Thursday, 6 December 2012

mispronounced words?

There’s a letter in today’s Independent about English spelling.

The rules governing pronunciation in English are more complex than, say, German or Spanish. Most of us learn to overcome these obstacles when we learn to read at primary school, but some do not. The education of this latter group is blighted by the twin evils of complex pronunciation rules and non-phonetic spelling in the language in which subject material is written.

The writer is using the term “pronunciation” here in a sense different from any of the senses listed in standard dictionaries, e.g. the Concise Oxford:

  1. the way in which a word is pronounced, esp. with reference to a standard.
  2. the act or an instance of pronouncing.
  3. a person’s way of pronouncing words etc.

The verb “pronounce”, in turn is defined as

  1. utter or speak (words, sounds etc.) in a certain way.
  2. utter or deliver (a judgement, sentence, curse, etc.) formally or solemnly…

But what the writer means by “the rules governing pronunciation” is clearly the supposed “rules” determining a word’s pronunciation on the basis of its spelling. And as we all know, many of the spelling-to-sound rules of English, such as they are, are subject to numerous exceptions and irregularities.

Indeed, the writer goes on to argue that “part of the solution to the problem of illiteracy could be spelling reform”.

If a book is described as dealing with “pronunciation”, we expect to find an account of phonetics, not of spelling-to-sound complexities. David Crystal’s recent book (blog, 31 Oct) is correctly subtitled “the singular story of English spelling”, not “…of English pronunciation”.

Non-phoneticians do tend to get confused about the difference between sounds and letters, pronunciation and spelling, phonetics and orthography.

Just yesterday a PR person for Scrabble emailed me and then phoned me to ask for assistance with a story about “the most commonly mispronounced words in the English language”. She said she was concerned with native speakers, not EFL. It was not a matter of social/geographical features such as glottal stops. On my further questioning it turned out that she did not know whether she was thinking of articulatory difficulties such as a speech & language therapist would deal with, or with words of contentious pronunciation, where speakers have different views on what is correct. She said she’d get back to me when she’d thought further about it.

On reflection, though, I have an awful feeling that what she may really be thinking of is none of the above, but rather words that have “mispronunciations” associated with misspellings. Things such as *mischievious mɪsˈtʃiːviəs instead of mischievous, for example, or … *mispronounciation.

If she rings back, how much should I charge as a consultancy fee?