January 01, 2004

The politics of pronunciation

I wrote to Robert Beard, CEO of yourDictionary.com, to draw his attention to the recent post in which I was critical of yourDictionary's list of alleged presidential mispronunciations. He was kind enough to send a thoughtful response, which I've quoted in full below, with his permission. His note struck me as a particularly clear presentation of some widely-held views on the politics of pronunciation.

Don't worry, you aren't giving us a hard time. Quoting Merriam-Webster as a lexical authority is considered an act of desperation at yourDictionary, since they constantly rake the gutters for changes that have been noted this week with no concern as to whether they will be there next week. Their new editions remove as many words that have arisen in the past 10 years as they add. We admittedly stretched too far for "Nevada" but all we have said about it is that it made the news as a mispronounced word, which seems to be the case.

We do not consider language a democratic process here at yourDictionary. So, even if the majority of US citizens pronounce "nucleus" [nyu-klee-us] and "nuclear" [nyu-ku-lar], it doesn't make it phonologically right, which we take to mean simply "consistent." Generally, we simply point out the inconsistency and tell our visitors they may be consistent or talk like the folks around them, whichever pleases them.

One of our most popular projects on our website is out "100 Most Often Mispronounced Words" which include both "nuclear" and "jewelry." It is popular because the educated people who visit our site are convinced that there are proper and improper ways to pronounce words and they, by and large, prefer the former. We tell them what is consistent with the facts of language (without showing them sound spectograms) and explain regional dialectalisms as such.

However, it is a fact that outside the given region, the use of regionalisms can be economically and politically costly. If the only price President Bush has to pay for the agregious solecisms he is known for is the tongue-in-cheek sparring he gets from us at the end of the year, he should be a happy guy.


I'm impressed. These are strong opinions, strongly stated. Merriam-Webster is upbraided for gutter lexicography; linguistic democracy is firmly rejected; a bright line is drawn between "proper" and "improper" pronunciation, with morphophonemic consistency as a requirement for propriety; and regional variants are placed firmly on the "improper" side of the boundary.

I'm not competent to evaluate M-W's practices, but after some reflection, I think I disagree with all the rest of it.

In brief, my opinions are as follows. Standards depend on usage. The key question is "whose usage?", and there is more than one reasonable answer. It's a bad idea to use metaphors drawn from ethics, law and medicine in talking about linguistic norms: non-standard speech is neither improper, lawless nor degenerate, it's just non-standard. Morphophonemic consistency is at best partial, as a matter of historical fact across languages (standard and otherwise), and so it's not appropriate to try to turn it into a matter of principle. Regional standards ought to be given an appropriate level of respect, for reasons of social as well as political pluralism.

These are opinions, not facts, except perhaps for the question of morphophonemic consistency, about which I'll say more in another post. Reasonable people hold a variety of opinions on these matters. There are interesting parallels to other areas of political philosophy -- but at least no one is suggesting a constitutional amendment to defend traditional morphophonemic values in the pronunciation of nuclear. . .

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 1, 2004 11:54 PM