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 assimilation. 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/.
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.