Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Miscellany of Pronunciation

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? … One common language I'm afraid we'll never get. Oh, why can't the English learn to speak?" So said Prof. Henry Higgins in song. Sort of. As played by Rex Harrison, Higgins intoned the memorable "My Fair Lady" numbers in something midway between speaking and singing.

From the amount of grumbling I hear from those who do not share my love of the English language, I gather that it is considered difficult. Knowing how to pronounce words seems particularly troublesome for many. I usually counter that dictionaries literally spell out how to say words. Or I did until a co-worker airily dismissed this objection, saying she had no idea how to interpret the dictionary's phonetic markings. I was shocked into silence. How do you get out of school without learning that? And even if you did, it is clearly explained in the first few pages.

If others are as clueless, I guess it explains a radio spot currently running here. It's for Birmingham magazine, a slick, upscale publication directed at the area's most affluent citizens. Touting an issue focused on arts, the "voice talent" promises articles on area "artesians." Oh, my. I guess the arts in this city are so abundant it's as if they are springing from the earth.

Of course, he means "artisans," which really refers to skilled craftsmen, but why quibble? "Artesian" does sound grander, if you don't actually know it refers to wells. Clearly Mr. Voice Talent is unfamiliar with the concept of looking up a word before heading into the recording studio.

I'll grant that knowing how to pronounce words can be tricky. On two recent occasions I have gone to the dictionary to check strange pronunciations from a couple of educated speakers. One was "fiat." I heard a historian say it, in the sense of an arbitrary order. While I pronounce it the same as the automobile, this man said FEE-uht. Guess what? That's the first pronunciation.

The second occasion was hearing a Brit say "miscellany." I don't know if this is the way it's pronounced across the pond, but he said miss-SELL-uh-nee. Again, I found this was an acceptable pronunciation. Now I'm thinking it's actually easier to say it this way. But I'm resisting the temptation to give it the British twist, because I doubt people around here would know what I was saying…despite all those artesians we have.


  1. My English friend corrects my pronunciation often. He derisively speaks of BirmingHAM, emphasis, emphasis, very flat A, when he means the Alabama city... but it took me awhile to figure out Mr. McGarbie and Carble. (One is a head of state, and the other is a capital city.) When he says a thing he "says" it, pronounced just as it is spelled!

  2. LOL! Had to say "McGarbie" and "Carble" several times, but I think I've figured it out. My guess is "Mugabe" and "Kabul."