More on Dictionary Pronunciations

As per my last post on “dictionary standards,” here’s an actual editor’s thoughts on dictionary pronunciation guidelines:

Good dictionaries leave room for change. Take, for example, a word like “comfortable.” In a pronunciation guide from the early 1960s, the word is transcribed kʌmfərtəbəl, with four syllables. The canonical pronunciation in 2013, however, is more likely the trisyllabic kʌmftərbəl in standard American English (although the older pronunciation won’t attract much attention). Wisely, Merriam-Webster no longer treats either as “deviant.” Standards evolve.

As astute commenters have pointed out, though, dictionaries contain broad phonemic transcriptions, not dialect prescriptions. When a dictionary using IPA notation mentions that “cut” is pronounced kʌt, this should not imply that ʌ is more correct than ɐ or ɜ, but that “cut” has the same vowel as “bud,” “blood” and “hut.”

Alas, prescriptivists (a problematic term, I realize) often elide the crucial distinction between phonology and phonetics. For a vocal minority of language obsessives, there is no difference between “dictionary pronunciations,” diction “rules,” and accent reduction (e.g. this controversy). It’s all sloppy! There are valid discussions to be had about “standard English,” of course. But if you can’t make very simple distinction these very different concepts, it’s a non-starter.

An online guide termed “Dr. Goodword’s one-stop cure for the plague of mispronunciation” illustrates my point. The list contains instances of common “mistakes” like pronouncing “often” with a “t,” “barbiturate” without the second “r,” and confusing “cachet” with “cache.”

Fair enough. I don’t care whether someone says “often” as opposed to “offen,” but I suppose it’s helpful to know that the relatively obscure latter words are pronounced the way they are. Yet Dr. Goodword also lists such “mispronunciations” like “cannidate” for “candidate,” “febyuary” for “February,” “mannaise” for “mayonnaise,” and “upmost” for “utmost,” minor instances of elision or assimilationWorse, Dr. Goodword cites as “incorrect” pronunciations like “plute” for “pollute” and “fedral” for “federal,” presumably examples of syllabic liquids which are arguably more “correct” than unnatural attempts to insert a clearly articulated schwa between /p/ and /l/ or /d/ and /r/.

I can see why you might want to pronounce “cache” as if it were “cash,” because to do otherwise might cause confusion*. But to lump situations that involve genuine intelligibility with phonetic minutiae is to betray a deep misunderstanding about the English language. That’s why it’s so important to define the purpose of dictionary pronunciations and similar guides; in the wrong hands, these can be treated as strict and inflexible rules rather than mere descriptions.

*By the way, I can think of at least one example in which prescriptivist pronunciation guidelines cause confusion instead of clarity. That would be the oft-repeated bugaboo that “forte” should be pronounce “fort.” I’m a proponent of “forte” with two syllables, because no matter how much this may disgrace and defile the original French loan word, I find that pronouncing “forte” with one syllable causes confusion. 

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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20 Responses to More on Dictionary Pronunciations

  1. I think that engaging with prescriptivists on intelligibility is giving succor to the enemy. The only strategy here is to reject the premise that any one word or construction being homonymous makes any difference to the overall intelligibility of language (outside certain situations like spelling over the phone or communication of VHF radio). Language is chock full of polysemy and homonymy (sometimes in pronunciation, sometimes in writing and sometimes both) and has many repair tools to deal with misunderstandings. But most prescriptivist panics over possible misunderstandings are completely misguided because the number of contexts in which potential miscommunication could happen is miniscule. Like with this moronic obsession with ‘literally’ (http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/02/literally-triumph-of-pet-peeve-over-matter). English has three words ‘cash’, ‘cache’ and ‘cachet’ and two pronunciations. There is almost no contextual overalp so a context in which serious misunderstanding could happen is zero. It is possible that a computer expert hearing about ‘on board cachet’ may pause or ask for clarification but they would not simply take it in stride assuming the wrong meaning. The same goes for ‘fort’ vs. ‘forte’. The only answer is that there are two pronunciation at large in the speech community and that some are more likely in certain argots than others. Whenever I get this clarity of communication nonsense from prescriptivists, I always respond by listing all those ‘perfectly acceptable’ examples of the same type of ‘confusion’.

  2. Ed says:

    I wonder how many people, on hearing such recommendations, make a conscious attempt to change their own pronunciation.

    I am more likely to alter a pronunciation if it’s for somebody’s name or the name of a town, and I think that I’m not alone in this. For example, if I meet someone called Claudia, I’ll say her name either /klaʊdiə/ or /klɔ:diə/depending on how she says it. After I was corrected a second time by a native of Perth in Scotland, I started to pronounce the name with /e:/ as the vowel. However, there are exceptions to this. I wouldn’t turn on rhoticity when saying “Perth” even though virtually all its residents are rhotic.

    Something inside me says that refusing to modify your pronunciation for someone’s name is rude, but it would be crazy to switch to a different accent for every place name.

    • Tom says:

      Seems to me even crazier to switch to a different accent inconsistently, as the news media constantly do with Afghanistan (in which all the a’s or pronounced something like æ, or like the a in “man”) and Pakistan (which they pronounce as “pockystonn”). In fact, it seems that “Afghanistan” may be the one outlier in that whole region; why is that?

  3. Pete says:

    For me (American), mayonnaise is /ˈmæn.eɪz/, but AFAICT, I don’t have a neutralization of /æ/ and /eɪ.ə/ before /n/. So if Mayan were /ˈmeɪən/ for me (it isn’t), this would still be different from man. But despite that, mayonnaise is still /ˈmæn.eɪz/ to me. I’m not sure why that is.

    • Nico says:

      For me, ‘mayonnaise’ would be /meə.neɪz/. My accent always has tensed-æ before /m/ and /n/. I have a hard time adding the extra syllable -jə because to me it would sound like a Southern drawl.

      Although I can’t remember the last time I said the full word anyway. In regular speech I pretty much only say ‘mayo’.

    • Pete says:

      I think I do have a somewhat different allophone of /æ/ before /m/ and /n/, but I’m not sure how I would narrowly transcribe it. For me it’s just an allophone, not a separate phoneme. In other words, I don’t have minimal pairs like can “be able” vs. can “tin container”. Apparently some people (New Yorkers?) do.

      • Nico says:

        The tensing of æ before m and n is very common. It’s often realized as /eə/, /ɛə/, or even /ɪə/. In fact, I think it’s only becoming more common in most American accents. It’s even considered a trait of General American now.

  4. “Worse, Dr. Goodword cites as “incorrect” pronunciations like “plute” for “pollute” and “fedral” for “federal,” presumably examples of syllabic liquids which are arguably more “correct” than unnatural attempts to insert a clearly articulated schwa between /p/ and /l/ or /d/ and /r/.”

    It seems to me that these examples are for elisions, rather than syllabic consonants. And being picky about that seems even worse than bias against schwa…

    • Peter S. says:

      I’ve heard pollute /plˈuːt/ with a syllabic /l/ quite often, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard pollute /pluːt/ pronounced with one syllable. Would Dr. Goodword be correcting mistakes that people never make? I think he’s complaining about syllabic liquids.

      • Ellen K. says:

        Pollute with a syllabic L? Really? So the last syllable is just “oot” instead of “loot”? That strikes me as really odd, unless for some reason one is stressing the first syllable.

  5. Peter S. says:

    Still worse, Dr. Goodword recommends the British pronunciation for “herb” (with the “h”), a letter which was never been pronounced until the British started pronouncing it in the 19th century. Does he think we should pronounce the “h” in “hour”, “honest”, and “heir”, as well?

  6. Nico says:

    I just don’t see the big fuss over dictionary pronunciations other than as a guide if you’re learning English as a foreign language or completely clueless about a word’s pronunciation. I’m certainly no prescriptivist. My accent is pretty much Midland, close to General American, but I pronounce plenty of words that deviate from dictionary standard. I’ve honestly never had anyone make fun of me or criticize me for using ‘common’ pronunciations because people understand what I’m saying anyway.

  7. Randy says:

    On the pronunciation of “forte”, I had no idea this was a French loanword. Although I did learn the word in French class at some point, I think I learned in piano lessons first. The musical term comes from Italian, where the word is pronounced with two syllables. I had always assumed this was the origin. As far as I can tell, the meaning of the word is the same in both French and Italian.

    • Tom says:

      A similar general sense, I would say, but not the same. The noun from the French is “something at which one excels,” while the noun from Italian is “a loud passage in music.” Still, I have no problem with “forte” having two syllables; to pronounce it with one sounds pretentious to me.

      I feel the opposite about “cache,” however. One syllable seems fine for that, but two (to me) sounds pretentious. Not sure why that is, but maybe because my whole life I don’t recall ever hearing it with two until recently, with the rise of “clearing the cache” in computer troubleshooting.

  8. Johnny says:

    Isn’t “upmost” a common/standard pronunciation due to assimilation ?

    • Nico says:

      I pronounce it as /ˈʌʔ.moʊst/ (I tend to drop the final t pretty often in speech), though I know /ˈʌp.moʊst/ is way more common. Wiktionary gives the standard American pronunciation as /ˈʌt.moʊst/. I imagine most t’s in that position would become a glottal stop anyway.

  9. Phil says:

    I’m no fan of prescriptivism either, but I have my limits. I moved to England 10 years ago, and have found (to my continuing horror) that the pronunciation of ‘t’ in ‘often’ is absolutely rampant, especially among the middle classes. Once I even heard a television presenter do the same thing with ‘soften’, but so far no one seems to have thought to resurrect the sound in similar environments (listen, hasten; hustle, bustle, wrestle, mistletoe…). Aside from British class dynamics and associated linguistic insecurity, I suppose that f(t)ən# is a relatively uncommon sequence (these are the only 2 words I can think of), and there’s the added analogic pressure of numerous place names (Grafton, etc). I’m guessing words like ‘piston’ and ‘pistol’ were later borrowings and in any case are outnumbered by all those words with silent t’s. And since British schools seemed to have stopped teaching children how to spell (judging from the work my children produce), the appearance of further spelling pronunciations seems rather unlikely.

    • Mark says:

      Does it also horrify you when people use different vowels in rough, through and bought? They’re all spelled with ough. Why should the ough be pronounced differently in all 3 words?

    • Nico says:

      You sound like fun to be bothered by something as trivial as the pronunciation of the ‘t’ in the words you’ve listed.

      It can’t be underestimated that middle and working class people produce most language changes.

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