Book review: 'Sounds appealing – the passionate story of English pronunciation' by David Crystal (August 2018)

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by Susan Pierotti AE


The two main forces behind the use of language are intelligibility and identity. Pronunciation affects both. Our words and thoughts encapsulate the content of what we want to say – intelligibility. Pronunciation affects the delivery of that content – revealing, in some aspects, our identity.

Crystal was working on BBC radio in the 1980s at a time when more local radio stations were being established in Britain. Instead of the Received Pronunciation listeners were used to hearing, there were now a variety of regional accents heard by all. The complaints flooded in to Crystal and the BBC Pronunciation Unit. People were upset because they could not understand what was being said, and didn’t approve of the way it was pronounced – proving that perceptions as to what is intelligible, acceptable, pleasing and correct are subjective. ‘Accent familiarity breeds content.’

Crystal begins with a brief history of the origins of the study of phonetics; that is, how speech is transcribed. He continues with chapters on vowels, consonants, syllables, elisions, accents and distorted speech. ‘The history of the sound changes of a language is mainly a history of its vowels.’ Five chapters are devoted to vowels alone, including spread versus rounded (compare the word ‘cot’ said by people from England and America); closed versus open; front or back of mouth; monophthongs and diphthongs. A useful tip for editing poetry: check the length, stress and pattern of long and short vowel sounds – it has to sound ‘right’.

Interesting facts on consonants emerge. Many insults begin with ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘d’, ‘t’, ‘g’, and ‘k’; for instance, ‘git’, ‘damn’, ‘bloody’ and ‘prat’ (and a number that are unprintable!). The way these plosive consonants are formed in the mouth allows the speaker a release of tension. ‘They’re the nearest parallel to an emotional explosion that English pronunciation can provide.’ Crystal also found that 84% of the names Charles Dickens chose for his characters contain plosives (eg Nicholas Nickleby). Many authors have an instinctive understanding, when choosing the names of characters, of the effect of the sound of the language.

As plosives are the first consonantal sounds that babies make, authors of children’s literature also incorporate them (‘daddy’, ‘teddy’, ‘doggie’). The next consonantal sounds learned are the voiceless fricatives – sounds made by forcing air through your lips, teeth or tongue – especially ‘f’ and ‘s’ (Little Miss Muffet). One of the easiest to pronounce, the labial nasal ‘m’, is one of the first to be uttered by babies – ‘mama’, ‘moo’, ‘meow’, Eeny Meeny Miny Mo. ‘M’ occurs in 94% of world languages.

Punctuation marks – exclamation and question marks, ellipses and dashes – hint at pronunciation highs and lows (intonation). Stress, speed and rhythm are also explained. Like spelling, stress has changed rapidly. The BBC in 1926 recommended that radio announcers were to change the stressed syllable in ‘laboratory’ (‘lab-oratory’) to ‘lab-or-atory’ as radio listeners heard it as ‘lavatory’!

‘Bad’ pronunciation receives just as much opprobrium as ‘bad’ grammar from those who feel that pronunciation should faithfully reflect spelling, which it can’t. Spelling can be standardised but pronunciation continues to change. Curiously, women are at the forefront of any accent change.

Crystal even ponders the pronunciation of aliens (Daleks speak with considerably distorted Received Pronunciation with an upward inflection) and automated voices such as Siri and those of GPS systems. Even the Queen’s accent has changed over the last six decades.

The study of phonetics is applicable to deducing accents from past centuries, solving crimes and for speech pathologists, actors and teachers of English language.

Sounds appealing is a highly readable and engaging book written by an expert linguist.

David Crystal, Sounds appealing: the passionate story of English pronunciation, Profile Books, London 2018, RRP $29.99

Susan Pierotti AE is a member of the communication subcommittee. She is a freelance writer, editor and proofreader.