English major, Rant, Words

A Rant About Linguistic Pedantry

Hey guys, remember that time I got all up in the prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar debate? Yeah, it’s time for more of that.

One of my favorite channels on YouTube is the Mental Floss channel, which is narrated by John Green and regularly comes out with videos full of Top-whatever lists about history and science and language and other cool shit. You know. Things to floss your brain with. I love Mental Floss because trivia is the best thing ever, but this week they released a video called 79 Common Mispronunciations and it is just a disastrously pedantic nightmare and I had to say something. So this is me saying something. But probably you should watch the video first:

I hope you’re all ready for an earful about words, language evolution, and the validity of regional dialects, because that’s what you’re about to get. Oh, and I’m using my own made-up pronunciation spellings, because the International Phonetic Alphabet is a pain in the ass to type and also most of you probably can’t read it anyway (though you should learn it, because the IPA is baller).

For starters, I think it’s important to point out that correcting somebody’s pronunciation is not, inherently, a bad thing to do. Sometimes, incorrect pronunciation interferes with understanding; this is called a communication break down, and you should correct that shit.  For example, if your friend is saying “chester drawers” when they mean “chest of drawers” (a mistake John Green admits to making in another of his videos), you should correct them. This happens a lot when people have only read a word and never heard it said aloud, and English is especially terrible for this because it is a franken-language made up of cannibalized bits of a bunch of other languages (primarily Old Norse, Old German and Old French), so there aren’t any universal spelling rules. In short, English is a pretty ridiculous language and nobody should ever be made fun of for messing up at it, because frankly it’s messed up to begin with*. When communication is impaired, gentle corrections are in order. 

The other situation in which you should correct pronunciation is when somebody mispronounces a proper noun. A person’s name belongs to them, and the name of a street/city/country belongs to the people living there. They decide how it is pronounced, and it’s basic common courtesy to get as close to the correct pronunciation as your own linguistic limitations will allow (sometimes you are missing vowels or consonants and therefore can’t make the appropriate noises, but you should at least try). See: Edinburgh, Versailles, Martin Scorsese, Rihanna, etc.. Americans especially have a reputation for failing at this, so pay attention**.

What’s bad is when you declare one commonly used pronunciation more valid than another commonly used pronunciation, according to your own personal (often arbitrary) ideas about what makes language correct. It is not on to tell a whole sub-section of native English speakers that their pronunciation of a certain word is wrong. Remember the rules of descriptive grammar: if native speakers do it, it’s correct. End of story. Different dialects and accents pronounce words differently, and that does not make one of those pronunciations wrong. They are both/all right.

EXAMPLES FROM THIS VIDEO:

  • Ask – the oft-belittled “axe” pronunciation appears primarily in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which is recognized by many linguistic scholars as a language in its own right because it has its own rules of grammar. Sadly, speakers of AAVE are still regularly belittled and assumed to be of a lower intelligence for speaking in their native dialect, which is absurd and also pretty racist. You are not saying it wrong if you are from a community that pronounces it “axe.” You are saying it right, and anyone who corrects you or tells you that you are stupid for pronouncing it that way is an uninformed asshole.
  • Et cetera (etc.)– There are at least four different, perfectly valid American English pronunciations of the word “et cetera.” Here’s a dialect survey map of the word’s usage in the United States. All of the pronunciations are pretty much used across the country, each with a significant portion of the population to back it up. Guess what that means? All four pronunciations are valid.
  • Nuclear – This one is a bit of a hot button because of all the hubbub there was a few years ago about President George W. Bush pronouncing it “nuke-you-ler” instead of the dictionary-defined “new-clear.” While it is true that dictionaries define the latter pronunciation as the “correct” one, many also acknowledge that the former pronunciation is becoming more popular. This is what we call a word in flux: the accepted pronunciation is changing. Language does that. It changes. Those standing in its way get bowled over, or at the very least look like assholes for picking on someone else’s dialect. Don’t be that guy.
  • Caramel – Both “kar-mel” and “care-a-mel” are accepted pronunciations in pretty much any dictionary you want to consult. The word is rooted in Spanish, which would pronounce it “care-a-mel,” but as it turns out that’s not actually relevant to the correctness of the pronunciation in English. Like, at all.

All too frequently, word history or language of origin is cited as proof that one pronunciation is more correct than another, but that is really stupid. I’m a word buff myself, so I can understand the impulse. Word history is interesting, and there is nothing wrong with pointing out that a word was originally pronounced differently than the current, generally-accepted pronunciation, because that’s super interesting! However, the older pronunciation is not the right one any more than medieval laws are more right than modern ones. Language is not first come, first serve. It is evolving. If you are American, you especially have no leg to stand on with this argument, because holy wow did we change the language when we decided to bail on England. Hell, we even changed how words were spelled out of sheer spite (well, Noah Webster of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary did anyway, but we went along with it).

Sadly, what I just described is exactly what this video is doing when it criticizes the popular pronunciation of “forte” in American English, though they at least admit they’re being dicks about it:

Forte [for-tay] is an Italian word that means “loud.” Your forte [fort] is something that you are good at, or the strongest part of a sword. Like, one of my fortes is reviewing novels about conjoined twins. But this mispronunciation is so common and you will seem so pedantic if you correct anyone that you just shouldn’t. That said, we’re going to continue being pedantic for the rest of the video.

Pronunciation is not ruled by prescriptive grammar, or history, or pronunciation rules imported from the language of origin, and you are not wrong if you pronounce a word the way everybody you know pronounces it. That’s just not how language works. There is only one way that a pronunciation can be invalid, and that is if nobody uses it. Ironically, there actually is an example of that in this video, but it’s one of the “corrections” offered: “Believe it or not, it’s [weekeepedia].”

Uh, no, John Green, it isn’t. Because nobody pronounces it like that. Please show yourself out.

Pedantically yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“…being a professional person of letters, such as myself, does not mean that you will not, on occasion, make hideous grammatical mistakes such as the double negative in that sentence. CRAP! DOUBLE NEGATIVES!” -John Green

P.S. I realize that in this post I am essentially being pedantic about pedantry. I call this meta-pedantry, and if I were a superhero, that would be my power. THE META-PEDANT STRIKES AGAIN, SMITING ALL WHO WOULD POLICE LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE ACCORDING TO ARBITRARY RULES AND STANDARDS!! QUAKE WITH FEAR, DENIZENS OF THE BLOGOSPHERE!

*If you don’t believe me when I say that English pronunciation is fucked all to hell, take a look at this poem and get back to me.

**Aran, I still maintain that I am under no obligation to fix the way I pronounce the first vowel of your name in casual conversation, both because that vowel doesn’t occur word-initial in my accent, and because you make no effort to pronounce my R correctly due to your insistence on speaking in a non-rotic accent. Eye for an eye. Come at me, bro.

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9 thoughts on “A Rant About Linguistic Pedantry”

  1. I am a terrible person and constantly want to correct people’s pronunciation (although I rarely do) which is why I feel I have to point out that at 0:54 on the video we’re told ‘you don’t go to Edin-burg, you go to Edin-buru’ whereas in actual fact you go to Edin-bru. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American pronounce it correctly but then the ‘borough’ part of place names seems to have no end of potential pronunciations.

    I’d also like to point out, on behalf of the French, that you shouldn’t say the ‘l’ at the end of ‘Les Miserables’.

    Most of the rest of the examples I’d tend to agree with but you make a great point about how we should respect the way different people naturally speak, accents make conversation interesting!

    1. I pronounce Edinburgh correctly! Or at least as correctly as my accent will allow. But I’m a special case because one of my good friends lives there, so I’ve heard it said in the correct accent a number of times. A lot of Americans have only ever heard other Americans approximate the pronunciation. Generally with proper nouns, I think it’s the effort that counts. You may not be able to say it correctly, but you should make a good faith attempt.

      1. Haha, friends have their uses! Of course it’s hard to pick up the correct pronunciation when you only ever hear non-native people say it. Especially since English is such a bizarre mix of other languages and has no obvious rules. But I agree it’s always good to try – I know I mangled everything I tried to say when I went to Poland!

        1. The guy’s “Edin-buru” in the video is actually pretty decent (though the above commenter is right, the penultimate vowel tends to get elided). But I’m surprised that he picked “Edin-berg” as the wrong pronunciation — the most frequent American-tourist mangling is to say Edin-BorROW. Or, worse, Eedin-borrow. Worth noting that in Scots writing, it’s often rendered “Embra”, which is a pretty good indicator that no-one has any chance at all.

          1. Ironically, I think the style of mispronunciation actually varies depending on where you’re from. The guy in the video lives in Indiana, which is over in the Midwest/East Coast wtih cities like Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, where BERG is how you pronounce that ending. Dialectical mispronunciations, I suppose, would be the term for it. Yay linguistics!

  2. In response to footnote 2 (surely the warcry of the pedant): in terms of descriptive linguistics I can’t fault this. The mantra, after all, is that if a native speaker understands the intent, then it’s not “wrong”. The only reason I pull you up on it is for sport, because you’re a word-nerd. And also I suppose because names have a particularly emotive tie to pronunciation — basically what you said in your own comment above about a “good faith attempt”. Hence the way I spectacularly disfigure names like “Soraya”, “Rastko”, etc., with my bulky anglophone tongue, instead of just going for the closest that my native phonemic range allows.

    I’ll happily make more of an effort with Mo-R-gan in future =p. Incidentally, I’m variably rhotic, so I’d be surprised if I didn’t already say it with the “R” around half the time. Trying it out now (yes, I am sitting in my flat repeating your name out loud to an empty room…), it actually feels more natural to include it. But I think the (non-rhotic) English side of my accent tends to overpower the Celtic side around my international friends, so it could be, ironically, that I’m actually less likely to get your name right when it’s you that I’m addressing…

    1. Yeah, see, the problem with pronouncing your first vowel right for me is not that I CAN’T make that noise so much as that I have to literally stop mid-sentence and think about tongue/jaw position to achieve the desired effect. I suppose that is a thing that I could do, but everyone would think that I regularly forgot what your name was. Or that I was a bit slow.

      Also, just saying, more people should spend time sitting alone in flats repeating my name over and over again. That is how I cultivate power.

      1. I do believe in Morgans! I do believe in Morgans!

        Or they’d think that my name actually BEGAN with a glottal stop, like: ‘Aran. That’d be awesome. I may give my children names that begin with a beat of silence.

        1. That reminds me of that urban legend about the woman who named her daughter L-a, “pronounced Ladasha, because the dash ain’t silent.” Punctuation marks really ought to be included in names more frequently. Spelling outside the box.

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