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Friday, August 16, 2013

Wordlady makes a pronouncement

A great irony of English is that  one of our most frequently mispronounced words is... "pronunciation". Many people pronounce it "pronounciation" and even spell it that way, but I have to tell you (uncharacteristically for me, I admit) that this is WRONG.

All the same, it's an interesting question why people do this, when they don't do it with the other words following the same pattern, to wit:
announce - annunciation
denounce - denunciation
renounce - renunciation
At least, I thought they didn't, but of course a check on Google shows a fair number of examples of "announciation", "denounciation", and "renounciation"! Not so much as with "pronunciation", though.

All these words (as well as "enunciate") have as their root the Latin word nuntium (message). The classical Latin prōnuntiāre  had pretty much the same meanings as "pronounce" has in English. In Central French, this became prononcer, but in the Norman French that we English inherited, this morphed into pronouncer or pronuncer.  The second syllable would have been pronounced something like "noon" in the Middle Ages, but because of the Great Vowel Shift in English starting in the 1400s, this gradually came to sound like "noun".

"Pronounce" was pretty well established in the 1400s in English, and if people wanted to make a noun from it, they did the simple English thing: they added the suffix "-ing", as we see in this vivid description, which could well apply to an English speaker trying to speak French: 
c1450   J. Capgrave Life St. Augustine:   For not only were these words expressed with labour of his tongue, but his forehead, cheeks, his eyes, and all his limbs in manner laboured in pronounsyng of these words.

Meanwhile, however, there was also the original Latin noun for this verb: pronuntiatio. As the 1400s wore on, "pronunciation" started to give "pronouncing" a run for its money, and with the Renaissance of the 1500s making Latin ever so fashionable, "pronunciation" trounced (or possibly trunced) "pronouncing". 

But its victory was not total. Even in the 1500s and 1600s, people were (logically) trying to make "pronunciation" into "pronounciation":
1530   J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement  They have utterly neglected the frenche mennes maner of pronounciation, and so rede frenche as theyr fantasy or opinion dyde lede them.

The battle has been going on ever since, though "pronounciation" has been considered non-standard since the 18th century, a prescriptivist time in love with Latinate models.

The French, it must be said, are unbothered by all this, having taken "prononcer" to their hearts and quite happily produced "prononciation" as well, without worrying about what the Latin was. Yet again, English makes itself more complicated than it needs to be, but we're stuck with it. I recommend that you say and spell "pronunciation". Even Wordlady cringes at "pronounciation"!

Maybe she shouldn't. Those who make pronouncements about what others should and shouldn't say are usually doomed to failure, as witness this -- to us -- startling statement about the now most common of the "-nounce" words:

1638   D. Featley Stricturæ in Lyndomastygem i. 207 in H. Lynde Case for Spectacles,   The Jesuits and Seminarie Priests at Doway and Rhemes..have fraught their English translation of the Bible, with so many affected harsh-sounding, and uncouth words to English eares, as announce..


Thanks to an avid Wordlady reader for suggesting this topic!

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.