Diphthong death again

Here are the results of a tiny bit of research into the disappearance of centring diphthongs in General British English that I talked about in my post He sticks his neck out again.

I was watching a television programme the other night when I suddenly realised that the presenter was producing an awful lot of [ɪ:] sounds, where I would have [ɪə].

The presenter, Dan Snow, pictured to the left, was born in 1978. I decided, through the marvellous BBC iPlayer, to investigate just how consistently he used a monophthongal realisation. The series is called Empire of the Seas and I watched the first 30

minutes of the first episode, which, if you’re interested, you can find here. In the section I watched there were 38 occurrences of words which in a phonemic transcription using the current de facto standard symbol set would contain the vowel /ɪə/. Dan Snow had [ɪ:] for every single one of them.

I thought it would be a good idea to compare this result with the speech of someone slightly older. I came upon this page, which contains the text and sound file of Earl Spencer’s speech at the funeral service for Princess Diana in 1997. Earl Spencer was born in 1964. The speech is only just over 4 minutes long and contains only 10 occurrences of the target. The speaker uses [ɪə] for all of them.

Of course, the samples are very small, and the speech is scripted and very probably rehearsed, so no very firm conclusions can be drawn as yet, but it seems worthwhile looking into this further. I should add that I excluded the small number of occurrences where the target appeared immediately before /l/.

23 thoughts on “Diphthong death again

  1. Isn’t Dan Snow the son of Jon Snow (election night etc)? Wouldn’t it be nice to compare his usage with that of his father? I bet there’s some archive of Jon Snow somewhere…

  2. Ooops – it’s Peter Snow of course.
    And the did a series together: Battlefield Britain – I wonder if that’s available??

  3. Yes, Peter Snow. I had thought of that, but BBC iPlayer has nothing by Peter Snow at the moment, but watch this space…

  4. John –
    I’ve discovered that Youtube has most of the episodes – each episode broken down into 10 minute sections.
    I’m going to ask a GA to download and transcribe into orthography various chunks. Then maybe we can do some listening to all the centring diphthongs and write up a little paper for somewhere? Let me know if you think it’s an idea worth pursuing…

  5. Blimey O’Riley! Yes, Martin, lets go for it. I can continue with the Dan Snow side of things in the meantime and look at /eə/ next and add some more data to the /ɪə/ set.

  6. I guess for the sake of copyright etc we will get the DVD version of the series – it’s available in both US and UK formats.

  7. I wonder what Dan Snow’s tendency to monophthongise certain diphthongs in certain words (which?) proves other than an idiosyncrasy of his speech style.

  8. Petr –
    it’s not just Dan, as we commented on the earlier post it’s been going on for 20 years or more and the RP centring diphthongs are clearly undergoing change (Or have nearly finished this change).

  9. Petr,

    Just to support what Martin says, I have been looking too at the speech of another TV presenter, a 45 year old woman, and she too produces monophthongs for /ɪə/ and /eə/, althouɡh not quite as consistently as Dan Snow.

    You ask for which words DS uses a monophthong. For /ɪə/, the simple answer is ALL words, in all positions in the word, in all sorts of phonetic and prosodic environments. I have yet to hear him use anything but a monophthong for this vowel phoneme. From the listening I have done so far, it seems /eə/ will be the same.

  10. Martin Ball –

    right you are! Of course, this trend has been going on for quite a while (see, for example, DJ’s 4th edition (= 1956) of The Pronunciation of English, in which he mentions the monophthongal pronunciation of year, here, dear and serious). But I’m afraid that’s not the point I wanted to make. My qualms with the analysis of DS’s centring diphthongs being monophthongised are rather that there doesn’t seem to be much gain in insight. If DS monophthongises all 38 words and Earl Spencer doesn’t monophthongise at all at all, I can attribute this to individual speech style differences or individual preferences or any other individual factor. The observations are singular and they will remain singular unless a considerable number of additional speakers is analysed. Or am I missing out on something?

    John –

    may I ask you to list five words, PLEASE? And – who is this (mysterious) presenter?

  11. Dear John Maidment,
    I too have noticed this tendency. Further presenters I think worth investigating Davina McCall, Bear Grylls, Dawn French and perhaps the F1 driver Jenson Button too. Regarding Davina McCall, I think she consistently uses the monphthong. Indeed, in her case at least, I think the monophthong in question is noticeably lower than Cardinal 2 at times. Further, I’m not so sure if the vowel is very centralized either. If so, I wonder if there is an inceasing tendency for this vowel to be less centralized too. I wonder if such a vowel will someday be transcribed as /e:/?
    PS; Centralization is definitely more difficult to perceive than closeness.

  12. Petr,

    here, year, idea, peerless, hero, series, beer, fear, pioneers, clear, frontiers, nearby….

    The only mystery about the woman speaker is why I forgot to include her name – Fiona Bruce.

  13. Jack,

    I asked for five items and got twelve, so I can’t complain 😉


    as I live what Brits deign to call ‘overseas’ (aka in a different universe), I couldn’t see nor watch the series on Beeb’s iPlayer; I had to resort to the preview clips on YouTube. Going through the 9 minutes of Series 1, Episode 1 I found one word in which DS uses a centring diphthong: “frontier”. On the other hand, he seems (the sound quality is not very good) to monophthongise “warfare” and “stared”. Please, listen to the vowel in “Paul’s” in the sentence: “So when the great and the good arrived in their finery at St. Paul’s …”. Does it contain a diphthong?

  14. Sorry – it should be “frontierS” and the sentence is: “The English had been given a bright vision […] of new frontiers that stretched way beyond the shores of tiny England.”

  15. Jack,

    In order to avoid mental anguish, here is the complete list:
    appear (x1)
    appeared (x1)
    beer (x1)
    clear with r-link (x1)
    disappearances (x1)
    experience (x1)
    experienced (x1)
    fear (x1)
    frontiers (x1)
    here (x7)
    here with r-link (x1)
    hero (x1)
    idea with r-link (x1)
    nearby (x1)
    peerless (x1)
    pioneers (x1)
    series (x2)
    year (x4)
    years (6)
    year with r-link (x4)

    All these, by me, do not have diphthongs. It is true that some vowels are very short and should probably classed as an underlying /ɪ/. I have ignored the final bits of experience(d), which should probably be thought of as /iə/ ~ /jə/.

    As for the exact contexts — that’s gonna hafta wait, I’m afraid. As you can see from above, Martin Ball and I are planning a small paper on this and I am still working on DS’s speech.

  16. Petr,

    “Frontiers” does not have a diphthong, meiner Meinung nach. Yes. DS also consistently has monophthongs for /eə/. I’m still working on that.

    As for St Pau’s, no I don’t think it is a diphthong. The matter is complicated by the following velarised (possibly vocalised, but I don’t really think so) /l/. I’m going to leave further comment on this sort of thing for a separate post.

  17. I’d like to note that, here in the north of England, /ɪə/ is as alive as it ever was. However, we have always said /i:ə/ in most of those words.

    I feel that much phonetics research ignores the north of England. Manchester, one of the largest cities in the UK, has never had its accent/dialect studied in depth. Leeds has not been studied since the SED.

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