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Distressed by word pronounciation
Apr 09, 2015

A March 31 letter to the Sun laments American pronunciations. Blair Tibbles writes, “It has become the norm to speak of ‘prawgress,’ ‘prawcess,’ and ‘prawgram,’ etc.”

Nelson’s Canadian Dictionary offers two accepted pronunciations for such words. These are, “process” with the “o” rhyming with “toe,” and “process” with the “o” pronounced as in “pot.” The OED okays both pronunciations.

But Tibbles is probably not distressed with these two variations. He is likely unhappy with the way the “o” as in “pot” is pronounced. Americans usually say, pawt, rather than give that “o” a nice round sound.

Tibbles is absolutely correct in pointing out that Canadian pronunciation is affected by the U.S. way of saying things. Often that U.S. pronunciation is at odds with British English.

The word “lieutenant” is an example. Canadians and Britons have always said this word as lef-ten-ant. But ask anyone aged 50 or younger how they say it and you’ll often get the American pronunciation — loo-ten-ant.

Nelson ranks lef-ten-ant first but offers loo-ten-ant as an alternate, reflecting how common the U.S. pronunciation has become. The OED gives lef-ten-ant but adds, “Lu-tenant, U.S.”

An even more glaring change has occurred with “covert.” This word, in English since 1494, has always been pronounced with the same “o” sound as in “cover” and “discover.” All early dictionaries, including American ones, give this same pronunciation.

Following the destruction of the U.S. Trade Centre, the pronunciation of covert with an “oh” sound has become the norm in America and in Canada. The change happened because American spokesmen used that mispronunciation and when some official says a word in a certain way, many people assume he knows what he’s talking about.

However, scores of other words never influenced by Americans became what they are today because of sloppy pronunciation. Apron and umpire both started life with the first letter an “n” —napron, numpire. In each case, the “n” of the indefinite article, an, was imagined to be the initial letter. People began to speak of aprons and umpires. This process is known as “rebracketing.”

We have “metathesis” when letters and sounds within a word are transposed. Thus, the Old English bridd became bird in Modern English, and waps turned into wasp.

These were not intentional changes. Rather, they grew from slips of the tongue or spelling mistakes.

Oprah said her name was supposed to be Orpha but became Oprah when her birth was registered with a misspelling. So, we got a star named Oprah because of metathesis.

This process is ongoing. We see it in the way iron is mispronounced as iern and nuclear as nukular. Aks for ask is rampant in the U.S. And is there a child alive who hasn’t called spaghetti, pasghetti?

We hear and use mispronunciation daily. Close for clothes, Chrismas for Christmas, emty for empty, and many many more.

The Guardian’s report on a recent British survey revealed that 20 per cent of those surveyed said ex-cetera rather than et cetera.

David Shariatmedan, deputy editor of the Guardian, in commenting on the British survey wrote: “Error is the engine of language change. Today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s norm.”