In a prior life, I recorded book reviews for my local NPR station. My producer scared the hell out of me. I think I was frightened because he rarely spoke. And when he did, it was to correct my pronunciation.
During our recording sessions, I’d sometimes see him flinch. This was a sure indication that I had said something incorrectly. One time, before I could even sit down in the studio, he waved a print-out of my book review and said, “Before we begin, just know that it’s pronounced short-lived. Long ī.” (That one, apparently, was a pet-peeve.) And although he was highlighting my ignorance, I couldn’t stop myself from questioning him. “Are you sure?” I’d ask. “Yes,” he’d say.
Accessory was another one. “Ack-cess-ory. Think access,” he’d say. “Are you sure?” I’d counter. (My only argument, it seems.) “Yes,” would be his reply.
Ornery. “There’s an ‘r’ in the word.”
The difference between semi- and bi-. “No. You’re wrong. ‘bi-‘ can mean every-other or twice.”
Of course, I will be forever grateful for his instruction on Pulitzer.
“PULL-it-sir,” he instructed.
“Are you sure?” I’d ask. “It’s not PULE-it-sir?”
“No,” he’d counter. End of discussion.
One day, when he did speak beyond the normal correction, he was very kind. “You can tell the people who are well-read,” he told me. “They know a lot, but they usually pronounce many things incorrectly, because they learn through reading.”
I was beaming. At last! He didn’t think I was stupid! He thought I was well-read! And it made perfect sense. Hadn’t I grown up in a world before the internet, before online dictionaries had “play” buttons? Hadn’t I attended school between the diagraming-sentences eras and during the sound-it-out-yourself era?
And to reinforce this line of thought, just yesterday on WBUR’s Here & Now, Robin Young visited with Ariel Goldberg, director of the Tufts University Psycholinguistics & Linguistics Lab, and asked him to explain why it is we mispronounce so many words. In the interview (which you can hear below), he explained:
It’s very common. It has something to do with the way we read words. What reading fundamentally is is trying to understand what word we’re communicating with each other. Written languages are using symbols to represent sound. In some languages–we call them shallow or transparent languages–the relationship between the individual letters and the sounds is relatively simple. So there’s only essentially one way to read a set of letters. … English is what we call a deep or opaque language, where the written language has many irregularities in the relationships between the letters and the sounds. A single letter could be pronounced in many different ways.
He goes on to explain that one of the ways in which we read is phonics-based. … Wait. Wasn’t that the case with me? Hadn’t I learned so many of these words in my own head, sounding them out from the rules I learned in elementary school?
Yes! Finally! It all made sense. Not only was I well-read, I was perfectly normal!
But then we continued to record and the flinching returned. Alas, my joy was short-lived.