Friday, 18 January 2013

Nice to see yee!

At Christmas, we had to switch the television subtitles on for my mother-in-law to be able to "hear" the news effectively. On one of our TV sets, we haven't been able to work out how to switch them off again. This was originally a bit of an annoyance but, recently, I've been paying more attention to what's in the subtitles and it's been really interesting.

The thing I wanted to write about here is a phenomenon called GOOSE-fronting, and what prompted it was a subtitler typing the word may instead of now on the BBC Breakfast programme this morning. The presenter, Charlie Stayt - who is on the young side among the presenting team - pronounced the word now as something close to [naɨ] and this was all a bit too confusing for the poor subtitler.  

By the way, I've seen all sorts of other fun incorrect subtitling, including liars for lawyers, which made me laugh out loud - particularly as the lawyers were representing someone to whom the public clearly doesn't give much credibility (mentioning no names). To be fair, news and other live TV shows have to be subtitled very quickly indeed and in real time, so it's not really surprising lexical or grammatical errors get made in these situations. I did actually have an interview many, many moons ago for a BBC subtitling job and I know they are able to watch as well as listen, but sometimes the listening seems to take priority, the subtitler not paying attention to the visuals, and I do sometimes wonder about the general knowledge of some of the people doing it.

Full IPA vowel chart, revised to 2005
As John Wells points out in his phonetic blog post of 16th June 2010, "it was Caroline Henton who first properly documented the new fronting of RP GOOSE, in her 1983 article 'Changes in the vowels of Received Pronunciation', JPhon 11: 353-371". GOOSE-fronting is a process by which the close back rounded vowel /uː/ is produced with a much more front tongue gesture, so instead of old-fashioned RP /uː/, the speaker produced something more like the close central rounded  vowel [ʉː]; this symbol is know as "barred u". You can see this symbol on the full IPA vowel chart reproduced here. This process is also affecting the FOOT vowel, /ʊ/, to some extent ... and this extends to the target for back-closing diphthongs /aʊ/ and /əʊ/.     

More recently, however, the lip-rounding associated with these vowels appears to be in decline among younger speaker groups. Wells mentions this at the end of his blog post, and Cheshire, Gillett, Kerswill and Williams comment on this in their report of 1999; see in particular the Annexes from p. 16 onwards.  As an observation, the younger speakers of (near-)RP accents get, the more fronted and unrounded their GOOSE and FOOT vowels seem to be. There is very little difference for some speakers between GOOSE and geese, for example, and between mouse and mice. Natasha Kaplinsky, another erstwhile rather younger BBC Breakfast presenter, commented to one interviewee that it was [ˈnaɪs tə ˈsiː jɨ] ("Nice to see you"), for example.

This is not something only observed in (near-)RP but also in other accents. It has been noted as a phenomenon in South African, Australian and New Zealand English, and we even note that it has been recorded in Hong Kong English, too (Setter, Wong & Chan 2010), which may be more interesting as, in learner terms, it has traditionally been based on a conservative RP accent.

John Wells comments in his blog post that, nearly a century ago, Daniel Jones had spotted GOOSE-fronting in the environment of a preceding /j/ - so in, e.g., music or beauty, but not in spoon  - and that it could be spreading from there. Wells does not attempt to explain the unrounding of the lips, however. I'm not too hung up on the "whys" of this, and just enjoy observing the differences and, sometimes, the confusion which results.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Fun and games with /r/

Well it's now January 2013 and I haven't posted anything since September 2012.  The good news is that my module "English in the World" starts again this term - tomorrow, in fact - so I should have more to say.

In the mean time, I thought you might enjoy my retelling of a conversation I had with a friend about intrusive and linking /r/.  She was complaining that someone on the television had pronounced the word "drawing" as /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/.  This is in fact the way I pronounce it (which doesn't mean it's necessarily right, I should hasten to add!).  The Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary gives /ˈdrɔː.ɪŋ/ as the "-ing" form of "draw" but notes in a box below that an intrusive /r/ is sometimes inserted.

My friend was horrified by this.  "It sounds terrible!" she wailed. We then had a discussion about value judgments and language but she wasn't convinced.

In fact, intrusive /r/ is an interesting one.  If you are a speaker of a rhotic accent - i.e., one in which you always pronounce "r" everywhere it appears in the spelling (e.g., General American; Irish; Scots) - then intrusive /r/ is just not something you do.  It's not there so you don't say it (although I note the box about "drawing" seemed to suggest that it even occurs in American English accents - would anyone like to comment?).

Intrusive /r/ comes about in non-rhotic accents by analogy with linking /r/.  Non-rhotic accents are those in which the speaker only pronounces /r/ if it is followed by a vowel (e.g., RP; Australian).  Linking /r/ is an optional connected speech process which happens in non-rhotic accents, such as RP, in rapid speech where there is an "r" in the spelling and the following word begins with a vowel.


  1. In "My car burns too much fuel these days", we do not pronounce the /r/ at the end of "car" in non-rhotic accents as the next word begins with a consonant - /maɪ ˈkɑː bɜːnz ˈtuː mʌtʃ ˈfjʊəl ðiːz deɪz/;
  2. In "My car always starts on cold mornings", we may very well pronounce the /r/ at the end of "car" as the following word begins with a vowel - /maɪ ˈkɑːr ɔːlweɪz ˈstɑːts ɒn kəʊld ˈmɔːnɪŋz/ (I've not added in any assimilation here but you might get them at the end of "on" and "cold") - but we wouldn't pronounce the "r" in "start" as it is followed by a consonant.
It is not necessary to perform linking /r/ in 2., but most speakers of e.g. RP will do it.

So, why does intrusive /r/ happen - i.e., why would a speaker pronounce "drawing" as /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/ when there is evidently no /r/ at the end of "draw"?

If you consider the words which can contain a linking /r/, these all have vowels in the non-high area of the vowel chart, all of which are spelled with "r" at the end of them.  See HERE for the IPA vowel chart and compare the position of the vowels (note these are English phonemes listed below and not Cardinal Vowels).  The vowels are as follows:
  • /ɑː/ - e.g., "car"
  • /ɜː/ - e.g., "cur"
  • /ɔː/ - e.g., "core"
  • /ɪə/ - e.g., "pier"
  • /eə/ - e.g., "pear"
  • /ʊə/ - e.g., "pure"
  • /ə/ - e.g., "mother" /ˈmʌðə/
In the case of /ɪə/, /eə/ and /ʊə/, these vowels are referred to as "centring" diphthongs as the tongue moves from the first vowel towards the second vowel which is a central one, /ə/.   NB. /ʊə/ is becoming rather low-frequency in modern RP and is often replaced with /ɔː/.

This doesn't mean you have to have an "r" in the spelling to have these vowels in a word, however, and this is where intrusive /r/ comes in.  For example:
  • In "I can see the pier over there", an RP speaker will most likely have a linking /r/ at the end of "pier" because the next word begins with a vowel - /ˈaɪ kən siː ðə ˈpɪər əʊvə ˈðeə/ (Quiz: There is no /r/ at the end of "over" and "there" - why not?)
  • In "The mere idea of it!", there is likely to be a linking /r/ at the end of "mere" but ALSO an intrusive /r/ at the end of "idea" - /ðə ˈmɪər aɪˈdɪər əv ɪt/ - because it contains one of the set of vowels in the list above.  This will sound very odd indeed to a speaker of a rhotic variety.
One must note, however, that linking and intrusive /r/ are both optional connected speech processes; they do not HAVE to happen.  For reasons of fluency, they often do.  My friend was saying that she would always put a glottal stop between "idea" and "of" in that last example; if I could hide behind her with a recording device to find out whether this is true in such instances, I would ... but of course this would be unethical.

In the Lingua Franca Core, Jenny Jenkins recommends always pronouncing "r" where it is found in the spelling, i.e., adopting a rhotic accent.  Personally, I can't think of many occasions in which my r-lessness or insertion of linking or intrusive /r/ has been a problem.  However, it's quite possible that I wouldn't have as, often being considered a role model for my particular accent, it is unlikely that I would ever have been challenged.