I've been listening to a lot of audio-books lately, many of them narrated by British actors who can speak in an amazing range of dialects—not least of which is the sort of standard stage-English approved for use on the West End stage. After a life spent learning how to pronounce words from my nears and dears, from American TV, and from sound guess-work as I pick up vocabulary in books, I am surprised at how often I've been surprised by the pronunciation of many words I thought I knew how to say. Below are a few examples. I may add to this post as more come to mind.
Room—I would have thought this four-letter word would be a no-brainer. It's one of those words babies learn from their parents, especially in the context of a shouted "Go to your room!" Everyone I know says it with a long /u/ sound, rhyming it with boom, broom, doom, and gloom. And then come all these British audio-book actors, authoritatively correcting this received error. Evidently, room is supposed to have a short /u/, like the vowel sound in book. We Americans will have to work on that. It won't be easy.
Shone—Here's another simple, very common word that everyone I know, yours truly included, seems to have gotten wrong. We Yanks have been saying this with a long /o/ sound, rhyming with bone, drone, hone, and Jubilation T. Cornpone. But to a man (or woman), the Brits say it with a short /o/, rhyming with gone. I have to admit, there's sense in this. At least this way, you're less likely to confuse it with shown.
Quay—This word comes up a lot in the naval fiction I like to read, but its usage is actually much more widespread. While any given group of three or four Americans will probably disagree as to whether it should rhyme with way or why, the British (who, remember, had the language before we did), confidently stride forward and rhyme it with whee. Yes, it sounds just like key. You got a problem with that?
Figure—This may simply be a consequence of the fact that no language on earth has a sound resembling the American /r/. For what could be more quintessentially American than the spastic tightening of the final syllable of this word, as though it could be spelled "figyerrr." My uninformed guess as to the British pronunciation would have been "figyuh," with an indeterminate schwa sound at the end. Surprisingly, what you actually hear when a Brit says this word is the even more relaxed sounding "figguh," with no unwritten /y/ sound worked into the pattern.
Incognito—Americans, few of whom learned Latin as children, most likely think of this as two words (with a space after in, and stress on the syllable that sounds like "neat"), taking it to mean "in disguise." Actually it's one word, meaning "unrecognized," and in countries ruled by a monarchy it is still often used in its original sense of a royal personage going about in plain clothes and thus, by an unwritten social law, being treated like any ordinary person rather than someone to be bowed and scraped to. I have heard a least one British reader say it with emphasis on the "cog" syllable. I cannot be certain, on this basis, that it wasn't a slip. But it makes an interesting difference.
Exquisite—In the U.S., nearly everyone who searches for an adjective to stick in front of "care" or "pain" eventually settles for this one. And so we have all heard the word numerous times, and we're sure it bears the accent on the second syllable. So, when we hear a British audio-book reader put the emphasis on "ex," we do a double-take. That can't be right, can it? Well, this one I've heard from several different readers. That many actors speaking the standard dialect of the cradle of our language can't be wrong, no matter how weird it sounds.
Live-long—On the other hand, the folk-song "I've Been Working on the Railroad" is one of ours. And when we sing the hyphenated word "live-long," we make the first syllable sound like the verb live, which rhymes with give. So my ears perk up when I hear a British reader say that syllable like the adjective live, which rhymes with alive, chive, dive, drive, hive, jive, and strive. I wonder how he came at the idea that it should be said that way, other than by analogy to the greater number of words ending in "-ive." Actually, that doesn't sound like a bad reason. But has he never heard "I've Been Working on the Railroad"? I think this is one battleground that we Americans own!
Wednesday—After all the trouble my first-grade teacher took brow-beating me into accepting this as the spelling for "Wendz-day," along come the highly cultured audio-book readers of the works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, persistently pronouncing it "Wed'nz-day"—if not downright "Wed-ness-day." Well, I never!
Ate—Way back when I was hooked on phonics, I learned that "silent e" could turn a mat into a mate, a pat into a pate, and fat into fate. And so it was always my assumption—either by analogy to these examples or because everyone I know says it that way, that the past tense of the verb "eat" turned at into ate, rhyming with the number 8. But all my British audiobook readers say it as though "silent e" turned mat into met, pat into pet, and fat into a bounty hunter from that space movie. I always suspect that I'm mistaking a bit of regional dialect for the Queen's English, but that excuse gets harder to believe with each live-long chapter.