Thursday, May 04, 2006

Miss Pronunciation

So. It's time to confess a rather embarrassing linguistic habit. (Other than, of course, my habit of starting nearly all my sentences with "so.") For the necessary background, let me state this: I'm usually quite good with language. I'm a marvelous English speaker, actually--what a good vocabulary! Without a strong accent! And so fluent! It's almost like I've been speaking it all my life or something.

The problem, though, is that I learn nearly all my new words from books. I read quite a bit, and often encounter words in print that I've never heard before. This leads, of course, to me knowing a giant corpus of erudite and impressive words...without the faintest idea how to pronounce them. What with the vagaries of English spelling and all, I sometimes--frequently--miss the mark.

This tends to fluster even the strongest of my friends; expecting my facility with language to carry over into the basics of English pronunciation, they goggle in shock and, sometimes, slight panic when I flub even a syllable. This habit noticeably bothered Optimistic while we were playing Trivial Pursuit the other night. Although at first he gently corrected me, after 5 or 6 such errors I could see him getting frustrated: "Did you just say a-MIC-a-ble? Everyone knows it's A-mic-a-ble! What's the matter with you?"

So, in honor of Optimistic's recent frustration, I present to you the Top 5 Petra Pronunciation Errors.

(One small warning: despite my linguistics undergrad, I'm almost as bad with phonetic transcription as with pronunciation. Sorry if you can't read it, and sorry if you think it's wrong. They're all based on the OED's system, though, not always the IPA, so if you try to argue with me, I'll just tell you that I do, in fact, pronounce it like the BBC.)

5. /l{schwa}{sm}v{shti}sk{schwa}s/ Yes, that's right: "lascivious" pronounced like "viscous" with a "la" on the front. I misread it once when I was a kid and it stuck. This one's pretty normal, actually, in that there's a genuine reason for it. I was shocked, at 17, to learn the actual pronunciation, although I admit that, while there's a certain charm to my own--I always imagined a slow-moving, gelatinous sort of lust--the correct pronunciation matches the word's meaning much better.

4. /'kæpri/ Like the pants, or the sunny juice drink. I put the em'phasis on the wrong sy'llable. I'm not sure where I picked this up--but now I stick to it with my habitual tenacity. Every time I compliment someone's pedal pushers, or offer them a delicious CapriSonne, I make sure to emphasize that first syllable, awkward as can be. It gets a few raised eyebrows, sure, but it also lends me a certain distinguished air, or so I tell myself. Since I also claim that I picked up this pronunciation in Indonesia, my strange pronunciation has a faint aura of the exotic about it.

(I also, if you hadn't noticed, insist on spelling the drink name CapriSonne. I first encountered CapriSonnes in Jakarta, where they were all imported from Germany, or made in Indonesia by a German company, or something. That too will never change; don't bother trying to persuade me otherwise.)

3. /k{schwa}'r{shti}k{schwa}t{sh}{schwa}r/ Again, the emphasis in the wrong place. I made fun a friend once during my freshman year for her strange Utah accent, which caused her to say that word differently from me. She dragged me to an online dictionary to prove to me that her way was, in fact, correct. Abashed and slightly confused, I called my parents, guessing that maybe they were to blame.

"Dad, how do you say the word that describes those really exaggerated drawings of people?"

"/'kær{shti}k{schwa}t{sh}{shtu}{schwa}r/, of course." Hm. Not him.

I asked my mom next. She took a minute to think, and then said, satisfied with herself for passing whatever strange test this was, "/k{schwa}'r{shti}k{schwa}t{sh}{schwa}r/. Definitely."

So, that's it, you see. This be the verse: I blame my mother for all my articulatory failings.

2. Let's start this one off with another confession: I heard of David Bowie for the first time when I was 15. Yes, yes, I have my head in the sand. Now, of course, my first encounter with his name was in print. One day in my junior year of high school, I let slip some comment about Mr. Bowie to a friend, who has still not stopped laughing at this incident. I pronounced his name /'buwi/, like to rhyme with "kablooey" or "hooey." In my defense, this is the way "Bowie Knife" is often pronounced, at least in Bob Dylan's song "I Shall Be Free No. 10." If you can't trust Bob Dylan, who can you trust?

Apparently, though, this didn't matter to my friend. I'm sure that someone, somewhere, has mentioned "Ziggy Stardust" to her and been slightly taken aback when she bursts into a fit of the giggles.

1. Finally, the number one mispronunciation of my whole entire life. When I was a kid, I had a box of crayons with a bunch of fancy colors--cerulean, periwinkle, cerise, and other such--and one of the crayon names, a dark pink, really stymied me. One fateful evening, while my parents were having a dinner party with some friends from church, I lost that crayon and wandered all over the house looking for it, including into the dining room, where our guests sat chatting.

"Mom," I whined, "have you seen my fuchsia crayon?"

Except I didn't say it /'fju{lm}{sh}{shti}{schwa}/. My preferred pronunciation at the time was something more like /'f{revv}k{sh}{schwa}/, rhyming nicely with "ducksha" or "lucksha," which was probably--judging by the stifled gasps I got--not a good way to say it. I learned the right way to say that color fast.

Thank you, Crayola.


Squirrel Boy said...

There's absolutely nothing wrong with starting nearly every sentence with "so."

Luckily, I have mostly escaped such mispronunciations. I learned somewhat early to get in the habit of looking words up when I didn't know what they meant or how they were pronounced. I do, however, still pronounce hover as /hʊvər/. I have no idea where I picked that up.

I'm not above teasing my wife about a few strange pronunciations (most of which she gets from her own mother), though.

PS: Here's a handy site for inputting IPA symbols as HTML entities. Unless, of course, you like stealing them from the OED.

Petra said...

Squirrel Boy:

I used that site, actually (I've used it a lot when answering Board questions), and then found that blogger had problems converting the HTML codes into anything at all. (And yes, I used the "edit HTML" function.) I'm not sure why and I didn't feel like figuring it out, so I stole from the OED.

Optimistic. said...

For what it's worth, although I may have been driven near the brink of insanity by your flagrant mispronunciation of simple words and names, I did really enjoy that game of Trivial Pursuit. And unless I'm gravely mistaken in my ability to read your reactions, you really did, too.

We ought to play that game again sometime.

Squirrel Boy said...

I should've figured you already knew about the IPA HTML codes, because I remember seeing Board responses with IPA symbols. Too bad Blogger doesn't like them.

Tolkien Boy said...

When I was in high school, I made mention that Bacchus was the god of the orgy. Trouble is, I pronounced it with a hard g, and no one knew what I was talking about.

When I finally explained it was a word that I'd only read before, everyone was most interested to know what books I had been delving into...

FoxyJ said...

Even though I pronounced it correctly, I still think it's funny that I got in trouble when I was 9 for calling my little brother a bastard. I'd read it in a book and knew it was an insult, but I didn't know what it meant or what the connotations were. Can't wait until Sophie starts reading... (Maybe I should post about some of her fun neologisms, like "elligator" for elevator).

Katya said...

I mispronounced "dachshund" until I was about 20.

Th. said...


This is what keeps our marriage healthy: whenever tensions geet high, I will mispronounce something and Lady Steed will laugh at me. Or scream at me. Whatever.

I've corrected oregano.

I will never correct gesture.

As a whole, I try to remain ignorant of my ignorance. Speak with confidence and everyone else will wonder if they are wrong.

Melyngoch said...

Trust Bob Dylan.

Anonymous said...

Actually fuchsia is pronounced 'fuksja' in danish ;-)

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