing all of them on the configurations of the organs which produced them. Something like it had been attempted in Germany but only for consonants. The full text of that “inaugural” edition may be accessed on the Internet as “digitized by Google”. The book deeply impressed the brilliant twenty-two-year-old Henry Sweet who became a pupil of Bell's. He was to say in 1877 that Bell in Visible Speech had “done more for phonetics than all his predecessors put together” and that his system was the first to give “a really adequate and comprehensive view of the whole field of possible [speech] sounds”. Sweet’s own “Organic Alphabet” was explicitly essentially a revision of Bell’s Visible Speech. He found fault with mainly minor matters such as Bell's transcriptions of English unaccented syllables which he found "elocutionary" in its lack of realism.

In 1870 Bell crossed the Atlantic and first spent a decade in Canada chiefly as a lecturer on “Philology” at Queen’s College, Kingston, Ontario. He finally settled in 1881 in Washington D. C. where he concentrated on the application of Visible Speech to the education of the de’f-and-dumb. He died at the age of eighty-six on the 7th of August 1905. His most popular book was his Standard Elocutionist. Amongst his other publications was a system of shorthand.

 His son Alexander Graham Bell emigrated with him and himself had a distinguished career in the same field. He is best known as the inventor of the telephone, of course, but he wrote a notable textbook on the Mechanism of Speech.

Blog 162

The 25th of February 2009

Linguistic Suggestionisms

People often experience irresistible impulses to convert any incomprehensible or indecipherable speech or even sounds made by living creatures they hear, especially if much repeated, into a form that makes for them a kind of sense in their own language. I’ve found it convenient to coin a term for this phenomenon calling it “linguistic suggestionism” and instances of it “suggestionisms”. Examples of it as concerning the impressions caused by hearing English spoken with forei’n accents are the subject of  §4.3 on this (main) website .

Suggestionism takes various forms for one of which there is actually an established term “Hobson-Jobson”. This OED attributes to an “anglicized form of the repeated wailings and cries of Muslims as they beat their breasts in the Muharram procession calling out the names Hasan and Husain grandsons of Muhammad who were killed while fighting for the faith”. It gives its origin as a “corruption by British soldiers in India of the Arabic “Y asan! Y usayn! ie O Hasan! O Husain!” For once the often questionably used term “corruption” is clearly justified. Hobson Jobson was chosen as the title of a famous 1886 book subtitled A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive by Henry Yule and Arthur C. Burnell.

Suggestionisms occur in other spheres notably in various books on birds where impressions are given of what their their calls etc sound like to the writer. Probably the best known of these is the phrase used to convey the call of the yellowhammer “a ˈlittle bit of bred and | `no ˎcheese”. I personally use for the rather tiresomely often repeated call of the Woodpigeon my own hobsonjobsonisation: ˈYou `too, Lucy Loo. One of my bird books gives for it coo, coo, cu, coo which I find a lot less satisfying. That book also gives go back, go back, back, back, back for the Red Grouse and did-e-do-it for the Spur-Winged Plover.

 Most such items tho are actually onomatopoeic rather than consisting of phrases eg wagh-onk for the Canada Goose, quip, quip, quip for the Spotted Crake and tuk-tuk for the Ferruginous Duck the name of which always suggests to me something out of Edward Lear like his “runcible spoon”. One book gives chook-ar, chook-ar for the Chukar Partridge and kitti-week for the Kittiwake which indicates that they have onomatopoeic names tho OED, of the latter, while saying “Named in imitation of its cry”, adds “Early spellings show that the last syllable was meant to be (wɑːk)”. Another book gives kitti-way-ake for that call. The name Chiff-chaff is no dou’t a straightforward case of onomatopoeia.

Other items in one book, for various birds, are che chew, keewick, gek gek gek, and kok kok kok. I suspect that piu, tyit, kyow and tlui in the same book indicate an author a bit optimistic about how clearly he’s going to be understood. One notes that he also sez that the Goldcrest goes zi-zi-zi-zi and the Long-Tailed Tit goes zee-zee-zee. The traditional hobson-jobson for the owl’s call tu-whit, tu-whoo seems a bit surprising: one book more reasonably sez it goes oo-hoo. Another refers to Pied Wagtails as saying chis-ick: I wonder if they hear them in Chiswick. Also mystifying is the fact that one book sez Cetti's Warbler (which OED sez is named after an Italian) sez chetti-chetti-chetti! Co-incidence? Other items are the Avocet saying klute in one book and kloo-eet in another and the Stone Curlew given in different books as saying coorree and cur-lee. Less surprising was finding the Chaffinch as saying spink in one and pink in another. Finally Guillemots described as saying aaargh made me wonder if they reed [sic] children’s comics.

Oh! Praps I shd mention that all this was triggered by John Wells’s quoting a couple of days ago a kind of hobson-jobson version of the Welsh National Anthem. Very interesting and enjoyable. Here’s my own version of just its first line in Welsh orthography, phonetic transcription and hobson-jobson.

Mae hen wlad fy nhadau | yn annwyl i mi
[maɪ hɛːn (w)lɑːd vən hadaɪ | ən anwɪl iː miː]
My Herrn Lard Verne Had-Eye, and Ann Willie Mee.

Blog 161

The 23rd of February 2009

Worst-Ever Book-title Translation

In about 1660 there was born, probably in London, to a candle maker called Foe a son he named Daniel. In due course Daniel thaut, in the manner of people with a simple German name who think it’s smarter to suggest they descend from land-owning families by prefixing von to it, he’d stick a French de in front of it and called himself Defoe. He led rather a colourful life and produced hundreds of publications the best known of which was the spectacularly successful Robinson Crusoe of 1719. Its popularity went far beyond these shores inspiring a German-speaking Swiss pastor by the name of Johann David Wyss to write a didactically-oriented adventure story for children published in 1812 about a Swiss family who are shipwrecked in the East Indies which he called Der Schweizerische Robinson — literally “The Swiss Robinson”.

To his Continental readers the name Robinson would no dou’t immediately suggest the famous story by Defoe. However, no such reaction wd occur to English-speaking people: they wd probably have understood what he intended if the word had been Crusoe instead but the name Robinson has no such precise associations. So far from that, in the English-speaking world the expression Smith, Jones and Robinson is commonly used as an informal synonym for the most ordinary of persons. Hence, when as a boy I first re’d the translation of the Swiss book, I was quite puzzled to gather that the name of the family was not “Robinson”. I had naturally taken it th’t that was what was me’nt by the somewhat forei’n postpositive-attributive style I found — such as is used in referring to the Brothers Grimm or Karamazov. I think it hit me first what an astoundingly inept “translation” Swiss Family Robinson was when many years later I came across on a Corsican sandy beach a rude rustic hut sporting a name something like Bar Robinson. Would you believe it?


None of the dictionaries or grammars known to me seems ever to be willing to categorise the word ex as an adjective but that is exactly how we use it (it quacks like an adjective as they say!). Okay it started life as a prefix but there seems no sense in continuing to treat it only as such which is what one comes across time amd time again in expressions like the ex-American ambassador. This is so obviously an undesirable punctuation because it perhaps only nominally but still very strongly suggests a meaning that we can of course be pretty confident is not intended namely that the person in question no longer has American nationality. This tiresome clumsiness can be eliminated by treating ex formally as we do the synonymous adjective former and dropping the offending hyphen giving the ex American ambassador.

A pleonasm

I wonder if anyone else is like me a bit worried by the blatant superfluousness of the word both in expressions like the one I most recently heard attributed to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton viz ...both America and China need to work together.

Okay! Back to phonetic topics next I hope.