Pronunciation and Spelling — and The New Model

In a FaceBook discussion about pronunciation it was recently brought home to me just how much my personal social ideology influences my choice of language, and my attitude to grammar, spelling, speech and vocabulary.

My great friend Holly posted this link: 100 Most Often Mispronounced English Words.

What I originally began reading with curiosity I soon found myself reading with horror and eventually revulsion, not at the nature of the common mistakes described, but the mockery of the poorly educated, and the arbitrary, high-handed, divisive nature of the "selection" of the "correct" pronunciation. Finally I was unable to read all the way to the 100th entry as I happened across more and more examples of entirely unresearched words, of which for me the worst offender was the claim that we should say "in paretheses" not "in parenthesis"*.

Obviously if you read my post on The New Model, you will understand that I object to the notion of "correct grammar" as it is understood by most people. In brief: grammar exists to allow specialists and enthusiastic amateurs to describe language to eachother. It does not provide a set of rules that everyone must follow in order to use language "correctly". In even briefer: grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive.

In the 1920's, the British Upper Classes (which still existed in recognizable form back then), in a deliberate effort to distinguish themselves both from the British proletariat and from the upstart ex-colonial rebels (um... if you're American, that's you), altered their own pronunciation of English. It was viewed at the time as a natural progression of an ongoing process of "refining" the language, particularly since the English spoken in North America had changed so little in the preceding hundred years. Yes, I am saying that US English is more authentic than British English. Americans would do well to realize this. Authentic because you didn't deliberately try to change your language so that you could more easily identify and preserve artificial social differences.

Parents and teachers are of course absolutely correct when they say that if your child doesn't learn to use his language in the way that is commonly accepted as correct or proper, that this will be a disadvantage for your child, whose intellect will be judged on his vocabulary, diction and pronunciation (what we call "articulacy"), not on his knowledge or skill.

Sadly, in trying to prepare children for this kind of injustice, we perpetuate the injustice.

Even if the list referenced above was prepared by someone whose motivation was to help people in North America to be viewed and responded to (and judged) fairly by those around them, what it really does is tell people that they are wrong. I believe, however, that there is little grounds to be generous when inferring the motivations of the writer. Many of the distinctions are true only in middle-class North America. Many are specious. Many are spurious. Many are plain wrong. But a much larger proportion are examples either from dialect, or from different variants of English. The reality of everyday life in a North American city is that there are many varying pronunciations, whose origins are both from different regions of North America, and from different regions of the world.

In such conditions there is not, and there will never be agreed, common, immutable correct pronunciation. Pronunciation will change and continue to change, faster than grammar, faster than spelling, faster, even, than meaning. And it will continue (as it always has) to radiate - to split and separate, as one generation distinguishes itself from the last, as one socio-economic group distinguishes itself from another, as one ideology distinguishes itself from another.

So what does The New Model have to offer to pronunciation: simply this:

to be heard, we must learn to listen

People who live in multi/polycultural (and multi-lingual) communities learn very rapidly to modulate their speech to match the expectations of the person they are speaking to. This is critical to articulacy, and it is achieved through a careful balance of talking and listening. If you have a hard time making yourself understood (and this is as true in the street, in the classroom, in the home, in the debate chamber, in the courtroom, in the newsroom), you have to stop talking and get the other guy to talk. And then you have to listen. Nothing will get you understood faster or more clearly than listening.

If this sounds like a koan, then I need to add a bit more:

The consequence of listening is twofold: first, it gives you a handle on how the other guy talks; how he expresses himself and how he understands his own words. Second, it will give you a view of his attitude. Attitude is way more important than opinion. Attitude is how you approach your own opinions and the opinion of others. You can't even begin to make yourself understood if you have no idea of how your opinion will be received. So you have to give it in small bites and see how each bite is received.

I'm not overly good at this. But I try.

I know there are people reading this because I look at the stats. You guys have to comment now. Otherwise I can't listen, and those of you who think my pontifications are introspective ego trips (while partly correct) will continue to think so indefinitely.


* In case you can't be bothered to look it up yourself, 'a parenthesis' is a word or group of words inserted into another clause, phrase or sentence, indicated by punctuation, most commonly the round bracket (curved or normal bracket, what this parenthesis is in). The name of the punctuation mark is "bracket" or "round bracket".


Damon J Courtney said...

I don't know what to say here. It smacks of elitism, but I'm as guilty of it as the next guy. Well, assuming the next guy has some small idea of grammar and language. Which I think I have some measure of.

My nits tend not to be so much on the spoken language but in written form. Even here in America, most people write the correct word, though not always correctly. I really like this "New Model" idea, so when I say that something bothers me in written form, it's usually because it's hard to understand. I'm not sure how well the kids are doing over there on your side of the pond, but over here it's just plain scary.

These examples have been pointed out many times before and by many others, but I see these on a regular basis from my little nieces and cousins who are in high school and lower. They have no idea how to write in a way that conveys understanding without a lot of rereading and interpretation. The most egregious examples:

your and you're

there, their, and they're

to and too

lose and loose

There are others, but I don't want to drag this out forever. In the examples above, most tend to go with a single spelling for EVERY instance. Usually: your, there, to and loose. Add to this a complete lack of punctuation, and you have some very arcane text. Let me provide a few examples in case you don't follow any teenagers on Facebook as I do.

This is a message from my 15-year-old cousin's ex-boyfriend to her. I have changed the name of my cousin to "Cousin" to protect the poor girl. Which makes it sound kinda sick if you read it as some kind of incestuous letter, but bear with me. Keep in mind as you're reading, this is her ex-boyfriend, and he's all of the ripe, old age of 17 years old. Just for context.

"Tbh. Cousin not only are you my ex girlfriend but after everything we've been through we've remained bestfriends...I can't explain to tell you how much you changed me as a person ina positive way...you really brought to me the rights and wrongs in life and let me knew tht wat I was doing needed to change...before you there was never a girl who could change me like you did and there's not a day tht goes by and I dont think about how thankful I am for you...you are flat an amazing girl Cousin...your so beautiful in so many ways...your probably the coolest chick in the world bc theres not another girl I can hang with and feel like im with wanna my bross:) cousin...I love you...I love you so much and I just wanna let you know life could have never been the same without you bc you truely changed it for the better♥....btw tbh your really hott I dont really know you but hmu sometime;)♥ hahaha your probably gunna be the only one with a long tbh haha love you cousin:)"

Here's one from my cousin. The name of the ex-boyfriend has been changed to protect said ex-boyfriend.

"as hardheaded as i am Ex-Boyfriend just proved to me that my parents are right and i can be better than im putting forth effort and i know how to fix it and now all i have to do is do it. (: they just care about me as much as he does and it makes me feel much better about my self. (: im better than what people see me as and i know and the people that love me know im better than that ♥ i love my baby and family♥ (:"

So then, the question becomes. How does this follow in the "New Model"? In the case of teenagers reading these posts, I'm sure that they are perfectly clear what they meant. For an old man like me, I have to read several times to decipher where one sentence stops and another starts. Nevermind the words themselves. I can generally figure out that "your" means "you're".

What say you, my fine, mustachioed friend?

Harry Dewulf said...

As you say Big D, the FB messages between teenagers are comprehensible to teenagers. This kind of thing has existed since older children first wanted to have conversations that exclude their parents - in other words, since forever. It's a critical element in the evolution of language. As long as they understand one another, these examples are not problematic. It only becomes problematic if they are unable to post messages intended for their uncles that their uncles can understand.

I feel you probably ought not to read this sort of thing. The way that it is written shows that it isn't meant for you, nor for me. :p

Damon J Courtney said...

I don't read them on purpose. Sometimes they just show up on my Facebook feed, and I can't look away.

I have to imagine that even teenagers find some of these hard to understand. Without SOME kind of punctuation, they must have to reread at least a couple times to figure out where to stop and start. They don't have superpowers that I know of.

I'm pretty sure that even if they wanted to write to me they would use the same style of writing. Not entirely incomprehensible, but definitely not easy to read. I ding them on grammar all the time for no other reason than to show my superiority. I got a dose of my own medicine when someone edited my first novel.

Phyllis Lily Jules said...

Harry, this is a wonderful post. I love it when someone leaves a trail to interesting places.

I feel like rolling my eyes, throwing up my hands at some of those grammar, word discussions making the rounds. Every one of us is communicating from our own prism. Listening to the other as the dominant approach allows the prism to be tweaked a bit, until we can see that we've gotten across to them.

Please continue to investigate these tantalizing topics, the ones that tend to fall out of the box. If you do, I promise to comment more so that you don't feel like you're talking only to yourself.