Friday, 30 September 2016

The future of those tricky "th" sounds

A number of newspapers have reported this week that the "th" sounds will die out by 2066 in British English (here's an article in the Daily Telegraph)*. How likely is this assertion?

Dental fricatives [θ] and [ð], spelled "th" in English and found in words like thin and this respectively, are very low incidence in languages of the world; they are found in fewer than 50 of the world's 6000-7000 spoken languages**. In some cases, they only occur because of a phonological process. For example, [ð] appears in Castilian Spanish between two vowels, where it is an allophone of the phoneme /d/.

Dental fricatives are also late acquired in English - i.e., children start using them later than some other consonants.  SLT Info, for example, explains that English-speaking children do not start using them until around four years of age, while some consonants, such as /p/, /b/, /m/ and /w/ (what's the common factor here?), are produced as linguistic sounds as early as the age of two.

Most new varieties of English around the world do not use dental fricatives.  Hong Kong English speakers, for example, produce /θ/ as [f] (three sounds like free) and /ð/ as [d] (this sounds like diss).

There are also accents of British English which have been around for a very long time which do not use dental fricatives. Do any British readers of a certain age remember the Qualcast advert "It's a lot less bovver than a hover" (see around 48 seconds)?  This works because accents such as Cockney, for example, have been substituting dental fricatives for other sounds for some time. /ð/ word initially is often produced as [d], and between two vowels as [v], as in this advert. /θ/, just like Hong Kong English, is produced by Cockney speakers as [f]; in fact, as a child learning Maths, when the new teacher arrived who was ethically Chinese and from Hong Kong in the 1970s, we all thought she was from London as she pronounced Maths as /mæfs/.

Producing /ð/ as [d] is known as stopping - i.e., the fricative is produced as a stop or plosive consonant - and producing /ð/ as [v] and /θ/ as [f] is known as fronting - i.e., the fricatives are produced further forward in the mouth, in this case, as labio-dental fricatives.  These are both processes which are common in developing child language in English.  Some varieties of English stop /θ/, so it is produced as [t] or similar; Southern Irish accents do this, as does Jamaican English.

Given that dental fricatives are very low incidence in languages in the world, late acquired, and often substituted in regional and global varieties of English, it is not really a surprise that they are predicted to die out at some point in the future. This might be down to multiculturalism, or it might simply be because they seem to be of less importance in international communication in English. Which is it? It might be difficult to decide.

Update, 03/10/2016

* This was in the context of multilingualism in British English. My discussion looks at other issues.

** My Twitter colleague Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) has found that there are at least 112 languages with dental fricative phonemes.

Monday, 19 September 2016

International Talk Like A Pirate Day: musings on the pirate accent

Avast, me hearties! Arrrr!

September 19th every year is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Started by John Baur and Mark Summers as a bit of a private in-joke in 1995, it took off in 2002 when it was picked up by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry. But where does that pirate accent come from?

The stereotypical one we hear most often in films and on TV shows has similarities to current South-Western accents of mainland Britain, e.g., Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall. While it is likely that many British pirates originated from that region, others did not (I grew up in Kent, for example, which is also associated with pirates and smugglers).  What we associate with the typical pirate accent may well be based on well-known actors’ portrayals of pirates, with Dialect Blog suggesting the speech of the entire genre was based on 1950s screen actor Robert Newton, who was born and raised in Dorset.  

Interestingly, this is not the direction Johnny Depp decided to go with Captain Jack Sparrow, whose accent – if the trivia is correct – was based on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (Richards appears as Sparrow’s father in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End).  In fact, although Geoffrey Rush does a pretty close approximation to the stereotypical pirate accent, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has pirates with accents of English from all over the world, including rather posh ones (e.g., Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan), Jamaican ones (e.g., Tia Dalma), as well as Russian, Turkish, Chinese and Dutch; this was probably nearer the truth. One theory of pidginisation is known as the 'nautical jargon theory', which observes that many Pidgins have nautical words in them (e.g., the word capsize to mean 'turn over' or 'spill') and may have arisen from the development of a common language on board ship during European colonial days; that certainly has piratical connections. 

But what of the British pirate accent?  As the ‘traditional’, swash-buckling period of pirating is generally situated in popular culture somewhere between the 1500s and 1800s, we would expect the British accent during this time to be rather more close to that of the pirates from the 1950s films than Johnny Depp’s mock London.  British English was rhotic, which means the sound represented by the letter ‘r’ in spelling would have been pronounced everywhere it was written; this is certainly a feature of the pirate accent.  And anyone who listens to David and Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation (from around 2 mins 50 seconds) will hear other vowels and consonants which we associate with the stereotypes of how pirates speak.

International Talk Like A Pirate Day is such fun; perhaps we should think about talking like other character types. 

Something more modern perhaps? 

Talk Like Siri day, anyone ..? 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

English: no longer an official EU language?

In the fallout from Brexit, it has been suggested that English could stop being an official language of the EU.

Is this likely to happen?

Until the 1990s, the most dominant language of the EU (European Union) was French. When the EU was the EC (European Community) and the official language policy was defined, Dutch, French, German and Italian were identified as the working languages. However, as more countries joined, many of which had English as a second or additional language, the number of English speakers grew until English was the majority common language.

Image from

Currently, the EU lists 24 official and working languages. The UK is the only member country which gives English as its official language, but English is the most commonly used language in EU debates and discussions. There are a few member countries which commonly use English but have nominated a different language as their EU official language; for example, the Republic of Ireland gives Irish Gaelic as its official language, and Malta gives Maltese.

If Britain withdraws from the EU, there will be no member country listing it as an official language. (There is of course the possibility that England will withdraw and e.g. Scotland and Northern Ireland will remain; it will be interesting to see what happens linguistically in that instance.) In order for English to continue to be used as an official language, all remaining members of the EU will have to agree*.

But does choice of language work like that?

Historically, English has weathered a number of storms. When members of the British Empire sought to gain their independence, it may have seemed logical for English - the language of the colonial oppressors - to be rejected at the same time. The fact that this did not happen and that English is used as a first or second language in more than 70 countries worldwide points to the usefulness of English as a global language, but also to its developing socio-economic and political status during the 20th century. With the decline of the British Empire came the rise of the United States of America, which has English as its official language. One of my colleagues, Dr Lynne Murphy from the University of Sussex, regularly presents on how America saved the English language; from the perspective of its use as a global lingua franca, she's got a point. (If you're interested, you can follow Lynne's wonderful blog, Separated by a Common Language, and find her on Twitter @Lynneguist.)

In fact, in some post-colonial situations, English is regarded as a more or less neutral language. In India, for example - and this is an oversimplified summary - English was to be phased out over a period of 50 years post-independence in 1947 in favour of Hindi. However, as not everyone in India speaks Hindi, and many do not want to for various cultural reasons, English continued to be used, and is now an official language of India. In Hong Kong, there was quite a strong desire at the time of the Handover in 1997 for the British to stay and for the territory not to be handed back to China. The fact that English is still an official language of Hong Kong may reflect this desire, but also it has its uses in Hong Kong, which is an international hub for trade and finance. Singapore has Malay, Chinese (various dialects) and Tamil speakers, among others; English is a unifying language.

But these Englishes we are talking about here are not 'British English', or even 'American English'. The Englishes spoken around the world may be based on one or other variety, but they have developed their own vocabulary and grammar. Euro-English is no exception; there is research into this variety, and even guides on how to use EU English. English simply does not belong to traditional 'native' English speakers any more; it belongs to everyone who speaks it, and communities will enact development to fit need and use. Brits and Americans need to bear this in mind when using English to interact in international settings, as they cannot assume they will be understood by every English speaker.

So, will English cease to be a language of the EU? Probably not, either in conversations between EU member countries, MEPs, or in EU interaction with other countries around the world**. It is simplistic to think it can simply be voted out. After all, English is much more than just the language of the United Kingdom.


Updates, 29/06/2016:

* I had understood that there would have to be a vote to keep English as a language of the EU.  The opposite is, in fact, true: there would have to be a unanimous vote to remove it as an official language, as clarified in this statement on behalf of the European Commission in Ireland, dated 28th June 2016.

** One MEP from Sweden suggests that communications in the EU could be fairer in English, as it will be everyone's second language.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Compliments across cultures

On the way home from the IATEFL PronSIG Pre-Conference Event on Friday, someone complimented me on my hair.  I felt pleased and I posted about this on Facebook.  (I have a rather distinctive white streak in my fringe which I've had since I was 18 and people often think I put in; in fact, it's natural ... and it's now the rest which is coloured!)

Anyway, this resulted in various "likes", and a comment from an Indian FB friend of mine whom I met and taught on a workshop for trainers of Indian call centre operators some years ago.  This is what he said:

"I would have complimented you on your looks, your accent and your hair - in that order. :-)"

While this is lovely (thank you, Indian FB friend!), I felt a bit uncomfortable about it, particularly the looks part.  This got me thinking about what it's actually acceptable to compliment someone on in my culture.


I would not feel comfortable complimenting someone I didn't know well on their physical looks - certainly not an adult.  If I was complimenting a child, it would probably actually be directed at their parent(s) - along the lines of "didn't you do well producing such an adorable mini-you?"  I don't think it's unacceptable to do that in my culture, but would be interested to know if anyone disagreed.

Why wouldn't I compliment someone on their looks unless I knew them well?  I'm not sure.  Is it because it's not really a person's choice how their physical features happen to be arranged?  Is it objectifying someone too much?

I've been trying to think if anyone I didn't know well had complimented me directly on my looks other than my Indian FB friend.  Aside from the very odd wolf-whistle whilst passing building sites in my youth, I really couldn't think of any time this had happened.

So, clearly, complimenting someone on their looks if you don't know them really well is just not done in my culture.  Apologies, Indian FB friend, but it feels a bit like being turned into a commodity rather than being valued as a person.

What about my accent?  

In my professional context, I have been complimented on my accent quite a lot, and this is the context in which I place my Indian FB friend.  I've always found it a bit odd - but not entirely, because my area is English pronunciation / phonetics (I edit a pronouncing dictionary) and people invite me to conferences to speak about that.  Some - one assumes - must think I have an RP accent (I haven't).  Although I doubt anyone from UK academia would compliment me on it, occasionally overseas conference organisers and delegates approach me to say how lovely my accent is.  I'm pleased they think so; I worked very hard to speak clearly, and am reminded of my dad picking me up on my accent and grammar when I was a child.  A compliment on my accent horrifies me much less than the idea that someone might approach me and express an opinion about my looks.

I do have experience of other phoneticians commenting on features of my accent in a more objective way.  One mentioned my diphthongal FLEECE vowel, for example, and Prof John Wells noted in a presentation we once gave that I have more glottal stops than he does.  Although I grew up in Kent, I lived in Yorkshire for eight years; occasionally bits of that seep in and people have mentioned it.

Clearly, accents are very important in forming impressions, as various matched-guise experiments have shown, and still a matter of great interest, as recent dating website surveys indicate.  Excellent communication skills are often listed as an employment criterion and accent probably plays a part in some employers' selections, whether it should or not (I'm not going to get into the argument about non-native speaker English teachers here).  But, aside from the odd bit of banter you get about the FOOT/STRUT split or BATH merger between northern and southern English speakers in England, it is only when someone is actively criticised for their accent that it really gets noticed in the UK as an issue.  For example, in an Ofsted report some time ago a teacher in West Berkshire was given as a performance objective trying to sound "less northern".  I find that objectionable, personally, and so did the Independent (and various other newspapers).  Outrageously, the superb Steph McGovern from the BBC Breakfast news, who is from the north east of England, was sent money by a viewer for elocution lessons.

But why do I feel is it unacceptable to comment on someone's accent, when clearly others do not?  One can change one's accent with much less physical intervention / surgery than changing one's looks.  Why should that be necessary if one is clearly spoken with a regional accent?  After all, everyone has one accent or other.

Have you had people compliment you on your accent, if you are a native speaker of a language?  I'd be interested to know.

Finally, my hair.  

I am entirely comfortable about being complimented on my hair. Or my shoes. Or my jewellery.  Or my clothes.  Or my choice of phone or tablet or other consumer item.  Or my handwriting.  Etc..

Is this because it is a conscious fashion/style choice, as opposed to something I can't change so readily?  That may be the case.  It's true that I have the white streak in my hair by an accident of nature, but I choose not to colour it, so it is a statement about me that I am choosing to make public.  Perhaps that could be said about my accent, too.

But - surgery and very clever contouring aside (and I don't do that - not enough hours in the day!) - I can't change my looks, and I don't want to be judged by them.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Profiling for the media

I was recently called upon by Associated Press, the BBC News Channel and Reading's Jack FM to comment on the spoken features of the jihadist from the video footage of the beheading of US journalist James Foley, as it has been suggested that he is British.  You can see me in the Associated Press clip on French television below.

I'm always ready to be called upon to comment on linguistic issues for the media, but this situation was particularly difficult owing to the content of the video.  I hope that the phonetics community is able to assist the authorities. I wish to make it clear that am not carrying out the analysis myself.

The speaker displays many of the features of a British accent known widely as Multicultural London English (MLE), such as producing vowels in e.g. FACE and PRICE as monophthongs, not dropping /h/ sounds (/h/-dropping is common in London accent Cockney) and pronouncing voiced dental fricatives in e.g. the as a [d].  There are glottal stops, which are less common in Afro-Caribbean or African English accents, and /l/-vocalisation. The speaker also has a more syllable-timed speech rhythm; instead of pronouncing the phrase from all walks of life as /frəm ɔːl wɔːks əv laɪf/ it sounds more like [frɒm ɔː wɔːks ɒv lɐːf], with a full vowel in each syllable.

See HERE for information on the features of MLE (yes, it's Wikipedia, but a good summary).

The accent was identified chiefly by Professor Paul Kerswill and colleagues; Paul was at Reading, but is now at York via Lancaster.

It's impossible to say exactly how many speakers there are of this accent, but it is common among younger working-class speakers in the London area, and features of the accent have also been observed in other urban areas of the UK.  It is not at all exclusive to speakers from an Afro-Caribbean background but is also spoken extensively but e.g. white and Asian speakers wishing to identify with a certain demographic / social group.

British impressionist and actor Alistair McGowan did a nice piece on MLE for the BBC's One Show, which you can view below.

I would say that the speaker in the clip is probably a UK or fully bilingual speaker of English rather than a second language learner or someone with an indigenised variety of English (e.g., Nigerian English). The speaker probably grew up in or near inner London and has probably been educated in the UK system.  I would be surprised if he was from outside the greater London area, but this is an accent which is socioculturally attractive and so he may be from further afield. I would also suggest that he is lower middle-class rather than working-class as he sounds educated.

It should be noted, however, that we cannot actually see him speak in the film. Most of his face including his mouth is covered.  It could, therefore, be a voice-over.

When I appeared on the BBC News Channel (I'm so sorry I don't have a clip of this to share) I was asked about forensic phonetic analysis of this speaker's voice. What we would need to be able to do this is a reference sample of a known speaker in order to make comparisons between that and the Foley video.  As one of my colleagues, Martin Barry, points out, unless this speaker has spoken into a police microphone it will be almost impossible to carry out forensic speaker comparison successfully.

My picture from the AP session also appeared in the Los Angeles Times.  You can view the online article HERE, which has comment from Martin Barry.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Phonetic vs phonemic inventories

In my first year "Sounds of Language" class, one of the things we do is look at phonetic vs phonemic inventories. I've just had a question about this on the discussion board for the module so I thought I may as well post my response, in case anyone is interested.
Sounds pattern differently in different languages. Speakers of two languages may produce exactly the same set of speech sounds - or phones (phonetics) - when talking, but the languages may use those sounds differently to create meaning. Once we're talking about meaning, we are considering phonemes.
Say, for example, there are two languages whose speakers produce the consonant sounds [p] and [b] and have one vowel, [a]. In both cases, the phonetic inventory contains [p], [b] and [a]. We put the sounds in [] brackets to indicate we are just talking about how the sound is produced at the moment. 
The only thing which is different between [p] and [b] is voicing; [p] is voiceless and [b] is voiced. Otherwise, they are both bilabial plosives.  
In language A, [bapa] and [baba] mean different things - [bapa] means "red" and [baba] means "yellow". [bapa] and [baba] constitute a MINIMAL PAIR, as only one sound differs between the two and it changes the meaning of the word. We can therefore say that /p/ and /b/ are phonemes - meaning units - because of this change in meaning, and we now put them in // brackets.  There are TWO consonant phonemes.  Thus, the phonemic inventory is /p/, /b/ and /a/.
In language B, however, [baba] and [bapa] both mean the same thing - they both mean "car". This means that it doesn't matter whether the consonant is voiced in language B. As there is no change in meaning when one substitutes [p] for [b], they are NOT different phonemes but belong to the same single phoneme. 
What we have to do for language B is decide which sound represents the phoneme, and we often choose the one which occurs in most environments. As we don't have a lot of data here, let's go with the phoneme being /b/ (as there are more of them). That phoneme contains the two sounds [p] and [b], which are ALLOPHONES (phonetic variants) of /b/. Thus, the phonemic inventory is /b/ and /a/. 
This is a very limited set of data, however!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Guess List: a study in /t/ elision

The BBC is airing a new game show on Saturday nights hosted by the wonderful Rob Brydon and amusingly entitled The Guess List. You can read the Independent newspaper's less than glowing review of it here.

Why amusing?

This plays on a phrase, the guest list, which is a list of people invited to an event, i.e., a list of guests. No surprise there.

What amuses me is that it is an example of how the process of alveolar plosive elision can result in homophones in English - in this instance, a homophonic phrase.

When one produces the phrase the guest list in rapid speech, it is normal to leave out the /t/ sound at the end of /ɡest/.  This process is called /t/ (or /d/) elision.  The rules for when this can take place are as follows:
  1. The /t/ or /d/ must be in the syllable coda;
  2. It must be surrounded by other consonants;
  3. The consonant preceding the alveolar plosive must agree in voicing with it - so if the plosive is a /t/ it must be preceded by a voiceless consonant and, if it's /d/, it must be preceded by a voiced one.
  4. The consonant following cannot be /h/.
So, in guest list, which can be transcribed phonemically as /ɡest lɪst/, we can elide the /t/ at the end of /ɡest/ because it meets the requirements listed above.  This results in /ɡes lɪst/, which means guest list and guess list are homophonous.

There is, as far as I know, no such thing as guess list as a phrase in English. If one types it into Google, for example, it redirects you to guest list.

Other notable examples of homophones resulting from connected speech processes include handbag /hændbæɡ/ becoming homophonous with ham bag /hæmbæɡ/. There are two processes going on here: /d/ elision and assimilation.

Assimilation is a process by which sounds at word boundaries - often alveolar consonants - become more similar to each other in rapid speech. Here's a diagram showing consonants at word boundaries:

_ _ Cf | Ci _ _

Cf = final consonant; Ci = initial consonant

In English, we tend to get regressive assimilation, which means the initial consonant (Ci) at the beginning of the next word has a backwards effect on the final consonant (Cf) of the preceding word. As I mentioned above, this tends to affect alveolar consonants, and more often than not it will affect the place of articulation of Cf, i.e., it will not be produced as an alveolar consonant but will have the same place of articulation as the Ci of the next word.

In handbag /hændbaɡ/, the alveolar plosive /d/ is elided and the alveolar nasal /n/ is produced as a bilabial consonant because the following word - bag - begins with a bilabial consonant, /b/.  This results in the production /hæmbæɡ/, which is homophonous with ham bag. But of course, a lady wouldn't normally take a bag of ham out with her when she went shopping, and we can usually retrieve the real meaning from the context.

I should add a caveat in that this is a very brief overview of the theory of these two processes. In very rapid speech, all sorts of sounds get elided and / or assimilated, so analysing spontaneous speech can be a real challenge.

Another issue which arises from connected speech processes such as elision and assimilation is that they can make speech less intelligible or the message more difficult to understand.  Emilio's comment below led me to this example, spoken by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In it, there is /t/ elision in the word guests, which is perfectly legal. You can see how Burton's character doesn't understand Taylor's character until she repeats the word guests with the /t/ in it - although what "We've got guess" (as opposed to "We've got guests") might mean is difficult to ascertain.  There are obvious issues for speech intelligibility here in English as an international lingua franca.

Watch from 04:04 right near the end.  And thank you, Emilio!

I'd recommend the following books by way of introduction if you are interested in connected speech processes in English:

Lecumberri, M L G & Maidment, J. 2000. English Transcription Course. London: Arnold.

Roach, P. 2009. English Phonetics and Phonology: A practical course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.