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The death of elision

August 21, 2020

Just watching Pointless, and an answer to one of the questions was Westminster Abbey. All three people who said it – the contestant, Alexander Armstrong and fnally Richard Osman – pronounced it the same way: Westminste’ (tiny pause) Abbey. No r, in other words. Not Westminsterabbey, which is what I would say.

This seems to be the new norm: no elision. It used to be the case that when a word ended in r, that r would be sounded if the next word began with a vowel. In fact this habit of sounding the r was so widespread that people even smuggled it in where it did not belong: Laura Norder for law and order. No longer. I’ve even recently been hearing people pronounce forever as faw (tiny pause) ever.

It isn’t only words ending in r that are affected by the change, either. The time was when the word the preceded a vowel, the vowel sound of the would be lengthened and a y sound inserted before the next word: thee yelephant, thee yapple, thee yumbrella. This form of elision, too, seems to be dying out. It’s usual now to hear people pronounce ‘the E.U’ as th’ (tiny pause) E.U. instead of thee Yee-You as would until recently have been normal.

So goodbye elision. To me the new norm sounds somewhat clipped and staccato. I haven’t gone over to it yet; but I suppose sooner or later I will as the trend seems unstoppable. On the upside, I think the clearer separation of words will make English easier to understand for foreign speakers.

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  1. Avirup Chaudhuri permalink

    The best bit of elision I can recall was in the mid 70s when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were terrorising English batsmen on the Ashes tour in Australia. Someone contacted the Today programme to ask for more information about this woman Lillian Thomson who was wreaking such havoc!

  2. Oh, that’s good!

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    In the same way, the elision would be actively avoided if you were singing. In any setting of the Magnificat, a well-drilled choir would sing ‘Abraham and his seed for // ever’ (with a glottal stop on the ‘ever’), rather than ‘forrever’, Likewise in the Hallelujah Chorus ‘And he shall reign for // ever and ever’. I suppose this makes the words clearer for the listener – eliding the ‘r’ would sound amateurish in this context. This picks up your point of making the language clearer for the foreign speaker – in fact, I wonder whether the change has been driven by our greater exposure to foreigners speaking English in this way and so leading us into this new habit ?

  4. John Dunn permalink

    With the greatest possible respect this is not elision, which is the omission of something (th’EU is an example of elision), but what the French call liaison. It may be that the loss of the r is a hyper-correction, arising from the need to avoid your friend Laura Norder, but I suspect that it is merely a reflection of language change. The liaison is in most varieties of English a hangover from the past, a survival from the days when r was still pronounced after vowels, so that it is logical that it should at some point disappear. I suspect that chronologically the hiatus between the words precedes the loss of the r.

    • Hi John. Yes, you are quite right about the terminology; I should have said liaison. What I should also have made clearer, I think, was that I was not just talking about liaisons where the r sound is involved. The loss of the r being sounded at the end of words could account for the loss of that particular liaison, but not other liaisons (thee yumbrella; a blue welephant; poce toffice) etc. It seems to me that all liaisons are on the way out in spoken English; that’s the wider change.

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