Original Pronunciation

How true do your vowels have to be? I often pick my students up on their ‘non-English’ vocalisation, where they approximate English vowels to whatever seems closest in their native tongue. I can be quite hard on them. I point at the phonological table with a solemn face, like some wise old alchemist pointing out why their spoken production does not meet the C2 gold-standard.

But what am I asking them to approximate to? Received standard pronunciation? For clarity (or out of desperation) I will frequently allow certain ‘non-standard’ pronunciations under my radar, for example if they come close to what I understand as ‘American’ pronunciation. But this is ludicrous. There are perhaps not as many ‘American’ variants as there are English, but there are plenty; and of English, there are innumerable accents and regional tweaks and micro-dialects.

And these things change over time. English is the language of Shakespeare, and as we saw in a post last week Shakespeare stands at the centre of the language in many ways, providing innumerable citiations in the Oxford English dictionary. And yet the contemporary pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English was in many ways wildly different from our own.

David Crystal and his son Ben have for years been consulting with the Globe Theatre in staging ‘OP’, or original pronunciation, productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Among other things, a great many puns come to life in OP, and a great many rhymes (in the sonnets, for example).

So perhaps I should just back off. Even clarity might be a false goal, since pronunciation is so Protean; we are trying to nail down a slippery fish at the best of time. Techniques for negotiating meaning and clarifying understanding might be a more realistic target, and, in the matter of pronunciation, let each find his or her own level.

Talking to Strangers

How do you practice a language? Mastery will not come unless you use what you know; on the other hand, it is difficult to use something if it not yet ready for use. It is the paradox of no experience, no work; no work, no experience.

Of course for a language there are teachers who will happily sit and listen to you chunter for hours at a time (provided you pay them enough); but a lesson is also, inevitably, a protected environment, it does not quite have the savour of the real thing.

What is the real thing, then? Talking to someone who has no reason to be patient with you. Many students lament that, when they come to Britain to study English, the English never talk to them. This partly depends where they study (they are more likely to  fall into conversation in Liverpool, I imagine, than in London), but is also just a function of the fact that it is difficult to speak to strangers, on both sides. To talk to an English man or woman without an obvious context is to watch them being thrown into agonies of polite confusion.

According to Kio Stark, we ought to talk to strangers a lot more. She makes it sound like good healthy fun, like taking exercise at the weekends. But, just like taking exercise at the weekends, it is the last thing I want to happen. I spend disproportionate psychological resources trying to prevent strangers speaking to me. And I am very good at it (aided, perhaps, by a resting face which is far from welcoming). Island people are good at the brush off.

Kio Stark is American, it should go without saying. I have had many impromptu and non-fatal conversations with Americans. They just seem to pitch in. But in Cambridge, the idea of standing and chatting with anyone I haven’t known and gradually weighed up by sight for several months already is still a bit shocking.

Unless they are in my classroom, of course.


Cambridge has once again trounced Oxford and all non-American universities in some league table or other of puissant universities (Cambridge came 4th after MIT, Stanford and Harvard; Oxford came a measly sixth). I’m never sure how these tables are compiled, but feel sure that reputation, whether consciously or unconsciously, plays a part. Oxford and Cambridge have been going for a while and have acquired a gravitational mass which outweighs their more tangible endowments.

It might all, however, have been so different. Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the thirteenth centuries, and stood peerless in England for the next six hundred years. Or nearly so. Only one university in England has lost its charter, and that university was also founded in the thirteenth century. The university of Northampton.


Teaching at Paris, late fourteenth century


We do not now think of Northampton as a great seat of learning (the current university of Northampton was founded in 2005), but for a brief period in the 1260s it was highly rated in the league tables of the day, alongside Cambridge (where scholars were now congregating but which did not institute its first college until 1284) and just a smidge behind Paris, Bologna, Padua and Oxford.

It was Oxford, in fact, which oversaw the demise of its midland rival, not without the help of those rivals themselves. Northampton gained its royal charter in 1261, having already attracted such high-powered academics as Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Roger Vacarius, but lost it only four years later when it got tangled up on the wrong side in one of the various Barons’ Wars of the mid-thirteenth century and was effectively relegated to the non-league (which would I suppose in university terms mean generations of inhabitants pottering down to the local lending library of their own accord, which, now that I think of it, pretty much describes my own university education).

The letter from the King to the town announcing the fate of their institution cited the threat to Oxford as the principal cause. Oxford, we can conclude, did not rise to its current heights (sixth!) without a bit of cutthroat politics here and there.



It is Wednesday 7th of September, and the world is agog. There can be no one who is not aware that Apple is not announcing details of its latest and doubtless best-ever iteration of the iPhone, nor, most earth-shattering, that it is likely to drop the headphone port.

Quite a shock, for children of the headphone generation. The headphone (or earphone) is surely one of the emblematic technologies of the age. Invented in 1910, it was, for the first fifty years of its life, a niche technology used almost exclusively by radio and telephone operators; from the 1960s a large pair of cans became de-rigueur also for the audiophile.

But they did not become ubiquitous until the advent of the walkman in 1979. Now, in a matter of a few years, everyone was glued inside their headphones. And never more so than today. Headphones protect you from your colleagues (nothing screams get me out of here like a pair of headphones worn in an open-plan office), or from your fellow commuters, or pedestrians, or, let’s face it, human beings (there was an article in the Guardian last week about headphone etiquette and how and when to approach a woman wearing headphones; answers:  1.don’t, and 2.never);  they offer you a soundtrack to your daily life, a bit of respite from the cluttered audio-scape of the city, and, if you have a noise-cancelling pair, a bit of tranquility in that most intrusive of environments, a Ryanair flight.

Apple is not intent on destroying the headphone, of course. Solipsism after all, and not ‘connectivity’, is their bread and butter. But if I am no longer tethered to my device, then we have taken another small but significant and jolting step away from the terra firma of the analogue, into the great boundless swim of the digital. And I’m not sure I like it.

Coining words

An Australian academic is arguing that many of the words and expressions which we attribute to Shakespeare were not originated by the Bard at all, but by his peers and contemporaries. It is all down to the bias, claims Dr. David McInnis, of early lexicographers, in particular the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary, who had a marked and snobbish preference for illustrative quotations from literary rather than demotic sources. Hence the 33,000 quotations by Shakespeare, 1,500 of which are  first evidence of a word’s existence, with a further 7,500 used in illustration of a particular meaning of a given word.


O.E.D. – photo by Dan

It may well be true. The O.E.D. is not a book I consult all that much any more. If I am puzzled by a word I type it into Google and read off the first entry. Google, unlike the O.E.D.,  is not compiled on historical principles.

I never owned the complete O.E.D. – my brother did, in a colossal single-volume version that came provided with a magnifying glass – but had to be satisfied with the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. The Shorter mostly makes itself shorter by trimming the vast number of quotations which support the definition and etymology of a given word, but it is itself an imposing set of tomes, one that I rarely drag down.

It remains nonetheless a touchstone of authority, like those metal bars they keep in some Paris academy as evidence of an actual metre. And also like those metal bars, it is a reflection of the richness and accuracy of our knowledge, but not of its flexibility. Words come and go, on a daily basis; usage similarly flickers. And while I sometimes think it would make my life easier if my students took the trouble to master Latin and Ancient Greek before they came into my classroom, and grounded themselves in the history of the language generally, I can see that language acquisition, whether for natives or non-natives or indeed the great god Shakey himself, is a magpie endeavour.