Sir, – Siobhán Kirwan-Keane (“Policing pronunciation”, September 22nd) objects to “police” and “policing” being pronounced “pleece” and “pleecing” on news reports, and wonders when these words lost the first syllable.
This happens because the first syllable in “police”, etc, is unstressed, and in English the vowel in an unstressed syllable is reduced to what is known in phonetics as “schwa”. This is a weak, short vowel produced with the tongue in its rest position for a tiny fraction of a second. English-speakers in countries where it is the first language don’t say poh-LEECE, giving the first vowel a clear oh or aw quality, though second-language speakers of English in, eg India, Ghana, Kenya and elsewhere do just that, and I’ve heard Glaswegians say something like PAW-liss, with stress on the first syllable, which then has a full vowel, and a reduced second vowel instead.
The vowel in unstressed syllables of this kind may then be lost in English even at normal speeds, never mind in rapid speech. Other examples include PLITE for “polite”, DESPret and SEPret for “desperate” and the adjective “separate”, HOMly and FAMly for “homily” and “family”, GENrily for “generally”, NORmly for “normally”, SECretry for “secretary”, etc.
As for when this happened, vowel reduction and consequent syllable loss have been part of the English language for centuries, dating back at least a thousand years. It’s the same process that gives us “world” from Old English “worold”, probably with the reduced schwa vowel in the second syllable for most of its history. But even in Old English texts there is variation between monosyllabic and bisyllabic spellings of this word – no doubt, there were people in pre-Norman Conquest England who were upset to hear others dropping that second syllable. There are probably hundreds of examples of this process in the dictionary – plenty to get upset about over the centuries, though today a form like “world” would upset nobody.
Who knows – at some point in the future English spelling might be reformed and ‘pleece’ itself will be in the dictionary without anybody objecting? – Yours, etc,
Prof KEVIN McCAFFERTY,
University of Bergen,