looking behind the wh/f debate

February 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

The debate reported on in the last post became one about the relationship between sound and symbol. Most of the posts quoted at some point suggested that symbol had primacy over sound. By that I mean, people talked about dropping the ‘ h’ when Wanganui/Whanganui was pronounced with an initial /w/ rather than /f/.

This is not the way that linguists conceptualise this relationship. We might say … and this is simplifying a little … that the letter is some kind of representation of the sound, not that the other way round. That is, the pronunciation of word might be represented in a spelling system, but the pronunciation is not derived from that spelling. Children learn to speak long before they learn to write, and the majority of cultures do not write in all the languages they know, and yet they intrinsically know how to pronounce words in their language. 

So let us forget about letters and spelling systems for a moment and talk about the sounds of te reo Maaori. When you see a symbol between these slashes, you are looking at sound in that language, not a letter you would use to write that language.  Many of the sounds of te reo are also found in English, and luckily for budding linguists the linguistic symbols look similar to the letter, so the sounds /p, t, k, m, n, w/ are very similar in both languages. (That last w is not involved in the dispute but is a separate sound).  Both languages have the sound /ŋ/ the sound in English sing  and Maaori ngaa ‘the (plural).

The problem with the sound that is written in te reo as <wh> and which is commonly pronounced as /f/ – represented in English as <f>, is that the sound that this represents appears to vary across region and even within the speech of a single speaker.

Te reo exists in a number of dialect forms, and in precontact times there was no concept of a standard dialect. Speakers could understand other dialects even though their sounds were slightly different.

For example in Southern Maori dialect there was no /ŋ/. Where words in other dialects have this sound, Southern dialects have /k/ So Aoraki and Aorangi, are two different dialect versions of the name of the mountain that is also known as Mt Cook.

Our problematic <wh> represents the sound that seemed to have the biggest number of variants across the dialect regions. Maclagan and King (2002, p.54) report the following possible sounds that  the <wh> came to represent.

  • ʍ – similar to the old fashioned pronunciation of which
  • f
  • ɸ – a voiceless biliabial fricative. Flatten lips and hold them tensely and slightly apart – then gently blow air through the gap … or alternatively get a Japanese speaker to say futon!
  • hʷ  like English /h/ but with rounded lips
  • ʔʷ and a glottal stop as in Cockney bu’er for butter but with rounded lips.

By the far the most common pronunciation at present is /f/, however dialect variation is still around and in the Taranaki-Wanganui region  /ʔʷ/ may be the norm. However, there has been no overt agreement on creating a standard dialect for the purposes of teaching. Ask any teacher of te reo, and they will tell you the mixture of dialect forms they teach and encounter in the classroom. 

So back to spelling and  <wh> – we can now think about what the issue Wanganui versus Whanganui really means. We mught say that the issue of spelling is a separate one and the spelling should be <Wh> though locals will pronounce this as  ʔʷaŋanui. Or are we asking the pronunciation to be changed too, to fall in line with the more prevalent dialect choice of <wh>=/f/, i.e.,  faŋanui?


Maclagan, Margaret & Jeanette King (2002). The pronunciation of wh in Maaori: a case study from the late nineteenth century. Te reo 45, 45-63.

Wangavegas or Whangavegas

February 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

Recently Maaori spelling has been in the news with the proposal to rename or respell the the city Wanganui to Whanganui. The move was proposed by a local iwi committee had met strong resistance from the mayor Michael Laws.

With the majority of issues regarding language and linguistics that gain media attention, a wide range of views are expressed by the public and this issue in toponymy -‘geographic naming’ is no different.

The blog attached to the NZ Herald newspaper – everyone’s got a blog these days – records these public opinions, of which here are just a few

When the English arrived not all that long ago, Maoris still hadn’t developed a written language. They still had cave stick figure drawings in fact. Maoris adopted the English alphabet as a result. Jere is the big question. Why do Maoris now say ‘wh’ sounds like ‘f’? The english [sic] who wrote down place names etc when asking the locals would have heard the word Wanganui – not Fonganui. Same goes Whangamata and Whangarei  (not Fongamata and Fongarei). It’s Wh guys, as in Whinge, not WH as in ‘Fred’ .           Margot Campbell (Napier)

 … The locals pronounce it “Wanganui” and so do the  Maori down in that part of the north island becuase the “h” is silent. The indigenous name is Whanganui pronounced “Wanganui” but if you were from Ngapuhi then you wouldn’t drop the “h” you would pronounce it as “whanganui”. Hope that makes sense. Perhaps they changed the spelling to “Wanganui” becuase it is a silent “H”.                Geo  (Ellerslie)

Wanganui as a Proper Noun is a English transcription of the Maorip place name Big bay. In other words Wanganui is a English word. Just like Lisbon is an English word as opposed to the Portuguese Lisboa.                      Rick    (North Shore)

These are but a few and I invite you to read them all at


All quotes retreived from the web address above on 25/2/09

Some of them are extreme, and some of them seem a little illogical, many ofter concerns about cost, or suugest local iwi have the right to decide. Many posts on the blog, however, reveal something that sociolinguists have noted about attitudes towards languages for a long time. That is they are more often than not attitudes about speakers of a language rather than the language itself. Most of the time Maaori bear the brunt of these attitudes and misinformation about them in the posts on this <wh>- an extreme example the first I quoted. One writer uses it to have a swipe at changes in the pronunciation of English:

The wh sound when written in English is an aspirated w such as the correctly pronounced “what” or “where” or “when”. That we now use a hard w for these words simply shows that even English has evolved and it is abot time people stop agitating for change for political ends rather than any true understanding of there [sic] history or language.    Nibbler (Marton)

 While on the surface this post appears to be a common sense approach to language change, what do we think the writer means by “correct” when typical production of those forms nowadays does not produce a distinctive sound contrasting with the initial consonant in witch?.

 One commentator, Hua Poraka makes a very wise comment suggesting that we need to divorce issues of spelling and pronunciation in this case:

Unfortunately some confusion is being introduced into this topic by commnetators raising the question of pronunciation. Although the NZ geographic board will always support correct pronuncation, its statutory function is to determine the correct spelling, not pronunciation. Accordingly, should it adjudge Whanganui as the correct endition of the place name, it may awell decide to refrain ofrom commenting on whether or not a glottal stop led to local pronuncation ommission of the “h sound. Kia ora koutou katoa.   Hua Poraka (Dargaville)

 This is an important point, as it suggests that there may be regional differences in pronunciation that need not be reflected in spelling. A state of affairs, upon reflection, we find completely natural for English in its many dialect forms. Australians and NZers pronounce dance quite differently yet we spell it just the same way.

In a follow up post I will suggest a way to understand the problem of <wh> as a dialect one, and that the lack of understanding of the dialect geography and assumptions about the existence of a standard variety of te reo Maaori is at the heart of this debate.

the Paris of the Manawatu?

February 22, 2009 § 2 Comments

As promised, here is a Part 2 to the exciting investigation into salon naming practices. This time brought to you from Palmerston North.

The same categories were used to examine the 65 hair salons listed in the yellow pages (online edition). Now strictly this is not grounded theory anymore, because that would have entailed Palmy specific categories emerging from the data. But we might just want to make comparisons between the Palmy and Wellington cohort of curlers and  colourists.

Palmy                             Wellington

personal name     14%                                        26%

location                     14%                                       10.5%

glamour                    12%                                       10.5%

pun                               12%                                         11%

hair                               4%                                            6%

aspirational            3%                                            6%

other                           35%                                        35.5%

ambiguous              4%                                             7.5%

getting those numbers lined up was killing me ….

Overall, the results seem quite similar. Shockingly, the pun strategy is exactly as popular in the capital as it is in the regional centre, blowing my own stereotypes/presumptions out of the water. The only clear difference was in the use of personal names, clearly favoured in the bigger city. Without relevant statistical tests we cannot be sure how significant some of the other findings are. More interestingly, and hidden by the statistics are the differences within categories that were favoured to a similar degree. For example, PN location names were usually street specific, whereas Wellington ones were more likely to be names of areas or suburbs. There were few location named salons in central Wellington, but the CBD of Palmerston (don’t laugh Aucklanders and Wellingtonians) had quite a few. In PN, combining the name and the location strategy was also popular in the form of NAME of STREET.

The glamour strategy was slightly different in PN. Instead of a smattering of class images such as Lords and Ladies, Palmerston glamour is strictly continental, and predominantly French by the looks of it – la patrie ‘one’s homeland’ and the superfancy travail d’amour ‘labour of love’!

Most shockingly, however, was the extreme lack of playful orthography in Palmerston North.  Only three examples! One of those was outstanding though – phixx. Fantastic!  This lack is surprising given that other business types such as retail stores and motels employ this strategy. Perhaps this ‘technique’ is strongly associated with non-hair dressing enterprises in this part of the country.

Well that is probably enough about hairdressers though there could be plenty more to be said. I challenge you to come up with a theory about the different social meanings of hair salon versus hair design as part of the business names.

the unkindest cut of all

February 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Linguistics is not all about the grammar.

Linguistics can also be about investigating the ‘real world’, though personally I think the so-called real world is actually made out of language. One half of the linguistics discipline is all about investigating the role language plays in society. An example of this kind of examination which is kinda fun, kinda interesting, and kinda revealing is looking at the names of hair dressers/hair stylists/hair designers.

Naming businesses must be the fun part of the whole enterprise, and when we investigate the names the hair dressers came up with, we can identify a number of strategies. Discovering strategies is interesting in itself, but I wonder if we can make any assumptions about the business, its customers or clients from a salon’s name.

Linguists love this word – so here I am going to tell you how I went about collecting the data.

I read the Wellington yellow pages, well the hairdresser section. I noted the names of 150 hairdressers in that region. (In part 2 I will do the same for the hairdressers of the Manawatu region).
Inspecting the names I tried to come up with ways to classify them. The categories emerged from the data (mostly) which in fancy research terms is called using grounded theory but we don’t need to know why. I say mostly, because I have always thought that hairdressers seem to love a good pun, so that was a pre-existing category that I had in mind.

The categories I came up with were as follows:
location  As the name suggests – the names of these Salons indicated their actual location!

personal name  These names suggested the name of a real person who most probably is (or was) associated with the particular salon.

glamour   The glamour naming strategy attempted to invoke ‘high class’ imagery. These often included words from other European languages, class imagery such as Lords and Ladies, or high culture.

aspiration  These names suggested self-improvement, and professional success. In fact one of them was call ed Success.

pun  A pun or a play on words is when a string of sounds can be associated with two different meanings. An example of this might be the salon A Brush with Style. Clearly this has two meanings – the literal one, someone brushing hair with style -or a hairbrush that has some stylish quality – okay it is ambiguous in itself. The idiomatic meaning is ‘an encounter with style’.

hair related  This strategy used some element of hair or hair dressing in its name. This does not merely mean the word hair as almost all of them had that in the name, but things related to hair like shine or scissors.

other  This, a rather large category, included all those that did not fit into any of the group above. Incidently, this included some names, but these were historical or religious figures such as Samson and Delilah or Iis that were in no way connected to the salon.

 ambiguous The final category was used for salon names that could have been in one or more categories. Some were possibly names but could also have been made up words.


It turns out that apart from the ‘other’ , l0cation and name were the big strategies. Location, interestingly was very  much a suburban strategy. that is there were few if any Location forms in the CBD.  Names were quite widely distributed, though further analysis might suggest breaking down those with a single (especially female) name, and those with a full name.

Puns were the next largest, and they too seemed to have a suburban distribution.

 hmm it turns out that tables are hard to pull off on wordpress  so here’s a list

location             14
name 34
glamour 14
pun 15
aspiration 8
hair 8
other 47
ambiguous 10

cuts, cutz, kutz – what hairdressers know about English

February 13, 2009 § 2 Comments

Another interesting element to the hair salon names was the preponderance of creative orthography or spelling. I am trying to sound neutral and scholarly here, but what I mean is the deliberate mispelling of words for some kind of visual effect.

  •  Maggies hiz & her

  • Getfunkd

  • Hedz for hair

  • Envi hair & beauty

  • SHADZE Hair design

  • Creative Cutz

  • Frenz Hair design

  • Gurly Gurl hair design

  • blo

  • glo

  • Shadz hair art

  • Shyne

  • Snipz hair design

  • Modz Hair co

  • Kim’s Kuts

 The perhaps dubious qualities of the creative orthographies in the list can be analysed into a number of groups.

Group 1 -Playing around with silent letters

Okay, deleting them, actually. After all why not? They are not doing anything sound-wise, they seem to be there to help us recognise words by their shape. So they thought, when they discarded the ‘w’ from blow and glow . This would also partly explain shadz, which we will presume is intended to be read the same way as shades.

Group 2 – interchangeable graphemes

That’s a more linguistic-ky way of referring to letters. In English, sometimes the graphemes ‘i’ and ‘y’ represent the same sound. In my and mine, for example,  ‘y’ and ‘i’ are pronounced the  same way. We see this knowledge exploited in the name Shyne.  The same two graphemes can also be used to write a completely different sound which ever-confusingly can also be represented as the following underlined pairs of letters – received, meat, meet.  Our creative hairdressers have got to work with these to produce Envi.

Another pair of letters which overlap in terms of the sound they can represent in English is ‘c’ and ‘k’. When ‘k’ is not being silent it represents a sound made by raising the back of the tongue to the roof of the mouth near the back, where it is soft, and blocking  the flow of air for a while.  When ‘c’ isn’t sounding like ‘s’, it is representing the same consonant as ‘k’ – ripe for creative, no? Hence we get Kim’s Kuts. It is clear in this example that the creator wanted to make the words more symmetrical by beginning with the same letter … and why not after all the start with the same sound.

Group 3 – the good old ‘s’~’z’ alternation

This pattern is by far the most ubiquitous and receives (unfavourable) comments from a lot of people I know, not just linguists. It is also the most interesting. Let’s start off by taking a look at what sounds these letters usually represent. Usually these two graphemes represent two different but closely related sounds (but not always – come on this is English!) The internet is interactive, right? so I want you to say the word bus, but I want you to stretch out the ‘s’ sound at the end. Now without taking a breath or stopping saying bus I want you to start saying zoo but holding on the ‘z’ sound for as long as you can. So what I am asking you to do is say busssssssssssssssssssssszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzoo. Did you notice that you did not have to move your tongue to shift from ‘s’ to ‘z’, nor your jaw. Nothing in your mouth changes. Something, however kicks in down your throat. Put two fingers on your throat, right where you imagine an adam’s apple would be, or on your adam’s apple if you happen to have one. Now just do the ssssssssssszzzzzzzz bit. Can you suddenly feel a buzzing vibrating sensation in your throat when you start on the ‘z’? That’s your vocal cords vibrating.

Our ‘z’ represents a voiced consonant made in exactly the same way as ‘s’ which is voiceless, i.e., the vocal cords don’t vibrate. This is called a voicing pair. English has a lot of them ‘ ‘t’ and ‘d’ ‘f’ and ‘v’ ‘k’ and ‘g’.

So if  ‘s’ and ‘z’ represent different sounds are our hairdressers crazy to swap them round? Well, not exactly. If you look closely at the list, the ‘s’~’z’ switcheroo seems to happen at the end of words. And there is a good reason for that and it has to do with cats and dogs. Not literally, but in the way these words are pluralised.  We would all agree, I trust, that when want to refer to a quantity greater than one of a given item, say, a cat … or a dog … most of the time we just add an ‘s’ to it. But … listen closely. When we add ‘s’ to pluralise cat ‘s’ sounds like ‘s’. However, when we pluralise dog, that ‘s’ actually has the sound we usually write as ‘z’.  That is not some whacky thing about dogs, or cats, for that matter. Every native English speaker knows a rule about the sounds of the plural element, and its got to do with that voice pair thingy I was just explaining. Trying making plurals of these words:

beat and bead        pick and pig

When the words end in voiceless sounds (you can’t feel the vocal cords vibrating,) the plural element is also voiceless.

When the word ends in a voiced consonant, the plural element ends in a ‘z’ sound, we just write this as ‘s’.

This rule about the sound of the plural marker in English, is usually not part of the consiously known set of rules a speaker knows about their language, but something they instinctively apply when creating a plural. Show a native speaker a completely novel or fake word like frag and ask them to pluralise it they will automatically produced a ‘z’ pronunciation for frags. Our clever hairdressers have consciously noted this rule and ‘improved’ the spelling of heads, shades and friends  all in the name of business.  One really creative linguist/hairdresser has taken the rule one step further. If  ‘s’ can sometimes sound like ‘z’, they seemed to ask themself, why not have ‘z’ sound like ‘s’ – and Snipz Hair Design was born.

Now with the description of this spelling whackiness out of the way, what might a sociolinguist have to say about this phenomenon. Well, they might wonder if there is some kind of distribution pattern. Does creative orthography work as marketing towards a particular population?  That is, are there certain places where creative spelling is more common due to the type of people … okay let’s say class … lots of sociolinguists are obsessed with class. So I created a google map to see the geographic distribution of orthographic playfulness of hair dressers in the Wellington region. What do you think this distribution means?



By the way, if you see any good examples of playful orthography in your neck of the woods, leave them as comments on this post (click on the link under the title). You might be able to upload a photo of the signage too, hint hint.

an article on articles

February 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently had two enquiries from people wanting to help colleagues who, though able to do most of the things they need to do for work, had problems with their English. In both cases, the example given was that they made errors in the use of the and a (i.e., in linguistic jargon, the article system). One of them suggested that what the colleague needed was a course in Basic English Grammar. That seems like a reasonable suggestion, doesn’t it? A and the are about the most basic words you can think of. However, next time you’re speaking with highly capable speakers of English as an additional language, note whether they always get this right (if on the other hand that description fits you, I think you’ll know what I’m getting at). Most of these people have no doubt at some stage studied basic English grammar courses, so why haven’t they sorted it?

A good place to start looking for the answer would be a grammar book written for learners of English (very different from one written for native speakers). See how thick the section on articles is. Flick through it and find out how complicated the system is. For example, let’s start with geographical features. Why is it that rivers are the Waikato and the Clutha, but lakes are Taupo and Wanaka. What about islands? They don’t take the, do they? Stewart Island, Rangitoto. Yeah, right! Why would that rule be challenging for someone learning their English in New Zealand? And think about how much information the or its absence gives you about the person referred to and their intent in the following examples:

He went to school today.
He went to the school today

Can you think of any other destinations that make that kind of distinction between people going for the normal, regular purpose and people going for some other reason? One of them might have been prison. What would you say for the convicted criminal? And for his father when he visits him? So while we’re thinking of the justice system I’ll just finish with one more idiomatic example. How does a change things in these two examples:

About time he got a life, don’t you think?
He got life. About time, too!

There are, of course, ways that we can support people who need help with improving their English, and I’m certainly happy to provide suggestions, but in terms of this particular difficulty, do cut learners a bit of slack, recognising how difficult it is to get it right, and reminding others around you that it is generally perfectly possible to transact business, have a conversation and engage in intellectually probing interaction with non-native speakers even if they haven’t yet mastered the article system.

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