July 09, 2005

A small wager

To: Bob Stacy
Subject: Pronunciation of English articles

In a post on "Ask MetaFilter" today, you wrote:

I'm worried about speach. I like to say "A car." instead of "Uh car." "The car." instead of "Thuh car." I say "because" and not "becuz".

This would be easier if I could illustrate the long and short vowels.

I know it's not always necessary or appropriate, but when I'm reading to a group of kids I like to sound like I know what I'm doing. It really hit home when my 1st grader came home telling me that his teacher said that if you say "the" and it sounds like "thee", that's stupid.

Is it time for me to give up on what I've learned about speaking and writing words meant to be spoken?

To start with, I can offer a bit of assistance: the International Phonetic Alphabet allows you to "illustrate the long and short vowels", and other aspects of pronunciation that you might want to discuss. There are several IPA tutorials available on line. After offering this modest token of sincere concern, however, I can't avoid being somewhat rude. The problem is, I don't believe you.

Your MetaFilter profile says that you are a "disgruntled civil servant" who lives in San Diego and "used to have a small ranch ... in the middle of a suburban neighborhood". Based on this, and your name, I'm going to assume that you're a native speaker of American English. If this is true, and if you really always pronounce the definite article the as [ði], and the indefinite article a as [ei], your version of our native language is so strangely distorted that the case deserves clinical documentation.

I very much doubt that this is true, however. It's much more likely that your belief about how you talk is entirely at variance with the way that you actually talk. This is a very common phenomenon, and nothing to be ashamed of.

In either case, there's an easy way to settle the matter. Let's have a telephone conversation, about some topic of mutual interest. For example, my late (and much beloved) maternal aunt lived in San Diego, and I first visited her family there about 50 years ago, so we could discuss how much the San Diego area has changed over the past half-century. Or, if you prefer, we could discuss language standards, pronunciation norms and so on. We'll record the call, and I'll transcribe a few random bits of it. This will enable us to determine whether your pronunciation really matches your beliefs about your pronunciation. The fact that you're aware of this agenda should give you the best possible chance to support your beliefs. If you do, I'll undertake to buy you dinner, at a restaurant of your choice, the next time I'm in San Diego or you're in Philadelphia.

If you want to take up the challenge, you can reach me here.

[Update: more here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 9, 2005 12:26 PM