Language & Linguistics

Derailing the Stage Choo-Choo

According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting.  Both are bad.

The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).

The other is the choo-choo of poor diction.  This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.

A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler.  I was a “diction monitor” of sorts.  At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying.  I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves.  My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.

Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day.  I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal.  Some missed their final t’s, there were some dropped h’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.

But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you.  The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.”  And examples of these littered my notes every evening.

Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid theatre tank engine to be avoided – the choo-choo.

But it’s hard to blame the actors.  That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.

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General Lee speaking.

They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos.  And they occur on both sides of the pond.  To illustrate:

“Would_you come here for a minute?”
“Don’t_you see it?”

The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively.  However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant.  /Y/ here, in reality, is a clipped long /e/ sound.  (Say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.)  As such, it has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).

To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of acrobatics.  When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a “U” through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”

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Note the locations of the alveolar ridge and hard palate, colloquially the “roof of the mouth.”

In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit.  Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies.  We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day.  Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants.  Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.

The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you” and “don’t you.”  Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.

But, wait, it gets crazier.  This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy].  The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, [sh] and [zh].  We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard.  Some examples:

  • pressureassuresure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
  • words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” – my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule)
  • measure and vision used to take the [zy] pronunciation (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but are now reduced to [zh]

Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOL-jer” and “NAY-cher.”  Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”

The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.”  These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”

In especially British and Australian dialects, this yod-coalescence (the proper term for the phenomenon I’ve been describing) has led to peculiar pronunciations of words that incorporate the “liquid /u/.”  (Liquid /u/ is in words like cube and fume – you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/.)  Across the pond and down under, this still applies to “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  While an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Brits might engage in a sword “jewel.”  An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”

This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”

Sean Connery does not assume things; he “a-shooms” them.  Now that we’re done making fun of him, he can “re-zhoom” what he was doing.  You get the point.

So, to recap:

[ty-] —–> [ch]
[dy-] —–> [j]
[sy-] —–> [sh]
[zy-] —–> [zh]

But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?

Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.”  It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.”  Note the /dy/ cluster.  Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language.  The Italians say giorno [JOR-noh], not “DYOR-noh.”  And the French say jour [zhoor].

A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.”  Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant.  In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).

Lesson over.  The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English.  And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.

I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so.  I’ve seen several different actors laughably hit every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously.  Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying rather than how they were saying them.  And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.

Conversely, the railed passenger vehicle of the playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance.  Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable.  A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.

All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the thespian multi-carriage machine of transportation.  A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction.  Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful.  And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.

thomas the tank engine

Verdict?  Let your own discretion be your tutor.  Or “chootor.”

Confessions and Repentance of a Cisgender Refuser of “Singular They”

About a year ago, I squared off with somebody on Facebook over the prospect of “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun.  Except I was not arguing on the side you may hope I would have been.

When I learnt in the spring of 2015 that some people who are outside the gender binary actually identify as they, I knew that it would not bode well for me and my penchant for immaculate grammar.

My initial thoughts were, “How did we, as a society, screw up so royally that these people had no recourse but to hijack the third-person plural pronouns to suit their singular needs?  Surely the English language has a fail-safe, a provision for a situation like this.”

Historically, the pronoun he was always used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a member of a mixed group, as in the sentence, “Any in favour should raise his right hand.”  Many popular adages begin with the words, “He who…” without regard for the subject’s gender.

This usage of the masculine third-person singular pronoun is analogous to the usage of man in certain contexts.  When one speaks of “when man first walked the earth,” he means the human species – not men or women specifically.  Similarly, when Neil Armstrong proclaimed as he set foot on the moon (or a film set) the words, “…one giant leap for mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the male half only.

With these facts in my utility belt, I jumped into the aforementioned argument on Facebook.  My goal was to convince the other party that, for people who identify outside the binary, using gender-neutral he is just as, if not more viable than using singular they.  The former is more historically supported and is arguably less clumsy.  My argument was never about potential ambiguity in writing – let me be clear on that.

The debate ended amicably, I’m happy to state.  But it got me questioning my stance on the matter more than ever.  It’s become increasingly clear that my linguistic rhetoric is irrelevant when feelings are in play.

I wouldn’t classify my former self with bigoted assholes who refuse to adopt “singular they” for the sake of quashing the non-binary cause.  I always counted myself among the more sympathetic, those seeking alternative solutions through the application of logic and reasoning.  To the oppressed, however, there is hardly a difference between the two groups.

The unoppressed telling the oppressed that they shouldn’t feel a certain way because of “X, Y and Z” is about as effective as telling someone who suffers from depression to “cheer up” or someone with anxiety to “just relax.”

As a cisgender (meaning my gender aligns with my birth sex) man, no, I do not and will not ever understand the dysphoria that some people experience when they are misgendered.  I do understand the discomfort of being misaddressed, however.  I refer to myself as Joseph and nothing else.  I have never gone by Joe, and it genuinely hurts when people call me that.  It also hurts when people use the wrong surname to refer to me.  I can only imagine the pain of those who are denied their preferred personal pronouns.

Honestly, though, the whole notion of being attached to a certain pronoun is foolish to me.  Personal pronouns, by nature, are not personal; they are, paradoxically, quite the opposite.  Their primary function is to play substitute for your name – your true identity.  They make sentences impersonal.  But I suppose all that’s easy for me to say because I have no qualms with being referred to as a he.  Maybe I don’t get to make that call.

And, because it is unrealistic to do away with third-person pronouns altogether, we need to work with what we have.

Contrived pronouns such as ze/xe and zir/xem simply will not do.  I admire the effort put forth by wordsmiths within the gender-queer community, and I appreciate that they are proposing solutions that would please everybody, but I sincerely doubt that their inventions will catch on.

I’m aware that Sweden recently (1960s) coined the gender-neutral pronoun hen to exist alongside han (he) and hon (she).  It might work in a country of that size and with a population that small speaking Swedish, but English is an anomaly.  There are so many varieties in so many regions with hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide.  Thanks a lot, Great Britain.  The sun never sets on your empire, huh?

The pronoun one does not work when referring to a specified individual, as in the sentence, “Taylor tied one’s shoes.”

So, we come back to they.

Proponents often point to uses throughout history by prolific writers.  Jane Austen was known to use “singular they” rather frequently.  Even the Bard himself used it on occasion.

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

–  Antipholus, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene iii

Moreover, rhetoric like that featured in the following image has been employed recently to illustrate that we already use “singular they” in casual conversation:

using-singular-they

These are pretty compelling arguments.  One problem, though.  These usages of “singular they” are not the same as the usage of referring to a known, specified person.

I will do my best to articulate exactly what I mean here without sounding too abstract.

In the above example, Person 1 says, “Oh no, someone left their cell phone.”  In his mind, this “someone” could be any person – male, female, gender-nonconforming, whatever.  Anybody can lose a phone.  The image in his brain is of multiple people, that is, a pool of options, if you will.  Therefore, this group of potential persons logically requires they.  We do this all the time.

Now, let’s say we’re dealing with someone named Taylor.  (I don’t know why I keep using the name Taylor – it’s just the first unisex name that came to mind.)  Taylor prefers the pronoun they and is known personally by the people in the following exchange.  Taylor is not some hypothetical human within a group of possible candidates.  Taylor is real, definite and specified.  Here’s how the exchange might sound:

“Hey, I saw Taylor hop in their car.  Where are they going?”

“I think they have to go to work.”

In those sentences, someone less acquainted with Taylor would have, without hesitation, used “his/her,” “is he/is she” and “he has/she has.”  This is because Taylor was understood to be a certain individual.  In a less-acquainted person’s mind, Taylor is one person and therefore logically requires a singular pronoun like he or she.

I hope that this accurately illustrates the reluctance of well-meaning people to use “singular they” the way non-binary persons wish – even when they do it all the time in conversation anyway.  I know that this is how it works in my mind.  I might be totally wrong about others, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.

But… a year of rumination on the subject has shown me that my mild discomfort in this novel usage of “singular they” does not compare to the distress and cognitive dissonance suffered by those less fortunate than I – those who are not content with English’s admittedly flawed gender system.  These people should not need to change to accommodate something that humans crafted; our craft should change to accommodate them.

And it has in the past.

The Old English words for “he” and “she” were he and heo/hio.  By the 13th century, natural phonetic evolution made the pronunciations of he and heo/hio converge.  Apparently to avoid confusion, the word seo/sio (used in Old English to mean “the”) soon supplanted heo/hio.  This replacement evolved in pronunciation as well and became she.  Parallel developments occurred in German and Dutch with their pronouns sie and zij, respectively.  Also note that we say her, as opposed to “sher” – her represents the survival of the original h-form from Old English (hire).

She, an integral word in our language, was re-purposed and became the dominant feminine singular third-person pronoun through persistent use.  Circumstances demanded it.  And now we have circumstances that require that we find a new word for the genderless singular third person.  It is with great regret that I say I fear that it may be too late for English, as a whole, to adopt a new word.  But our best shot is they.

And, if it makes them happy, I’ll use it.

In Defence Of The Dialect

Every Wednesday at noon, my Uncle Louis and a few others gather at La Roma Pizzeria to dine and speak principally in Italian.  I join them when I can.  There, I go by Giuseppe, and my uncle is Zio Luigi.  Our collective is sometimes called “il gruppo italiano” (“the Italian group”), and one might say that we are one of the final vestiges of social italophony in the Utica-Rome area, a relic of a bygone era in a region that was once marked by widespread and deep Italian heritage and influence.

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Anyway, at one of these luncheons, my uncle used a word that garnered confused looks from others at the table.  It was quickly resolved by one of our guests that the word was dialectal and not standard Italian.  This did not come as a shock to my uncle, as he has said time and time again that the Italian dialect that was spoken in his home when he was a boy was a combination of Italian, Spanish and Latin (the linguist in me questions the veracity of this claim), but this is neither here nor there for the purpose of this post.

I wish to bring the spotlight on the old man who provided the proper Italian word for the idea that my uncle was trying to express.  Now, mind you that he is one of the humblest and most gracious and most well-spoken people I have talked with, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.  Because I was aware that he was born in Italy and is a native speaker of Italian, I decided to enquire further about the way the language is spoken in the motherland.  He happily explained to me that Italy is finally united under a common standard tongue after centuries of provincial variation; this matched my admittedly shallow understanding of Italian language history, which comes from two semesters of Elementary Italian in college, informal Internet research and playing Assassin’s Creed.

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Our guest authority on the Italian language went on to say that dialects are nowadays rightly reserved for the home.  That these dialects are not correct and should stay private.  This was a touch off-putting.

I couldn’t let that one go.  Using my reasonable linguistic rhetoric (with the caution not to offend the genuinely kind and well-meaning elder), I employed the Socratic method to query him into a corner and expose the fallacy in his notion of Italian dialects.

I asked for his agreement (successfully) with the following:

“Italian, like other Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, comes from Latin, yes?”

“And would you say that all these languages are recognised as their own sovereign modes of speech with their own unique rules?  That is, do they all have ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of being spoken?”

“Then how about twelve hundred years ago?  They’re older forms of the languages – but still distinct from each other, yes?”

“Let’s go back a couple more centuries.  They aren’t still French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, are they?  No, but would you consider them slightly evolved forms of the regional variants of Vulgar Latin?”

“So, if they’re just dialects of Latin at that point, are they incorrect forms of that language?”

A cheerful smile manifested on the aged man’s thitherto vaguely grave countenance as he said, “I see what you are saying.”

Dialects seem to carry a feint negative air.  They are unjustly felt as second-rate to what is considered standard in a language.  They are sometimes branded with such demeaning labels as “regionalism” and even “slang.”

Such attitudes are poison and will cloud the judgement of writers, orators and so-called linguists everywhere – and that veritably wise and knowledgeable twenty-one-year-old fresh out of undergraduate school with a BA in English.

I believe that this ill treatment of dialects comes from a flawed perspective on how languages grow and develop.img_0543

Dialects are not to be seen as tree branches stemming from the trunk, the standard; they are better visualised as their own individual trees growing alongside the standard, all from the same patch of earth.

Let’s use English as a template for this concept, as it’s safe to assume that it is the first language of most people who are reading this blog post.

If we examine English in the U.K. as it stands today, we’ll note the innumerable flavours scattered therein.  If we were to time-travel back to the Middle Ages, we would make a similar observation.  This is because there was as much differentiation in the language back then as there is now – or at any other point in history.  (Indeed there wasn’t just one Elizabethan vernacular.)

There were four main dialects of Old English, or Anglo-Saxon: Mercian, Kentish, Northumbrian and West Saxon.  These, along with the lesser dialects, had been on their own evolutionary courses for quite some time.  They didn’t just spawn out of nowhere.  img_0544They were brought over to Britannia by sundry Germanic tribes – chiefly the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – that left northern Europe.  And they didn’t all arrive at the same time, either; this was a migration of many peoples over the course of centuries, beginning when the Romans vacated the island.  That which we call “Old English” is actually a collection of closely-related languages spoken by different groups of people in relative proximity to one another.

What does all this mean?  It means that the English dialects today are, by and large, continuations of their ancestral mediaeval dialects, each with its own grammar, lexicon and phonology.  And those, in turn, were continuations of related Germanic tongues pre-migration, two-thousand years ago and prior.  They all grew up alongside the one lucky dialect that would become the standard for “English.”  And that’s the very problem with setting a language standard in the first place: to call one dialect the standard is to imply that related dialects are recent offshoots of it – and not separate self-governing entities that are equally ancient.

It pays a certain amount of respect to be specific when referring to the language of a particular region.  In some pockets of Scotland, it might be more appropriate to call their language “Scots” instead of “Scottish English,” despite its obvious strong kinship with Standard English.  Similarly, it is erroneous to call the languages spoken in Lombardy and Veneto “Lombard Italian” and “Venetian Italian.”  Lombard and Venetian are merely two of the many “dialects” that developed independently from one another in the area we now call Italy, but Tuscan (toscano) is the one that would serve as the basis for Standard Italian.  Again, they all have strong linguistic similarity to the standard, but they are better referred to as their own languages.

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(Remember that the country of Italy as it exists today has been around only since the late 19th century.  Before the unification, the peninsula was composed of numerous city-states.)

These dialects do not swear fealty to the country that happens to envelop them and are not owned by the country’s most privileged dialect.

Therefore, no, a “dialect” in such a case is not a second-rate version of the language standard; it is a first-rate version of itself.

All right, cool, so how about dialects that do branch off the standard?

Let’s suppose that, centuries ago, the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population in Central Europe began to adopt the language of an unspecified German dialect.

Initially, these Jews would be speaking some bastardised version of what was considered standard for the variety of German they were trying to imitate.  It was assuredly German, but with some peculiarities.  They were pronouncing words differently because they were mapping Hebrew phonology onto them, and they were sprinkling Hebrew words here and there as well as re-purposing German words to suit their culture.

There’s no doubt that, at some point, people who spoke this variety of German the “correct” or “proper” way started to view this emerging vernacular disdainfully.  I imagine that they would have said that their German was being butchered.

Nevertheless, it was concluded that this “inferior” Jewish take on their language was here to stay, and so people began calling it a dialect.

In time, this dialect had acquired its own identity, complete with its own rules and conventions.  People finally started to recognise it as its own language.

Today, we call it Yiddish.

This raises an interesting question about the validity of other dialects in other languages.  Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or “ghetto speak,” truly ruining Standard American English?  Or is it merely following its own evolutionary path?

Here’s the thing with dialects and languages: the difference is mostly arbitrary.  Given enough time, derivative dialects become their own languages.  Dialects ignore the imaginary lines humans draw and call national boundaries.  Some dialects are so ancient and distinct that they aren’t really what most people consider dialects at all.

Sociolinguist Max Weinreich popularised an apt saying about them:

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

GIF vs. JIF, and Why You’re Right Either Way

While my often controversial word pronunciations have been compiled and documented (see my first-ever blog post), there is one in particular on which I have been rather reticent.  A certain acronym that many of us Internet-dwellers encounter daily.  A certain image format…

In case you forgot to read the title of this post, I refer to the GIF.

Let’s just get this out of the way now – I say it with a hard /g/.  And I know I’m correct.  But here’s the cool part – people who say it with a soft /g/ (i.e., the /j/ sound) are also correct!  Crazy, I know.  I will spend the remainder of this post explaining how I arrived at such an outrageous and outlandish conclusion.  Despite my admitted bias, I feel that I have some measure of authority on the matter, given my knowledge of linguistics and, more important, my capacity to see both sides of the argument.

The .gif file format was introduced to the world in June 1987 by Steve Wilhite while he was working at CompuServe.  As the engineering lead of the team that invented it, by all rightsjif_ad he was the one to name it.  Wilhite called his creation, of course, the GIF (an acronym for “graphics interchange format”), and its intended pronunciation with a soft /g/ was implied in the tagline, “Choosy developers choose GIF,” a deliberate nod to the familiar slogan of Jif peanut butter.

The previous paragraph outlines the most formidable and compelling argument for the “JIF” pronunciation.  After all, if you coin a new word or phrase – even if you’re not an English teacher – you wouldn’t want people mispronouncing it.  I know *I* wouldn’t.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong* with that sentiment.

*Unless your desired pronunciation is utterly unreasonable, senseless and illogical and does not follow the conventions of the English language.  Mr. Wilhite’s “JIF” pronunciation is in the clear.

(And don’t tell me that GIF‘s acronymic nature excludes it from word status.  Concepts such as laser and radar, both technically acronyms, are well-established in our vernacular and are treated as words.)

Nevertheless, as time went on, more and more English speakers began saying it with an assumed hard /g/ pronunciation.  When this “improper” pronunciation was met with disdain from those who knew better, those in the “GHIF” camp responded by pointing out that the graphics in GIF begins with a hard /g/, and therefore the acronym should likewise be pronounced with a hard /g/.

The “ghiffers” remained steadfast in the face of the thorough, well-articulated case from the other side:point taken

“B-b-but the creator pronounces it ‘JIF!'”

The JIF-sayers had to do better.

The counter-counter-argument from the “jiffers” was that if all acronyms followed that rule, then we would pronounce JPEG “JAY-feg” instead of “JAY-peg,” as the /p/ stands for photographic – or the organisation CARE (Citizens Association for Racial Equality) with a soft /c/.  They reason that acronymic pronunciation is dependent not on the words within the acronym, but rather on what is most phonetically comfortable.

…Which is precisely the point.  Those who pronounce GIF with a hard /g/ do so because it is the more phonetically comfortable or logical to them.  And the same principle applies to those who pronounce it with a soft /g/.

And this is where I start to wax linguistic.  This pronunciation dichotomy is reflective of a very tangible rift in the DNA of English phonology.  English, as a language, can be viewed as a hybrid of Common Germanic and Latin, or more specifically, French – or even more specifically, Norman French.  (English is undoubtedly Germanic, yes, but, for the purposes of this post, I am calling it a hybrid.)  These two parent branches, to put it simply, had different takes on the consonant /g/.  English would spend the next millennium or so trying to figure out how to pronounce this curious letter following its confused childhood.  Does it take after its Germanic mother and use a guttural hard /g/?  Or does it employ a gentler, fronted soft /g/ preferred by its French stepfather?

Language personification aside, the choice comes down, in reality, to its speakers.  When we read, we see not individual letters, but letter combinations.  For me (and most, if not all GHIF-sayers, I would imagine), when I see a /g/ succeeded by an /i/, I think of words such as give, gift, girl, gill, gild, giggle, gizzard, gimmick, giddy, the prefix giga- and the surname Gilbert.  Those who say “JIF” (including creator Steve Wilhite) might model their pronunciation after words such as gin, gist, giraffe and ginger.

It is no surprise, then, that, of all the hard /g/ words I listed, over half of them assuredly are of Germanic origin (gizzard comes from French, giga- is Greek, giggle is imitative and girl and gimmick are of uncertain origin).  Conversely, three out of the four soft /g/ words I provided entered English via French, with gin (alcoholic liquor) being a shortening of geneva.

Whilst hopelessly wading through a cesspool of a website run by JIF-zealots that was dedicated to the “proper” pronunciation of their sacred word, I encountered a beacon of sound thought.  One Erik J. Macki, a like-minded fellow who is evidently well-acquainted with linguistic fundamentals and principles, had posted a comment on the webpage and gave a convincing defence of the hard /g/ pronunciation:

Thank you, Erik.  May your efforts not go unrecognised in the edification of my blog readers.

Therefore, linguistically speaking, using a hard /g/ before the vowel /i/ is as viable and historically supported in English as using a soft /g/, if not more so.

Look.  I get it.  “JIF” was the original intended pronunciation.  I respect that.  But if years of devotion to the study of linguistics has taught me anything, it is to respect language evolution – even when I don’t like it.  Word spellings, meanings and pronunciations change.  People who say “GHIF” are not wrong or improper; they are merely saying the word in the way that comes more natural to them.  If I can live with people pronouncing sherbet as “sherbert,” then Mr. Wilhite can live with people saying “GHIF.”

Bottom line?  JIF-sayers: stop shaming us for pronouncing GIF with a hard /g/.  GHIF-sayers: stop being dicks to the JIF-sayers.

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My Language Fixation

For many of my friends, the terms grammar nazi and Joseph are synonymous.  While the title grammar nazi, ignoring its obvious potentially offensive historical implications, is a somewhat accurate description of my M.O. in social situations, it fails to encapsulate all facets of my linguist persona.  In other words, it is a term that incompletely describes my relationship with language.  Grammar is but one stud on the leather-clad body of my cruel and domineering, yet sweetly rewarding, lifelong mistress known as Language.

Yes, I die a little inside when people grammatically mutilate their sentences, and, yes, I tend to correct these people (both on the internet and in speech), but I’ve dialled it back significantly.  I pick my battles nowadays; I reserve my breath for only the most repulsive concoctions of wording.  It used to be a compulsive urge, but I’ve finally learnt to control it.  (Now I mostly just judge people internally.)

Here’s what I can’t control: pretty much everything else linguistic.

You know how each person has his own “area” – a lens through which he views the world?  For example, a classically trained musician might listen to a tune and instantly be able to break down all its elements, including metre, key, chord structure, form and timbre.  Or, a geologist might go for a hike and be able to identify all the rocks and minerals in an outcropping.  Or, a seasoned ballet dancer might walk down the street and point out those with good posture and those with poor posture.  These people don’t have to think about it; their respective disciplines are ever-present in their minds and affect the way they interpret their surroundings.

For me, that discipline is language, as you should have surmised.  Language has governed my thought as long as I can remember.

Let’s begin with my native tongue, English.

Now, English often gets a bad rap for its seemingly arbitrary spellings and word pronunciations, among other things.  It receives disparagement both from people whose first language is not English and from people whose first language is English.  It seems to be the cool thing to do, and the culprits, more often than not, are those from my generation on social media sites like Tumblr.  You need not look any further than this Buzzfeed post to understand what I’m talking about.

The English language, overall, seems to be held in low regard – and too often is ignorance the cause, sadly.  However, rooted in ignorance or not, this zeitgeist of contempt for English is not groundless.  English, as with most languages, has a dynamic and exciting history – a history into which I will try to resist delving too deeply in this post, as it isn’t the only focus here.

Let me put on my hipster glasses for a moment and say that I had been noticing peculiarities in English since early gradeschool.  One item that comes to mind is the difference in pronunciation of the word the, depending on whether the next word begins with a consonant or a vowel.  I was a child of six or seven years noting, during story time, that we say “thuh dog,” but “thee end.”  Before vowels, the takes the long /e/ sound instead of the reduced vowel known as a schwa.  Of course, the other students didn’t give a rat’s ass when I pointed this out, and, if I recall correctly, the teacher didn’t really care, either.

This isn’t to say that my peers weren’t noticing oddities like I was, but what separated me from the rest was my insatiable thirst to discover why.  “That’s just the way it is” was never good enough of an answer for me.

Why do we pronounce that word differently there?  Why is that word spelt that way?  I needed to understand the reasons for our language’s weirdness.

Another game-changer occurred while I was doing an English assignment in third or fourth grade.  The homework didn’t take me long to complete, but I continued to sit at our dining room table for a minute or two because there was a “Try this!” kind of blurb at the bottom of the worksheet.  Now, obviously I’m incapable of reciting something from so long ago, but it went something like this: “Say the word think.  Do you hear the /g/ sound that sneaks in there, just before the /k/?  Try this with other words like sink and pink!”

Needless to say, I tried it, and, lo and behold, it worked.  And I tried it again.  And again and again.  And I went to bed, dwelling on this phenomenon.  It really fucked with my head.

Of course, in the early twenty-aughts, when readily accessible home internet was still in its infancy, I didn’t exactly have the wherewithal to explore this matter further, and I had to live with the dilemma that words ending in [-ink] contain the [-ing] sound.  Fast forward a decade, and Joseph can rest assured that the /g/ in [-ing] words is not, in fact, a true /g/ sound at all.  In English phonetics, [ng] is used to represent the nasal sound that we automatically produce when we say words ending with [-nk], such as think or rank.

(This also explains why some people “omit” the /g/ in gerunds such as fishing or walking.  If you hear someone say fishin or walkin’, it shouldn’t be considered lazy speech.  Don’t criticise him for leaving out a hard /g/ sound that wasn’t there to begin with.)

Anyway, while the [-ink] problem has since been resolved, back when I was a youngster, it only added fuel to my burning desire to increase my knowledge and understanding of English.

More fuel was subsequently added in eighth grade and early high school, when I was studying French and encountering cognates left and right.  It’s a good thing I chose French over Spanish, for my comprehension of English language history might be far less than it is now otherwise.  Any English speaker who has studied French will tell you just how lexically similar it is to English.  English shares more vocabulary with French than with any other Romance language.  And there’s a reason for that.  But eighth grade Joseph wrongly assumed that all these cognates like accepter and le table and excellent were in English first and that French borrowed them.

This highly erroneous assumption would be rectified some years later, after I used a word that I did not know does not exist in English.  I was discussing how something was “inceived,” or how it began.  My mother promptly told me that “inceive” is not a word.  I was in disbelief by this assertion and decided to look up the word online to prove her wrong.  To my alarm, inceive was not showing up in any web dictionaries.

“Did you mean conceive?” mocked the search engines.  No, I couldn’t have meant conceive.  Conceive means something different, obviously.

I’m the kind of guy who was always adept at recognising patterns, whether they be mathematical or linguistic.  And, by this point in my life, I was already quite familiar with prefix and suffix patterns in English.  The act of re-ceiving is reception, the act of de-ceiving is deception, the act of per-ceiving is perception and the act of con-ceiving is conception, so it stands to reason that inception, which I KNEW is a word, is the act of in-ceiving.

But, apparently, inceive was not a word.  So, I turned to Google.   I demanded answers.

Finally, some links I found shed some light on this problem.  Receivedeceiveperceive and conceive and their respective noun forms are Latin-derived words that entered English via various forms of French during the Middle English period, which lasted roughly from 1100-1500.  Inception came along a little later, toward the end of the period, directly from Latin, so its hypothetical verb form inceive never made it into our language.  One must also consider that, while the other ceive words didn’t have any certain equivalents in English and, therefore, were embraced, inceive would not have been able to oust the native word beginnan (begin), which was in common use.  English does have the verb incept, but it doesn’t carry any meanings of “beginning” or “starting.”

This marked a major turning point for me and my quest for complete understanding of English.  The inceive mystery ignited a chain reaction of discoveries for me.  Learning that the native English word beginnan resisted being purged from the language made me wonder: just how many native English words didn’t make it?

Most of them, actually.  English lost most of its native vocabulary during the Middle English period, the beginning of which is marked by the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William, duke of Normandy (French territory) conquered England.  For the next several hundred years, the nobility of England would be almost exclusively French-speaking, and their vocabulary would trickle down to the Anglo-Saxon peasants, replacing a great portion of the Old English lexicon until only its most basic words remained.  Compounds such as boc-hus (literally “book-house”) yielded to their Latinic equivalents (in this case, library).  This period of near-linguicide resulted in a heavily French-ified English and came to an end after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, at which point the monarchy was restored to a definitively English status instead of French.  But the damage had been done.

Today, we can hear in English echoes of the battles for dominance between words of Old English origin and those of Latin origin.  For example, there is hardly any difference in meaning between oversee and supervise.  Super- is a Latin prefix meaning “over, above,” and vise comes from a Latin verb meaning “to see” (think vision).  Likewise, pairs such as aware-cognizant and forbid-prohibit and foretell-predict demonstrate how rampant synonyms are in the language.

My internet education, or should I say edification, allowed me to see the error in my naive assumption that English provided the French cognates and not the other way around.  It also broadened my scope from simply grammar nazi to etymologist and, to a lesser extent, socio-linguist.

Also thanks to the internet, I have a firm understanding now not only of the English language, but also of the Indo-European language family as a whole, which includes, but is not limited to, the Indian languages (not Native American), Persian (Farsi), the Hellenic (Greek) languages, the Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian, Bosnian, etc.), the Italic languages (Latin and its descendants), the Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Cornish, etc.) and the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Gothic, the Scandinavian languages and, yes, English).

Don’t EVER tell me that English is a Romance language.  I will spend an hour lecturing you on why you’re wrong.  As I just finished explaining, Latin has had a substantial impact on our language, but English remains Germanic at its core.

It is likely that most of the words you have spoken today are of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) origin.  In fact, most of the words in the previous sentence are of Old English origin.  Ironically, the only words from that sentence that aren’t of Anglo-Saxon origin are Anglo and Saxon, which are the Latin-based renderings of the names of the Germanic tribes that settled on the island of Great Britain.  (The Angles decided to rename the region “Angle-land.”  Hmm.  Angle-land…..Angland…..England?)

I’ve also become fascinated by the kinship between English and its Germanic cousins like German and Dutch.  It’s remarkable how closely these languages’ basic vocabularies resemble each other’s.  The simple English sentence, “What is your name?” would translate to “Wat is jouw naam?” in Dutch.  The Beatles’ single I Want to Hold Your Hand was released in German as Komm, gib mir deine Hand, which any English speaker capable of sound reasoning should be able to figure out literally means, “Come, give me your hand.”  We share other basic terms such as water (German Wasser, Dutch water), hound (German Hund, Dutch hond), house (German Haus, Dutch huis) and numerous simple verbs like to find (German finden, Dutch vinden).

Another noteworthy point (which is of particular interest to me, considering that I’m an actor) is the sound of Elizabethan English – specifically, the way Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded when they were first performed.  We don’t have voice recordings from four hundred years ago, obviously, but we know, from studying various forms of linguistic evidence, a few things about what’s called “Original Pronunciation.”  The coolest part about it is that it probably sounded more like American English than like modern-day English accents.

A friend asked me recently, “When did Americans lose their British accents?”  I responded by saying that the more accurate question would be, “When did Brits lose their American accents?”  When the early Puritan settlers arrived in the New World during the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, they brought with them their dialects of English.  While mainland English accents evolved over time, the English spoken in the Americas remained relatively unchanged.  American English can, therefore, be considered “snapshots” of 16th and 17th century English and, by extension, a superior guide to pronouncing Shakespeare.  If you’re an American actor practising Shakespeare, my informed linguistic recommendation is to eschew affecting a contemporary English accent; your natural American accent is likely better suited for the Bard’s work.

What’s most remarkable to me, however, is the notion of a common language that united the Proto-Indo-European settlers thousands and thousands of years ago.  As these groups began to disperse and became separated from each other, the aforementioned sub-families such as Germanic and Slavic and Celtic started to develop.  Indeed, to a linguist like me, English and Welsh and French and German and Russian and Albanian and Greek and Sanskrit are not separate languages, but rather distant dialects of the same parent tongue.

Does my language fixation affect the way I interact with the world?  Well, I strive toward impeccable grammar and usage in both speech and writing, I can effortlessly and almost instantaneously dissect a sentence and indicate which words descend from Old English and which ones do not, I’ve studied sound shifts and word origins and can, as a result, recognise cognates and other relationships where most people cannot.

So, to answer my question, I would say that, yes, it absolutely does.  My brain doesn’t take any breaks when it comes to language.  I will analyze just about anything thrown at me.  I’ll notice grammatical errors, of course, but also your word choices and the way you pronounce your words and everything else.  I can’t control it, and, to be frank, I’m all right with that.


Before ending this post completely, there is something else I wanted to include here.  It’s the idea of “interchangeable Latin roots.”  Remember the receive-deceive-perceive-conceive pattern that I discussed earlier?  It’s the same deal, but greatly expanded.  I wanted to design an Excel-styled chart that illustrates relationships between a bunch of Latin-derived words in English.

On the y-axis, I’ve included Latin-derived verb bases.  On the x-axis, I’ve listed some of the most common Latin prefixes, which can be attached to the verbs to slightly alter their meanings and yield different common English words.

Before you view the chart, here is your handy-dandy reference guide:

Verb bases:

ject – “throw”
spect – “look”
tain – “hold”
mit – “send”
fer – “bear”
port – “bring, carry”
duce – “lead”
sist – “stand firm”
fuse – “pour”
scribe – “write”
tract – “draw”
pend– “hang, weigh”
form – “shape, form”

Prefixes:

in- “in, into”
ex– “out (of), from”
re– “back, again, against”
de– “down (from), away”
com– “with, together”
sub– “under, below, beneath”
pro– “forth, forward”
ad– “toward, at”
ob– “to, toward”; sometimes used as intensifier
pre– “before”
trans– “across, beyond”
dis– “apart, away”
ab– “off, away from”
per– “through, thoroughly, utterly”

Any word with the abbreviation obs. (obsolete) attached to it means that it has fallen out of common usage.  While these words are almost never encountered in speech and writing, I feel that they still must be included, as they demonstrate the kind of word construction I’m spotlighting.

One last thing to keep in mind before you examine the graphic is that, for each combination, I tried to find a verb.  If a combination didn’t correspond to any English verb, then I used another part of speech such as noun or adjective if one was available.  One such example is the combination of com- and ject, for which I included the noun conjecture, as the verb conject does not exist in English.

latin roots 2

 

*Demit has two separate etymologies: one with the de- root and one with the dis- root.
**Note the stress on the first syllable of sufferoffer and differ.  These words were in English longer than others and had more time for their stress patterns to shift.
***While fuse is the base commonly seen in English verbs, the “correct” form would be found, a root preserved in confound.  “Fuse” actually comes from fusus, which is the past participle of fundere, the infinitive of the verb meaning “to pour.”
****While the verb conscribe, meaning “enlist,” is the correct form here, conscript is more common.
*****”You forgot perform!”  Well, as it turns out, the form in this word is actually a corrupted version of the unrelated Old French verb fornir (to furnish), so it doesn’t count.  I was just as surprised as you are.

I hope that this chart was able to help you see relationships in English vocabulary that you may not have noticed before.  If you refer to the guide I created above it, then you can use it to break down each word and discover its literal meaning.  Let’s take transport, for instance.  Trans- (across) + port (bring) = bring across.

Or, how about subject?  When somebody is “subjected” to punishment, the person is being “thrown under” punishment.

Or, when an electronic device emits a signal, it’s “sending out” a signal.

Or, finally, when you are attracted to someone, you are (usually quite literally) “drawn toward” that person.


All right, I’m done.  Still working on finding a suitable length for my posts.  This one is considerably shorter than the previous, but it probably still exceeds most readers’ attention spans.  As always, if you bothered to read the whole thing, thank you.  I’m always welcoming feedback and other thoughts, so feel free to comment!

Stay tuned!

“Wait, say that word again?”

In recent years, I have received a lot of attention (both positive and negative) for the way I pronounce certain words.  Anyone who’s spent enough time with me knows that I don’t sound like a central New Yorker.  I might as well clear the air right now and list a bunch of words that you and I may/probably pronounce differently.  And chances are that I will come up with even more after this draft has been published.

Please note that any of these pronunciations may be overridden by a different pronunciation when I’m singing or when I’m imitating a character who uses a different pronunciation.

Also, all these pronunciations have the potential to shift over the course of my life.

  • Twenty – I pronounce this word exactly as it’s written.  For me, it rhymes with plenty, not funny.  (I do sing “twunny-one guns” when singing along to the Green Day song)
  • Advertisement – emphasis on second syllable; roughly [uh d-VUR-tis-muh nt]; for the record, my grandmother and my great uncle – both Americans – pronounce it this way as well; I generally shorten it to ad, anyway.
  • Harass(ment) – emphasis on first syllable; sounds almost identical to the surname Harris; this is actually the traditional pronunciation; I use the “ha-RASS” pronunciation if I’m imitating the Sexual Harassment Panda from South Park
  • Renaissance – When I talk about where I worked over the summer, I’m referring to the “Renée since” festival.  Because I don’t want to receive weird looks from people, I usually just shorten it to “Ren festival.”
  • Lawyer – more like “law-yer” and not “loi-yer”
  • Elementary – pretend the /a/ isn’t there; “elementry”; same goes for some other “-ary words” like sedimentary and rudimentary
  • Tournament – first syllable sounds like tore and not “turr”
  • Waistcoat – I use the traditional pronunciation [WES-kit].  Why, do you ask?  Why don’t I just say “waist coat?”  Well, when YOU say breakfast, do you say “break fast?” And do you say “boat swain” when you say boatswain (which is sometimes written more phonetically bosun)?
  • Folk(s) – I do not pronounce the /l/.  It rhymes with poke.
  • Almond – Like in folk, I don’t pronounce the /l/ here.  The /l/ was actually added BY MISTAKE hundreds of years ago.  “Ah-mond.”  Kinda like how you don’t pronounce the /l/ in calm.
  • Mayonnaise – I pronounce all three syllables.  I don’t say “man-aise.”
  • Crayon – I pronounce both syllables; “cray on.”
  • Les Misérables – I pronounce the “les” at the end of the second word.  You see those three letters after the /b/?  That’s not a silent syllable.  It’s just a short “luh.”

  • Penchant – I use the French approximation [PAHN-SHAHN] instead of the Anglicised [PEN-chuh nt].

  • Ambience – I pronounce this word like I would pronounce its adjectival form ambient – except with an /s/ sound at the end instead of a /t/.  PLEASE NOTE that this is the word ambience – with an /e/ between the /i/ and /n/.  If it is the word ambiance – with an /a/ between /i/ and /n/ – then I will pronounce it the French way.
  • Devereux – There’s a street in Utica, NY with this name.  You’ll hear me pronounce it the French way – not “Dever-oh.”

  • Cliché – I pronounce the /i/ as a long /e/ to make it more like the French pronunciation.

  • Notre Dame – Again, French pronunciation here.  [noh-truh DAHM]

  • Macabre – Another French-derived word.  I pronounce all three syllables.  Rhymes with chupacabra.
  • Bouquet – First syllable is pronounced “boo,” not “boh.”
  • Melee – I pronounce it more like “meh-lay,” not “may-lay.”
  • -eur words (connoisseur, entrepreneur, etc.) – These do not rhyme with “sewer.”  More like an “urr.”  It’s as if they end with a stressed [-er] suffix (which [-eur] essentially is, anyway).
  • Zebra – For me, the /e/ is short, not long.  “ZEB-ra.”  Not “ZEE-bra.”

  • Zenith – Same deal as zebra.  Short /e/.

  • Catch – I pronounce it to rhyme with match.  “Catch up” does not sound like “ketchup” for me.

  • Often – I do not pronounce the /t/.  You don’t pronounce the /t/ in soften, do you?

  • Either/Neither – The first syllable takes the long /i/ vowel, not long /e/.  I don’t say “eether” and “neether.”

  • Flaccid – I pronounce both C’s in the word.  Should be “flack sid,” not “flassid.”  Do you say accident or “ass-ident?”  Not sure I want to know what an “ass-ident” is.  Also, there’s coccyx.

  • Coitus – Three syllables.  Think more “COH-it-us” and less “coy-tus.”
  • Oedipus – I pronounce it “EE-dipus.”  Yup.  Sorry.
  • Forte – If I’m talking about a strength I possess (or don’t possess), I pronounce it “fort,” which is the traditional way of pronouncing it, believe it or not.  If I’m using the musical term (which is a different word, I might add), meaning “loud” or “strong,” I pronounce it the way you’d expect.
  • Bade/Forbade – You likely will never hear me utter these words outside the Ren festival, but I use the traditional pronunciation [bad], not [beyd].  They are the simple past tenses of bid and forbid, as in, “I bade him farewell,” or, “I forbade her from going out.”
  • Get/Forget – I do NOT change these to “git” or “forgit.”  I might use “git” if I’m singing Get Back by The Beatles.
  • Tomorrow – “to-MORE-oh”
  • Because – I pronounce it “because,” not “becuz.”  The same logic does NOT apply, however, if I’m using the clipped form ’cause.
  • Envelope – I pronounce it “en-velope,” not “on-velope.”
  • Caramel – I pronounce all three syllables.  I don’t say “carmel.”
  • Veteran – Again, all three syllables.  I don’t say “vetren.”
  • Aluminium – “Al-you-MIN-yim” (note the spelling, too)
  • Epoch – I say it like “EE-pock,” not “epic.”
  • Prelude – [PREL-yood]
  • Deluge – [DEL-yoozh]
  • Arctic/Antarctic – I pronounce all C’s and T’s in these two words.
  • Appalachia(n) – For the third syllable, think “latch.”
  • Aussie – “Auzzie.”
  • Sahara – Middle syllable takes a broad /a/ sound.  Think “sa-HARR-a” and not “sa-HAIR-a.”
  • Oregon – Final syllable is unstressed.  It does NOT rhyme with con.
  • New Orleans – “OR-linz.”  Crucify me.
  • Clinton – Whether I’m talking about Billary or the village in NY, I fully pronounce the /t/.  “Clin tin.”  Same principle applies for badminton.
  • Moscow – I pronounce it like “MOZ-coh.”  I blame The Beatles’ Back in the USSR for this one.
  • Charlemagne – Believe it or not, the name of the great Frankish king has come up in conversation amongst friends enough times to warrant itself a place on this list.  I use the French approximation [shar-luh-MAHN-yuh].  I don’t do this for champagne, however (unless it’s in a play, and it makes sense for the character).
  • Vicarious – For me, the first /i/ is short, not long.
  • Simultaneous – Same as above: first /i/ is short.
  • Cyclical – Same still (kinda): the /y/ is a short /i/.
  • Debacle – somewhat Anglicised; roughly “dibackle”
  • Trespass – Second syllable is unstressed.  Think of it more like “trespus.”  Or, say the word compass.  Now replace “com” with “tres.”  That’s the way I pronounce it.
  • Comfortable – I pronounce four syllables.  “Comfort-able,” not “comfterble.”
  • Halloween – The first part of the word is hallow, not hollow.
  • Applicable – Stress on second syllable.
  • Associate (noun & verb) – The /c/ takes the /s/ sound, not the /sh/ sound.
  • Grocery – Same as above: treat the /c/ as an /s/.
  • Species – Again: the /c/ is an /s/.
  • Interesting/Interested – I pronounce the first /e/ in both words.  I don’t say “intresting” or “intrested.”  Think more “inter-esting” and “inter-ested.”
  • Pianist – Stress on first syllable.  Laugh it up.
  • Adagio – Musical term meaning “slow.”  I use an Italian approximation [uh-DAH-joh].  Not [uh-DAH-zhee-oh].  It’s not French.
  • Arpeggio – Another musical term.  I approximate the Italian with [ar-PE-jo].  Not [ar-PE-zhee-oh].  Again, it’s not French.
  • Trauma – For me, the first syllable rhymes with “cow,” not “law.”
  • Wont – I say it just like I say the contraction won’t.
  • Privacy – The /i/ is short, as in privy.
  • Albino – The /i/ is pronounced like a long /e/.
  • Trapeze – First syllable is unstressed.  I do not say “trap ease”
  • Cordial(ly) – For me, the /d/ is unchanged by the /i/.  I do not say “corjal.”  It’s more like “cord-ial.”
  • Sentient – Opposite of above; the /t/ is modified by the /i/.  I do not say “sent-ient,” but rather [SEN-shuh nt].  Say the word mention, but with a /t/ at the end.  “Mentiont.”  It rhymes with that.
  • Suggest – I don’t pronounce the first /g/.
  • Herb – I pronounce the /h/.  Same goes for any derived terms such as herbivore and herbology.
  • Nonsense – Second syllable is unstressed.  Sounds roughly like “non since.”
  • Leisure – rhymes with pleasure
  • Enquiry – I basically say “enquire-y.”
  • Patronise – The /a/ is short, not long.  Oddly enough, this is not the case in patron.
  • Data – “day-ta”
  • Aesthetic – basically “ees-thetic”
  • Basil – think “bazzle”
  • Fifth – I pronounce the second /f/.
  • Width – I pronounce the /d/.
  • Clothes – I pronounce the /th/.
  • Scenario – rhymes with Mario, not Ontario
  • Orange – Two syllables.  Not “ornj.”
  • Subject, Object (noun) – The second syllables are unstressed.  They sound more like “jict” than “ject.”  Remember, this is only for the noun forms.  It’s different for the verb forms.
  • Pure, Sure, Lure – The U’s in these take the /oo/ vowel, as in foot.
  • Surprise – I pronounce the first /r/.  Think “Sir Prize.”
  • February – I pronounce the first /r/.  “Feh-broo-ary.”  Not “Feh-byoo-ary.”
  • Governor – I pronounce the first /r/.
  • Horror, Terror, Error, Mirror, etc. – I make sure to pronounce both syllables here so as NOT to make them sound like whore and tear and air and mere.  To people who are not used to hearing me speak, it might sound like I’m putting an extra /r/ in these words.
  • Drawers – I can go a little overboard with the whole “pronounce both syllables” thing.  I say drawers with an intrusive /r/ immediately after “draw.”  It sounds like “drawrers.”  This is the ONLY pronunciation of mine for which I give you permission to make fun of me.  Incidentally, I don’t have an intrusive /r/ when I say drawer, as in “one who draws.”  This also does not happen with withdrawal.
  • Syllabic – For me, the /a/ is short, not broad.  I don’t say “syll-AH-bic.”
  • Congratulations – The first /t/ makes the /ch/ sound, not the /j/ sound.  Think “gratch.”
  • Student, Stupid – For me, the T’s morph into Ch’s.  Think “chewdent” and “chewpid,” but with S’s before the “chew” parts.
  • Aryan – First syllable is “are,” not “air.”
  • Luxury – I say it more like “luck-sher-ee.”  Not “lug-zher-ee.”
  • Exit – The /x/ sounds like an /x/.  I don’t say “egg-zit.”  (ew)
  • Laboratory – Remember the way Dexter would say it in Dexter’s Lab?  “Dee Dee, get out of my la-BOR-atory!”  Pretty much like that.  (I usually just shorten it to lab, though.)
  • Fastidious – First syllable is unstressed.  Does not sound like “fast-idious.”
  • Citizen – I pronounce the /z/ like a /z/, not an /s/.
  • Homage – “Om-idge.”  I use the Anglicised pronunciation.
  • Via – rhymes with Kia
  • Citadel – Imagine there’s another /l/ at the end.  I say it like “citta-dell.”
  • Plaza – first /a/ is short; does not sound like “plAHza”
  • Imbecile – Final syllable rhymes with teal.
  • Vermouth – Say Plymouth, as in Plymouth Rock.  Now replace “ply” with “ver.”  That’s how I pronounce vermouth.  “VER-mith.”
  • Kindergarten – I don’t say “kinder garden,” but rather “kinder garten,” with a /t/.  It’s closer to the German pronunciation.
  • Nietzsche – I do not say “Neechee.”  I use the German pronunciation [NEE-chuh].  The second syllable is unstressed.  For those of you not versed in IPA, this is known as a schwa.  Take the word comma, for example.  The /a/ at the end is a type of schwa.  If I were to Anglicise the spelling, the philosopher’s name would be “Neecha.”
  • Python, Phenomenon – The final syllables are unstressed.  They do not rhyme with con.  Think of the final syllable in button.  By the way, these are also schwas.  And, yes, when I say “Monty Python,” it’s probably different from the way you say it.
  • Irony – “Eye-rin-y.”  I do not say “iron-y.”  Unless I’m describing the taste of blood.  *cue vampire laugh*
  • Route – “Root.”  Does not rhyme with shout.
  • Resourceful – Basically, the /s/ is a /z/.
  • Address (verb AND noun) – “a dress”
  • Merry – For me, marry and merry are not homophones.  Merry sounds more like “mehrry.”
  • Pecan – All right, so, I almost didn’t include this one because I NEVER SAY IT.  The only time I say it is when I’m telling people that I never say it.  It’s one of those words that, no matter how it’s pronounced, gets looks from people.  For me, if ever there is a time at which this word must pass my lips, it rhymes with beacon.  Not “pi-CAHN.”  Not “pee-can.”  (ew)
  • Uranus – Another lose-lose word.  Say it with stress on the second syllable, and people giggle because you just said “your anus.”  Say it with stress on the first, and you just said “urinous.”  So, I’ve come up with my own pronunciation: [yoo-RA-nuh s] or “yi-RAN-iss”
  • Z – Get ready for a bombshell here.  Yes, I say zed.  Not zee.  To be fair, though, this one is affected on my part.  After all, no child in American public schooling is taught to say zed.  We are taught zee so as to rhyme with V when we sing our ABC’s.  But once I realised just how etymologically unsupported zee is when compared to zed, I stopped using the former.  It is an Americanism – a corruption of zed, which comes from the Greek letter zeta.  HOWEVER, I still use the pronunciation zee if it is part of a name – like Dragon Ball Z and ZZ Top.
  • Difficult, Culminate, Pulp, Indulge, etc. – For me, the “ul” letter combination takes the pronunciation “uhl.”
  • Anti-, Multi-, Semi- The /i/ in each of these prefixes takes the long /e/ vowel.  Unless I’m talking about a semi truck.  Then I say “sem-eye.”
  • Quasi – Remember the hunchback’s name?  Quasimodo?  The first element of his name is how I always pronounce quasi, whether I’m using it as an adjective or a prefix.  [KWAH-zee]
  • -ile words (missile, hostile, fertile, versatile, etc.) – These words always rhyme with tile.
  • Candidate – I pronounce both D’s in this word.  Also, the second /a/ is long.  “Candid ate.”
  • Bounty, Winter, Centre – I pronounce the T’s.  When I say them, they never sound like “bouny” and “winner” and “cenner.”  This goes for any “nt” letter combination like these.
  • Words with “guttural /t/” (certain, important, forgotten, etc.) – If you do not know what I mean by “gutteral /t/,” say “uh-oh.”  That break you feel in the throat between each syllable is called a glottal stop.  In many words, T’s are replaced with glottal stops for most speakers.  Not for me, though.  I typically fully pronounce the T’s in words like those listed here.

If those weren’t bad enough, here are some past tenses I use that may raise some eyebrows:

  • Span (I still use spun as the past participle of spin.)
  • Sneaked (Snuck is actually nonstandard.)
  • Dived (Dove is a type of bird.)
  • Leant (Do you say meaned or meant?)
  • Dreamt
  • Learnt, spilt, spelt, etc. (For me, some verbs take the [-t] suffix in lieu of [-ed].  You’ll get over it.)

And, before you label me a Brit, let me remind you that there are PLENTY of words for which I use pronunciations that are more aligned with my region, that is to say, more or less how you might expect.  A few:

*same caveats from before still apply*

  • Garage
  • Respite
  • Schedule
  • Clerk
  • Jaguar
  • Lieutenant
  • Vase
  • Tomato
  • Vitamin
  • Evolution (unless I’m singing Revolution by The Beatles)
  • Status
  • Figure
  • Glacier
  • Project, Progress (noun)
  • Moustache
  • Again/Against
  • Hurry
  • Template
  • Baton (but not in Baton Rouge)
  • Mario
  • Mafia
  • Patriot
  • Caveat
  • Pasta
  • Strawberry (or blueberry, raspberry, etc.)
  • Premiere

And now for a few words whose pronunciations VARY:

  • Sorry – I seem to say “sore-y” exclusively to strangers – like when I bump into them.
  • Aunt – By itself, it’s pronounced [ahnt].  Combined with a name, it becomes [ant].
  • Adult – If I use it as an adjective, I put the stress on the first syllable.  Otherwise, stress on the second.
  • Fortune – I typically say “FOR-choon,” but not when it’s followed immediately by cookie.
  • Been – When it’s stressed, it comes out [bin].  Like, “How’ve you been?”  I never say “Ben.”
  • -isation words – sometimes the /i/ is long; sometimes it’s short
  • Niche – The age-old debate.  My solution: I say “nitch” when referring to a literal recess in a wall – but I say “neesh” when referring to a figurative “suitable place or position.”
  • Boulevard – I say “boo-levard,” unless I’m talking about a named road, in which case it’s “bull-evard.”

I know that this was a super long first post, but thank you dearly if you read the whole thing.  If you are curious about the way I pronounce any other words, names or phrases, leave a comment here or on Facebook (or shoot me an e-mail), and I will happily respond to it!  Cheers!