08 March 2021

Ask my aunt to laugh in
the bath at the calf … it
may be a linguistic trap

Ask Italian restaurant on Bird Street, Lichfield, at night … how do you pronounce the name of this restaurant chain? (Photograph: Stefano Martini, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

A Facebook friend in Staffordshire recently posted a photograph of Bird Street in Lichfield at night. To the left is John Myatt’s mural of Samuel Johnson; to the right is the Lichfield branch of the Ask Italian restaurant at the Swan.

The former Swan at No 27 Bird Street was an on old coaching said to date back to 1392, and it claimed to be the oldest pub in Lichfield, a claim now made on behalf of the King’s Head on Bird Street and the Duke of York on Greenhill. In his poem ‘Ghosts’ Philip Larkin refers to the ghost story of the White Lady at the Swan on Bird Street.

Today, the Swan is the Lichfield branch of Ask or Ask Italian, which has almost 60 restaurants in England, including 15 outlets in the Midlands, as well as two in Wales and three in Scotland, but none in Ireland.

At a workshop in London over a year ago, we were asked how we pronounce the name of this restaurant, ‘Ask.’ The answers divided the English participants regionally and by social background. I joked there was a third way of pronouncing Ask in some parts the English Midlands that is dying out – Axe.

The ‘Axe’ pronunciation is not merely a regional variation. Beowulf used ‘axe,’ and Geoffrey Chaucer used the word in the same way in The Canterbury Tales: ‘I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?’ (Wife’s Prologue).

In William Tyndale’s Bible, the first Early Modern English translation of the Bible (1525/1526), Christ tells his followers to: ‘Axe and it shalbe geven you’ (Matthew 7: 7). This is repeated in the Coverdale Bible, published in 1535, ‘axe and it shall be given you.’

But the two pronunciations of the word ask that were discussing at that workshop illustrate what is known as the ‘trap-bath split,’ a vowel split found in English accents.

The lengthened vowel in words such as bath, laugh, grass, chance or dance in accents affected by the split is known as a broad A or a long A. This vowel sound is found in Received Pronunciation. There is a similar ‘lot-cloth split’ in some varieties of English without the cot-caught merger, in which the vowel in words like ‘cloth’ and ‘off’ is pronounced with the same vowel as in ‘thought,’ as opposed to the vowel used in ‘lot.’

How do you pronounce ‘Aunt’ or ‘Laugh’?

The sound change first took place in southern England, and ultimately changed the sound A in some words, leading to the Received Pronunciation of path, sample, and other words. However, the sound change did not occur before some consonants, so the split did not affect words like trap and cat … and so the name given to the ‘trap-bath split.’

Lengthening the bath vowel first began in the 17th century but was seen then as a Cockney innovation until well into the 19th century. However, from the late 19th century on, it became a feature of upper-class and Received Pronunciation.

The presence or absence of this split marks one of the most noticeable differences between different accents in England. There is an isogloss or linguistic geographical boundary that runs across the Midlands from the Wash to the Welsh border and passes south of Birmingham and Leicester. North of the isogloss, the vowel in most of the affected words is usually the same short-A as in cat; south of the isogloss, the vowel in the affected words is generally long.

But there are variations close to the isogloss, particularly around Birmingham and neighbouring parts of the Midlands, and sometimes the two pronunciations co-exist in the one place. And so, how you pronounce the name of ‘Ask Italian’ becomes an interesting question further north in Lichfield.

There is a danger that English speakers who demonstrate the ‘trap-bath split’ north of this isogloss can be seen as snobs, pompous, pretentious, public school boys or even comical. And then, of course, ‘class’ is another word that identifies the ‘trap–bath split.’

However, the ‘trap–bath split’ in Received Pronunciation did not happen in all eligible words, and it is hard to find a clear rule for the ones that changed. Because of these variations, it is probably impossible to learn to speak unconsciously or fluent in a way one did not learn as a child.

I recently watched the Netflix series Behind Her Eyes, and it was interested to hear how the Irish actor Eve Hewson had been coached to speak with an English accent. Although the character she plays is from Scotland, I presume she was coached to speak with an English accent to indicate Adele came from a landed and titled family.

However, she grew up in southside Dublin, and her Irish background slips through constantly. The ‘trap–bath split’ does not, generally speaking, modify Irish pronunciations. Each time she used words such as ‘can’t’ it was obvious she was Irish, and not from either England or Scotland.

There are other aspects of English that are peculiar to England alone. In Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, Father Hugh Chantry Pigg is a high Anglo-Catholic priest who omits the letter ‘L’ from a long list of words, including ‘wolves’: ‘Being both old-fashioned and very class, Father Chantry-Pigg called these animals wooves and woof, for he was apt to omit the L before consonants, and would no more have uttered it in wolf than he would in half, calf, golf, salve, alms, Ralph, Malvern, talk, walk, stalk, fault, elm, calm, resolve, absolve, soldier, or pulverise.’

Of course, the ‘L’ is silent in half, calf, alms, talk, walk, stalk, and calm. But it is not silent for many Irish people when it comes to pronouncing words like ‘film’ or names like ‘Colm’ – indeed, an extra vowel has to be inserted into these words so that the letter ‘L’ can be pronounced.

I had a work colleague who insists on talking about ‘Clon-dawl-kin’ and ‘Wall-kins-town’ in Dublin. There was a sub-editor in The Irish Times whose pronounced or highly accented ‘U’ as ‘You’ in the word ‘column’ seemed to give extra effect to how he pronounced the letter ‘L’ in so many other words.

One former colleague berates RTÉ staff who refer to the station as ‘Or-Tee-ee,’ and who cannot pronounce Shrewsbury of Gloucester. The pronunciation of the letter ‘H’ defines many Irish accents, although the way ‘Three’ is pronounced ‘Tree’ is surely a matter of diction and not of accent.

Yet another Irish Times journalist enjoyed the telling the apocryphal story of the man who strongly criticised a new slogan developed for the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). He wondered why they could not come up with a slogan that rhymed.

‘But it does rhyme,’ the reporter protested.

The retort was: ‘How can they rhyme All the way with the Gee-Ah-Ah’?

Still, my pronunciation of the word ‘almond’ confounds or even amuses some people I know, although I have always pronounced it so and even find it irritating to hear Irish contributors to food shows speaking of ‘al monds.’

The ‘trap–bath split’ helps to define the isogloss that divides England and passes to the south of Birmingham and Leicester (Image © British Library)

1 comment:

Joc Sanders said...

An interesting one, Patrick! In RP English there are 3 'A' vowels, as illustrated by the triple 'caught', 'cart', 'cat'. But the middle one doesn't exist in both Irish and Hiberno-English. This is a bit of a problem for me because my surname 'Sanders' is pronounced with the middle one! My brother has almost given up and now uses a short 'a' as in cat. I haven't yet, so my name is regularly pronounced with a long 'a' and misspelt as 'Saunders'.