26 Feb 2015

Why do we say 'Astrolabe' like that?

5:45 pm on 26 February 2015

The Rena came to grief on it and sometimes our listeners think we have too.

Last week we talked about the pronunciation of envelope, clandestine and mischievous, this week it's the Astrolabe reef and the word "been".

The bow of the Rena in August 2103.

The bow of the Rena in August 2013. Photo: RENA PROJECT


Whenever the shipwrecked container vessel Rena pops up in the news, some listeners ask why we pronounce the name of this Bay of Plenty reef, where the Rena went aground, as AS-struh-lab [IPA: ˈastrəlæb]*.

There is a word in the English language, "astrolabe", which refers to the navigational device - the forerunner of the sextant - which, as many correspondents correctly point out, is pronounced AS-truh-layb [IPA:ˈastrəleib]. Dictionaries will confirm that pronunciation.

However, the Bay of Plenty reef, where the Rena foundered was named centuries ago by the French explorer and naval officer, Jules Dumont D'urville, who called it "Ecueils de l'Astrolabe". In that context, the pronunciation of the reef would quite properly be AS-troh-lahb [IPA: ˈastrəla:b].

Research we have undertaken into the pronunciation of the Astrolabe Reef and the nearby feature, Astrolabe Rock - named separately by another naval man, Commander Byron Drury - shows that, without exception, the locals pronounce them both as AS-truh-lab, probably a corruption of that original French pronunciation. Our advice to on-air staff has been to use the local pronunciation.


A correspondent has emailed our website about the pronunciation of the word "been", expressing irritation that sometimes we pronounce it as "BIN" and not "BEEN".

"BIN" [IPA: bin] is what can be described as a "weak form" pronunciation. There are many examples of weak form pronunciations and most of them relate to the schwa.

The schwa, written in phonetics as ə, is the vowel in the indefinite article "a", the definite article "the" and the first vowel in "about". It is sometimes referred to as the indeterminate or neutral vowel and is pronounced "uh". Its function in English is to facilitate a smooth delivery when speaking.

We say, for example: "I need "tuh" buy "suhm" more petrol " [IPA: ai ni:d tə bai səm mɔ: petrəl].

The vowels in "to" and "some" become neutral, to allow us to speak more easily.

There are many words for which we use the schwa. As well as to and some, we use it in from, and, of, but, as, have, can, an, than, are, for, at, was, has, had and that. Where the schwa is used, it is described as a "weak form" of the vowel.

Been, similarly, has a weak form. Many dictionaries list BIN [IPA: bin]. It is a weak form of been, again, simply to facilitate a smoother sentence delivery. It is a perfectly acceptable pronunciation.

Regarding the schwa, it is fair to say it is disappearing from the speech of many young people. And it does not occur in the Maori language.

Note: IPA refers to the universal system of international phonetic symbols and provides a more exact notation of how we say things.

* Hewitt Humphrey is Radio New Zealand's Presentation Standards Manager. If there are any words you would like him to address in future please send your query to rnzwebsite@radionz.co.nz and put in the subject field: Attention, Hewitt Humphrey.