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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Pronounced differences

People are fascinated by pronunciation differences. These can be regional, individual, class-linked, or generational.

If one conducts a pronunciation survey about a given word, people love to give their two cents' worth about how they say the word.

But inevitably, if the word is borrowed from another language, someone will pipe up with 

"The PROPER way to pronounce this word is as in the original [Spanish/French/Greek/Arabic/Swahili/insert foreign language here]"

This attitude is...

...how can I put this...


Do these people really think we should be rummaging around in foreign language dictionaries to see how every word is pronounced in the original language? Most of the words in English are borrowed from another language. Once they get borrowed into English, their pronunciation gets adapted to our phonetic system, and often then carries on its merry way. It may be hard for those of us who speak French to accept "kruh SAWNT" and "bree OASH" and "FOY ur", but what about all the other languages from which English has borrowed which we don't know how to pronounce?

Here's some food for thought. Did you know that the word "balcony", borrowed from Italian balcone in the 1600s, was pronounced "bal COE nee" more or less (but not exactly) like its Italian etymon, until about 1825. But then "BAL kuh nee" ("which", said the 19th century poet and self-appointed language commentator Samuel Rogers, "makes me sick") took over. I defy you to try and reinstate "bal COE nee". And so much for Samuel Rogers' pronunciation pronouncements.

This phenomenon is entirely natural, and happens when English words are borrowed into other languages as well.

Recently a pronunciation survey about the word "coyote" (which was borrowed into English almost two centuries ago) prompted someone to say "The proper way to say this is as in the original Spanish and Nahuatl. It should be co - yo - tay". Nahuatl, by the way, is the language of the Aztecs, in which the cunning canine is a coyotl. Quick, now, how many of you have a pronouncing dictionary of Nahuatl to hand?

If anyone were to say "Roadrunner is the nemesis of Wile E. co yo tay", they would be laughed at. And deservedly so.

If we were to take this approach to pronunciation to its logical conclusion, we would have to say:

I was having a [COOP] of [TAY] with a [chocko LAH tay] [bee SKWEE] (or as some call it, a [COO kyuh]). The [dess AIR] was huge, ten [sahn tee MET ruhs] across, with no nuts because I have an [al airg EE].

This is NOT ENGLISH, and would be incomprehensible.

By the way, that was

I was having a cup of tea with a chocolate biscuit (or as some call it, a cookie). The dessert was huge, ten centimetres across, with no nuts because I have an allergy.

To achieve this feat of pretentious pointlessness, you would have to know the origins of all these words, and how the words are pronounced in their original languages (French, Chinese, Nahuatl via Spanish, French, Dutch, French, French, German).

But we are not speaking those languages. We are speaking ENGLISH.  Why is this concept so hard to understand? The pronunciation of a word is determined by how most people say the word in English. Not infrequently, there is more than one widespread pronunciation. Vive la diffĂ©rence!

For another example of this see "mauve": https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2018/07/how-do-you-pronounce-mauve.html

For more on the pronunciation of "coyote", see this post:

About Me

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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.