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

6 replies
  1. Masaki Taniguchi
    Masaki Taniguchi says:

    Thank you for reminding me of Sir Randolph who later became Lord Quirk.
    So may I say sir is an exception of a content word having both strong and weak forms?

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Titles and terms of address aren’t very typical nouns. You can’t say those sirs are more famous than those misters (other than humorously). Wikipedia says of Ms. “normally /ˈmɪz/, but also appearing as /mᵻz/, /məz/, or /məs/ when unstressed”.

  2. Andrew Usher
    Andrew Usher says:

    That ‘Sir Isaac Newton’ is just a normal American pronunciation – we never have a ‘distinct vowel’ in ‘sir’ or any syllabic-r word. (This means that we can’t have a phonetically distinct weak form, but the stress patterns are still the same.)

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  3. Geoff Lindsey
    Geoff Lindsey says:

    Just to clarify for any reader who may be confused, the speaker saying Sir Isaac Newton in the post is a non-rhotic Brit. His r is a linking sound to the initial vowel of Isaac, but the underlying preceding ə vowel is not distinct. This other British speaker, speaking more slowly, does have a distinct vowel before his linking r:

    In a rhotic American pronunciation there would be rhoticity as an intrinsic part of sir (treated by many as an r-coloured vowel phoneme), regardless of whether a vowel follows.

    • Andrew Usher
      Andrew Usher says:

      Sorry! I genuinely thought that was American, and certainly was not trolling nor insulting your intelligence. It sounded perfectly American to me in contrast to the others, especially with the yodless ‘Newton’, and I know you often include an American voice in your collections.

      Listening again, there might actually be the ghost of such a vowel in ‘Sir’ but I couldn’t really say. Your respelling ‘Srisaac’ indicates to me a loss of syllabicity with /srV/ – I think that is barely possible before a strong vowel, but not likely for either Americans or Brits.

      • Geoff Lindsey
        Geoff Lindsey says:

        Yes, out of context it may be confusing, but if you know the speaker (it’s John Lloyd’s popular TED talk) I think you can hear the yod in Newton, even if it’s only serving to make the GOOSE vowel more front than it would otherwise be. A comparison can be made with Lloyd’s GOOSE in do, and just for fun I’ve used the latter to splice together a ‘truly’ yodless Nooton.

        Srisaac seems a bit like frinstance or p’liceman.

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