Saturday, April 6, 2013

More "Is THAT How You Say...?"

Further to this post, I continue to collect instances where the pronunciation of words and names by British audio-book readers (and other smart people) surprises li'l old Yankee me...

Lamentable is, to the best of my knowledge, the adjective related to the verb lament. Both words, as I have heard and spoken them at home, carry the accent on the second syllable, a schwa in the first. But in many books by British authors, read by British readers, I have persistently heard it stressed on the first syllable, spoken with the same vowel sound as lamb. Apparently this inconsistency in stress between the adjective and verb is one of the mysteries of the English language that America's democratic experiment was meant to reason away. Our solution apparently hasn't made it back across the Pond.

Van Gogh—The book in which I heard the Dutch artist's name pronounced "Van Goff" was a satirical fantasy about a future world in which knowledge of the past is spotty at best, so I wasn't sure that I wasn't being put on—though the one area the book's characters knew a lot about was art. In American schools, populated by students dragged up through the most dubious educational system on earth, one hears Vincent's last name pronounced with an open o at the end, making possible such miserable puns as "Look at that van go!" But a visit to Wiki confirms that Old One-Ear's name should really be pronounced with a guttural ch sound at the end—like the squirming grubs that Klingons like to eat, only more rounded.

Controversy—I don't know whether this qualifies as authentic British pronunciation. But in my student days, I had a professor whose accent was widely believed to be of the aristocratic English persuasion—though he was not, in fact, English. I think the gentleman may have been a scion of the Lithuanian aristocracy, which went into exile to various places after the Communist upheavals in the mid-20th century. I think this now-sainted doctor of theology may have spent some time in Germany, and I'm pretty sure he was sited in Australia for a while, but apart from that I don't know where his accent came from. I only know that he had a very cultured voice and an enormous vocabulary. (He was the only living person I have ever heard to use the word "animadvert.") So when his pronunciation veered into unexplored territory, we his students tended to make a note of it and question the rightness of how we had been brought up saying words. We would never have presumed to engage him in a controversy regarding, for example, his pronunciation of controversy, with a very definite "open o" on the second syllable—contROversy. Now and then, thinking of him, I read this word with his pronunciation. But only in my head. I don't want to start a controversy about it, no matter how you say it.

Adversary is another word that I think the same, sainted professor said differently than we hoi polloi. Like controversy, he accented it on the second syllable. When I first heard the word pronounced that way, it hit me with a stunning blow. Instantly I was embarrassed by a sense that I, and everyone else I had ever heard say the word aloud, had been wrong all along. After all, adVERsary brings out the connection between this noun and the adjective adverse; while ADversary (like CONtroversy) seems to sag under the weight of too many consecutive unaccented syllables. Plus, the nasal twang of its third vowel, when pronounced in standard American fashion, smacks of uneducated bumpkins struggling to read the big-city newspaper, sounding out words they've never met before. One feels a crushing consciousness of the superiority of the reverend doctor's culture and upbringing.

Ululation—I'm willing to bet the reason I thought this word was pronounced with two long "yoos" was that I had never actually heard anyone say it aloud, having absorbed it into my vocabulary through books. Then I started listening to audio books in which such excellent British readers as Alan Rickman and Kate Reading seemed to agree that the word is pronounced "Ull-you-lay-shun." Huh. My theory that this is an onomatopoetic word must go back to the drawing board, I guess.

Bier—You know, the platform that a coffin stands on during a funeral; or perhaps the contraption with protruding handles, on which the coffin is carried by the pallbearers. I don't actually know whether I've ever heard this word uttered aloud, in American English, by anyone who wasn't reading aloud from a published work. Sort of like "dais," it's one of those words you read all the time but can only form the vaguest idea of how it is supposed to be pronounced until it crops up in an audio-book. I'm pretty sure the standard American pronunciation sounds just like the word "beer." But now, in Audio-Book Land, I'm hearing a British pronunciation with two syllables, a long /i/ in the first. Sort of like "buyer." That rather spoils my punning scheme to have my coffin placed atop a double row of beer kegs. I'll just have to find a different excuse to include alcohol in my funeral.

I have also belatedly learned that dahlia (the flower) rhymes with "azalea," in spite of being named after Somebody Dahl. Which opens up whole new vistas of botany-related limericks; though, again, it points up the arbitrariness of English pronunciation. I mean, how better to honor a respected colleague than by naming a newly discovered plant after him, while pronouncing it in a way that obliterates any resemblance to his name?

While I'm mentioning this, I might as well also note that it is from British audio-book readers that I also learned that chitin (the stuff of which beetles' carapaces are made) is pronounced just like kitin', and that lichen (on which I blogged at one point) sounds just like liken. Somebody needs to tell my seventh-grade science teacher. UPDATE: I have also heard at least two British readers pronounce "lichen" as though it rhymed with "kitchen." What's funny about this is that one of these readers, earlier in the same book, also used the "liken" pronunciation.

Zounds!—This mild blasphemy, dating from Shakespeare's time, started out as a contraction of the phrase "God's wounds!" I take it this is a reference to the crucifixion of Christ. Yet in my acquaintance with it, from hearing it used to occasional flamboyant effect on the left side of the Atlantic, it tended to rhyme with the word "sounds." It did, that is, until I started listening to the likes of John Lee and Anton Lesser reading the works of British authors. They made it rhyme with "wounds," a pronunciation that I immediately accepted as right.

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