Speaking proper: does it matter if we can't pronounce mispronunciation?


Do you say 'expresso' or 'nucular'? Have you ever been confident about how you say bruschetta? Don't worry about it – arguments over pronunciation are mostly proxies for snobbery and class one-upmanship

For years, I used to think the film reviewer's genre term "biopic" was stressed on the second syllable. You know, like bionic? Only when I at last heard it spoken on the radio as "bio-pic" did I make the connection: oh right, it's a portmanteau of "biographical picture"! Everyone's word-wrangling life is littered with such faintly embarrassing misunderstandings. My erudite dad used to think "misled", meaning deceived, was pronounced "MIZZuld". (We don't have a verb "to misle", but we surely need one.) You can go a long time seeing a word in print, and even using it yourself in writing, without ever hearing it said out loud. So such mistakes are perfectly natural in our neverending struggle to speak proper.

Naturally, we forgive ourselves our own lovable errors, but get very annoyed about other people's. To say "nuclear" as "nucular" invites instant diagnosis as a clodhopping ignoramus. (It doesn't help that this was George W Bush's preferred style of blurting the word.) And heaven help you if you order an "expresso" in front of some dullard who is always going on about his favourite cafe in Rome, and will instantly hiss: "ESpresso!". Possibly the most amusingly disastrous is the mispronunciation of "pronunciation" as "pronOUNCEiation", which hurls the sensitive listener into a hellish abyss of faulty self-reference.

The "expresso error" is, according to a new survey of the most common mispronunciations in Britain, perpetrated by 26% of non-coffee-bores. But is it that heinous? Since an espresso in French is "un express", you could argue that it's just a friendly pan-European fusion, and however you say it you will not get the wrong beverage.

The survey was commissioned by St Pancras International railway station, apparently annoyed at having its own name mispronounced as "St Pancreas", which I've never had the pleasure to hear done and surely harms no one. Four-fifths of us are prone to some kind of pronunciation error, it says, which seems about right. But does what they claim is right seem right? Supposedly, 16% of people mispronounce Greenwich as "Green-witch", but the "correct" pronunciation offered, "Gren-itch", is itself a recent alteration of the traditional way that locals have spoken its name, "Grinitch". Pronunciations change over time. To claim that one is unalterably correct is to choose an arbitrary point in linguistic history and demand that the tide of change stop there. Elizabethans of Shakespeare's day would have been aghast to hear us pronounce "love" to rhyme with "bruv" instead of "move".

Another common error in the survey is committed by 25% of toast-ordering fools, who are unaware of the hard "ch" in Italian and gauchely ask for "Brew-SHET-a" instead of "Brew-SKET-a". But to complain about this sort of thing, as with "expresso", is just to parade yourself as the kind of sophisticate who knows how to pronounce a handful of words in a foreign language. Indeed, according to Kingsley Amis, author of the deathlessly witty usage compendium The King's English, anyone who attempts to pronounce an anglicised foreign word in its original foreign accent is the worst sort of wanker. Of course, Amis was not shy of expressing opinions on other pronunciations. "Only a berk stresses the second syllable" of "formidable", he observed mildly. He insisted on "ISH-oo" not "ISS-yoo" ("perhaps the only point on which I agree with Tony Benn"). He even regretted that he pronounced "always" as "AWL-waize", though "AWL-whizz" was "the thing to say if you can manage it": he couldn't manage it, he confessed, without "feeling like a fool or Lord David Cecil".

Does any of this really matter? If I say "SKED-ule" and you say "SHED-ule", will any farcical misunderstandings or tragic loss of life ensue? Is the controversy over "con-TROV-ersy" not just a waste of everyone's breath? Sure, but that was never the point. Like so many linguistic arguments, the power-struggles over correct pronunciation are most often proxies for issues of snobbery and class. The completely unpredictable pronunciations of many proper names in English, for example, act as a kind of secret code for the elect. Plainly the aristocracy have better things to do than to laboriously speak all the syllables in a word, and so Cholmondeley is pronounced "Chumley". Obviously. And if you don't know that Magdalene College, Cambridge, is actually pronounced "Maudlin" (and how could you ever guess?), that instantly marks you out as an outsider.

But there's no point setting up a picket line outside the college and chanting "Mag-da-lene!" until its querulous professorial denizens see sense. The ultimate authority is always usage. Even if the person who invented a particular word can be identified and is still alive, he or she doesn't necessarily get to dictate its sound, as was demonstrated last year by the kerfuffle about how to pronounce the internet's animated-photo file type, "gif". Everyone had been saying "gif" with a hard G for years, and then Mr Gif himself, Steve Wilhite, announced that he was fed up and it was supposed to be pronounced "jif". Quite apart from the fact that Jif is also a popular cleaning-product brand in many countries, leading to potential hilarious confusion ("Have you seen this cat jif?" "Wow, people really polish their cats?"), Wilhite's own suggested pronunciation makes no logical sense. Gif is an acronym for "graphics interchange format". Now, do you say "jraphics"? Nah, didn't think so.

In the meantime I am going to elegantly avoid the whole "waistcoat" versus "wess-c't" thing by simply never speaking of such garments, and will henceforth try in all Italian or French restaurants to adopt a thick Hong Kong Chinese accent, which will surely circumvent any possible embarrassment while ordering. At least, from asking around friends for this article, I have learned one valuable thing, which is that Belvoir castle, don't you know, is pronounced "Beaver". Surely only my ignorance of this fact can explain my never having been invited there.

Top 10 mispronunciations
(from an entirely unscientific survey)

1. Pron-OUNCE-iation
2. Nucular
3. Sayg for segue instead of segway
4. Mischiev-I-ous
5. Pacific for "pecific
6. Liberry for library
7. Slither for sliver
8. Hyperbowl for hyperbole, as sung by Natasha Bedingfield on These Words
9. Expresso
10. Quinoa, however you attempt to say it

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Steven Poole, for The Guardian on Tuesday 11th March 2014 17.45 Europe/London

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