Good Afterble, Constanoon: The pitfalls of English pronunciation

by Ray Prebble / 11 November, 2018
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A grammarian on the pitfalls of English pronunciation.

You’re a tourist on holiday from Slovenia, driving around New Zealand on your trip of a lifetime, and you see a sign that says “No dropping refuse”. You look up “refuse” in your handy English guide and it says “indicate unwillingness to do something”. You scratch your head and decide that English is impossibly weird.

A roadworker is spraying the grass around the sign, so you ask what the story is. “Oh,” she says, flipping back her face mask, “many English words function as both a noun and a verb, and a common way to distinguish them is to stress the early syllable for nouns and the last syllable for verbs.” Then she fumbles in the pocket of her hi-vis vest and whips out the following list:

The list.

“Just happened to have this on me,” she says, smiling sheepishly.

Having seen many sheep recently, you find it hard to see the similarity, but you’re happy to have learnt a pattern in English, which sometimes seems so random.

When it comes to the pronunciation of multi-syllable words, people often see the wrong pattern. Take a good old-fashioned word like “constable”. Many people see it as similar to “constant” and pronounce it “kon-stable”, when in fact it falls into the pattern of “comfortable” and should be pronounced “kun-stable”. The same error occurs with “accomplish”: people see the similarity with “complete” and pronounce it “akomplish”, whereas the similarity is with “company” (hence “akumplish”). The same for “conjure”: it is properly pronounced “kun-jure”, not “kon-jure”.

Then there are those words people get etymologically confused about. How many times have you heard a sports coach talk about the importance of “comraderie”? The word is camaraderie. Cam-araderie. Yes, it’s related to being comrades, but it’s French and a completely different word. There’s a similar common mistake in cooking shows: the word is vinaigrette, not “vinegarette”. Not to mention “pronounciation”; it’s pronunciation. The mistaken pattern is the same in all three cases: take a familiar word and slap a fancy ending on it.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s all very interesting, Ray, but I don’t want to sound like a prat.” I admit people judge others based on pronunciation and language use, so if you’re having a beer with a bunch of pig hunters, you want to fit in. But the point is, no one’s forcing you to talk in a certain way.

When I was teaching my recalcitrant young son to use a knife and fork, I said, “Listen, when you grow up, you can jam your face in your dinner and eat like a dog for all I care. But this way, you’ve got a choice. You know how to do it properly, and that knowledge gives you the option.” Something to have up your sleeve when you’re having dinner with the Queen.

When that dinner with the Queen does arrive (or perhaps with the King – the old dear can’t last forever), if your plan to be your good Kiwi self crumbles under social pressure, try to avoid the pitfalls in the other direction of the social try-hard. There are the usual try-hard pronouns, like “My wife and myself are delighted to be here” (no, use “My wife and I”), and “Between you and I, your majesty, I think Melania Trump is a man” (no, use “Between you and me”, and don’t gossip). But there are also try-hard pronunciation errors, such as using “a-pree-see-ate” (use “a-pree-she-ate”) and “Wed-ness-day” (use “Wenz-day”).

Wednesday is a good example of the linguistic traps set to detect social class. If you’re a Cantabrian you may well say “Wooster” and “Gloster” for Worcester and Gloucester (avoiding “Were-sister” and “Glau-sister”), but most New Zealanders will stagger through Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), and crash and burn with Magdalen College (pronounced “Mawdlin” College). And avoid Welsh. If, at this royal dinner, you meet a charming woman with a name tag that says “Hi, I’m Siobahn from Llanelli”, don’t even try. Just bust out your secret weapon: te reo!   

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.

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