Friday, April 8, 2011

Tomayto, Tomahto

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" So said Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and I would only add that Americans don't do any better. Of course, Prof. Higgins averred in the same song that "In America they haven't used it —(the English language)—for years."

Higgins was concerned with pronunciation and the "verbal class distinction" that flowed out of the different accents found in Old Blighty. Accents and speech patterns certainly can hinder one in career ladder and social climbing, even in our far-more fluid society than Higgins's London. But I'm more concerned here with words that we, as a society, just can't seem to decide how to pronounce.

One that has bothered me for years is "Caribbean." I continue to pronounce it as I first heard it, with the accent on the "be." That's certainly the way Southerners—and Brits, such as Prof. Higgins—traditionally pronounced it. It's far more euphonious to my ear than the "rib" emphasis, but the latter pronunciation is becoming the norm. I attribute the spread of Ca-RIB-be-an to advertising by the cruise line Royal Caribbean, which selected that pronunciation. Of course, Capt. Jack Sparrow and the gang from Pirates of the Caribbean gave a boost to my team, but unless the cruise line goes under, metaphorically speaking, I expect that to fade as the films disappear into Disney's movie vault.

Then there's "caramel." We have at least three frequently heard pronunciations for that: "CARE-uh-muhl," "care-uh-MELL" and "CAR-muhl." So far I haven't heard "cuh-RAM-uhl," but it could be just a matter of time.

What about pajamas? I don't know why some people choose to have "jam" with their pajamas, but I'm told the word came to us from Hindustani, by way of the British Raj. Surely Col. Pickering wore pa-JAH-mas. (The colonel was Prof. Higgins's house guest and foil in the musical.)

For me, the greatest confusion of all comes from "route." Frankly, I don't know how I pronounce this. I think it differs by context. If I were ever to get my kicks on Route 66, I would certainly say it the way the song does—"root." However, the device that plugs into my modem is certainly my "rowter." I just have to avoid this word in conversation. "I don't have to map out a…way to go. I just follow my Garmin's directions."

That useful device not only obviates map-folding, a skill I never acquired, but saves me from the awful root-or-rowt decision.

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