Thursday, August 11, 2011

Professor Higgins, the French and me

"The French don't care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly." Henry Higgins, "My Fair Lady"

I'm afraid the younger generation (i.e., anyone who has never dialed a rotary phone) are not as familiar with the delightfully horrid Prof. Henry Higgins as I am. Created by a true word crank, George Bernard Shaw, Higgins was a grammarian's grammarian. Shaw made him funny and tragic. Rex Harrison made him sexy.

Higgins's (and Shaw's) insight was that language was both a barrier and a vehicle for social mobility. "It's 'aoow' and 'g'on' that keep her in her place, Not her wretched clothes and dirty face." Take away the Cockney accent and a girl living two steps from the gutter could mingle with the upper crust of stratified Edwardian society.

Twenty-first century America is not even close to that petrified social order, but accent and pronunciation still convey information about who we are, and just which pigeon hole our listeners think we fit in.

Perhaps it's a bit of status anxiety that causes me to be punctilious about pronunciation. But mostly it is that as a card-carrying logophile, I can't truly take on a new word if I don't know how it sounds. A novel with a character whose name I don't know how to say is sure to be one that I will set aside. I worry on every page how I should say the name.

Anyway, here are some recent examples of words that have confused me. A local jewelry store's Facebook post informed me that peridot is August's gem of the month, and is pronounced "PEAR-ih-doe." Really? My dictionary disagrees. According to the jeweler, only the Apache Indians who mine it pronounce the "t." They're wrong about that because it's always been "per-ih-dot" to me. So, do I go high-end and give the word a French twist or do I stay with the miners?

And would someone please tell me how to pronounce "Turandot"? The encyclopedias are all over the map. It's ridiculous that I have actually seen this opera, but I don't know how to tell anyone.

A recent plane crash caused confusion, as well. Contessa Brewer on MSNBC said it was a Delta Bombardier, which she called "bahm-BAHR-dee-ur." It's a Canadian aircraft, so I need to know if that's how "bahm-bah-DEER" is pronounced way up north.

N.B. I have always thought no one on Earth could come close to Rex Harrison's personification of Higgins. But I note now that a 1984 production of "Pygmalion" had Peter O'Toole in the role. Where is a time machine when you need one?

1 comment:

  1. Both Anglophonic and Francophonic Canadians pronounce Bombardier as it would be in Montréal or Paris.