January 03, 2004

Mispronunciation and autodidacts

There always seems to be a tacit assumption hovering in the background to journalistic interest in mispronunciations (see e.g. the list of Bush's mispronunciations put out by yourDictionary.com, recently discussed by Mark Liberman), and it is this: people who mispronounce English words are taken to be in some way culpable. If not morally blameworthy (if you were a good and trustworthy person you would take the trouble to get things right), then at the very least they are taken to be slovenly or unintelligent. But Barbara Scholz reminds me of a very simple point that we should not forget. A person who mispronounces some words may be more deserving of our respect, rather than less. Mispronunciations are a characteristic feature of the speech of autodidacts -- people who have had to teach themselves.

Not everyone has a family background that gave them the advantages of hearing words like genre and hegemony and autodidact passed around with the silver butter dish at the dinner table. Some nonetheless buckle down and improve themselves by reading books, and when they come upon a new word for the first time in print, they guess a plausible pronunciation. The spelling system of English gives precious little reliable guidance on pronunciation to people who've seen a word but not yet heard it. (Why wouldn't precious and specious rhyme, for example?) And even dictionaries, with their often idiosyncratic pronunciation keys, don't always make it easy to figure out what the word is supposed to sound like. Calling someone ignorant is only reasonable they were supposed to know and could have known. So don't laugh at someone who mispronounces words until you know a bit more about their origins, not only regional (a point that Mark makes) but also with respect to class and family educational level. Don't mock someone until you've walked a mile in the shoes they wore on the long road of lexical acquisition.

Note added later: Just to be clear, let me state that I am not in any way suggesting that the above might apply to George W. Bush. Mostly he gets lampooned for regionalisms that are not really properly called errors at all, as Mark noted. But take the case of "Anzar" for "Aznar". It seems to me perfectly reasonable to hold the opinion that a Yale graduate from a highly privileged background who grew up as the son of a legislator and later a President, and who purports to speak Spanish, and who holds the title of President of the United States himself, should be assiduous in learning the names of world leaders, at the very least from allied Spanish-speaking countries. One might even take the view that if he were a good and trustworthy person he would have taken the trouble to get it right. Or then again, maybe not; Mark is quite right: it is really very hard to make judgments on this sort of thing in such a polarized world, where every syllable the President utters is tracked and scrutinized for goofs and blunders, but your conversations, and my lectures, and Robert Beard's emails, are usually not.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 3, 2004 01:41 AM