Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Shibboleth for the Educated

Keith Staskiewicz wonders why people feel so embarrassed when they mispronounce a word they've only seen in print:
Haven’t we all had a name or a word that we’ve seen many times in print, but never heard in conversation? We know what it means, how to use it, how it’s spelled; everything but how to pronounce it.

For the majority of my life, I was convinced that awry was pronounced similarly to the word orrery. To this day “uh-RYE” still rings false in my ear. I also admit to pronouncing posthumous as if it meant “following a savory Middle Eastern spread.” And I, like many others, have Googled the phrase “Goethe, how to pronounce.” (Don’t get me started on South African-born Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee.) I just wonder why there’s such a stigma attached to those of us (like poor Margaret Tate) who seem to know certain words only in writing. Surely, there is quite a large vocabulary that doesn’t appear that often in everyday conversation, so why should one feel ashamed to get it wrong now and again? In the end, it’s more important to know what it means than how it sounds. I say go forth and mispronounce because how will you ever get it right if you’re never corrected?

I agree. I think those who fancy themselves cultured and highly educated use pronunciation as a shibboleth, as if knowing a word's meaning is fine for laymen, but serious people know how to properly pronounce dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. It's a silly distinction to make, and one that reeks of elitism and a little bit of the "gotcha!" mentality. ("What did you just say? Oh, it's actually pronounced dis-pyuh-TAY-shus. God, everyone knows that.")