I am a pronunciation junkie. As a child, I was particular to a fault about how the words leaving my mouth sounded. My mortification at being corrected in public knew no bounds — and attracted scrutiny that made me wish I disappeared. For the longest time, I said “hear” as if it were “hair” or “hare”. “Hear me out” on my lips became either a convoluted order involving silken black strands or a mock-serious exploration of a rabbity thing. Well!
In the gently subversive graphic memoir Fun Home, about Alison Bechdel’s search for the cause of her father’s death (a suicide), the panel that is burnt on my memory is one where Bechdel’s mother corrects her pronunciation of Chopin. SHOW-PAN, the speech bubble screams. You can imagine how that delighted me when I first read it. Never mind that the panel itself is meant to convey something sad — Bechdel shared a fraught relationship with her mother.
As a teacher who trains students for the Common Admission Test (CAT), I am required to be particular about correct pronunciation. Several of my students have difficulty with fluency in English and often ask me what to do about it. Since CAT is conducted in stages, I advise them to focus on the written test and not worry about how they speak English. That will come once the written, as it is called, is cleared, setting in motion preparations for the next round, comprising group discussion (GD) and personal interview.
Often in class, we get opportunities to indicate nuances in pronunciation. The other day, while doing plurals, I came upon “cello”, the violin-resembling musical instrument. It’s pronounced “CHELLO” and I indicated as much to my students. Happily, one of them knew this because he was learning to play it. (On the topic, the plural is cellos — an exception to the rule that words ending in “o” have plurals ending with “es”.)
Accents, which are just daddies of pronunciation because they can greatly affect the way a word is heard, make for droll theatre in class. While discussing subject-verb agreement, I wrote this on the board: “My favourite breakfast is eggs.” By way of explanation, I said “breakfast is singular, so the verb it takes will be singular.” (This might seem obvious, but using a plural verb for a plural object, here eggs, is a common error.)
A few students giggled. I would too. In a class where we discuss things esoteric and rarefied (oh yes, yesterday in a reading comprehension class, we discussed the anti-communist leanings of Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski), talk of eggs is decidedly unsexy. Smiling, I said: “Oh, eggs not good enough for you? All right, let’s say, ‘My favourite breakfast is tea and scones.’ Happy now?” I said “tea and scones” like “TEY AND SCAWNS”. It wasn’t exactly British but my students were in splits.
It’s great to have the occasional laugh but pronunciation is serious business. I remember my consternation when, before a group of sassy journalists, I made the blunder of calling Sin City a great “NOIR” film. I had picked up the word from an article in a magazine and never heard it said aloud. We do often read and write words we rarely use in conversation. English, after all, is an acquired taste, never mind how consummately so. So then, it’s not enough to know Sin City’s cinematic brilliance. One must also know it’s “NWAH” at its best.
While I tell students to try and deduce word-meanings by following the roots approach (incomprehensible = in + com + prehendere (to grasp) + ible), that doesn’t work for pronunciation. They get exasperated with my pestering but are beginning to see the point of these efforts. To get them interested, I recited in class anti-Anglicist Charivarius’ elaborate poem on the strange ways of English pronunciation. The Dane attacked everything from trivial/vial to acquiesce/obsequies in “The Chaos”. If you haven’t, look it up on Google. The poor dear is so harried by the Queen’s tongue, he finishes with:
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough,
Hiccough has the sound of ‘cup’ . . .
My advice is: give it up!
No such luck for my students who must impress pedantic panelists with the correct diction and a smooth accent. When saying, “Sir, it is de rigueur these days for engineers to do an MBA”, they must say “DUH-RIGOR” and nothing else, or risk its coming across as too much of a put-on. Or this: “Indeed sir, one must keep their options open which is why I haven’t yet taken a call on the specialisation I intend to take in the second year. However, I have a penchant for picking apart branding ideas, so maybe marketing.” Need I say “PAWN-SHAWN”?
Over to the GD panelists.
The author has switched too many jobs in the past and hopes he can hold down this one