Author David Crystal is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. Sounds Appealing: The Passionate Story of English Pronunciation is the fifth in a series on the English language which comprises The Story of English in 100 Words (2013); Spell it Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling (2014); Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (2015); and Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar (2017).
Debate over correct pronunciation has existed for centuries but, as English becomes more and more of a global language of communication, the need to be intelligible to others is ever-more important. Although some aspects are necessarily technical, Crystal writes in a style accessible to the general reader – combining short, focussed chapters with quizzes and anecdotes and lots of examples.
We are treated to an historical view of the etymology and the development of pronunciation, for instance through the writings of great poets such as Shakespeare and Blake. The opening stanza of Blake’s The Tyger rhymed ‘eye’ with ‘symmetry’ at a time when the usual pronunciation was, as today, with the final ‘y’ being said as ‘ee’. The author reminds us that in earlier times, when pronunciation was less stable, Shakespeare rhymed ‘dye’ with ‘archery’ and ‘by’ with ‘remedy’ in a speech by Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pages 85-86). In those times the final ‘y’ was a definite ‘i’ sound rather the ‘ee’ of modern usage.
In the early days of radio and television, even in Australia, the standard BBC accent or Received Pronunciation was de rigueur for all announcers. Crystal writes about the impact which television has had on the way English is spoken. The upward inflection at the end of sentences has become more widespread especially among young people and has, in part, been attributed to the Australian soap Neighbours. Similarly, the spread of Estuary English has been attributed to the ubiquitous soap Eastenders which is watched by almost a third of UK viewers and to the increased social and geographical mobility of the real Eastenders.
Undoubtedly, my favourite part of the book is pronunciation of proper names, whether geographical or family. English seems to be particularly rich in names which look nothing like the way they are pronounced. Just a few family names include: Beauchamp (pronounced “Beecham”), Fetherstonhaugh (pronounced “Fanshaw”), and Marjoribanks (“Marchbanks”). For placenames, examples include Alnwick (Annick), Godmanchester (“Gumster”), Belvoir (“Beever”), and Cholmondeley (“Chumley”). But of course, it’s not just British place names. How about Wagga Wagga, which in full is pronounced “Woga Woga” or, more usually, just “Woga”. Who knows what it will be in 50 years’ time?
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: March 2018
RRP: $29.99 hardcover