11 March 2012

the pronunciation of con- and com-

In my previous post, I discussed spelling pronunciation, including the fact that the 't' in often is sometimes pronounced even though it used to be silent. (In contrast, the 't' in listen is still always silent.)

One other environment where spelling seems to be affecting the pronunciation of English words is the vowel in the first syllable of words like Coventry and the adjective covert. Traditionally, these words both had the STRUT vowel [ʌ] in their first syllable; but now it is more usual to have [ɒ] in the first syllable of Coventry and [əʊ] in the first syllable of covert. (Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 2008, p. 192, states that 54% of British speakers still prefer the first syllable of covert to be [kʌv], but I find this surprising.)

Another similar word whose pronunciation is changing is constable. Once again, [ɒ] seems to be becoming more popular, and in this case it may be because of taboo: people don't want to pronounce the first syllable as [kʌnt]. In contrast, there does not yet seem to be any influence on the pronunciation of country. This is probably because the latter is a more common word, as it is normal for common words to maintain irregular pronunciation for longer than rare words.

In Brunei, the process of spelling pronunciation is more advanced, as is expected for new varieties of English. For example, 27 out of 53 of the Brunei speakers in my recordings of the Wolf passage have [ɒ] rather than [ʌ] in the first syllable of company. You can look at this in two ways: you can say that lots of people in Brunei have non-standard pronunciation; or you can say that Brunei is in the forefront of the linguistic evolution of English.

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