glottal stop

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.