Sir Paul’s surprise

Sir Paul McCartney surprised his fans this week, mainly by suggesting that stage fright almost made him leave the Beatles, and then by tweeting an old photo to celebrate Britain’s Bonfire Night on November 5th.

The title Sir – which shows that he’s been knighted by the Queen – is often mispronounced by non-natives. Here is a non-native saying Professor Sir Paul Collier:

There the word Sir is pronounced strongly. In England, on the other hand, Sir is just a weak syllable attached to the given name. Some native examples:

  Sir Mark Elder

  Sir John Keegan

  General Sir Harold Alexander

  Sir Francis Drake

  Sir Isaac Newton

(In the last example, Sir has no distinct vowel, giving Srisaac Newton.)

Here are all the instances of Sir in those clips:

This means that Sir sounds like the weak first syllable of surprise:

  to my surprise

  it should come as no surprise

  they simply caught us by surprise

  well, surprise, surprise

  to amaze and surprise

And here are the first syllables of surprise in those clips:

Sir can be pronounced strongly, when used as a term of address rather than as a title. In England it then has the long vowel əː (often written ɜː). Native examples:

  yes, sir

  brilliant idea, sir

  please, sir, can I have some more?

  d’you know how to drive a tank, sir?

  you, sir, are a pimp

And here are all the instances of strong sir in those clips:

Of course, if there’s a special reason to emphasize the title Sir, it may be pronounced strongly:

  Sir Richard, as he was then

  he became Sir Paul McCartney