You say potato, I say potato

I wonder often about pronunciation. Yes, only other word-nerds will probably understand and appreciate my obsession with things linguistic.

Recently a friend sent me this link: https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-english-so-weirdly-different-from-other-languages. The article is quite long, so here’s a little taster.

Clip on a suffix to the word wonder, and you get wonderful. But – clip on an ending to the word modern and the ending pulls the accent ahead with it: MO-dern, but mo-DERN-ity, not MO-dern-ity. That doesn’t happen with WON-der and WON-der-ful, or CHEER-y and CHEER-i-ly. But it does happen with PER-sonal, person-AL-ity.

What’s the difference? It’s that -ful and -ly are Germanic endings, while -ity came in with French. French and Latin endings pull the accent closer – TEM-pest, tem-PEST-uous – while Germanic ones leave the accent alone. One never notices such a thing, but it’s one way this ‘simple’ language is actually not so.

I have read that the way people from the Indian subcontinent pronounce English words can be traced back to the Welsh railway workers who drove the engines during the time of British Raj. I hear people say cu-CUM-ber, whereas English speakers from, say, the UK or Australia, would say CU-cumber; again, do-CU-ment rather than DOC-u-ment, and devel-OP-ment rather than dev-EL-op-ment.

But it seems it runs much deeper than Welsh engineers. Since both Hindi and Welsh come from the mother of tongues (proto–Indo–European) and English is such a mishmash of things; therefore, the Celtic and Hindi languages have more in common than train drivers. I also hear Vs and Ws interchanged. I understand that in Hindi they are both written the same, therefore I can appreciate that it would be difficult to know which fits where. There are other examples of extraneous letters: Italians do not have a J in their alphabet; Spaniards speaking English add an E before S (as in España); German speakers also find W more than a mouthful, and so on. I was watching a film recently where a Portuguese speaker was being taught English and had to sound ‘th’. I enjoyed the scene—at the character’s expense. Mind you, his English was a great deal better than my Portuguese.

Then we enter yet another realm. DE-fence, as opposed to de-FENCE, a fancy, French-sounding homAGE, as opposed to HOMage. Still, our trans–Pacific cousins also refer to ‘erbs, so I suppose that follows.

Then we have words such as envelope. Are you speaking of the stationery article or of something completely covered in something, easy to see where the similarities lie. But for people whose first language is not English, to learn that it depends on the context must be yet another bridge to cross to become fluent in our mother tongue. Think too, of read. Is it past or present? What about survey? Do you survey the land or do you have a survey undertaken?

There are many words I now automatically pronounce with an Aussie accent (so I should, after nearly half a century living here), e.g: falcon (not fawlcon as I used to), I still have a problem with nice men called Grant; I find it nigh impossible to call them Grant, but revert to the old long vowel and call them Graant. I still say caastle, paass and baath (which doesn’t make me at Baathist, I promise). I cling to aitch without the aspirant—but then I was educated in a C of E school, and not within the Roman Catholic system. I once had a discussion with a learned friend who decried the use of ‘a hotel’, but I told him that nowadays we can use the indefinite article where the following word begins with an ‘h’ as long as it’s aspirated—e.g. a hymn, a hump, a huge helicopter. Of course there are some exceptions—we are talking of English here.

Warning, whinge paragraph ahead. Talking of ‘a’, why has its pronunciation changed (notably in pollie-speak) to be emphasised as ‘ay’. I much prefer the softer ‘uh’. Picky, picky. Or perhaps pernickety/persnickety. Sports commentators have an irritating habit of adding an ‘uh’ to the end of so many words-uh. And why to television reporters have to return to the studio with a ‘Peter?’, ‘Tracey?’ Isn’t it obvious that the coverage is returning? Also, they often begin their telecasts with ‘Now’. Well, it’s bleedin’ obvious, isn’t it? And don’t get met started on cere-moany… which so many of them have to attend.

A friend stumbles over the word recalcitrant. Once we have a perceived obstacle, our brains apparently freeze. I love the little mnemonics to help readers to know (generally) how to pronounce words: the vowel at the end indicates how the vowel in the middle should sound. That’s fine with poke, henge, dine and life—but what about love and come? Blood and flood? Where do they sit?

One word I find most difficult to remember how to spell (no problem with the pronunciation) is diarrhoea; today I read a mnemonic: Dead In A Rolls-Royce Having Over-Eaten Again. Maybe I’ll recall it now, although I hope that it’s not too often.

And another thing.
I have found an ‘ism’ I really, really like. Prism!

Category(s): Creative writing, Editing
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4 Responses to You say potato, I say potato

  1. As long as we don’t pronounce proJECT as proDjECT. Smilie: :)

    • Tee hee! Are you pro-JECT-ing or PRO-hecting. I always found PRO-ject odd to my English-educated years. We used to say pro-DJECT! (Sorreeeeee.)
      But that’s nothing like con-GRAD-ulations. Aaaaaagh! They must have heard me say prodject!

  2. Try correctly pronouncing Finnish words (including names such as my own surname!) as an Australian, with our accent, Margie – there is to be no emphasis on ANY of the MANY syllables in each word/name, if you’re to say it ‘properly’ (the Finn way)!
    I can’t recall how many times we’ve been corrected about the pronunciation of ‘SAUNA’, either. (Each letter is pronounced separately, so sounds more like ‘SA-OO-NN-A’…oh, so difficult! Our tongues are too ‘lazy’ here in Oz to bother with that!) Smilie: :)
    Interesting that Italian doesn’t have a ‘J’, too; I grew up with Italian cousins, and never knew that (…perhaps, with one of those cousins having a name starting with ‘J’, it never occurred to me). And ‘aitch’/’haitch’ differs according to your school’s philosophy?? WOW…
    One of the ‘TV Land’ things I’VE noticed (not talking about sports commentators here; I suspect you were referring to one–WL–whose ‘words-uh’ were possibly initially ‘over-pronounced’ for the benefit of a hearing-impaired family member. He’s got quite the lilting sports-reading style, hasn’t he?! *insert interrobang here*): before answering interviewers’ questions, respondents will often nowadays say ‘So…’, as the leading word to their answer. Grrrr!
    And my husband CANNOT (for the life of him) say ‘INDUBITABLY!’
    Thanks for another interesting and informative post!

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