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The long and the short of it

May 14, 2012

I’ve just had a comment from my good friend and correspondent Jams O’Donnell, on the pronunciation of pastoral, thus: “Why do southerners pronounce pastoral (teachers especially, “pastoral care”) ‘past-’ as in Cornish pasty, ‘- oral’ as in mouth wash? We don’t say it in pastor, castor or the Pastoral Symphony. Annoying.”

I hadn’t noticed this new pronunciation, though now it’s been pointed out I expect I’ll hear it all the time. But it made me think about the rules for the pronunciation of in southern accents. They are complicated.

Although I was born in London and have lived in it, apart from a few brief intermissions, all my life, I didn’t grow up using the long of the normal London accent. My mother was from South Wales and my father from Yorkshire, and though those accents aren’t similar they do have one thing in common: the short a. Both my parents would have pronounced pastoral with the first syllable as in pasty, and so would I; I picked up this pronunciation from them and when I went to school and was teased for pronouncing castle to rhyme with tassel, etc etc, this only made me more determined to stick to what I regarded as the correct pronunciation; and I pigheadedly kept this up until the age of 34, when I finally decided I might as well start speaking like a Londoner, since that is what I am. But here is the interesting thing: when I switched over to using the long a, I realised that there are rules governing its use. Specifially, the long is  sounded only  before the letters s,  f and n and then only when they are followed by another consonant. Thus, ask, mast, past, blast, castle, after, graft, giraffe, plant, aunt and can’t all have long a‘s. Gas doesn’t; but add a for gasp and it does. That seems to be the rule but there are plenty of exceptions. Pass and glass follow the rule, but mass doesn’t. Hardly anyone pronounces plastic with a long a; and the headmaster of my old school was the only person I’ve ever met who pronounced masculine with a long a. 


Words where the vowel comes before and another consonant are also sounded with a long a – calm, half – but that is not peculiar to southern dialects.

I had reason to be alert to these rules as I was adopting a pronunciation that my tongue wasn’t used to; though having grown up my whole life in the south-east I didn’t find it that hard to adapt. But it’s interesting that probably the vast majority of people who follow the rules don’t consciously know them.

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One Comment
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Brandon –

    This rings lots of bells with me. When I was at Oxford, I used to have a friend who tried to combine the gritty credibility of a Northern class warrior with a Brideshead – style Catholicism. We both enjoyed church music but when we went to the morning service at the Cathedral, he would pointedly refer to it (despite its being Anglican) as ‘the mass’ with a long ‘a’.

    I also remember, fondly, the headmaster you refer to, now sadly passed away (together with his evil henchman and Head of German). I don’t recall ever hearing him say ‘masculine’ with a long ‘a’ (perhaps you had to be in his Latin group to experience this) but I always remember, and enjoyed, when we sang ‘O God our help in ages past’ in chapel.

    As we approached the second verse, I would squeeze myself with pleasurable anticipation because he pronounced the last word of the last line ;

    ‘And his defence is sure’

    without the slightest hint of an ‘h’ after the ‘s’, so it came out as ;

    ‘And his defence is syure’.


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