Catherine Sangster on pronunciation, accents, and the dictionary (part one)
Catherine Sangster, Oxford Dictionaries’ head of pronunciation, was interviewed by The Doctor for Epicurean Cure following her appearance at Nine Worlds 2016. This is the first part of an edited two-part version.
The Doctor: Hi Catherine! Firstly, tell me in a couple of sentences what your job involves as Head of Pronunciation.
Catherine Sangster: My job involves researching and advising on the way words ought to be pronounced. When one of our dictionaries is going to have pronunciations – either in transcription form or audio – I would be the person who would ultimately show editors how to do the transcription or do them myself, and check them before they get published. And when it comes to audio (which is a relatively new thing for the Oxford English Dictionary) I also oversee the procedure of getting all the recordings made and put online. I can come on to it later, but something we’ve done quite recently in the OED is, as well as British and American English, we’ve made recordings for other varieties of English, so that’s been a recent focus for me.
TD: Before you were at Oxford Dictionaries – and I will come back to that, because I’ve got quite a lot of questions about dictionaries – you were part of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.
CS: That’s right. My chequered past involved doing a doctorate in sociophonetics (a branch of linguistics). I specialised in accents and dialects, and looked particularly at accommodation, which is how, when you speak to someone with a different accent, your own accent changes. Or somebody’s regional accent changes over their life with moving around, with contact, or with wanting to present a different persona. So my research was sociolinguistics with a particular focus on pronunciation. And then after I finished that I went to work in the Pronunciation Unit, which is where I was for several years, then had a little baby-having interlude, and now I’m at Oxford Dictionaries.
TD: You’ve just mentioned there that people’s regional accents change: people change their accents depending on who they’re with, or what kind of characteristics they’re wanting to portray. We see that quite a lot in fiction, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on what accents can be used to denote in fiction. It seems that sometimes it’s class, sometimes it’s personality. Are the kinds of patterns that you see like the kinds of patterns you see in the real world?
CS: Thinking back to my research – which is obviously several years ago now – I would imagine that in fiction, as in the real world, people will tap into certain associations. My own work was about Liverpool English, and I’ve got family background in Liverpool, and all of my subjects were Liverpudlians: all young people either living in Liverpool or recently moved from Liverpool. I wanted to track how they did or didn’t lose their accent. Now Liverpool is a city that people have a lot of opinions about, lots of stereotypes cluster around it, and the same is true of Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham, and London. And however much you might want to challenge or problematize the reality of the stereotypes that cluster around those cities, you can still see people using a character who speaks with a Scouse accent as a shorthand for somebody who matches those stereotypical values. I remember reading an accent study once that looked at different scores for levels of likability: do you trust this person, would you lend this person money, you know. And another about midwives, and people’s favourite accent for their midwife to have. It wasn’t a very rigorous quantitative study but it was, you know, ‘Ah yes, the lovely Welsh midwife is what you want’.
Similarly, I’ve done some talks and research on invented languages in speculative fiction and while it’s obviously more difficult – because they’re in a newly created world, and you don’t have those pre-existing stereotypes to draw meaning from – I think there are still ways to create that even with constructed languages. One of the most fully elaborated sets is in Tolkien, with Elvish languages, with Quenya. There are different registers , used for different situations, and that’s a classic illustration of diglossia.
TD: It’s interesting that you mention Tolkien, and how accents can be shorthand for things. Sometimes they can be shorthand for positive things, but with High Fantasy, often it’s negative. You’ll see the elves speaking with RP accents, and you’ll see the orcs speaking with Cockney accents-
CS: Or something rustic, some kind of West Country (for the hobbits).
TD: Exactly, and when you decide that one accent is associated with the definitely evil lot then we might have some problems.
CS: You get that with foreign accented English as well. I did a panel at Nine Worlds last year called The use and function of ‘foreign’ languages in genre fiction, where we were looking at the use of language in different ways, including how characters are othered, how well or not they can communicate with each other and with the audience and so on. Take the trajectory of someone like Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron: she’s initially an enemy character, and she and her brother have quite thick impenetrable accents. Then in Civil War, she’s much more Americanised. Of course, time has passed, she’s part of the Avengers team; there are lots of in-story reasons for her speech changing, her accent becoming softer and more Americanised. But it also operates thematically to position her character differently.
TD: When selecting voices for your audio pronunciations for the dictionary, is there dialectical variation, or when you have British English, is it always in RP?
CS: The short answer is ‘no’, and the long answer is coming.
TD: [Laughs], good.
CS: First of all, it depends what you mean by RP. The definition of RP that we work on is the one that was developed for an earlier Oxford publication by Clive Upton, and his definition of RP is pretty broad. There’s a sort of conservative RP which is that quite ‘the cet set on the met’ sort of ‘Queen’s English’ except even the Queen doesn’t do it anymore, and then there’s a sort of broad RP. Clive would say that I speak – the way I’m speaking to you now – he would call it RP.
Now, there are aspects of my own accent which are not conservative RP: I say ‘glass’ with /a/ [rhyming with ‘ass’] not ‘glass’ /ɑː/ [rhyming with ‘arse’], I say poor with / ɔː/ [like an Aussie would say it] not /ʊə/ ‘poo-r’. Another one is called yod coalescence which is when rather than saying tune [tyoon] and dune [dyoon] you say tune [choon] and dune [joon]. And so those are things that in a narrow definition of RP would be outside it, but in the broad definition of RP would be inside it.
Which brings me around to the answer. If you call RP broad, then yes, the pronunciations that we offer for British English reflect broad RP. However, in the OED for instance, all the bath/glass/grass words have both pronunciations given, and we similarly include that yod coalescence, which is quite widespread now. So it’s a sort of broad and modern RP for British English.
When you make a phonemic transcription of something, the symbol you choose can encompass more than one possibility. For instance if I’m doing a transcription for the word ‘bus’, then the symbol I use for the vowel in that word is like an upside down v (ʌ). Now, there is another symbol which you could use if you wanted to use a kind of Yorkshire ‘boos’ type vowel, but you can argue that if you’re doing broad phonemic transcription like that, that the use of a symbol can include a range of different phonetic possibilities for something. In a close phonetic transcription you have diacritics – extra symbols that say very specifically ‘the closure for this is here, and the kind of release is like this’ – but that’s not the kind of transcription you use in a dictionary. That belongs in, for example, a transcription for the purpose of speech therapy, or for a very close analysis of a regional accent. In my past I’d have done that kind of transcription, but for dictionaries it’s broad.
But your question was about the voices we choose to read those transcriptions aloud, and then you’re picking a person, so all of that useful abstraction that you get with a phonemic transcription is lost. In picking people, other things are more important than accent. We need people with a clear voice, good microphone manner; I know that sounds odd, but some people get in the booth behind a microphone and they speak in a very robotic way, or some people get mic fright and if they can’t get over it then it’s not the job for them! It’s not even a problem particularly if people have a stutter… the way we record, they’ll go into a booth with a list, and they’ll go through. They have to be very careful not to use a very list-like intonation, because once you chop them up, that sounds very strange. We try to get a bit of apparent gender balance as well: I don’t want the voice of the dictionary to be male necessarily. And there is difference in things, some of which are corollaries of apparent gender, like pitch. I probably wouldn’t use somebody who had a very obvious, very localised non-RP regional accent for the British English recordings, because we’re trying to give something that’s fairly general and in line with at least a fairly broad RP.
Before I had the job I did, I myself was at one point several years ago one of the many freelancers who did some recording for the dictionary. So if you go to oed.com or oxforddictionaries.com and you listen to the pronunciations, a very small proportion of them are me! [Laughs]
TD: That’s very cool! So you’re permeating all levels of the dictionary!
CS: Yeah! And when we did the World English ones, most of those were spoken by members of the dictionary team, because we have people from lots of different countries. Not all of them; I did have to find some external freelancers to come in for varieties of English that we didn’t have covered, but it’s quite nice, you know, being the voice of the OED is pretty cool.