February 19, 2008

English vowel sounds and internal dialect translation

The 29 bus that stops outside my home in Edinburgh runs in one direction straight to my office at the university, and in the other direction to a place on the Firth of Forth called Silverknowes. How does one pronounce Silverknowes? English spelling, typically, provides no clue. Does the last syllable rhyme with owes and rose, or with cows and rouse? Is it identical with knows, or with now's (as in now's the time)?

I wanted to know, so I asked the bus driver. But what he said was neither of the pronunciations I was expecting. It was in between the two. I thought for a second that what he had given me was no use at all. But then with a bit of quick mental dialect translation I was able to figure it out, and I had the answer. Let me explain.

We'll need to use a few symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), without which I simply can't explain what happened. (Browser note: Firefox and Safari are more likely to be able to display the Unicode IPA symbols below than Internet Explorer is.)

  1. [ə] represents the unrounded mid central vowel sound known as schwa (a term from Hebrew grammar), which you hear in unstressed syllables like the first syllable of banana or material or polite or potato or tonight when casually pronounced. In Southern England dialects like mine, it also occurs in the diphthong in words like know (see below).
  2. [ɐ] represents a lowered variant of schwa, heard in traditional London dialect in words like young, and in the stressed first syllable of words like oven and brother. I am not going to distinguish between this and the open-mid unrounded back vowel represented in the IPA by [ʌ]. Transcriptions of London English that use [ʌ] are talking about the same vowel sound that I mean when I write [ɐ].
  3. [a] is a low unrounded front vowel heard in Spanish pronunciations of [mapa] (not English map, which is pronounced [mæp]). It occurs in many dialects (such as mine) in the diphthongs heard in my and cow.
  4. [u] will be used here, for simplicity, to represent both the half-close back rounded vowel [ʊ] heard in look, wood, could, push (also in the second element of the diphthong in words like cows) and the close rounded central vowel [ʉ] that occurs in various dialects of Scots, English, and Australian English (London speakers are now generally pronounced goose as [gʉs], but I shall write [gus]). The differences between these two rounded vowels are important, but not germane to the story below.

So, to find out the correct pronunciation I simply asked the bus driver one day before getting off the bus: "How do you say the name of the place this bus goes to? Is it Silver[nauz], or Silver[nəuz]?"

And what he said was: "Silver[nɐuz]." Different from both of the pronounciations I had given him.

This looked like a real problem. The way he pronounced that crucial last syllable — [nɐuz] — would be just about typical for the pronunciation of knows in contemporary London English. But it would also be typical for a Standard Scottish pronunciation of now's. So what I had heard was crucially ambiguous between the two possibilities I needed to separate.

Everything depended on where the driver was from. And I couldn't just presuppose that the driver was not from London; there are plenty of people living and working in Edinburgh who grew up in southern England and speak some variety of London English; I'm actually one of them, despite my long years away in California.

For a second, I stared at the driver and wondered what to do; and then I suddenly saw that I could solve it. I thanked him and got off the bus.

How was the puzzle solved?

I realized, after that second of bafflement, that he had not said [sɪlvənɐuz]; he had said [sɪlvəɾnɐuz]. That sound [ɾ] before the last syllable — a lightly flapped r-sound like the one in Spanish para (IPA [paɾa]) — gave me all I needed.

You see, there are two great families of dialects in modern English: the rhotic ones and the non-rhotic ones. They are separated by many features in a multi-dimensional similarity space, but probably the most fundamental one governs whether the letter r in spellings is pronounced or is silent after the vowel of a syllable. In the rhotic dialects, mar and par and spar are entirely different words from ma and pa and spa. In the non-rhotic dialects this is not so; in fact when speakers from most parts of England say mar, par, spar they sound exactly the same as when they say ma, pa, spa. And non-rhotic dialect speakers say [sɪlvə] for silver; rhotic speakers have some variety of r-sound on the end.

Crucially for the solution of my puzzle, Scottish dialects (like many in Ireland and the West of England, and most American and Canadian dialects) are rhotic, but London English (like the speech of most of England, and Australasia, and some East Coast American varieties) is non-rhotic.

So that slight r-sound was the vital clue. If he pronounced the second syllable of silver in a rhotic way, he couldn't be a London speaker; he was a Scot. Therefore his [nɐuz] was not (for him) the diphthong of knows; it was his version of the diphthong in now's. Thus the last syllable of Silverknowes rhymes with cows, not with knows, which means that for me it is [nauz], not [nəuz].

In the future, when saying Silverknowes to Scots I will say [sɪlvənauz], and they, accomplishing the usual amazing feat of (mostly unconscious) internal dialect translation, will hear me as saying [sɪlvəɾnɐuz].

(Of course, what I confirmed is merely that at least one of the pronunciations current around Edinburgh has -knowes rhyming with cows. There may also be people who use the "nose" pronunciation, of course. I'm not claiming that what I got from my lone informant is correct; I'm just telling the story of how I figured out what my lone informant was saying to me.)

You can research the relation between English dialects and check the transcription of a selection of simple words by using the wonderful collection of sound files and transcriptions on the Sound Comparisons site, created (with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK) by an Edinburgh team headed by April McMahon and several of her colleagues, particularly Paul Heggarty (who did essentially all of the massive programming job to create the site) and Warren Maguire (who gathered most of the huge amount of dialect data through travelling and interviewing, and did about 30,000 extremely narrow transcriptions — Warren is a fieldworker with the emphasis on the work). I recommend a visit to the Sound Comparisons site for anyone who is interested in English phonetics (if they have a fast Internet link and a good audio system on their computer; use Firefox as your browser if you can, because Internet Explorer is known to be slower and worse, both visually and auditorily, in a number of ways, in its performance on this site; Warren's transcriptions are more careful than the ones I have used above, and whether all their symbols all show up correctly will depend on details of which fonts your browser has access to. See John Wells' Unicode page for help.)

[Update: My thanks to April McMahon and John Wells for comments and consultation, and to Michael Davies, Matthew Rankine, and Jesse Tseng for correspondence.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 19, 2008 03:42 AM