Monday, March 28, 2005

Pronunciation Perplexities

I can't even remember the topic of our conversation, but I started talking about a sword.

"A what?" asked the lecturer.

"A sword."

Some of you might know that "sword" is supposed to be pronounced as "sord", with the "w" silent. So that was how I pronounced it.

"Sword", I repeated, with the "w" silent.

He still looked puzzled.

"Sword, as in S-W-O-R-D." For some reason I couldn't get myself to pronounce it wrongly.

"Oh sWord!" he said with special emphasis on the the "w", as if I were a kindergarten kid.

I wasn't in the mood of correcting him, so I left it as that.

But, I don't blame him, since there was a time when I didn't know how to pronounce that word, and someone had to correct me. And I'm glad that I was corrected early.

Anyway, a few weeks later, me and another girl were chatting with another lecturer.

Lecturer (with a slight British accent): I'm an anglophile. I pronounce the British way.

Girl: Oh I follow the British pronounciation too!

Me: It's "proNUNciation", not p"roNOUNciation". N-U-N, not N-O-U-N. "ProNOUNce", but "proNUNciation".

Girl gives me the who-do-you-think-you-are glare.

Lecturer: He's right actually.

Girl: Oh?

Me (trying to suppress my smartass grin): Ahem of course!

Lecturer: So how do you pronounce H-E-R-B?

I know some people pronounce it without the "h" sound, but I'm not sure which is the British way, so I keep my mouth shut.

Girl: "Erb"? ["herb" with "h" silent]

Lecturer: That's American; the British pronounce it "herb", with the "h" sound.

Me: Well that's how I pronounce it...

Girl: Uh okay.

So it's my turn now.

Me: So how do you pronounce T-H-E-I-R?

Girl: "Thiar"? [pronounced the Singaporean way]

Lecturer: It's "there" ["their" pronounced rightly] - sounds EXACTLY like T-H-E-R-E.

This lecturer knows his stuff.

Girl (looking unconvinced): Is it?

Me: Yup. Look it up yourself.

Me (to lecturer): Since you're the anglophile, how do you pronounce W-R-A-T-H?

Lecturer (after a suspicious pause): So how do you do it?

Smart guy - he knows that there's something fishy going on.

Me: "Roth". The "a" sounds like an "o". But I sometimes just do it the Singaporean way, because I usually get funny looks if I pronouce it "roth", because it's quite obscure.

Unfortunately that was all the time we had - I would have loved to continue with the discussion, because I'm sure I pronounce many words wrong, or I don't know whether I'm using the British or American pronunciation.

Part of the reason for my confusion is my exposure to different English sources. I grew up on BBC World Service radio, but there was always the steady stream of American influence from music and television. In school, the official pronunciation was supposed to be British, but many of the teachers were just as mixed up. And then of course, you have the Singlish influence, which is in turn influenced by the local tongues.

But because I was rather obsessed in pronouncing words right, whenever I heard someone of authority pronounce a word differently, I would look up the pronunciation in a British dictionary. That was how I learnt that words like "wrath" and "sample" were pronounced differently by the Brits.

These days, I'm become rather confused. With the ease of looking up words on the internet with American sites like, or the even-better (a very fast site which allows me to listen to the pronunciation), and with no viable British counterpart (it's too bad that the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary requires paid subscription), I'm getting even more Americanized. And that's not even mentioning the amount of audio data coming from American websites. I don't even want to get started about British vs American spelling.

I also learnt as an early teen to be more humble (yes I still have much to learn), not to be too smug and insist that I'm right if I hadn't looked the word up. I will never forget how I insisted on "proNOUNciation" even after a friend tried to correct me many times, and I finally had to eat the supersized humble pie when she shoved the dictionary entry in my face.

But really...

What's the whole point of pronouncing words correctly? Is it a signal to others showing that I'm erudite and have reached a certain level of linguistic attainment? Does it give me a reason to feel superior?

Or is right pronunciation really meant to facilitate communication, so that others can understand me better? I mean, isn't that what language is all about - human communication?

And if pronouncing a word "correctly" turns out to be a barrier to communication, if I'm not being understood because I'm using the "correct" pronunciation, shouldn't I just use the "wrong" pronunciation instead so that I can be understood?

I'm starting to think so.

The next time someone gives me a puzzled look when I pronounce "sword" with the "w" silent (and I'm not in a didactic mood), I'll just throw pronunciation-correctness to the wind and say "sWord" with gusto. And be understood.

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