global English language change and slang linguistics and lexicography

Geoffrey was a subtle salmon

When I was thirteen, I went to a chess championship in Southend-on-Sea. It was grey and windswept, and I was a little lonely and homesick, and as far as I remember I lost all my games. I remember just one spark of colour in this otherwise cheerless scene: my partner in one game, delighted with his ingenuity at a particular move, declared it ‘subtle with a capital B’. (Subtle has a subtle spelling: the b is silent, so it’s all the more subtle if the b is a capital.)

At a conference in the Netherlands last month I was at dinner with colleagues from many countries, all speaking English, as did all the waiters. Several of us ordered saLmon. I say ‘saLmon’ because waiters and diners alike pronounced the l, whereas in my native speaker standard pronunciation the l is silent. There were no communication problems (though there may have been had I interjected with my l-less variant; I held my tongue).

An idea that has been provoking widespread interest in applied linguistics circles in the last few years is ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, ELF for short. There are now many circumstances where non-native speakers of English, of different language backgrounds, all accomplished English speakers, work together or do business in English. There are often no native speakers present, and even if there are, it is not clear that their perspective on the language has any special status. Communication can successfully be achieved, in English, without reference to the native speaker, and the ELF research agenda is to explore ELF and see if it has linguistic characteristics that set it apart as a distinct variety of English.

A central figure in the organisation of the conference was Geoffrey. The conference and associated committees were, like the restaurant, ELF environments: lots of people with different mother tongues communicating fluently and effectively in English. Throughout the conference, without exception, Geoffrey was GeOffrey. (Standard native-speaker pronunciation makes Geoffrey a variant, with the same pronunciation as, Jeffrey.) It seems to me that we have a good test of ELF. A speaker of the ELF variety of English will say “GeOffrey is a suBtle saLmon”. How about you?

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Adam Kilgarriff


  • When in hotels overseas I’ve started asking for an iron by pronouncing the ‘r’ (‘i-ron’) which I never would in my native-speaker English normally. I only ask for an ‘i-on’ if I am face-to-face and can mime the action, otherwise nobody seems to understand. I wonder if these silent letters will make a comeback!

  • Adam – I think adding a /b/ sound to ‘subtle’ risks intelligibility – so it’s possibly step a too far . But nevertheless, I adore the broader sentiment of this post.
    Heck, if I could have a penny for every time one of my students had said ‘debt’ with a /b/ sound pronounced… and then been fully understood by their fellow class members. So I loved the broader thoughts you raised on ELF as a distinct variety here. Thank you!

  • Differences in pronunciation are bound to exist in English since it is not a phonetic language. It is no wonder that the Scripps Spelling Bee competition in the US is so difficult to win.

  • Of all the aspects of ELF to light on, pronunciation seems to me to be the least relevant and also the least promising in terms of identifying a general characteristic of ELF.

    a) It should be obvious that people with a myriad of different L1, with the different sets of sounds that they are used to making, and their different ways of trying to make English sounds, different tendencies in terms of guessing the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, and different kinds of overcorrection will not produce much in the way of uniformly non-native-standard pronunciations. And most of the “mistakes” they make can be found in native variants anyway.

    b) The goal of ELF – not as it is formulated by academic “advocates”, but by the many ordinary people around the world who practice it – is communication. Pronunciation is seldom a major barrier to communication, because by definition it is relevant in oral conversation, where self-correction, checking whether the listener has understood and asking the speaker to repeat or explain something are much easier than in other forms of communication.

  • Try teaching Korean kids with strangely strong US accents. I’ve started pronouncing the ‘r’ in car, and I’m an Englishman!

    Making those small adjustments can make a huge difference.

    But one thing I will not Americanize is my use of the word ‘football.

  • An interesting (to me) development is that a few years ago many of my ELF students (i.e. students who spoke ELF) could write better formal *written* English than my native British students, as they had been explicitly taught standard 20th century formal English. Nowadays, many of them have learned English so effectively and idiomatically that they show the same solecisms as the native speakers, both in speech and writing!
    Such as, for example, the use of “may have” where standard English requires “might have”, demonstrated in this blog posting…

  • Pronunciation is vital but should not overshadow rhythm and intonation without which a language is not a language!

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