Don’t Say That to Me

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Let’s spend some time thinking about pronounciation.

I spelled it that way because that’s how I heard it in a lecture on the subject when I was in high school. It never occurred to the teacher guy that the spelling of a word might conceivably provide a clue to the sound it makes when you say it. And surely, he must have heard somebody say it before, and say it in the obvious way. This also might have given him a clue, but he didn’t pick up on it.

Ironically, most people are too sensitive to comment on your failure to show an ordinary sensitivity to ordinary words.

It’s true, there are words that are hard to avoid mispronouncing. These words are generally shibboleths — entities whose true properties are known only to a few, and whose proper use identifies you as one of that small, that special clan. The story that explains the word is told in Judges 12:5–6. Charm is an implicit celebration of individuality, and most shibboleths have charm. You know that someone’s from Southern Illinois if he pronounces Versailles as VurrrSALES and Cairo as KAYro. You know that someone’s tuned in to the study of British antiquities when she refers to the Ruthwell Cross as the RIVill Cross. And you know that someone is continuing the educated tradition of English pronunciation when he pronounces err as Alexander Pope did when he wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” The word is ur, not air.

You wouldn’t think to look these words up; you probably don’t hear them in conversation; you have to be inducted into their pronunciation by a kindly friend — but that’s charming, isn’t it? No one, however, will take you aside and tell you, “Hey buddy, it’s pronunciation, not pronounciation.” Ironically, most people are too sensitive to comment on your failure to show an ordinary sensitivity to ordinary words.

What would you think — what do you think — when you introduce yourself as Denise Hahn and the person you’re talking to insists on calling you Janis Haines? What do you think, especially, when people who are paid to talk to you — for instance, people who are on the other end of the line in a business conversation — cannot get your name right, despite the fact that you’ve said it and their computer is showing it? You think they have no respect for you as an individual. And you’re right. They also have no respect for the individuality of words. In their minds, their pronunciation is close enough.

This is the Age of Approximation — an age in which even earth scientists can read the word “Arctic” and render it Artic, throughout their careers. I know a university administrator, a very good one, in fact, who never pronounces sophomore as anything other than southmore. These people can read — they read all the time — and they’re not hard of hearing, but Artic and southmore are close enough for them. Speaking of science, news reports rather frequently inform us that scientists at John Hopkins University have discovered such and such. I’m sure that the press release from Johns Hopkins said “Johns Hopkins,” but hey, who can read?

You think they have no respect for you as an individual. And you’re right. They also have no respect for the individuality of words.

This is also the Age of Invention, but not always in a good way; its linguistic inventions are generally shoddy substitutes for things that already existed, and worked. For instance, there are established ways to create a plural in English. We use these tools every day. Ordinarily, you add an “s” to the end of the singular form — or an “es” if the singular ends in “s” or “x.” Simple, right? But for many people, it isn’t simple enough. That’s why we read that “the Trump’s vacationed in Florida.” And that’s why we hear that “the crowd applauded the prinCESSes” — the “-es” addition producing a pointless change of emphasis in the original word. This one goes back a long way; I find it in the newsreel about “the two prinCESSes,” Margaret and Elizabeth (now queen), that appears in an otherwise good film, The Snake Pit (Fox, 1948). PrinCESSes was very common in my fourth-grade readalouds. But every time the mispronunciation happens, it requires a fresh act of invention.

Still more imaginative, though not in a childish way, are current efforts, usually by figures of authority, to turn common English plurals into flashy imitations of such Latinate words as analyses and bases (analiseez, baseez). In these usages the mispronunciation of the last syllable is usually emphasized, to make sure you don’t miss it. On June 18, Christopher Wray, head of the FBI, testified before Congress about biasEEZ in his department’s investigations. Maybe he did it because four days earlier, Ron Hosko, former assistant FBI director, had testified before Tucker Carlson about the biasEEZ of FBI officials; Wray evidently didn’t want to be left behind. It’s notable that Wray was reproved by this column for earlier congressional testimony in which he kept saying “processEEZ,” but he paid no heed, and now he’s at it again.

If you’re confused about it, why not look it up?

English is not an entirely phonetic language, God knows, but there is a logic to it, and certain helpful rules of access, the most important of which is: when in doubt, look it up. And when you do, look at the first pronunciation the dictionary gives you, not the concession-to-bad-taste secondary ones. Awful things happen when such rules are flouted. (Note, not flaunted.) In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury published an elaborate complaint about sex abuse in several dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church. Among the many television and radio reporters I heard on this subject, I encountered no one who had figured out how to pronounce either diocese or dioceses. After pronouncing the first one wrong, they pronounced the second one in the same way: DIohseez. These words are by no means as familiar as process and processes, and their succession of “s” sounds makes them goofy to most ears. It is, however, possible to look them up.

Yet the pressure to talk can be daunting, confusing, bewildering. I’m sorry to say that even the great Rod Serling reacted badly in moments of unnecessary bewilderment. You recall that the Twilight Zone was “a wondrous land, whose boundaries [plural] are that [singular] of imagination.” Well, that’s not a problem of pronunciation; it’s a problem of grammar. But try: “you’re looking at a specie . . .” as Serling says in his introduction to the Twilight Zone episode “People Are Alike All Over.” Unluckily, the singular of species is species; and although saying “a species” may sound funny, phonetically identical singulars and plurals are hardly unknown in English (deer and deer, fish and fish, etc.). If you’re confused about it, why not look it up? To which the answer is, I suppose, Why not just make it up?

There is a whole specie of people who do this. I recently participated in a meeting in which a group chock full of college degrees was discussing the report of a landscape architect regarding the placement of water spigots in a flower garden. (Please don’t ask me how I wandered into that bureaucratic Eden.) Everyone in the room pronounced it spickots. All right; maybe they don’t subscribe to Spigot Industry News, so they’ve never seen the word written out. Does that account for the people who look at my first name and call me SteFAHN? I am doubly cursed, because I live on a street whose name is spelled in the phony British way: Centre. Many people are observant enough to recognize this as a form of Center. They’ve seen it before, or they’ve seen the word theatre, and they can draw an inference. Frequently, however, I am asked, by a native English speaker, to confirm my address “on Sentree Street.” Now, how many words ending in “re” are pronounced as –ree? Does anyone go to a theatree? No. But go ahead, just make it up.

Elders never corrected anyone who called her General. Such people never do.

A more frequent example is lay, as in, “When police arrived, the victim was laying on the bed.” Are all the news writers, as well as all the hillbillies, unacquainted with the look and sound of the common-as-dirt word “lie”? Have they never seen or heard the sentence, “He was lying on the bed”? Has a physician never told them to “lie down on the examining table”? Do they themselves say, “I’m going to lay down now”? Well, maybe they do. And maybe their friends do too. But haven’t they ever read a book?

In other cases the appropriate question would be, “Don’t they have any logic?” Consider the word “royal.” A common English noun. Not one of those troublesome verbs that keep changing all the time: lie, lay, lain — who can remember it? Nobody screws up the pronunciation of royal. So how would you pronounce “battle royal”? In the same way you pronounce “battle” and “royal,” obviously. But that isn’t obvious enough for the leading intellectuals of Fox News, Neil Cavuto and Tucker Carlson, who during the month of May made themselves merry by referring to various political and commercial conflicts as examples of a battle royALE. Whether they were leading or following the pack, I don’t know, but I was soon hearing that peculiar noise on every channel. I noted that some people are now fools enough to spell the phrase that way. I suppose the ultimate source is the James Bond novel Casino Royale, although “royale,” being a French word, is not properly accented on either syllable. RoyALE is a Las Vegas pronunciation. In American, even the big island in Lake Superior is simply Isle ROYal, despite the French spelling.

But I must compliment Neil and Tucker for not going the whole distance and babbling about battle royals, in the way that some people do — the same people who think there are such things as attorney generals, who are to be addressed as General So-and-So. This nonsense originated in the Clinton era, when Joycelyn Elders was the nation’s Surgeon General, wore a uniform (like her idiot predecessor C. Everett Koop), and was routinely addressed on TV as General Elders. She never corrected anyone who called her that. Such people never do. These titles, of course, have nothing to do with the military; they merely signify an official who is in general control of something, and their plural is formed by adding “s” to the noun, where “s’s” always belong: attorneys general, surgeons general, inspectors general. And battles royal. Is that too hard?

But there are authority figures even greater than Pooh and professional readers of the Bible.

The really embarrassing pronunciations are those of people who are trying to display their intelligence. These people know a word or two, and they assume that other words work the same way; they also assume that they themselves are superior, in this wisdom, to all other people. You have probably heard talkers on NPR saying that such and such political figure is the arkenemy of someone else. These people know that archangels are arkangels and therefore believe that all other arches are arks. They do not rest with this sagacity; they feel a duty to employ it widely, rooting arkenemies and even arkbishops out of the most unlikely topics, thereby displaying their remarkable mental powers.

To continue with the religious theme: when I’m driving I sometimes listen to the Bible readings provided by a certain chain of Christian radio stations. These recorded readings were made by a gentleman whose voice reeks with pomposity, but I’m very willing to listen to 20 minutes of Isaiah or Job or the histories of Israel, even if he’s the one who’s reading them. I have to put up with a lot, though. Beneath the pomposity is a real inability to figure out how words are pronounced — not just the hard Bible words but also such puzzlers as “Naphtali,” “Ephraim,” and “Gaza” (“GAZEuh” — as if the GAHza Strip hadn’t been in the news these past three generations). The guy is also baffled by such English terms as “requited,” which comes out of him as “RECKwitted.” Yet the language of the King James version, which his broadcasters properly venerate, isn’t good enough for him; he insists on censoring it. Thus, “one that pisseth against a wall” (which is the definition of “male” in 1 Kings 16:11 and other verses) becomes, in his rendition, “one that watereth against a wall.” Watereth? If Winnie the Pooh undertook to read the Bible, that’s what the text would sound like.

But there are authority figures even greater than Pooh and professional readers of the Bible. In the June 6 edition of Fox’s “Outnumbered,” Newt Gingrich, speaking with a self-complacency suggesting that he always got straight A’s in Vocab, made a point of saying that a certain event “presages” a certain other event. The word is obscure, but useful. Yet he pronounced it preSAGES instead of PRESages, as if anyone who knew the word ever said that something was a preSAGE of something else.

In a genial speech, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t “castigating aspersions” on anyone for his electoral defeat.

How much worse it is when someone’s big, impressive word is just a misunderstanding of how another word is pronounced! This seems to be happening in an article that Professor Jonathan Turley published in The Hill (June 10).

Turley is discussing the important but little-heralded indictment of James Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who allegedly leaked secret information to his girlfriend, who published it where it would do the most political damage. Turley claims that “one person should be especially discomforted by the indictment: former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.” McCabe is neither here nor there, but discomforted, used in this sense, plainly results from a failure to understand the phonetics of the word discomfited. To cite a more flamboyant instance: on June 5, Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, took the high road while conceding defeat in his attempt to become the Democratic nominee for governor of California. In a genial speech, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t “castigating aspersions” on anyone for his electoral defeat. Probably he’d never seen casting aspersions in print; probably he’d just heard people say it and assumed that their pronunciation was wrong. Anyway, he could do better, so casting became castigating. Bless his heart.

The hearts I do not bless are those that foster or permit the horrible deformation of the English language known as uptalk. You understand? It’s the kind of speech? that turns every phrase? into something that sounds? like a question? Scorned, at its origins in the 1970s, as the “valley girl dialect,” it proved incapable of taking the hint and crawling back under its rock in Tarzana. It never went away. In fact, it spread. By the 1990s it was as common as ya know. By 2010 it was in general use in news reports and solemn political interviews. I shudder to think what may lie (not lay) ahead. Tomorrow, when I turn on the radio, I may hear a high-church voice intoning, “In the beginning? God? created? the heaven? and the earth?” On my deathbed I may hear, just after the sigh of the last breath leaving my body, the sound of a doctor saying, “Dude? I think he’s dead?”




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