Sunday, September 17, 2017

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

During a recent road-trip spent joyfully listening to Ulli Birvé read Georgette Heyer's 1939 mystery No Wind of Blame, I encountered several more intriguing examples of the difference between how I have been brought up pronouncing English words and the way the English themselves pronounce them.

I'm more than ever on the lookout for such examples since I read portions of H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926), in which that high-ranking authority on how English ought to be used refers to a certain law, already at that time not being vigorously enforced and nowadays all but forgotten, called the Recessive Accent. This rule, which apparently means the accent should land on the syllable as far to the left as possible, no doubt accounts for the fact one may still occasionally hear a highly educated, upper-class Brit putting the accent on the first syllable of such words as "despicable," "hospitable," or "exquisite."

But this rule doesn't quite explain why Ulli Birvé says "exigencies" with the emphasis on the second "e" - ex-i-GEN-cies. I was so struck by this, I had to grab the little commonplace book I keep in the center-island of my car (yeah, I know) and make a note of it.

The next note below that reminds me that in at least two places, Birvé pronounced the verb "demur" or its past-tense form "demurred" (to voice disagreement) exactly as I would expect to hear the adjective "demure" (modest, bashful), with a "y" sound before a long "u." This is one of those words I have probably never heard anyone use in casual speech, but have read silently in many books. I always guessed the "u" in the second syllable was pronounced with a more neutral vowel sound, like the accented vowel in "preferred."

Below that, I scribbled the word "raiment," which again, is a term I may have only encountered in literature, and seldom if ever heard spoken aloud. I would never have quibbled to hear it pronounced exactly the way anyone would expect to hear an English word thus spelled: "RAY-mənt," with a schwa in the second syllable, followed by a garden-variety "n" and some notion of a final "t," even if the latter exists more in the realm of imagination than in actual sonic reality. I can't tell whether Heyer italicized the word, but apparently Birvé took it as a French loan-word and pronounced it as such, with no particular accent on the first syllable, and a second syllable essentially ending with a nasalized ẽ vowel. I don't know about this. I have little doubt the English word "raiment" can be traced back to some similar French word; but since it occurs more than 50 times in the King James Bible (1611), flaunting that debt is probably overdoing the francophilia just a bit. The question now is whether that fetish should be attributed to Heyer (by dint of italics) or to Birvé.

Finally, or rather first of all, I remember being surprised at the beginning of the audiobook by Birvé's pronunciation of the author's last name. This probably goes down to germanophilia, or whatever the right word for it is, owing to the influence of the German language on the speech of the American midwest, but ever since I first saw the name Georgette Heyer in print, I have assumed her second name was pronounced like the English word "higher." Now I owe it to Birvé's qualifications as an audiobook reader to assume she is correct when she pronounces it more like "hayer," as in a person who makes hay, or "heyer," as in a person who says "Hey!" Maybe you knew this before, but I didn't.

I don't know much about Birvé, but a search for her turns up some credits in Australian film and TV productions, so her authority on English pronunciation may by confined to the land down under. Her accent sounds cultured and neutral enough to be from anywhere, and she does put on a variety of regional English accents with seemingly no effort whatever; so I just don't know. But if there are multiple ways to skin a cat, there are surely even more ways to pronounce some English words.

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