Miss Pronuncition

by Brian on March 21, 2004

“Language Hat”:http://www.languagehat.com/archives/001217.php has an excellent post up about a silly list of ‘mispronunciations’ that’s been apparently doing the rounds.

To get the full effect you really have to read the whole thing, but I will answer one of Mr. Hat’s questions. No, of course the author of the list doesn’t recommend pronouncing the _c_ in _Connecticut_. As every fule nose, the correct pronunciation is ON-NECK-TEA-COO.



Keith M Ellis 03.21.04 at 11:28 am

Thank goodness for Language Hat. That list mightily annoyed me.


Keith M Ellis 03.21.04 at 8:35 pm

Or, I’ll open another line of discussion. I’ve noticed that people that are (in my estimation) very ignorant are extremely descriptivist about language. Sophomoric people are prescriptivists. The most knowledgeable are descriptivists who are reformed prescriptivists with a still-latent prescriptivism.

I tend to consider myself in the third group, of course. But if you’re familiar with Language Hat, as I am, you’ll notice that even he reveals occasional middle-school teacher sensibilities.

Anyway, I think the acid test for something like the subject at hand is whether or not there is a high concordance between the speaker’s and the listener’s understanding of the word or phrase in question. Some so-called errors reflect genuine misunderstandings; most do not.


John Quiggin 03.21.04 at 9:24 pm

I’ll out myself as a hardline prescriptivist, on semantics at least, and will try to make a case for this. (Almost) no-one denies that there are good and bad writers, and that one characteristic of bad writers is that they commit semantic errors indicating that they don’t know their own language very well (for example, “impact” for an ambiguous combination of “affect” and “harm”, or “refute” for “deny”). Changing the context from written language to speech doesn’t change this. Some native speakers are (semantically better) than others.

It’s true that “If it prosper, none dare call it treason”. Sufficiently widespread error eventually becomes the norm. An example is “methodology” used as a fancy synonym for “method” instead of (or sometimes in ambiguous confusion with} the branch of philosophy of science dealing with the study of “method”.

But such cases are rare. More importantly, prescriptivist scorn for error is a major factor in keeping them rare.

A minor point is that printing seems to have stabilised a lot of battle lines (the fight over “aggravate” goes back as far as Dickens, or so I’ve read) and has nearly eliminated the steady change in language that is an important element of the descriptivist case.


Keith M Ellis 03.21.04 at 9:47 pm

John — but your argument rests upon a Platonic conception of language:

It’s true that ‘If it prosper, none dare call it treason’. Sufficiently widespread error eventually becomes the norm.

The point of that quote (re: treason) is subtly but emphatically not relativist—it’s a repudiation of relativism. Treason remains treason by its very nature.

Similarly, your argument seems to assume that, for example, “methodology” has a Platonic meaning manifest from its construction and, if necessary, its etymology. But that’s simply not true. “Methodology” means what, by consensus, people think it means. No more and no less.

I have one more word for you: homonym.


Keith M Ellis 03.21.04 at 9:49 pm

By the way, if I’m looking for an ambiguous combination of “affect” and “harm” (because, for example, the effect is ambiguous), I’ll know to use “impact”. Thanks. :)


John Quiggin 03.21.04 at 10:34 pm

Keith – of course the treason analogy is a repudiation of relativism: that’s why I used it.

I don’t see how you infer from what I wrote that I believe that words have Platonic meanings. That may be a common, and easily refuted, belief among naive prescriptivists, but I don’t share it.

Looking at this Keith M Ellis 03.22.04 at 12:26 am

My point about homonyms was that if words have meanings that are defined by their shape and formation, then homonyms would not be possible. Therefore, words are not solely defined by their shape and formation. Thus, an argument asserting incorrectness—as in your example of “methodology”—cannot solely rely upon shape and formation.

Perhaps a better terminology in this context is “platonism versus formalism” to describe the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism. For you to argue that one can decide a word’s “correctness” independent of usage, you must be assuming some other defining principle. As in the case of mathematics, denying formalism is asserting platonism.

A programming language is an expressive mathematical language and, in some, terms can be “overloaded” such that they are redefined. Given an overloaded term, is its subsequent usage formally “incorrect”? It can’t be.


Keith M Ellis 03.22.04 at 12:27 am

Correction: “defined” in my first sentence above should either be “determined” or “solely defined”.


language hat 03.22.04 at 1:32 am

occasional middle-school teacher sensibilities

Or, more to the point, copy-editor sensibilities. Which is how I earn my living. I know the “correct” forms, I know when I prefer to use them, and I know how they’re used as a bludgeon to reinforce social hierarchy. Which is why I smite the hierarchs every chance I get.

John: So what do you think of the list?


Keith M Ellis 03.22.04 at 2:07 am

Laguage Hat — I think it’s interesting that although your training as a linguist pretty much requires you to be a descriptivist, your oft-mentioned primary motivation for opposing prescriptivism is that it is a tool of perpetuating injustice.

Though quite concerned with social justice myself, I find that my increasing annoyance at prescriptivism has much more to do with the rational incoherency of it.


liz 03.22.04 at 4:45 am

ON-NECK-TEA-COO. I laughed out loud.

Several of the pronunciations (ath a lete, fillum) were common in my father’s generation (or circle)–Stockton, CA, leaving there around 1937 for Palo Alto. Also, that thing you lock with : pad e lock.

Dr. Language is completely missing the fun of sussing out a speaker’s origins by their unique words.

And “pernickety”. I ask you. Don’t get in a snicket.


John Quiggin 03.22.04 at 4:48 am

Language Hat – I agree with you that the list is rubbish, and my points apply only marginally to pronunciation, mainly when mispronunciation is associated with semantic error.

In response to your point about hierarchy, the semantic errors I object to most strongly (for example, ‘impact’, ‘refute’, ‘methodology’) typically originate with users fairly high in the social hierarchy and are spread through imitation. I don’t know if this phenomenon has been studied but it’s evidence against any claim that prescriptivism invariably reinforces social hierarchy.

Keith, I don’t derive my views on “methodology” from etymology or formation (again, I don’t think I gave you any reason to suppose this) but from the recent history of the words. We had two separate words, “methodology” and “method”, and people started using the first as a pretentious synonym for the second, with a resulting loss of clarity. This usage has now become so widespread that there is no point in objecting to it, but it’s still an impoverishment of the language.

In other cases, for example “refute” and “rebut”, the distinction is still worth defending, and would be even if it turned out that both had the same Latin root (I don’t know about this, and don’t much care).


dsquared 03.22.04 at 1:22 pm

“Methodology” is a particular example of a semantic slip that, I think, reinforces John’s point that these things infect our thinking.

If I say “Your paper is no good for methodological reasons”, I presumably mean “I criticise your method, because it is one of a class of methods that I am opposed to because of my views on methodology”. In other words, a legitimate point badly expressed.

However, it then tempts me into saying “Crime is high in South London for sociological reasons”, when I mean “social”, and there is no acceptable paraphrase of this.


Zizka 03.22.04 at 4:57 pm

Re Quiggin’s first statement: I think that at any given time there are certain words and usages which are markers of certain kinds of bad writing, so you end up rejecting those usages. But they’re not causal, so if otherwise good writers end up adopting the markers, that’s the end of the story.

Similiarly for usages which are markers for illiteracy in a given area. Prescriptivism is institutionalized in primary and secondary English departments and in editing departments of print publications, but always loses in the long run.

I do have an issue with L.H. here, that from a non-linguistic, social point of view, official, prescriptivist written languages have a dimension of existence and power that local, unofficial, non-prescriptive unwritten languages don’t. And a lot of minor-language militance ends up demanding the same things that the favored languages have: standardization, a printed form, recognition by government, etc. So rather than defending the plurality of language, what you end up having done is just moved one unit from the “local dialect” category to the “offical language” category, with the official languages still dominant.

Ivan Illych has written some amazing things about the rise of prescriptivism: “In the Vineyard of the Text” and “Vernacular Values” in the book “Shadow Work”.


Mischa 03.22.04 at 7:44 pm


But then, I *can’t* say, “Your paper is no good for methodical reasons,” at least not without meaning something very different…


Mischa 03.22.04 at 7:50 pm


Not sure what you mean by “recent,” but the OED seems to show the gradual shift (study of method generally–>study of methods of particular discipline–>body of methods of a discipline–>set of methods used in a particular work), and not in the last couple of decades.

a1856 W. HAMILTON Lect. Metaphysics (1860) III. iii. 56 Such treatises are..only methodologies of the art or science to which they relate. 1902 Dial (Chicago) 32 79/1 Bibliographical methodology (i.e. methods of compilation and recording). 1932 W. E. D. ALLEN Hist. Georgian People vii. 91 Alp-Arslan and his commanders were tacticians who evolved a new methodology in mediæval Asiatic war.


John Quiggin 03.22.04 at 8:19 pm

mischa – as I implied earlier, by “recent” I mean from the 19th century onwards. The pretentious error “methodology” for “method” would naturally have arisen as soon as the word “methodology” existed, but its ony in the last couple of decades that it’s become so widespread as to make resistance futile.

D^2. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, “methodological” hasn’t made the same shift as “methodology”. So an academic speaker might well say something like
“The methodology in this paper is poor. The Quiggin-Davies regression estimator is biased and inconsistent”
but if someone said “I disagree with this paper for methodological reasons”, I would still expect this to be followed by a reference to Popper or something of the kind.


krebs cycle 03.22.04 at 9:49 pm

John: some native speakers are semantically better than others.

I gotta go with Language Hat’s social heirarchy theory on this one.

To say that some speakers are “semantically better” than others is technically true, of course. But so what? Good conversation requires many types of knowledge, including knowledge of the topic, of how to converse politely and with empathy toward the listener, of how to explain one’s perspective, etc.

Knowledge of semantics usually correlates with formal education, but these other conversational skills may not. Beyond the level required for understanding, I would argue that one’s semantic kung fu is much less important than one’s skill with some of these other conversational tools.

In my experience, conversation is almost always better served when empathy dominates superior symantic knowledge. In other words, telling one’s conversational partner that they have made a semantic error is almost never neccessary, and for the most part adds only the following to the conversation: “nya, nya, nya, nya nya, I know more than you do”, a put-down guaranteed to re-enforce heirarchy, if ever there was one.


clew 03.22.04 at 10:33 pm

krebs cycle, I might accept your whole third paragraph but think your fourth one goes too far; semantic ability is as necessary as the other tools.

And my experience is directly unlike yours, as I hang out with people who parse for fun, and we trust each other to mean well in our corrections. And we all have the jackdaw pronunciations of people who read more than we talk, to get back to the original topic.


krebs cycle 03.23.04 at 1:00 am

clew– Well, that’s cool. Maybe I’m letting my reverse class prejudice show through. I’m eerily sandwiched between the working class and the highly educated. My spoken vocabulary is a mix of both worlds, and it pisses me off when someone assumes my opinions are less valuable because I talk like a working class person or when people think I’m being haughty because I use too many 50 cent words. I wish everybody would just talk, without making a bunch of assumptions. So maybe I’m too sensitive.

I agree that a basic understanding of semantics is important, and knowing lots of words is helpful in thinking clearly. I just don’t see the importance, for example, of correcting someone who says aide when they mean assistant or sociological when they mean social. But I guess if you do it in a spirit of fun and well-wishing, and the correctee can tell, more power to you both.


language hat 03.23.04 at 7:32 pm

John: I’m relieved you agree the list is rubbish.

And I completely agree with krebs. “I wish everybody would just talk, without making a bunch of assumptions”: Amen!


KenL 03.24.04 at 10:57 pm

john g (from oz?) writes: “A minor point of interest in the same list is that Barry and berry are not homonyms in Australian English, although the difference is undetectable to American listeners. The same is true of Mary, marry and merry.”

Undetectable in much of America, but not all. There’s still plenty folk along the eastern seaboard that make the distinction between Mary, marry, and merry. And in Philly at least, the Barry/berry distinction is still alive and well.

That’s the problem with Aussies, by the way: prone to sweeping generalizations :)

Comments on this entry are closed.