Thursday, 15 March 2012

St Asaph

The formal status of “City” has just been conferred by the Queen on the village/town/city (pop. 3,500 or thereabouts) of St Asaph in north Wales.

On the ITV evening news yesterday the newsreader introducing a report about this pronounced the saint’s name as seɪnt æˈsæf. The reporter given the job of visiting the place and interviewing locals called it seɪnt ˈæsæf. But the local councillor being interviewed said sn̩t ˈæsəf, which is what you find in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names as well as in LPD and in EPD (now CPD).

I think our pronunciation dictionaries are right to ignore guesses or ad-hoc spelling pronunciations used by people who are unfamiliar with a proper name and rather to show, or at least prioritize, the pronunciation used by those who are familiar with the name and mention it every day of their lives.

Asaph (or Asaff or Asaf or Asa) was a sixth-century bishop, the first bishop of the diocese that now bears his name. However the Welsh name of the city named after him is different: it is Llanelwy, church on the (river) Elwy.

One of the odd byproducts of my study of Welsh some 30-40 years ago is that I retain in my head numbers of paired English-Welsh placenames (Shrewsbury = Amwythig, Swansea = Abertawe, Bridgend = Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr, Milford Haven = Aberdaugleddyf etc., not to mention London = Llundain), though I do not recall ever having sat down consciously to commit them to memory. So when I heard this mention of St Asaph, I immediately thought “Llanelwy”, its Welsh name. Put it down to déformation professionelle professionnelle (= can’t help it, it’s my job).

Savouring the pronunciation of Llan- ɬan makes me think of voiceless alveolar lateral fricatives. Yesterday I attended the funeral of an elderly Montserratian at a church in northeast London. According to the service sheet, the minister in charge, whom I hadn’t met before, was the Rev Dr J. Zihle. The service lasted some two hours, and as I listened to him I thought about this surname. Given that he was a tall black man and sounded African, I thought it unlikely that it was the Czech name Žihle ˈʒiɦle with a lost diacritic. Nor could it be Icelandic, which has hl but no z. So when I spoke to him after the service, I asked him whether he pronounced his name ˈziːɬe. “Yes,” he answered, delighted: “you’re the first English person I’ve met who could pronounce it correctly”.

The voiceless alveolar lateral fricative ɬ, the sound that is spelt ll in Welsh, is spelt hl in the Nguni languages of southern Africa. Forty years ago I attended an introductory Zulu course at SOAS.

I asked him whether the name was Zulu, Ndebele, or Xhosa (pronouncing the last-mentioned with its proper aspirated voiceless lateral click). He confirmed that he was a Xhosa. Then he had to hurry off, so I wished him hamba kahle ˈhamba ˈɠaːɬe ‘go well’, which is Zulu rather than Xhosa, but he understood — Zulu and Xhosa are mutually intelligible — and gave the appropriate reply sala kakuhle ‘stay well’. More déformation professionelle professionnelle. Mustn’t show off. But can’t resist.

32 comments:

  1. "Mustn’t show off. But can’t resist." - Couldn't help but laugh :).

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  2. A pedant writes: Aberdaugleddau and déformation professionnelle.

    Sorry: yet more beroepsdeformatie...

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  3. I hate to be such a wet blanket, but I'm afraid you're not nearly as ordinary as to be able to show off, however much you try.

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  4. A great story, I was moved at the end of it. Thank you Mr. Wells. Pity that not all _d'eformations professionelles_ bear fruits like that...

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  5. Aberdaugleddyf = Milford Haven (the haven, i.e. harbour); Aberdaugleddau = Milford Haven (the town).

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    1. There's some discussion of these names here, so it seems that there are variant words for a sword (cleddau or cleddyf), which result in different versions of the place name. If there is now an accepted distinction between the names for the harbour and the town, then I'd hazard a guess that they varied more fluidly until some cartographer set them in stone.

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    2. Except, Paul, that in modern Welsh the name of the haven is written Aber Daugleddau and that of the town as Aberdaugleddau (such differentiation between the name of a topographical feature and that of a settlement is standard in modern Welsh: compare, for example, Mynydd Bach for the mountain and Mynydd-bach for the village).

      My view is that "Aberdaugleddyf" is almost certainly an old spelling (based on an alternative form of the Welsh word for "sword(s)") that seems to have become fossilized in English-language sources (together with the claim that it is the Welsh name for the arm of the sea on which the settlement of Aberdaugleddau / Milford Haven lies). I say in ENGLISH-language sources because I can't find anything in WELSH that uses the Aberdaugleddyf form that is not also either at least 150 years old

      E.g. (1862)

      Yr oedd yr Iarll ar ei ffordd o Aberdaugleddyf i'r Amwythig...
      The Earl was on his way from Milford Haven to Shrewsbury...

      or appears in a translated document (i.e. one originally written in English)

      E.g.

      Mae gwasanaeth trenau’n rheolaidd o Ddoc Penfro, Dinbych-y-pysgod a Aberdaugleddyf.
      There are regular train services from Pembroke Dock, Tenby and Milford Haven.

      ...y swyddfa yn ardal Hwlffordd (yn cynnwys Abergwaun, Wdig, Aberdaugleddyf, Arberth a Thŷ Ddewi)
      ...the office in the Haverfordwest area (including Fishguard, Goodwick, Milford Haven, Narberth and St David's)

      It's noteworthy, too, that in all these cases "Aberdaugleddyf" is being used to refer to the town and not the waterway, so once again I doubt that Aberdaugleddyf for the waterway is anything more than a(n Anglophone) map-maker's convention.

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    3. I meant to add that that "Dinbych-y-pysgod a [instead of ac] Aberdaugleddyf" demonstrates that it is not even a very good translation!

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  6. Another place to be granted city status is Perth. The locals pronounce it with the SQUARE vowel. I can't imagine this appearing on the news in England, although I got the impression from visiting Perth that its residents are often irritated by the pronunciation with NURSE (which is what I used on visiting).

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    1. Even though the output may sound to us English like SQUARE, for most Scots it's not exactly their SQUARE vowel, which for them is FACE plus /r/. Rather, their pronunciation of Perth has their DRESS vowel plus /r/. The NURSE Merger did not take place for most Scottish English: so most NURSE words have either DRESS plus /r/ or STRUT plus /r/. Read all about it in Accents of English, or indeed in various other works.

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    2. Indeed.

      The absence of the NURSE merger is one of the main hurdles when acquiring a Scottish accent. I moved to Scotland when I was 30, and it's only now, after ten years in Scotland, that I've started differentiating fur from fir.

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  7. It seems strange that the person who is leaving should say "go well" and the person who remains behind reply "stay well". Is it possible that you have them the wrong way round, or is this completely conventionalized such that it depends only on who speaks first?

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    1. but in John's story, if i don't misunderstand it, it was the other way round: Rev. Zihle went, John stayed. Am I wrong?

      Besides, 'stay' can---or could?---mean, too,'remain' without reference to local movement, hence a person rushing off can very well 'stay' (wherever she be) well, if she IS well, to start with.

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    2. That was my understanding, too ("He had to hurry off" = Rev. Zihle was the one who went).

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    3. Yes, he said something like "Nice to have met you, then", indicating that our conversation was over, and turned to go. I said "hamba kahle" and stayed where I was, with my partner's relatives.

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    4. Yes, I misread he had to hurry off as I had to hurry off.

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  8. What about placenames like Greenwich, which most locals pronounce 'ɡrɪnɪdʒ but others pronounce 'ɡrenɪtʃ? Or Newcastle (upon Tyne), with local njə'kasl and non-local 'njuː'kasl~'njuː'kɑːsl.

    I'd argue that an exception should be made for these cases where the non-local pronunciation is a genuine standard rather than an error.

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    1. I have thought about this several times. I don't think that it's easy to be consistent on principles for any standard pronunciation of town-names. I like the idea of local self-determination on names, but then that would require me to say Exeter with flapped t and rhoticity, which would be hard work.

      I have wondered why it's RP to omit the w in Greenwich or Norwich but it's demotic to omit it in Darwen (Lancs) or Adwick-le-Street (Yorks), which locals in both places do. In addition, it's beyond me why it's RP to use /a/ in Doncaster but not in Castleford, even though the latter has a widely-known nickname "Cas" and you'd be considered strange calling it [kɑ:s].

      I imagine that the BBC tries to balance what's a natural pronunciation for its RP speakers and what would not upset locals.

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    2. There are huge controversies on Wikipedia about this exact issue.

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    3. @ vp:
      Indeed there are. Some people on Wikipedia think that I should have to change my accent from a rhotic one to a non-rhotic one every time I say Melbourne just to show "respect" to the locals or something like that.

      @ Ed:
      "I like the idea of local self-determination on names, but then that would require me to say Exeter with flapped t and rhoticity, which would be hard work."

      No it wouldn't. When you see it transcribed /ˈɛksɨtər/ (from Wikipedia), you "convert" that into your presumably non-rhotic northern accent, which would give you 'ɛksɪtə or 'ɛksətə (I don't know what you have for the second vowel). You don't have to use an alveolar tap for /t/ between vowels or pronounce the final /r/ if those things aren't part of your accent. Both of them are for me because I happen to be American, but I don't expect everyone to pronounce things exactly the way I do.

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    4. Is there that much difference between "Doncaster" and "Castleford" (other than the possibility of schwa in the former)? I have heard people I'd consider RP speakers using TRAP in "Doncaster", but I think schwa and PALM are both commoner in RP.

      I think it's silly to try and adopt a local accent whenever you say a place name. There are many place names, Dudley for example, where if I did that I'm sure I'd sound to the locals like I was mocking their accent, not respecting them. Lexical incidence of phonemes is a different matter, though: now I know that the locals use schwa in the last syllable of "St. Asaph" I'll try to remember to pronounce it that way in future if I ever have cause to.

      The TRAP-BATH split is a bit of a borderline case, but it seems more natural to me to treat it in the first way: I pronounce "Bath" the same way I pronounce "bath". (I'm not sure what the "local" pronunciation actually is there. Bristol isn't very far away, and a lot of Bristolians have BATH vowels which sound very like my short [a], but Bath isn't Bristol.)

      "Newcastle" is a bit complicated, because there's more than one Newcastle and the local pronunciations aren't all the same. Should I use different stress patterns in "Newcastle" depending on whether it's upon Tyne or under Lyme?

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    5. An important concept here is the diaphoneme - ideally, in cases such as this, we should be able to conceive of a single diaphonemic form to which dialectal features (tapping, non-rhoticism, yod-dropping, TRAP-BATH splitting, etc.) can be regularly applied. This principle might founder from time to time among the chaos of English-language placenames, but in most cases I think it works out pretty well.

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    6. @ JHJ: I can't see the distinction between Doncaster and Castleford, but both LPD and EPD make one.

      I know someone from Bath. He says it with [a:], but apparently there's a trend towards [ɑː].

      @ Jason Reid: I like the Wikipedia system as it allows for local pronunciations to be listed as well (see Huddersfield, for example).
      I would say [ˈɛksɨtə] for the capital of Devon.

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    7. I am an RP speaker, and I would tend to use TRAP in Doncaster but BATH in Newcastle. I think the difference is that I treat Doncaster as just a place name (even though the "caster" is related to "castle"), whereas Newcastle so obviously just means "new castle" that it would seem odd to pronounce it any differently.

      I've heard other RP speakers use BATH in Doncaster, but never in Lancaster, and I'm not sure why the distinction.

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  9. I've been able to produce [ɬ] ever since I acquainted myself with phonetics, but I've noticed that in this case, [ˈziːɬe], it's difficult for me to pronounce it without a transitional [t], for an affricated [ˈziːtɬe]. You see, when I make a coronal lateral sound, the air usually escapes only to the right side of my tongue (is this sort of unilaterality common?), and when I'm producing the high [i], this part of my tongue is pressed shut against my hard palate - so when I attempt the [ɬ], there's a plosive release of air. I can only seem to avoid this by pausing slightly between the sounds, or by lowering the [i] a little bit. What's to be made of this?

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  10. I'm surprised that any part of your tongue touches the palate during a vowel sound. Obviously the medial part of your tongue can't be touching the hard palate, or you wouldn't be producing a vowel sound at all. Do you create some kind of central groove in your tongue when pronouncing [i]?

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    1. It might be the upper molars, rather than the palate, that the right side of my tongue is making contact with, but I definitely find the lateral airflow path closed when I try to go from [i] to [ɬ]. (Articulatory phonetics isn't really my forte.) The problem seems particular to [i] - other sequences with high vowels such as [ɨɬ] or [uɬ] don't pose the same difficulty. And in fact, I think the problem may even be predicated on a lingual consonant preceding the [i]. I think I can produce isolated [iɬ], or [fiɬ] or [miɬ]; but anything like [kiɬ] or [ziɬ] ends up with affrication for me. So the problem may be the already heightened position of the tongue as it begins the [iɬ] sequence.

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    2. The sequence of articulatory movements is comparable to what you do in saying zeal, particularly if you can say this word with a clear rather than dark /l/. You don't get an epenthetic plosive there between the vowel and the lateral, so there is no reason why it should be inevitable in ziːɬ-.

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  11. Mr Wells is writing:

    'Nor could it be Icelandic, which has hl but no z. ' -- part of his thoughts concerning Rev. Zihle's surname's origin.

    Does any one of you know if 'hl' can occur mid-word in Icelandic? I know great many Icelandic hl _Anlauts_ (for instance 'hlaupa', run, related to 'leap') but no _Inlauts_, at least for the mo' I can't think of any. Perhaps in composita?

    Also: did 'z' ever occur word-initially in Icelandic (it did occur in historic-etymological spellings such as 'bezt' (best, from 'bet-st', like bet-ter). I don't think so---but then I am not really a mighty Icelandickologist before the Lord.

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  12. I've read it claimed that Mandela was given the name Nelson by his schoolteachers because they couldn't pronounce Rolihlahla.

    Incidentally, according to Arriva Trains Wales, Shrewsbury is "Yr Amwythig".

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    1. Interestingly, I originally wrote both "Aberdaugleddau" and "Yr Amwythig", because that is what my mental lexicon supplied. But I thought I'd better check in my Welsh dictionary, which is why I changed them to what you saw in my posting.
      You can't win!

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    2. Ah well, I guess that whether to include the "yr" is as nothing as compared to the vexed question of how to pronounce "Shrewsbury" in English...

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