Sunday, 10 June 2007

On imaginary pronunciations

A correspondent writes to ask if there is a term to describe the situation when someone insists that two words should be pronounced differently because of the spelling. She recalls a case from her childhood when a teacher told her to pronounce the words threw and through differently because they are spelled differently. She remembers the teacher haranguing the class: 'an educated person pronounces the letters in a word'. And she has since come across it many times (she writes from the USA) - people who believe they pronounce the l in half or the b in debt, and so on, even though they do not.

My correspondent suggests the term 'Holofernizing', after the pedant in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost - which is not a bad idea. She worries about the legitimacy of using Holofernes' name in this way, for he was someone who (judging by the text) really did pronounce the b in debt. But I wonder if he did. Certainly I have never seen a Holofernes on stage where the actor took that character-note seriously, and spelling-pronounced all his words. It would probably produce an unintelligible performance.

I don't know how much Holofernization there is among teachers in Britain, but I imagine it is there. It is unfortunately quite common to find people whose beliefs about language run contrary to their practice. Even more common, of course, is the reverse situation to the one described by my correspondent: people who condemn a usage which they do unconsciously practice themselves - such as those who condemn an 'intrusive r', and take pains to avoid introducing one in law and order, but do it all the time in such less noticeable cases as Africa and Asia. I don't have a term for that either.

Is there an alternative term to 'Holofernization'? I don't know of one. Linguistic terminology focuses on language realities, not imaginings. There are very few terms for states of mind about language - hypercorrection is one, when people over-compensate for an uncertain usage (as in the case of between you and I). It would be good to formally identify this problem - for, according to my correspondent, many American children are being berated by teachers for failing to make distinctions which have no basis in reality.

Perhaps a reader of this blog will come up with a better one.

19 comments:

alienvoord said...

I'm not sure that hypercorrection is the explanation for "between you and I", at least not entirely. It has been attested since the 1600s, well before English grammar was taught in school.

DC said...

My parenthetical remark was intended to be synchronic, not diachronic. I wasn't suggesting that hypercorrection explains the origins of the usage. But it is certainly the main factor involved in debate over the issue today.

I hope this comment won't distract readers from the main point of the post.

MM said...

Orthographogger? Syllable splitter?

MM said...

This reminds me of the time when the BBC insisted on differentiating between guerrilla and gorilla. (Maybe they still do)

DC said...

Nice example. I can imagine some psychological motivation to make these different, though, as there are likely to be cases where a spoken sentence could be ambiguous, or at least a source of unwanted jocularity, if the pronunciations were the same. This happens from time to time. For instance, some people in the US adopt a pronunciation of babel as 'bay-bell' rather than the US norm of 'bab-uhl' to avoid a confusion with babble. And there's the famous case of the medieval title count, which some etymologists think fell out of use because of its phonetic similarity to cunt.

These are all cases, though, where people realize there is a pronunciation issue and try to make a phonetic difference of some kind. My original correspondent was drawing attention to cases where people believe there is a difference in pronunciation between two words because of the spelling, when in fact there isn't - as if, to take another example, two is pronounced differently from too. It becomes a problem when teachers of children learning to read insist on the child making a difference in such cases - a source of real confusion, as of course there is none. I haven't come across this very often in the UK, but she says it is quite common in the US.

MM said...

Yes, I see it's different. Ihad only thought of the hypercorrection of 'often' and so on.
Thanks for the information on Count. I thought we didn't have any, but then I suppose there would be no counties

KateGladstone said...

Although I've never seen a stage Holofernes who spelling-pronounced all his lines (as Dr. Crystal remarks, this would make the role unintelligible), in the (few) performances I've seen, Holofernes during that one scene (but not elsewhere) spelling-pronounces the words whose normal pronunciations he despised: e.g., sounding an /l/ in "calf," a "b" in "debt," etc., because he believes that everyone should do so. His role might provoke even more laughter, though, if the actor took the opposite approach — if, while criticizing others' normal pronunciation of "calf" and "debt" and so on, he himself actually pronounced these words just the same as everyone else (while claiming, of course, not to do so.) Has anyone ever seen the play acted with Holofernes' role played this way?

Kate Gladstone - Dr. Crystal's correspondent on this matter of imagined pronunciations.

Anonymous said...

I think I have another example of an imaginary distinction in pronunciation. Hope you can confirm or confute:

"won" and "one" as in:

"He won the match"
"It was only one match"

You mentioned "received pronunciation". What does received pronunciation say about "won" and "one"? Does it distinguish?

DC said...

They are homophones in RP. I have heard some people differentiate them, but I think there's usually a regional accent explanation. That happens in my case - I pronounce won to rhyme with gone, but won to rhyme with gun, and I attribute that to my background in Wales and Liverpool.

Anonymous said...

Hello. WHat would you say about "wonder" and "wander"? Are we looking at two words with (slightly) different pronunciations?

Seems to me that with "received pronunciation" "wonder" is pronounced as if the "won" were like the numeral "one", whereas in "wander" the "wan" sounds as if the vowel were like the "o" in "off".

Or is this just imaginary? Are they in fact homophones?

DC said...

They're contrastive in RP, yes. I've occasionally heard them as homophones in some regional accents.

KateGladstone said...

This phenomenon of imaginary pronunciations has worse to it than even I'd suspected.

The web-site of one "Dr. Goodwords," one of the USA's swarm of self-proclaimed "experts on language," seriously informs its trusting visitors that the English language contains an invisible suffix (which, Dr. Goodwords cautions us, is despite its invisibility nevertheless "not inaudible.") See for yourself at
http://www.alphadictionary.com/blog/?p=220

DC said...

I can see his point, though. It's odd calling the stress contrast in words like debate noun vs verb a 'suffix', but it has in linguistics often been called a 'superfix'. Usage issues aside, there is a formal contrast there. It isn't invisible at all, really.

KateGladstone said...

Documentary evidence of "Holofernizing" in mid-twentieth-century USA literacy education: the following quote appears (among much else of interest) on an Internet page whose participants discussed their memories of learning to read and (specifically) their teachers' differing opinions on which alphabet-letters to classify as vowels:

http://www.librarything.com/talktopic.php?topic=39850

[quote] ... I started school, if I calculate correctly, in 1949 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and I remember first studying the alphabet in kindergarten. Along the way I learned that the vowels were a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w. I never understood the inclusion of w, but it was there for us.

It induced in me and many of my classmates lip rounding. We distinguish who from hoo. In linguistics, in graduate school, we learned about glides, and a w[-]like thing can be a vocalic glide. Perhaps in grade school we were taught an underinformed mash[-]up of orthography and linguistics. ...
[end of quote]

To David -- and to anyone else who reads this quote and/or visits that web-page: I'd value your comments on the above quote and on the rest of the reminiscences/observations/emotional outbursts at http://www.librarything.com/talktopic.php?topic=39850

KateGladstone said...

A vERY dramatic case of protracted lifelong Holofernization ...

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2762#comment-111210

KateGladstone said...

Further: see http://painintheenglish.com/posts/comment/585 ... In particular, the comment by "Carol"

KateGladstone said...

Another example of Holoferization: the very stupid comment made in the following "expert" article about the "broadcast English" which American newscasters are trained to speak:

http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/1807-tv-announcers-voice.html — "Another reason why news anchors share speech patterns is that they are all taught to use standard broadcasting English, a form of pronunciation in which no letters are dropped. For example, they must always say 'fishing,' not 'fishin'. ... "

I've left at that site a stern comment, pointing out that if they were really speaking in any manner which required that a sound be produced for every letter written, all American newscasters would sound like Monty Python's French knights who carefully pronounced "knight" as "k'nig'hut"! David and all, I DON'Twant to be the only one giving that weirdly uninformed columnist the talking-to that he or she deserves — will you please go there, too, and write something?

DC said...

Thanks to Kate for drawing my attention to a typo in a post of mine earlier in this thread (24 May): it should read one to rhyme with gone.

SuperCroup said...

I have a friend who INSISTS she pronounces the apostrophe in "Hallowe'en".