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 ethnically 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 de facto national 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.