Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #11

The Death of Elision

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 finally 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.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.