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Singer, Finger, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off…

Pronunciation prejudice

Finger pointing

As an author, words really matter to me. They’re what I do. I’ve not got a lot of formal training – my most advanced literary qualification is O-level English Language – but I do believe that I have a feel for the way that words work. Unlike some writers, I also love public speaking, whether talking about the science that my books are based on, or the business of making a living from words. Spoken words matter to me as much as their appearance on a page.

I was, therefore, confused to read a newspaper article telling me that in parts of the North West and the West Midlands, locals pronounce ‘singer’ to rhyme with ‘finger’. But researchers from Portsmouth and Cambridge universities expect that this will cease to be the case in a few years’ time. My surprise was not that some think that these words rhyme, but rather that I had no clue that anyone would suggest they did not.

Perhaps it should not have surprised me, bearing in mind the magnificent confusion caused by the book The Hundred and One Dalmatians in my primary school days. I don’t have many memories from the first few years at school, but one strong one is from when I was about eight. Our teacher read Dodie Smith’s wonderful novel out loud to a rapt class. Do primary school classes still get read books of such length and sophistication? I hope so.

We were transfixed by the tension as Pongo and Missis attempted to bring the puppies home, concealing their distinctive spotted fur by having their extended family roll in soot, discovered in sacks behind the local chimney sweep’s shop. In an entertaining piece of wordplay, Smith gives the dogs this dialogue:

Then Pongo said: ‘How does soot suit me?’
‘Suit soots you beautifully,’ said Missis, and all the pups roared with laughter at her mistake.

This joke fell entirely flat on our class. My school was in the village of Smithy Bridge, on the wilder eastern outskirts of Rochdale, where the North West town meets the Pennine moorland. In our broad accents, ‘suit’ and ‘soot’ had exactly the same pronunciation. Our teacher had to explain that the way they talk down south, it really would have been funny.

My accent has largely softened over the years. Bath and grass still have short a’s, and there are a few words like bucket that will always sound distinctly northern the way I say it. I also (unlike TV newsreaders) know that the Lancashire town of Bury, is pronounced ‘buh-ri’ not ‘berri’ (keep that for Bury St Edmunds) and could not say it any other way. But I had no clue that my rhyming of finger and singer was non-standard.

After walking around for several days muttering ‘finger, singer, finger, singer’ to myself and failing to spot anything that would prevent them from rhyming, I resorted to that universal source of information: social media. Facebook, Twitter and the like have a reputation in the more conventional media as hotbeds of nastiness (something I’ve only ever encountered when I dared to criticise the BBC licence fee). For an author, though, they’re wonderful. Writing is a solitary concern, but on social media we can meet up with our fellows and share the joys and miseries of the profession.

The most helpful guidance I received came from novelist and nonfiction writer Emma Darwin. She pointed out that when doing voice training in an attempt many years ago to move into acting, she and fellow students were taught that RP (received pronunciation, once called BBC English or Queen’s English) required that finger ‘had the full “guh” before the “er”, but putting it in “singer”, “ringer” etc. wasn’t RP.’

This opened a whole new can of worms for me. I had always considered RP to be the accent of the posh, typified by the royal family’s strangulated vowels. English is bad enough at failing to produce any phonetic resemblance to the words I put on the page, but RP, to my mind, took the weirdness of its pronunciation to a whole new level. Emma pointed me to an article on the British Library’s website which read to me suspiciously like an RP speaker attempting to play down the aristocratic leanings of their own accent.

It states that RP is estimated to be spoken by only three per cent of the UK population (almost entirely in England). The author claims that RP is neither posh (‘RP encompasses a wide variety of speakers and should not be confused with the notion of “posh” speech’) nor from the South East (‘they do not use any pronunciation patterns that allow us to make assumptions about where they are from in the UK’). However, to the ninety-seven per cent of us non-RP speakers, it certainly does sound posh — and in my experience a high percentage of such speakers are linked to London and the South East, or university cities that hang on the capital’s cultural coattails.

My day job involves writing popular science books, where there certainly may be some difficulties with pronunciation. (I regularly get anguished requests for help from the voice artists producing audiobook versions of my work.) This is not just about being able to read aloud terephthalic acid or O-α-D-glucopyranosyl-(1→2)-β-D-fructofuranoside (better known as sucrose). For example, I fall in line with Oxford Dictionaries in preferring the UK pronunciation of omicron with a ‘mike’ in the middle, not a ‘mick’. I have never looked through a mickroscope. But even when indulging my spare time passion of penning murder mysteries, I haven’t given much consideration to the sounds of the words that my characters speak. I have certainly given some of them accents, but that has generally been put across in the use of mild dialect terms, rather than attempting to spell out the subtleties of what rhymes with what.

My parents didn’t retain much dialect, but my father’s parents, lifelong mill workers, used words that have a special beauty to me. One of my favourites was pronounced ‘shuzoww’. Meaning ‘no matter what’, a contraction of ‘choose how’. A couple of these old words, still in common use in the North West, came back to haunt me recently. I mentioned to a friend a misunderstanding I’d had based on the word ‘aught’ (confusing it with ‘ought’). For the (southern) friend, aught and its negative equivalent ‘naught’ were unfamiliar. Yet that same friend had watched Coronation Street on TV and understood the actors’ use of the northern versions of these words, usually now written phonetically as ‘owt’ and ‘nowt’.

I suspect one of the reasons that I may have overreacted a tiny bit to the whole finger versus singer thing is that the establishment association with RP was traditionally accompanied by a distinct look-down-the-nose at anyone who doesn’t speak that particular way. I recently read for the first time one of Agatha Christie’s most innovative novels, Five Little Pigs, dating back to 1942. It’s a remarkable book: the structure is ingenious. But when a character becomes emotional, one of the others notes ‘All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see her father and her father’s mother and father had been mill hands.’ Ouch. That could have been my family.

I know there is plenty of politics involved in the north-south divide, or the idea that a city-based elite don’t care about the opinions of unwashed provincials — but that’s not what this is about. It’s a matter of words, how they work, and how their functioning influences the way that we communicate with each other. We all have word-based prejudices. Some still consider non-RP pronunciation to be common. I find it difficult not to cringe when someone refers to a substantial evening meal as ‘supper’ — to me, this sounds pretentious. There is much effort these days to promote diversity. The lesson I take from finger/singer is that we should accept more diversity in pronunciation too. We should be aware of our personal prejudices about certain accents and try to overcome them.

In my social media discussions, I was reassured to learn that many poets would agree with me that there is no problem rhyming finger and singer. I’m yet to have a poet feature in one of my murder mysteries. But if such a character does crop up, I know what her opinion will be.

Brian Clegg is a science writer with over forty titles in print. His books have covered topics from infinity and quantum entanglement to time machines and what makes us the individuals we are. His latest book is Ten Days in Physics that Shook the World.

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