Wednesday, February 16, 2022

How Should I Pronounce?

In 1885, William Henry P. Phyfe wrote How Should I Pronounce? or, The Principles of the Art of Correct Pronunciation, A Manual for Schools, Colleges, and Private Use.  He was also the author of such volumes as 7,000 Words Often Mispronounced, so you know he put a lot of effort into this. There are joys on every page, as we shake our heads wondering is this really how these words were pronounced then, or is this just some crank who decided he had just HAD IT with everyone getting these wrong? The answer is "both."

Ab-DO-men, AfghaniSTAN


Man-da-REN, MAR-it-imm

Ro-ZE-o-la, SAC-ri-fize

There were a lot of language cranks around in those days.  In fact, it seemed that every person who had a little education had strong opinions on the subject and weren't shy about letting others know. In this case, Phyfe acknowledges that something else is the more common pronunciation, or even that it is in Webster's, yet still insists his is the correct one

Immigrants were beginning to come in, and those people wanted to know how to sound right and fit it. The people whose families had moved to the frontier in the previous two generations were insecure about being rubes, and they wanted to make sure they pronounced things correctly. There was regional competition and defensiveness about all manner of usage. The rising middle classes, especially where those immigrants were coming in wanted to make damn sure they knew how to say things correctly, and the growing elite classes wanted volumes like this in order to have the edge in condescending to all the others. African-Americans and women were both finding opportunities previously closed to them, and wanted to make sure they didn't ruin their chances by looking stupid or uneducated. People rising in class tend to care about these things, and want their children to care even more. So there was quite a market for usage, grammar, and pronunciation books. 

The people who wrote them were not entirely self-appointed experts. They had the credentials of their day, teaching at schools or colleges and belonging to societies for this or that. Newspaper and magazine editors did not yet have quite that cachet, except perhaps a few from New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. They often had plenty of supporters for their views and were regarded as champions of sides in their controversies.

I gave the examples above as humor, and yet not. They are examples of how language changes, and is always changing. Elevating Latin and Classical Greek to status supremacy tries to deny this and convince us that there are very clear rights and wrongs about usage.  I certainly grew up with that, at home, at school, and simply everywhere in surrounding culture.  My early teachers would have gone to Normal Schools in the 20s & 30s, and the usage that would have been drilled into their heads and insisted on would have come from books of Phyfe's era, written by people like him. Webster's early dictionaries would have still been considered authoritative. I was closest to my mother's family, who were Swedish and Scots-Irish trying to be upward bound from very poor childhoods and certain that being good at knowing these things better than others and bringing up your children in those patterns was not merely status but rightness, nearly a moral rightness. People still think that today, though the sentiment is eroding.  Heck, I loved the usage book The Transitive Vampire when it came out in the 1980s and gave it as a gift occasionally.  I would not now.


Grim said...

I also grew up in a place and time where we were taught correct pronunciation and grammar as a way of making ourselves, as Southerners, more plausible candidates for jobs in an economy increasingly dominated by corporations run by transplants from further north. The most important job was eliminating any trace of a Southern accent, but 'classy' pronunciation was also taught:

"OF-en" rather than "OFT-en"
"thee-AH-ter" rather than "THEE-ater"

A generation earlier no one would have bothered except at elite prep schools where you were hoping to move north and attend an Ivy League school to escape the South. You could have gotten a job in the South with a Southern accent just fine; although you might have been pressed to ape the more elite Matlock-style Southern accent, and not the version used by rednecks or other field hands.

Christopher B said...


Donna B. said...

Though raised by parents with fairly thick southern accents, it was in western Colorado. Thus:
"OF-en" rather than "OFT-en"
"thee-AH-ter" rather than "THEE-ater" were the way I grew up pronouncing these words.

Though I'm not fluent in Spanish, I have an ear for 'correct' pronunciation. Again, this is likely due to hearing it so often in Colorado. I can also do deep southern belle, if the occasion calls for it. Nowadays that's usually a situation calling for sarcasm. My "Bless your heart, darlin" is to die for.

What I was never quite able to understand, much less mimic was what I call Tennessee/Appalachian hillbilly... named that because the older maternal relatives I had from Tennessee and northeastern Alabama spoke softly and swiftly with such rounded vowels and soft consonants, that I rarely understood anything until "Amen". Because we only made a few trips per year 'back home' I didn't hear this speech much. My paternal relatives from Arkansas were easy to understand... I'd classify their accent then and now as "backwoods hick". They would say "bless your little pea-pickin' heart" just like on 'Hee Haw'.

There are so many regional southern accents, it's difficult to pick one and call it "southern". Many years ago I spent several weeks in Lexington KY and thought they all sounded like Yankees.

Then there's New Orleans and southern Louisiana where accents can vary by parish... some of them as incomprehensible to me as that TN/NE Alabama one.

I would bet that AVI can identify different accents within New Hampshire also.