Monday, September 1, 2008

On Proper Pronunciation

After a garage sale that met with mediocre success a few weeks ago, I discovered a book that I had inherited (pre-mortem) from my now-ex-father-in-law . . . my father-out-law. It's called 20,000 Words Often Mispronounced," by WHP Phyfe, originally published in 1889, this one with a copyright date of 1937. As with many 19th-century books, this one has a verbose subtitle: "A Complete Handbook of Difficulties in English Pronunciation, Including an Unusually Large Number of Proper Names, Words and Phrases from Foreign Languages."

I'm sure Lynne Truss would be quick to point out that the inclusion of a comma after Words in the subtitle would make the meaning clearer. I, however, just wonder at what point the author's large list became "unusually large."

We read from the Preface to the New Edition that "there are a few changes from the former edition of '18,000 Words Often Mispronounce.'" (A few? I'm guessing there were at least 2,000 changes.) To continue:

These changes are prompted by the fact that the New Webster and the latest Standard dictionaries, in keeping with the pace of the constantly changing spoken tongue, have not only noted but have accepted and authorized recent popular variations in pronunciation; these variations have been added to and in many cases substituted for the old ones.

At least the compilers of this edition (Fred A. Sweet and Maud D. Williams) recognized that language changes, and accepted that fact. But they do seem to rely on that Dictionary = Language Bible mentality, as revealed by their choice of "authorization" of a variation.

The text proper begins with an explanation of the symbols and diacritics used to indicate pronunciations, divided into sections:

  1. The Forty-Two Native or Common Elementary Sounds
  2. The Eight Adopted or Naturalized Elementary Sounds
  3. Compound or Diphthongal Sound

The symbology is pretty extensive, though probably no big deal for someone who has given any study to linguistics (which doesn't describe me). For example, on p. 258, we find the entry for diphthong:

dĭf'thŏng. Worcester and Stormonth say dĭp'thŏng. The Century gives it as an alternative pronunciation. See triphthong.

I don't want to go into a lot of specifics about pronunciations and what words are found in here (though I was surprised to see both Brobdingnagian and Houyhnhnm). What strikes me is the sheer gall and ego of an author to state that this is the proper pronunciation of a word. Alternative pronunciations are occasionally noted, but more often, the commonest mispronunciations are put down. To wit:

data. dā'tå, not'

That is, Star Trek NG had it right with Commander Data. The ä, in the pronunciation guide, is given as "the a in arm," which seems strange. The "a in at" is notated as ă, so I would expect "dă'tå" to appear as a pronunciation, either good or bad. But nope.

Has pronunciation changed that much?

There are plenty of surnames thrown in there, like Sousa (sōō'zå, not sōō'så) and Zaleszcyki (zä-lĕsh-chē'kĭ), as well as some words I've never heard before. I wonder how common words like notochord (nō'tō-kôrd) and enfilade (ĕn-fĭl-ād') were in the mid-to-late 19th century.