Monday, January 09, 2006

Mispronunciation by accident or by design

As a follow-up to my nu-ku-lar post, see this from Dean Esmay, on mispronouncing words as a sign of intelligence. Dean is speaking especially of words a person has only read rather than heard--certainly not the case for Bush and "nuclear".

But it's interesting; Dean offers a long list, and his commenters add a few more, as well as the name for the phenomenon: orthographic pronunciation (although nowhere on the thread do I see one of the most common pronunciation errors in the English language: impotent, pronounced "im-PO-tent," rather than, "IM-puh-tuhnt").

I've been tripped up by the following odd ones: my mother once used the word "dour" and pronounced it "dure," (rhymes with "sure"). I was dourly sure that she was wrong, but when I looked it up, it turns out that her pronunciation was actually the preferred one! I guess you should always listen to your mama--

And then one day my brother referred to those fruits and vegetables in the store as "PRAH-doose" rather than "PRO-doose." Certain he was wrong, I looked it up and--lo and behold!--the guy was right. Bummer.

And then there are those who purposely mispronounce words as a sign that they are members of the elite. The link describes how this occurs in Wolof society, but I think it also occurs at times in the West. I seem to remember reading that the great Winston Churchill purposely mispronounced foreign words, a sort of British upper-class marker of the times.

Unfortunately, I can't find a link to back this up, but my recollection is that the idea was "we're British, not French (or Spanish, or what-have-you), and proud of it, too! So we'll pronounce Don Quixote the way we want to, which is like it reads in English--'Don Quicks-oat'-- not the way those garlic-eating (fill in the pejorative expression for foreigners) do. So there!"


At 2:08 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

No using the X as a C, as the French does.

At 2:16 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Goesh said...

If they graded intelligence on bad spelling, grammar and punctuation, I would be a genius

At 2:53 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger N. O'Brain said...

I was gently corrected by a classics teacher from St, Joseph's University in Philly when I mispronounced "mnemonic", which, like you said, I had only ever read.

And let's just not get into J/R.R. Tolkein!

At 3:10 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Pronunciation is phonetical in the same sense that spelling is. That is, one can learn to spell using intuitive phonetics which would result in pronouncing something according to known rules. And therefore, using those known rules, one could also reverse engineer the project and take a pronounciation and spell it to the crossed tees and the doted eyes.

It's all those furein words that cause all the problems.

At 3:21 PM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Obvioustroll said...


the problem is that, in english, they're ALL furren, er forain, wait.. "foreign" words - English is just one language layered on top of another, layer after layer.

I mean, all languages are like that to some extent, but English (and American English, in particular) prides itself on soaking up vocabulary like the proverbial sponge - and when you start absorbing words that don't even come from Latin-derived languages....

Heh. We had a minor argument in my household just the other day - when discussing the game "Shadow of the Colossus" did I defeat sixteen Colossi or 16 Colossuses?

I prefer "Colossuses" just because I can say things like "the Slayer of Sixteen Preposterous Colossuses says..."

At 3:46 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Eye-rac comes to mind.

At 4:02 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

There comes a point where if you metathesis something, then the accumulated mutations become a new congruent thing, with its own nature and purpose.

I know personally that I have learned to spell using sounds, and that there is a consistency. But I also know that this is not something I can teach anyone else, nor do I know the exact nature of such skills other than hard won trials and errors.

At 4:03 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger MP Martin said...

I remember back in the days of George the 41st Bush, he would pronounce it either "Sodom" Hussein, or "SAD-damn" Hussein, or maybe "Sad-dumb" Hussein. There were rumors that one of the last two pronounciations was a word that meant "dog", which was particularly offensive. He supposedly did this on purpose.

At 4:04 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I heard a commentor mention that about Bush the Senior, which is probably one reason that Bush the Junior doesn't play such tricks. A rebellion against his father. Bush may be the President, but he is wholly human in behavior, motive, and action.

At 5:14 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Dean Esmay said...

Obvious: I'd say you defeated 16 Colosses, but otherwise I'd go with Colossuses.

We speak English, not Latin, so we can dispense with Latin tenses and declension. Thus if someone tries to say multiple facts are data, but one fact is a datum, they're just being highfalutin'. ;-)

At 5:51 PM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many years ago, some television newspeople began to pronounce the word "negotiate" as "ne-go-see-ate" rather than "ne-go-she-ate." Drives me crazy.

At 6:41 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger AcademicElephant said...

So what can we make of Senator Kennedy calling Judge Alito "Ali-oto" today?

At 6:58 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Charlie (Colorado) said...

My ex-mother-in-law, like many Southerners with a highfalutin' sense of eloquence, pronounced "temperature" as "temp-rah-TOOR". Drove me nuts.

National review oline is a common place to find the "Don Qwicks-ott" argument, usually as part of the "Maerica is an English-speaking country" thing.

Since I was born in Alamosa, grew up in Pueblo, and went to school in a grade school where somethign like 30 percent of the families had been there since it was New Spain, I found this particularly amusing.

At 8:25 PM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Obvioustroll said...


Yes, it is possible to learn pronunciation from spelling - but only after years of memorizing all the exceptions.

Scientific words are the easiest, since they are almost always built up from logical groups of latin roots.


Dean, Charlie,

My favorite high-falutin' mispronunciation is another joke - I first heard it at my sister's place in deep, dark, rural Pensylvania, but now I hear people all over the place pronounce the name of the store "Target" as "Tarzhay". The joke is that Target is up market of Wal-Mart, I suppose.

At 8:49 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

I enjoy when I pronounce the word "forte" properly, and am corrected by the 99% of the population that thinks it's pronounced fortay. It's fort, people.

Not mispronunciations, but:

Another peeve is sports knuckleheads. RBI is an acronym. Acronyms cannot have multiple definitions. It cannot mean both runs batted in, and run batted in. It's RBIs in the plural. I will brook no discussion of this. And anyone that says RsBI deserves a beating, nothing less.

Don't get me started on the words "impacted," and "contacted."

Impact has become the swiss army knife of the illiterati. it's a noun! It's a verb! It's an adverb! It's an adjective! It's a dessert topping! Peter King from
SI pulls it like taffy. Now he's saying a player is "impactful." This gets past editors, which amazes me.

There are perfectly good words already in use like affected, and touched. Please refrain from saying "impacted" and "contacted" when you mean "affected" and "touched."

Impacted is a tooth that won't come out. Contacted involves a phone or pony express or something.

Yeah, Al Michaels, I'm lookin' at you.

At 10:27 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Myron said...

Data from U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration @

United States mining fatalities in the last four years of the Clinton administration and the first four years of Bush's administration.

year 2004 - 54 fatalities
2003 - 56
2002 - 67
2001 - 72
Bush's administration
2000 - 85
1999 - 90
1998 - 87
1997 - 91
Clinton's administration

Liberals are trying to blame the Bush administration for the deaths of the 12 coal miners in West Virginia because they say Pres. Bush relax safety regulations but look at the numbers. Despite the fact that coal production is up in the mining industry now over 4 years ago (result of the boom in the energy sector) less people are dying.

I guess less regulation equal less deaths.

At 12:23 AM, January 10, 2006, Anonymous strcpy said...

The one that got me for years was "genre" - I knew what the word meant when I heard it (had no idea how to spell it), and what it meant when I read it (had no idea how to pronounce it), I just never realised they were the same word.

Since I read the news way more often than I listen to it I sometimes have trouble talking about world politics because I have no idea how to pronounce a country or a persons name. It can be frustrating sometimes.

At 2:59 AM, January 10, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two words for which a lot of people fail here in Mexico, and perhaps also in the US are: paparazzi, which is a plural (paparazzo the singular). I read the papers saying: "one paparazzi..." lol. The other one is Ombudsman, a Swedish word for human rights defensor. Obviously it is masculine. But when we had a woman in that post down here, many papers and tv newscasts would call her "ombudsman" still, that is funny too. "La ombudsman" that's weird lol. Perhaps "ombudsfrau" is the right way to go.

At 7:10 AM, January 10, 2006, Blogger aqualung said...

This thread is again another trick of the Right to misdirect legitimate criticism of its beloved leader by trivializing his habit of mispronouncing English words. Of course, mispronunciation is the least of it. His inability to talk coherently without a script is his real problem. That, and his complete inability to see beyond his own priviledged existence. Like wistfully musing about sitting on the porch of Trent Lott's newly rebuilt mansion in N.O. while the poor and displaced were struggling to find food and water. Or his visit just the other day to Walter Reed to meet with casualties from Iraq. The guy goes on and on about a scratch he received mountain biking while GIs with their legs blown off sit nearby. Jesus, could the president of the US be any more insensitive? I guess because he never had a leg blown off means getting your leg blown off isn't a big deal?

At 9:03 AM, January 10, 2006, Anonymous nittypig said...

The "PRAH-doose"/"PRO-doose" thing is, I think, regional. I know that "PRO-doose" is the preferred Canadian pronuciation. I think the same is the case with a lot of these.

Still can't stand "nookular".

At 10:35 AM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Meade said...

"...the way those garlic-eating (fill in the pejorative expression for foreigners) do."

Little known fact: Garlic (Allium ophioscorodon), properly pronounced gar-leek, contains powerful phytochemicals which render the consumer completely invulnerable to the haughtiness displayed by those who eschew the humble herb*.

* Alright, I made that up about the phytochemicals but this is true: As a result of irrational anglophilia and a general inferiority complex, many Americans mispronounce the word herb as 'erb, aping Cockney dialect and erroneously thinking they are using the king's English and thereby sounding British and, of course, sophisticated.

At 10:45 AM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

Being English, I always smile when I hear those from across the pond say "'Erbs" instead of "Herbs" but apparently both are perfectly acceptable.

Speaking of which, there's a woman called SuperNanny on our TV who is continually berating badly-behaved children with "Your behaviour is unassetable!" - how she manages to mangle "acceptable" so brilliantly is anybody's guess, but believe me: it grates.

The other really annoying one is people mispronouncing "mispronunciation" as "mispronounciation". That has to be worse than misspelling "misspelling"!

At 11:37 AM, January 10, 2006, Blogger J. Peden said...

I don't know - Howard Dean's famous scream sounded pretty much to me like what he'd said before and has said since.

The also correct Neandertal vs Neanderthal grates me because I know Neandertal is intentional - to show sophist-ication. But I don't think they're going to call any rednecked conservatives Neandertals.

Btw, how does the written "duh" turn into "do'h"?

At 1:02 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Alex said...

Interesting Wikipedia article on metathesis.

They list at least two examples I am guilty of (comfterble for comfortable; interduce for introduce) and discuss how metathesis shaped many common English words. Bird was once "bryd," and horse was "hros." The common pronunciation of "iron" is due to metathesis. The aks/ask dilemma seems to have been present in English for a millenium.

It seems that in general English speakers have a distaste for liquids (r or l) combined in consonant clusters. Most of the examples move a liquid from a cluster to a position after the vowel (in-tro-duce --> in-ter-duce) or between vowels (nuclear --> nucular).

At 5:11 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger MP Martin said...

Someone I knew would pronounce cache (cache memory) as "kaysh" instead of the more conventional "cash", even though we both went to the Cache La Poudre elementary school, and learned the history of how some French trapper hid the gun powder in the bank of the river. I occasionally hear the highfalutin "cashay" (cache of weapons) pronounciation, but never from anyone around here.

Aqualung: I heard Bush blew up the levees. Isn't that more important than pronounciation trivia?

Meade: I've been told that Herb is a man's name, and 'erb is a vegetable (or rope fiber, if you're a stoner).

Straying into spelling, a man named Manuel told me once that manual is when you do something by hand, but only the Spanish pronounce the name "Man-well".

And there's about as much difference between that as there is between an ocean and a notion.

At 8:12 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Pronunciation is always changing, and the first one listed in the dictionary should be considered the more common, not the more correct.

I come from a long line of spelling and grammar pedants, and have passed it on as part of my culture (we still insist on the Princeton/Oxford comma, for example), but it's not as intellectually defensible as we would like. If you went to a town in Moldova and 99% of the adult speakers pronounced a word a particular way, what would you think of the guy in the back who said "No, that's not it! The word is derived from the Old Church Slavonic..."

We no longer pronounce that breathy guttural sound in "night." We might cringe at the new commonness of "mi''en" instead of "mitten," but we now all do the same thing on "forgo''en," and we say "boddle."

By all means, pronounce as you know best, and I personally tend to prefer the older pronunciations. But odd things happen. The "t" dropped out of "often" long ago, but is now reemerging. The "n" before a vowel in the indefinite article can move in either (that's EYE-ther, right?) direction. A naeddre was a snake: now an adder. Nickname comes from an eke-name, an "also" name.

The correct pronunciations were wrong a hundred years ago and will be wrong in a different way a hundred years hence. "Hence" is probably archaic now. Even the people who recognize it no longer use it. Except nutcases like me, of course.

At 4:25 AM, January 11, 2006, Anonymous strcpy said...

"If you went to a town in Moldova and 99% of the adult speakers pronounced a word a particular way, "

Further, I've seen a tendancy for some groups to consider thier accent the "real thing". Any others to be quaint and uneducated.

Say, for instance, the Applachian mountain chain. The origin of the word is from a southern US indian tribe and the south eastern US generally adopted that pronounciation (the "CH" is hard like in Chair). Most Northeastern pronounciation is more of a soft "sh" sound (this also affects the "ian" part, again a hard pronounciation in the south). Yet the "correct" way - to the point that I've seen many of my professors when I was in college make fun of the local people, is northern (I'm not sure how it is said as you move west, I would guess that a mix).

I've somewhat found that to be quite arrogant - if one is to annoit a "correct" pronounciation I figure we should let the people who came up with the word decide. But, as is generally the case the southern accent is always wrong and of lesser intelligence (of course there is no difference in intelligence - we are all of the same genetic stock). I would say they were simply ignorant, but none of them were - they just generally felt we were wrong.

Though, to be somewhat fair, it seems that the accent is mostly only an issue if there are others. No one cared or though Clinton was stupid for saying some of the exact same things Bush says (and is accused of being stupid for). The above teachers didn't like each other either. It seems to be a knee jerk weak reaction that only become strong as a reason to justify an unjustfiable dislike (that is, it's not really the reason, jsut the excuse).

Personally pronounciation should either be totally region dependant or follow the people who originated the term. My choice is local (coloquial if you can figure out the word I mean from my mangled spelling), whos to say what is right and wrong? As long as you are understood I'm not to picky, but then the majority of my friends are foreign so I'm fairly used to some really strange pronounciations.

At 9:58 AM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Papa Ray said...

Texans not only mis-pronounce words, but have a habit of mis-using them.

All those Bush-isms are not limited to him.

Of course, now that Texas is being overrun by non engilsh speakers and by yankees and those from the state that I would wish would just break off and float away (no, not Florida), how you say and use words is becoming even more screwed up.

One of the problems with most Texans is that if you are talking and you can't cuss or use "catch phrases" and localisms, you can hardly talk.

Remind you of someone?

Born again Christians have difficutly in speaking when you subtract half of their vocabularity.

Papa Ray
West Texas

At 4:33 PM, January 11, 2006, Anonymous MikeTheLibrarian said...

My big one was always garrot. It wasn't until I heard it pronounced on tv that I knew how it was pronounced.

At 12:11 AM, January 12, 2006, Blogger gcotharn said...

Old story:

Man comes home from the doctor with a fancy new hat.

Wife: "Why?"

Man: "After talkin to that Doctor, I figgered if I was gonna BE impotent, I was gonna LOOK impotent!"

At 2:16 PM, January 12, 2006, Anonymous triticale said...

As for mispronunciation by design, Richard J. Daley, once Hizzoner da Mare of Chicago, spoke English in an uneducated manner which contributed to the hostility Hyde Park liberals had toward him. It is alleged, however, that his speech pattern was in fact deliberate, the result of coaching to overcome the proper training he had gotten at St. Iggy's, because it played well to his base.


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