Does it make sense to be too picky about habits of pronunciation?

How should you pronounce the word mayor? Should its pronunciation be different from that of mare? When my daughter put those questions to me, my reply was that the pronunciation of the two words was the same. I discovered that in that I took the same view as my son-in-law. It was not, however, the view that my daughter took, and she produced a dictionary to support her opinion that the civic dignitary was “may or”, whereas the female horse was “mair”. I confess that I remain unconvinced, but the discussion provided an interesting insight into the peculiarities of the pronunciation rules of the English language.

Trends

Within a few days of the mayor/mare controversy, my wife and I found ourselves discussing another one. This time, it concerned the pronunciation of the letter “h”. We have always pronounced it “aitch”, in short, dropping our aitches. It is now increasingly common to hear people calling the letter “haitch”. (From memory, I believe that has always been the common pronunciation in Ireland, and it is common in Wales.)

It is difficult to fault the logic that leads people to say “haitch” but my “aitch” habit is so ingrained that I do not propose to change, even though a distinguished linguistics specialist told my wife recently that Œhaitch” is likely to become increasingly common.

One well known feature of the English language is, of course, the fact that some words are pronounced quite differently, even though they are spelt in the same way. A good example is the “ough” ending, which produces bough (“ow”), cough (“off”), enough (“uff”), although (“o”) and several other words with disparate pronunciations.

There are also well known examples of words spelt differently but pronounced the same, such as “sight” and “site”, and, less well known, “lord” and “laud”.

Sometimes with words of this kind there can in fact be differences in pronunciation, but differences which do not usually apply. One of my favourite examples is “where” and “wear”. In this case it can be argued that “where” should be pronounced with a slightly aspirated ‘wh' sound. That would usually be seen as an unusually purist claim, or as a claim made only by pedants. I must confess that I quite often do pronounce “where”, “when” and “what” in this way, but my family would say that this is just another indication of pedantry (and they are probably right).

Some words may quite properly be pronounced in different ways. One of my favourite examples is “either”, which for most people is “eyether” but can be “eether”. When I use the word, it quite often is (when I remember), just because I quite like differing from the norm.

By contrast, there are words which are increasingly pronounced in unusual ways, where one can say with confidence that the pronunciation is definitely wrong. One example, heard depressingly often on the BBC, is “versus”, pronounced “versis”. Given the fact that it is a Latin word, and not just a word of Latin derivation, that is surely inexcusable. Then, only this week, I heard someone (again on the BBC) pronounce primarily as “primarily”. No one would call a school a “priMARY school”, which surely underlines the erroneous nature of that pronunciation.

Limitations

When I was thinking about all this, I looked in the dictionary that I use at home. It is the New Oxford Dictionary of English (not in fact so new: it was first published in 1998). On seeking evidence to help me in marshalling my pronunciation arguments, I found it was of limited use. It asserts that pronunciation is not usually a problem for native speakers of English, and explains that the principle followed is that pronunciations are given where they are likely to cause problems for the native speaker of English That is all well and good, but, I find myself thinking, what about the native speakers of English who have problems, of which they are oblivious? That statement, readers of this article will immediately realise, provides incontrovertible proof that I am a pronunciation dinosaur.

I have to plead guilty, just as I plead guilty to being happily detached from some usages which are common among teenagers. For example, for me ‘cool' is a description of temperature, not a term of approbation.

Having pleaded guilty, I will make the point, in mitigation, that I do realise that language is not ossified, but is constantly changing. If that were not so, we would all express ourselves very differently, forsooth.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com