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It isn’t just foreign speakers of English who mispronounce words. Native speakers often do, too.
When my son Benjamin was about 13 years old, he was talking to me one day and suddenly in the middle of what he was saying he says the word “uh LIE us.” And I said “What? What was that word?” And he says again “uh LIE us.” And I said “Spell it for me.” And he says “ a l i a s,” and I said “Oh, you mean ‘alias.’ [AY lee us]” And he said “So that’s how you pronounce it.” He knew what it meant, but at 13 he had never heard it spoken, so he didn’t know how to pronounce it correctly.
At around the same time, I was over at his friend Jordan’s house, and Jordan, who was also a very bright kid (and who is now studying to be a medical doctor) was talking to me, and he suddenly says “per kuh PEE tuh.” And I said “What was that word?” And he repeats “per kuh PEE tuh.” And I’m thinking “what could this mean? Pita. Pita bread. I thought of the sign in the Food Court at Grand Central Station: EATA PITA, and I thought this might be some kind of sandwich. (But this didn’t make sense in the context of what he was saying.) So I said “Spell it for me,” and Jordan says “p e r c a p i t a.” And I said “Oh, that’s pronounced per KAP uh tuh,” which means “per head or per person” as in “the per capita income in the United States has risen this year.” Like Benjamin he knew what the word meant but had never heard it pronounced.
Both of these kids were native speakers of English; they were very bright; they knew the meaning of the words and how to use them. But at 13 they simply had not had the opportunity to hear the words pronounced.
My wife told me that when she was a young software engineer, she was sitting in her cubicle at work and heard one of her co-workers in the next cubicle who was having a big problem with his computer suddenly exclaim “Oh, everything went awry.” And she thought to herself “Oh, that’s how you say that word,” which is spelled A W R Y. Up until that time she had thought it was pronounced AW ree—which is not a bad guess since “aw” is usually pronounced AW and “ ry” could be ree.
And a cousin of mine told me that for the longest time he thought the word “pint” was pronounced PINT. He would say I’m going to buy a pint of milk. Now this also makes sense from a purely spelling point of view because two consonants following a vowel letter make that vowel short. And we have a pinto bean, and the car of long ago was called the Pinto.
Now all of these people are native speakers of English and are smart people, but occasionally they mispronounce a word. And occasionally people on radio and television will mispronounce a word.
Why is this? It is because English has a low correlation between spelling and pronunciation. Spanish, for example, is a language that is spelled phonetically. The pronunciation of any given letter is much more consistent. The letter “a” is pronounced AH (casa blanca), the letter “e” is pronounce EH (el pero), the letter “i” is pronounced EE (si, si, signoir), and the letter “u” is pronounced OO (luna). In English on the other hand there are multiple pronunciations for many letters of the alphabet, and conversely there are multiple spellings for many of the sounds of the language. There are also many anomalies and one-offs. Why is the word “colonel” pronounced KER nl when there is no letter “r” in the spelling of the word? Why is the letter “o” in the plural of woman pronounced /I/—women—other than to differentiate the letter “o” in the singular form from the letter “o” in the plural? Why is the word “sew” spelled S E W like the beginning of the word sewer? And I could go on and on and on. The first section of Spoken Word Power, the compilation of the pronunciation Words of the Day that I’m working on is devoted to words whose spelling looks nothing at all like how the word is pronounced. In addition to spelling and pronunciation, stress is variable in English. This means that in any given word there is often no way to tell which syllable should be stressed. Is it LO cate — or lo KATE? Is it Ho tell — or ho TELL?
When you learn a new word in English, you have to learn the spelling of the word and the definition so that you’re able to recognize the word in print and know its meaning and how it’s used. This is the same as learning a new word in any language. But in English you also have to learn and remember the word’s pronunciation as well. And so, if you haven’t used a word in a while or have not heard it pronounced for a long time, it’s easy to forget how to pronounce it. This is why even professors, doctors, and other well-educated people with advanced degrees occasionally forget how to pronounce a word.
So if you’re a foreign speaker of English and don’t know how to pronounce certain words, realize that you’re not alone. Even native speakers of English sometimes don’t know or have forgotten how to pronounce some words.
One of the things we do at the Speech Studio is to help you close this gap between spelling and pronunciation as well as pointing out words that people often mispronounce, and we catch all of the words that you use and may be mispronouncing. A little knowledge and practice goes a long way in perfecting your pronunciation.
Stay tuned for another edition of Inside the Speech Studio.