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Fowler on Pronunciation:

The ambition to do better than our neighbours is in many departments of life a virtue; in pronunciation it is a vice; there the only right ambition is to do as our neighbours.

Fowler goes on to acknowledge and discuss important subsidiary questions, such as who counts as "our neighbours" for this purpose. But the opening sentence, which I quote above, still tells you most of what you need to know.

Thanks to commenter wm13 who reminded me of the source, and of the precise quote.

KevinM:
Asking who counts as my neighbor is liable to get you speaking in Samaritan dialect, at least among the New-Testament literate.
This suggests to me that EV is indeed a prescriptivist -- and that what he prescribes is that we speak in a manner that a descriptivist would approve, um, of.
7.24.2007 3:48pm
scote (mail):
The purpose of language is to communicate. The choice of how to pronounce words depends on your audience.

Although Fowler may have anticipated where pronouncing "forte" as "fort" will only get dumfounded stares, I doubt he anticipated a president who would pronounce "nuclear" as "newkewlar." Are we to forgive this error because of Bush's faux populist appeal? Or should we hold him to task for his particular carelessness with the English language?

I suspect Fowler had more learned neighbors than most.

Since your argument could be taken as an appeal to authority, I might point out this thought from The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style
pronunciation.
A. General Principles. The best course is to follow the pronunciation current among educated speakers in one's region. A few words have universally accepted pronunciations and rejected mispronunciations; where prescriptions on pronunciation appear in this book, the preferred pronunciation is generally preferred across geographic boundaries.
7.24.2007 3:51pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
"Newkewlar" for "nuclear" is a regionalism; as I recall, Jimmy Carter, who served as an officer on a nuclear submarine, pronounced the word that way. My guess is that Fowler was quite familiar with words of that sort.

Fortunately for those who prefer the "newklear" pronunciation, it is to my knowledge in common use throughout the country, and thus not jarring to neighbors' ears anywhere.
7.24.2007 4:02pm
Nels Nelson (mail):
Some of us may stubbornly hold onto a few "wrong" pronunciations as reminders of our roots. When around my young daughter I dutifully pronounce words like 'orange', 'route', and 'crayon' as should a good Californian, so that she can grow up speaking like her neighbors, but when away from her I proudly revert back to how I grew up saying them.
7.24.2007 4:06pm
scote (mail):

Some of us may stubbornly hold onto a few "wrong" pronunciations as reminders of our roots. When around my young daughter I dutifully pronounce words like 'orange', 'route', and 'crayon' as should a good Californian,

A number of regions deliberately mis-pronounce local names, though not officially. It is not uncommon for people in Southern California to deliberately Anglicize the pronunciation of La Jolla but I wouldn't recommend this as a general practice.
7.24.2007 4:12pm
scote (mail):
So, in this do as your neighbor's do world, do we give up on correcting our children? Should "library" stay "libarry?" Is "ain't" a preferred contraction?

The idea that there is a dichotomy between "prescriptive" and "descriptive" language usage seems a false one to me. To teach language we have to be prescriptive. And yet language does slowly evolve and we must acknowledge that as well. So, the question is not one or the other but how much of one and how much of the other.
7.24.2007 4:19pm
dearieme:
Who cares what Fowlah thinks?
7.24.2007 4:20pm
Kovarsky (mail):
scote,

i don't understand. do people not understand what bush is talking about when he says "nucular?" i would agree with your point if i felt there was some impaired meaning, but you seem to be saying that the purpose of language is to communicate and then citing to a linguistic variation that does not implicate that purpose.
7.24.2007 4:24pm
Salixquercus (mail):
Ah that crazy Texas accent! Apparently when AG Gonzales is under oath, he pronounces "no" as "yes" and vice versa.
7.24.2007 4:28pm
Kovarsky (mail):
people should stop making this about what to teach the children. we teach the children not to split infinitives and not to write in the passive voice because they need to know those rules, however arbitrary, to perform well in a variety of contexts. the point is that the REASON that language is necessary to perform well in those contexts is not because that language is inherently BETTER, but because it is already used by a lot of other people. it's a network effect.
7.24.2007 4:28pm
Kovarsky (mail):
slixquercus

Ah that crazy Texas accent! Apparently when AG Gonzales is under oath, he pronounces "no" as "yes" and vice versa.

incorrect. he does not know how to say no.
7.24.2007 4:30pm
bittern (mail):
we teach the children not to split infinitives . . . because they need to know those rules, however arbitrary

Children are also taught not to step on the "cracks" of a concrete sidewalk. To similar ends.
7.24.2007 4:35pm
scote (mail):

i don't understand. do people not understand what bush is talking about when he says "nucular?" i would agree with your point if i felt there was some impaired meaning, but you seem to be saying that the purpose of language is to communicate and then citing to a linguistic variation that does not implicate that purpose.

I think you are making the mistake of limiting the meaning of "communicate" to the the meaning of the words themselves. How you deliver your message communicates more than the simple message contained in the explicit meaning of the words. Your syntax, pronunciation and delivery affect the way your message will be received, including how credible your audience will find your message.

I think his inability or refusal to use the more educated pronunciation of nuclear, combined with his pathological propensity for malapropisms, affects Bush's credibility as a knowledgeable and competent person; however, any such linguistic implications of incompetence are far overshadowed by his demonstrations of incompetence through his actions.
7.24.2007 4:36pm
Salixquercus (mail):
I seriously didn't get this website at first.

Our AG just finished testifying that the OVP and the OVP's counsel has unfettered access to DOJ investigations, and he doesn't know how this OVP access got placed into a memo that he himself signed. He has to "look into it."!!!

I come here to see what the cognoscenti are saying, and instead it's an all-out "It's ok to talk like a dumbass" day!

Now that's satire my friends.
7.24.2007 4:40pm
Kovarsky (mail):
i am quite sure that i am not confusing the denotative meaning of the word "nuclear" with the information that is conveyed when a person pronounces a variation of that word.

it strikes me, however, that when you make an argumentative appeal such as "the purpose of language is to communicate" - attempting to state a truism with which no quarrel may be taken, you have to have limited yourself to the denotative sense of "communicate." if what you meant when you said "the purpose of language is to communicate" is that the purpose of language is not only to communicate the meaning of the words spoken, but also biographical information about the speaker, then I think the argument loses some of its "aw shucks" appeal. the idea that the "purpose" of language involves that it be pronounced a certain way in order to convey some sort of cultural commonality strikes me a much more controversial than the "purpose" of language conveying a fixed denotative meaning.
7.24.2007 4:45pm
scote (mail):

I seriously didn't get this website at first.

I dare say you still don't get this website if you are posting an off topic comment in this thread.
7.24.2007 4:45pm
Kovarsky (mail):
I come here to see what the cognoscenti are saying, and instead it's an all-out "It's ok to talk like a dumbass" day!

you are conflating the concepts of not telling the truth in SWE with variations in dialect. :)
7.24.2007 4:48pm
scote (mail):

it strikes me, however, that when you make an argumentative appeal such as "the purpose of language is to communicate" - attempting to state a truism...

truism |ˈtroōˌizəm| noun a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting : the truism that you get what you pay for.

The problem with your objection to my statement is that stating that the purpose of language is to communicate wasn't left as a stand alone statement, it was a statement I built upon to make a point. You position about "truisms" would negate the opening paragraph of any essay that made an attempt to establish a a well known premise and explain how that premise affects other issues.

It seems that you say "Well, of course what you say is true, therefore we can ignore it." To which I respond, "WTF?"

You say

the idea that the "purpose" of language involves that it be pronounced a certain way in order to convey some sort of cultural commonality strikes me a much more controversial than the "purpose" of language conveying a fixed denotative meaning.

You are mistaking purpose with execution. The purpose of language is to communicate. You agree with that so strongly that you consider it a truism. Your objection to my observation on how pronunciation can affect how a message is received is a non sequitur. I never said that Bush must pronounce nuclear in a certain way (prescriptive) but that his usage would affect how his message will be received (descriptive).

It is simple, inarguable fact that pronunciation can affect ones credibility. If I can't pronounce any of the words in the field I'm supposedly an expert in then people would have good reason to question my expertise.
7.24.2007 5:05pm
DP:
Scote, I don't think we even have to recognize the dichotomy that much. maybe the question should be which rules and when?

Nobody but an aphasic speaks without rules. Even dialects have plainly discernible rules that are enforced socially if not through formal education (see the dialect with a navy comment somewhere in these threads).

the distinction I see in these comments is less about rules about speech and more about judging the speaker (surely this has been mentioned today, sorry if I'm redundant). This is why people tend to cringe at southern accents, for instance. or at the President's "Newkeulers". We make moral assessments of people based on language as though there is some rational association between their inclination to split the infinitive and their likelihood to steal your car or own slaves. Or, even better, they're just lazy (for learning the language of their family friends and or neighborhood).

Perhaps this dichotomy would finally disappear if we recognize that language isn't a marker of one's quality as a human being, and is instead only an indication of where one grew up. There are plenty of other things to indicate another's character, language is not one. . . .

No one on this page thinks "libarry" is standard English pronunciation, but some people might think someone is less of a human being for uttering it. Before we correct our children, let's ask why we are correcting them.

but please, correct them; "libarry" just sounds awful.
7.24.2007 5:13pm
Kovarsky (mail):
(see the dialect with a navy comment somewhere in these threads)

I made that comment, incorrectly citing as the source Lily Tomlin (it didn't make sense to me that she would say that either), saying that a language was a dialect with an army and a navy. This quote's earliest attested appearance, in Yiddish, is in 1945 article by Max Weinreich.
7.24.2007 5:19pm
Kovarsky (mail):
scote,

It is simple, inarguable fact that pronunciation can affect ones credibility. If I can't pronounce any of the words in the field I'm supposedly an expert in then people would have good reason to question my expertise.

I think you're inadvertently making my point for me. George Bush knows how to say the word properly, and it is well documented that his pronunciation is a conscious appeal to "ordinary folk." In other words, he HAS chosen that pronunciation PRECISELY BECAUSE it effectively conveys meaning, given the context. What biographical information he seeks to convey, however, diverges quite radically from what would have been conveyed if he had used the orthodox pronunciation of the word.

Of course I don't deny that pronunciation conveys meaning. I deny that orthodox pronunciation always conveys an intended meaning optimally.
7.24.2007 5:24pm
scote (mail):

Perhaps this dichotomy would finally disappear if we recognize that language isn't a marker of one's quality as a human being, and is instead only an indication of where one grew up. There are plenty of other things to indicate another's character, language is not one. . . .

No one on this page thinks "libarry" is standard English pronunciation, but some people might think someone is less of a human being for uttering it. Before we correct our children, let's ask why we are correcting them.

but please, correct them; "libarry" just sounds awful.

I don't know that I disagree with your point but I do see contradiction. You do think we should put both "r's" in "library" but you don't think people should be judged by regional language.

Humans have a bulit-in propensity to categorize things, people included. We look for short cuts that allow us to quickly sort people. We use age, gender, race, attractiveness, affability and the way people speak as a quick way to judge people. We can make quick generalizations about people based on these criteria. Kids probably live with their parents. People with British accents are unlikely to be 2nd generation immigrants. People of a race different than ours may have grown up in a different culture than we did. People who have "educated" pronunciation are probably, well, educated.

Language has often been a sign of class. Regional accents and pronunciations could indicate regions and class-distinct accents suggested education and status. And unlike race, one could change ones speech if so desired.

While it would be a grave mistake to judge someone's intelligence based on their pronunciation and accent, it would not be as inaccurate to judge their level of education on that basis.

This is a touchy subject that has regional, racial and class issues involve. It has been going on for decades, if not millennia, and I doubt we will find a solution in this thread.
7.24.2007 5:28pm
scote (mail):

I think you're inadvertently making my point for me. George Bush knows how to say the word properly, and it is well documented that his pronunciation is a conscious appeal to "ordinary folk." In other words, he HAS chosen that pronunciation PRECISELY BECAUSE it effectively conveys meaning, given the context. What biographical information he seeks to convey, however, diverges quite radically from what would have been conveyed if he had used the orthodox pronunciation of the word.

If that is your point then you don't actually disagree with me, except that I would debate the presumption that he pronounces "nuclear" as "nukewlar" deliberately. However, I certainly wouldn't confider Bush above being so cynical as to pretend to be more folksy than he is. After all, he's a uber rich kid from Maine, not some regular guy from Texas and his "ranch" isn't actually a ranch, not having any cattle on it.
7.24.2007 5:34pm
Guester:
How, pray tell, do Californians pronounce "orange" and "route"? I just moved here and don't want to be taken for a rube.

Although, as near as I can tell, Californians pronounce "route" as "the." So, for instance, "Route 66" would become "the 66."
7.24.2007 5:35pm
scote (mail):

I deny that orthodox pronunciation always conveys an intended meaning optimally

I have never claimed otherwise. If you think I have then you have misunderstood me.

The language you choose should be geared your target audience, though one should be careful about being perceived as "pandering." When I said the purpose of language is to communicate, I never said or implied that meant orthodox syntax or pronunciation would therefore be preferable. Quite the opposite, the purpose is to communicate not to artificially maintain a linguistic orthodoxy. So you use the language that is best suited for the circumstances.

I'm not sure how you so completely mis-construed my point, though there may be a lesson to be learned from the experience.
7.24.2007 5:44pm
Crust (mail):
Salixquercus:
Our AG just finished testifying that the OVP and the OVP's counsel has unfettered access to DOJ investigations, and he doesn't know how this OVP access got placed into a memo that he himself signed. He has to "look into it."!!!

I come here to see what the cognoscenti are saying, and instead it's an all-out "It's ok to talk like a dumbass" day!

Now that's satire my friends.
I personally enjoy the prescriptive/descriptive debate. And I'm sympathetic to the point that Conspirators shouldn't be expected to post on a topic -- no matter how important -- if they don't have anything particular to say. But perhaps an open thread on the topic (say with a single sentence and a link to a news story) would be a good idea for the AG's testimony (and similar cases).

Language mavens: please don't give me a hard time about "open thread on the topic"; you know what I mean.
7.24.2007 5:52pm
J_A:
So once you start the (slippery slope) of "anything goes as long as they understand me it doesn't matter", without true hard rules, where does it end? Can I just make up pronunciations until no one can understand me, like (jocularly or not) it already happens with English speakers in the West Indies or India?

Am amazed that so many people seem to agree that there is no need to try to pull English (or any language) towards a more common understanding, to counter the natural centrifugal forces through which languages evolve. English, being a language in which pronunciation does not follow spelling, is particularly susceptible to becoming a free for all party, in which we all speak anyway we want (as long as my buddies/neighbors understand me, what the heck, who cares?).

And "newcular' is not just a quaint accent issue. Like "libarry", the first person that said newcular had most likely problems reading and pronouncing two consonants in a row, like a little kid learning to read long words. Ans last time I checked, r goes before a in library, so libarry reeks of dislexy to me.

And before I get beaten to death for heresy, I am not an English speaking native, I live in TX, and I say ain't and y'all all the time (y'all is a pretty useful word, to clarify whether "you" refers to the plural or the singular, a confusion pervading the English language since peopledecided that thou and thee were not needed to be understood by your neighbors)
7.24.2007 5:57pm
DP:
Excellent points, Scote. No, the dichotomy won't go away, I was being a bit idealistic. Nor would I ever suggest there is no correlation between language and education or SES or citizenship status (or many other factors). Although, plenty of highly educated native-speakers have relatively poor command of standard english (perhaps thoses that didn't study language-focused disciplines).

I was referring to those (not you) who frequently use language as a proxy for another's quality as a human being and character.

I'll be more blunt. Many who adopt a harshly prescriptive perspective of language do so out of self-righteousness, classism, racism, or plain old snobbery. These attitudes go far beyond acknowledging a possible correlation. As to any contradiction on my part, (enforcing "Library") I defer to Sasha's separate post about functional prescription. Also, there is a difference between being aware of how people might judge your speech and judging others for their's. Plus, I was trying to be funny.

Your reference to our propensity to categorize is right on, I think. IIRC, plenty of Linguistic theorists suggest that is the very source of our language ability. But that same quality leads to all kinds of unpleasantness (racism etc.). We often make categorizations based on irrational factors. It's one thing to encourage standardization and respect for fluid and accurate communication, it's another thing to feel superior for doing nothing more than growing up in a middle class white neighborhood in Ohio.

So, I reiterate my earlier point: 1) the dichotomy, as you said, is false, 2) no one ignores the rules of speech entirely, 3) a more productive discussion (for another space, perhaps), I believe, would change the focus from how much prescription to when and why we each choose to adhere to certain rules.
7.24.2007 6:19pm
scote (mail):

Language mavens: please don't give me a hard time about "open thread on the topic"; you know what I mean.

NEW klee ar/NEW kew lar is an example of simplification. Many common pronunciation variants are easier to pronounce, often involving the transposition of letters such as ru or sk.

Arctic/Artic, Library/Libarry, February/Febyooary, Ask/Aks. Febyooary is especially common and is the more common pronunciation than the litteral February.


Language mavens: please don't give me a hard time about "open thread on the topic"; you know what I mean.

I woudn't call your observation a thread jack. Also, thread jacking wouldn't be an issue if the forum had nested threads rather than a linear system. With a proper nested system (Slashdot), sub-threads respond to each-other in their own little subsection.
7.24.2007 6:21pm
scote (mail):

3) a more productive discussion (for another space, perhaps), I believe, would change the focus from how much prescription to when and why we each choose to adhere to certain rules.

This brings the language issue into a larger context. How much do we judge people based on their conformity with our own particular class and culture?

When I mentioned that we try and categorize people, I neglected to note that their choice of clothing and grooming were part of the way we categorize people. In this instance they are credited or demented in social situations for the "appropriateness" of their clothing and appearance and to which we ascribe motivation to their choices and to how well they match the nebulous social norm. Like language, fashion is completely socially derived and is primarily extrinsically valued, that is, there is no "universally" attractive clothing suitable for all cultures and ages. Likewise, language can only be judged by the social group where it is used, lacking any objective and timeless quality. So, in either case, how do we avoid judging people? In the contrary, how can anything we do have meaning if nobody can judge it?

While it would be nice to judge people on their character, that sort of judgement can only be made over time. And even then, such judgments can prove to be tragically wrong.
7.24.2007 6:37pm
DP:
Scote:

While it would be nice to judge people on their character, that sort of judgement can only be made over time. And even then, such judgments can prove to be tragically wrong.


yep. Kinda sucks, doesn't it. Agreed on all points, here.

Kovarsky, thanks for the info on your quotation. I knew the line from several linguistics classes back in undergrad (it's like a mantra for sociolinguists) but I never knew who it's attributed to.
7.24.2007 6:56pm
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

This goes to show, again, that Donohue v. Stevenson (1932) may very well be the most important court case ever. And this year is it's 75th birthday!

Per Lord Atkin, at 580:

"The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be - persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question."
7.24.2007 6:57pm
scote (mail):
errata:
demented should have been demerited.
7.24.2007 6:59pm
methodact:
Fowler on "officialese":

officialese is a pejorative term for a style of writing marked by peculiarities supposed to be characteristic of officials. If a single word were needed to describe those peculiarities, that chosen by Dickens, circumlocution, is still the most suitable. They may be ascribed to a combination of causes: a feeling that plain words sort ill with the dignity of office, a politeness that shrinks from blunt statement, and, above all, the knowledge that for those engaged in the perilous game of politics, and their servants, vagueness is safer than precision. The natural result is a stilted and verbose style, not readily intelligible--a habit mind for instance that automatically rejects the adjective unsightly in favour of the PERIPHRASIS detrimental to the visual amenities of the locality.


Fowler on "legalese":

[There exists] a confusion in the public mind between officialese and legalese. For instance a correspondent writes to The Times to show up what he calls this 'flower of circumlocution' from the National Insurance Act 1959; it ought not, he says, to be allowed to waste its sweetness on the desert air. For the purpose of this Part of this Schedule a person over pensionable age, not being an insured person, shall be treated treated as an insured person if he would be an insured person were he under pensionable age and would be an employed person were he an insured person.
7.24.2007 7:17pm
Houston Lawyer:
I generally have to deprogram my children after they spend a week with their cousins, whose English is not so good. If you are an educated person, you should speak like an educated person and should ensure that your children do as well. People who speak poorly generally are aware of that fact and don't too often care. I don't think that they are overly bothered by people who speak properly.

I laughed hard though when I heard my law school girlfriend asking whether her deposit could be held in abeyance during the summer. Don't use words on people that you should know that they don't know.
7.24.2007 7:51pm
jwmonty (mail):
It has been said of Fowler that nobody ever went wrong by following his advice. I have found this to be true, so perhaps a bit of historical background would be useful, to see why Fowler gave the advice he did.

Fowler was writing for an English audience in the 1920s. In Britain, issues of social class (of which accent forms a large part) have always been much more important than they are here. As Orwell said, no Englishman can open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him. And there is a much greater variety of regional and local accents in England than in America.

Fowler was giving the sound advice that Englishmen should take care not to adopt a manner of speaking that would unnecessarily offend others around them (their neighbours). He meant that one shouldn't adopt a "superior" accent, because that would give offense. An East End Cockney who suddenly began talking like a nobleman would be seen as setting himself above his neighbours, in order to look down on them (as in fact, he almost certainly would be).

This is still true today. There is a song by the East End band Cock Sparrer about a man who challenges another man to a fight in a pub. One of the reasons given for the challenge is "you talk all posh."

If we see what Fowler had in mind, we see that his advice was sound as always. If you like, you can consider this one as applying specifically to the English.
7.24.2007 8:37pm
Porkchop:
J_A wrote:


And before I get beaten to death for heresy, I am not an English speaking native, I live in TX, and I say ain't and y'all all the time (y'all is a pretty useful word, to clarify whether "you" refers to the plural or the singular, a confusion pervading the English language since peopledecided that thou and thee were not needed to be understood by your neighbors)


I believe y'all misunderstand the meaning and usage of "y'all." "Y'all" is singular; the plural is "all y'all."
7.25.2007 12:18am
Cal (mail) (www):
"Although, as near as I can tell, Californians pronounce "route" as "the." So, for instance, "Route 66" would become "the 66.""

That's a Southern Californian pronunciation. In the Bay Area, "route" is silent. So, for instance, "Route 66" becomes "66".

I'm not sure how we pronounce "orange", but I've heard that other parts of the country don't realize that "caught" and "cot" are homonyms. Next thing I suppose I'll hear that the rest of the world pronounces "marry" differently from "merry" and "Mary".
7.25.2007 12:47am
Frater Plotter:
Regarding "orange", identify the regions where the plural of that word is pronounced:

ornchiz
aww wrenches
aww rin jizz
oar inches
oar end jizz
7.25.2007 6:09am
Hoosier:
'aww rin jizz'? Perhaps Chicagoland. I spent the first quarter century of my life there, and I've read that we say the word differently.

But it sounds more like 'aw run jiz' to me; and to Emily Post, who mentioned this in her book.

The 'aw' is a marker: We say 'Shi CAW go,' and I--at least--tend to notice 'foreign' pronunciations. Shi CAH go (or 'guh') is common. My family in Milwaukee says something like Shi COE go. But they're Cheezeheads. So you'd expect that from them.
7.25.2007 10:36am