Morse code and the rhythm of spoken English

I’m guessing not many people can rattle off their name in Morse code? Why would you want to, you may ask. Well, thanks to a sister who was a radio officer in the Merchant Navy, I happen to be blessed with this odd little party-trick.

Most of us are familiar with the international distress signal for S.O.S; three dots, three dashes, three dots, and can dredge up a memory of the sequence of electronic dits and dahs that signal Morse code over the airwaves. But hearing the code spoken by a fluent professional is a surprising and strangely uplifting experience. When translated into speech those dry, clinical dots and dashes transform into delicious and unexpected rhythm, and form the perfect model for explaining the waltzing lilt of spoken English.

It’s hard to express in written form but here’s my attempt, using my name as the guinea-pig:


or in Morse code:

…. . .-.. . -. .-

and to hear it electronically, type the name in here and press play:

Morse Code Translator

Here it is written as I thought it would be spoken:

dit dit dit dit, dit, dit dah dit dit, dit, dah dit, dit dah

And finally, as magically pronounced by Julia:

d-d-d-dit, dit, dih-dahh-d-dit, dit, dahh-dit, dih-dahhhh

Stressed and unstressed sounds, longer and shorter syllables, even the glottal stops that secretly pepper our spoken language – it’s all there!

Just to be clear, Morse code offers no assistance whatsoever into the actual pronunciation of my name. ‘Helena’ enjoys a wide variety of interpretation and I variously answer to Huhleeena, ‘ellehnuh, Huhlaynuh, Hellenah even Hellnuh! (stressed syllable underlined). For what it’s worth, I think of myself as Helluhnuh (stress on first syllable, followed by two unstressed schwas). But I’m perfectly happy with anything … as long as it’s not HELEN.

-… . … – / .– .. … …. . … / .- .-.. .-..  !


My top 5 tips for adopting or perfecting your British RP accent: Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen

  1. Practicing task. Work hard on the diphthong ‘owe-oo’ as in ‘hotel’. It is a simple sound for non-native speakers to create, and makes a huge difference as it crops up all owe-oo-ver the place.  Spanish and Greek speakers usually pronounce this sound as a mono-thong; so ‘hop’ and ‘hope’, ‘pop’ and ‘pope’ end up sounding the same. In reality they are completely different sounding words. The diphthong in howe-oop and powe-oop makes them twice as long as hop and and pop. Common words that use this diphthong: so, no, know, slow, although, over, go, show, photo … and many more.
  2. Listening task. Discover and embrace our magnificent and mysterious schwaaaaa. English is a dahhh-dee-dahhh-dee-diddledee-dahhhh language (stress timed). Many other languages are ‘syllable timed’ which means each syllable is given the same length of time and emphasis when spoken; Da-di-da-di-dee-dul-di-da. The commonest vowel sound, and the biggest contributor to the rhythm of spoken English, is our schwa. It’s identified in this paragraph by everything in bold. The schwa is an unstressed ‘uh‘ sound. It can only be detected by listening, because as you can see, it doesn‘t have its own spelling. Only when you’ve detected the schwa, recognised our ‘diddly-daah’ rhythm, and properly understood the link between them, only then should you start trying it out for yourself.
  3. Listening and pra|cticing task. ‘|Uh-|oh’ – the glottal sto|p. This is another anomaly of spoken English for whi|ch there are no clues in the written word. On|ce again, this is about| listening and discovering where it|’s used.  (I|’ts identified in this paragraph by ‘|’). The glottal sto|p, described by one of my clien|ts as ‘choking’ (!) is a pin|ching of muscles in the throa|t to cause a comple|te, bu|t momentary cessation of sound and breath. I visualise it as a line of link|ed sausages. The leng|th of the line represen|ts the sentence and the sausage meat is the sound. Ea|ch pin|ch represen|ts what happens to the sound where a glottal sto|p occurs. There is mu|ch to the glottal sto|p that isn|’t covered here, but think of it as an energy force tha|t we use to spring from one sound to another.  It|’s like a hiccu|p.
  4. Practicing task. The ‘the’. The ‘th’ sound is particular to English and comfortably fudged by non-native speakers with ‘ze’ (German, French) ‘de’ (Spanish, Greek, Chinese, Swahili).  ‘Th’ is created by breath and/or sound expelled between the teeth and the tongue, where the top end of your tongue is snug against your top teeth.  (If it’s tricky, push your lips forward to support your tongue with your bottom lip acting as a hammock.)  Once you’ve got the hang of it, practice will make perfect. If it feels uncomfortable, you’re probably on the right track.
  5. Thinking and visualising task. Your tongue: that valiant little acrobat performing tricks in the smallest, darkest gymnasium in the world.  By the age of 3 you effortlessly mastered a foreign language, complete with excellent grammar, an impressive vocabulary and perfect pronunciation: your mother tongue.  In order to achieve this, your infant tongue shaped itself around and about your lips, teeth and palate and learned all the tricks necessary to communicate and be understood by the people around you. To speak your best English, your tongue must learn to dance to a completely different tune, and your success will depend on how able you are to listen, visualise and retrain your tongue.

Going Going Gone! Diphthongs are on their way out.

Where have all the diphthongs gone?
Long taaahm passin’

Let it be said, I do not doubt that spoken language evolves over time. But I assumed it would be undetectable, like watching the hour hand on a clock.  Perhaps it’s that I live in London; melting pot of people, cultures, races and languages.  Or maybe I’m naive about just how long I’ve been around with my ears open (comfortably over half a century – GULP!)  But the shocking fact remains, diphthongs are dying out.  The biggest casualty is the sound ‘eeeyerrr’, as in ‘here’, ‘year’, ‘fear’.  This vowel sound has morphed to a strange, flat ‘hiiiih’ (somewhere between ‘hair’ and ‘heee’).  It’s at its most distinct in MLE speakers, but by no means restricted to this group. I hear it up and down the land, in and out of private schools.  I even hear it daily on Radio 4 for goodness sake; the bastion of RP (received pronunciation) … or so they think.  Are our tongues and jaws getting tired?  What’s so tough about travelling from eeeee to aaaayyy, as in ‘create’?  And yet Nick Clegg would far rather enthuse about everything he’s ‘crated’ (24 secs in).

I’ve only recently become aware of the glorious irony embedded in the spoken English language.  Generally mocked for lacking rhythm, it turns out we English possess one of the most beautifully rhythmic languages on earth.  A stress timed language such as ours is not the norm. Think of the even pitter-patter of Spanish and French; both ‘syllable timed languages’ and then reflect on the glorious diddly-dah-dee-diddly-dum-di-doodee-diddly-dum-de-daaaah of our own.  Diphthongs are an integral part of this linguistic musicality, and I’m putting my hand up to say “Ih-eeem reeeyerly sad to heeyerrr you goh-ooo”

To be honest the way people speak these days is super-irritating … if that makes sense.

Popular phrases and expressions in every day language come and go like viruses, and just like the common cold there’s no immunity against picking them up.  I’m pretty sure I’ve fallen victim to most: ‘To be honest … ‘ (?), ‘Not being funny … (and then not being) ‘, ‘completely ridiculous’, ‘bizarre’, ’24/7′, ‘stuff like that’, hello pronounced as a sing-song ‘haaahh-lawww’ etc.  The current trend is to sprinkle our sentences with single-words that were never there before.  They get dropped in and chemically react with the words around them.  ‘Super’ and ‘beyond’ help us add emphasis without over-exerting ourselves: super smart/dumb/fast/rich/excited …,  beyond furious/grief/stupid/thirsty etc.  ‘Literally’ has a less straightforward path.  ‘I was literally freezing’, and even ‘I literally died’.  ‘Like’ is now all-pervasive.

The newest bad boy on the block is ‘So’. The one-word sentence that precedes a response. Q: ‘Where are we up to with the leaflets?’ A: ‘So. I’ve sent a proof to the printers …. etc’.  It provides a split second to gather our thoughts – a less dithery alternative to ‘errr’ or ‘ummm’.

‘… if that makes sense?’ took a savage hold a couple of years back and seemed curiously gender specific. I only ever heard it spoken by women. It would appear unexpectedly at the end of a simple instruction or request, thereby softening or undermining the speaker’s intent, as if a direct statement would be far too harsh. ‘It’s the silver key. You stick it in the lock and turn it clockwise (teeny pause) if that makes sense.’  Why wouldn’t it?

Currently doing the rounds amongst the Londoner 20 somethings is ‘Junah-ahmean?’ (Do you know what I mean?) It peppers my son’s conversation. Nine times out of ten, ‘Junah-ahmean?’ does not require an affirmation. In fact I’d be interrupting if I did. It’s no more than a bit of tribe-affirming, sentence seasoning.

So. If we have no control, and often no awareness of the phrasal bugs we’re picking up and using, what’s the problem?  The answer has to be, there isn’t one.  Most will follow a natural ark and fade out of our systems just as they crept in.  They may jag the ears of the super-aware but with no cure, awareness with acceptance is the only solution.  And it’s not all bad.  Aussie style rising inflections at the end of sentences caused great consternation when they first hit our shores. But a decade down the line I’m aware I have happily incorporated them into my everyday speech. If you can’t beat ’em, join em?

Speaking English without an accent is a misnomer. Speak it with an accent … an English one.

The vast majority of my clients grew up speaking a language other than English. They all now speak English, and for a multiple of reasons wish to ‘lose’ their accent.

The process of learning to speak English like a native-speaker is better conceived as acquiring rather than losing an accent.  If your mother tongue is Spanish, you’ll be speaking English with your natural vowel sounds, rhythms and stresses.  These can never be taken away, nor should they. Your ambition should be to acquire the additional skill of mastering an English accent. With effort and concentration you can master its vowels and rhythms and with mouth gymnastics you will even conquer our consonants!

Just as walking in someone else’s shoes is a disconcerting experience at first, so it is with speaking with an English accent. Expect the process to confound, contort, and confuse. But with practice, patience and plenty of repetition-tition-tion-n-n the shoes you’ve acquired will give in to their new feet, and as well as your native accent you will be the proud owner of a sparklin’ new English one.

English is goin’ ashtray

A rampant vocal virus is on the loose and spreading fast. It’s running amok across our screens and over the airwaves.  Tune in your ear but be very careful not to catch it.  Strong becomes shchrong, students turn into shchewdents, and Strictly Come Dancing becomes simply, Shtrickly.  It’s safe to ashewm this shchrange phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon and although the experts tell us to accept the endless evolution of language, I have to confess I’m shhhhchrugggelllingg!