Hamlet pronounced success

I only do it to annoy because I know it teases. As a complete break from less serious matters I want to look this week at something really important: pronunciation. Some may call me idiosyncratic, some may call me a pedant, but I automatically assume that the pronunciation I use is correct, and every other version is simply wrong. Consider for a moment how you would pronounce these words.

Banal; controversy; composite; covert; forehead; formidable; girl; harass; homosexual; kilometre.

I once heard an educated friend of mine pronounce banal as bayn‘ll. I shuddered but then I discovered that it is quite normal in our former American colonies. But it’s not for me.

My wife stresses the first syllable of controversy, I stress the second. She may be strictly correct but, since her version is much used overseas, I continue to prefer mine.

The pronunciation of composite which ends the word with ight, should only be allowed to members of a northern trade union. It has no place anywhere in civilised society.

A recent vulgarity pronounces covert as co-vert – ignoring the origin of the word, which comes from cover. Bit of reverse snobbery here because covert correctly pronounced has connotations with huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’.

The pronunciation of forehead as four-head, instead of forred, may just be excused in those who have read good books but not circulated in educated company. Still regrettable.

How has formidable picked up a stress on the second syllable rather than the first? It’s everywhere – even on the BBC (but not in the BBC’s Guide to Pronunciation).

Girl is a strange one to me. I had to wait until boarding school in order to hear it pronounced gurl. The regular pronunciation, gal, is too indurated to change.

Harass is another word to fall under American sway. Everywhere, nowadays, I hear it pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.  On this side of the Atlantic, we are back in trade union country. And much the same could be said of kilometre. But one might excuse this on the grounds that the English always pronounce foreign words badly. This is quite correct behaviour — it would be sheer cowardice to pronounce, say, Marseilles as Mar-sayee. Anyhow we have the perfectly good mile from the Latin for 1000 paces. Which is not far off a kilometre as it happens. The last time that I toured Ireland on a motorbike their signposts mixed miles and kilometres with abandon.  I arrived everywhere early or late. Not that it seemed to matter.

Homosexual comes into a special case because it is simply a question of meaning. Pronouncing the first syllable as home is to proclaim that you think this is a quality only referring to males – as in the Latin, homo, or that you have never studied the Greek language. Homm is the correct pronunciation, coming from the Greek for same (sex). Lesbians are homosexual, too.

So, back to the beginning of the alphabet. And the end of a prayer. Why do Catholics nowadays say Are-men instead of A-men? Correct in Latin of course, and, for all I know, in Hebrew, but scarcely in English. It has overtones of the Church of England, and oecumenism can be taken too far.

Have I annoyed you sufficiently? Why not list your unfavourite pronunciations? And tell us what you think of pronunciation pedants

O     O     O

Here is a link to a page I think you will in enjoy. Thank you to our friend, James Hamilton. And this is the link to the NYT article which is cited. This article has a link to the original study.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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34 Responses to Hamlet pronounced success

  1. Straying somewhat from the point, and with mild amusement rather than irritation, I often notice a particular radio announcer who with a slight mispronunciation converts the ensemble Les Talents Lyriques from The Lyrical Talents to the The Lyrical Heels.

  2. John Nolan says:

    Temporarily, necessarily, arbitrarily and suchlike adverbs should have the accent on the first syllable. So should secretary, with three, not four syllables. I don’t think it is practicable to go back to Loos’m for Lewisham or Sissiter for Cirencester. The ‘speak as you spell’ brigade now hold sway at the BBC; it took a Russian to pronounce Ossetia correctly (rhymes with Venetia). I don’t understand American pronunciation at all; they push the stress forward in individual words but regress it in compounds – PEAnut butter, ROBin Hood, Happy NOO year. The correct pronunciation of culinary is not even given in the new COD despite the fact that the incorrect one is less than thirty years old. Listen to Betjeman reciting ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ – he pronounces ominous with a long ‘o’ – and Evelyn Waugh used a hard ‘g’ in gibberish when referring to the works of James Joyce.

    Exonyms are a slightly different case. If you write Marseilles you should pronounce it to rhyme with sails; Lyons is pronounced lions; if you say it as the French do you should spell it as they do. I remember some years ago shouting at the screen when they were talking about La Coruna : “It’s Corunna, you idiot! Do you refer to Florence as Firenze?”

    • An American humorist (I forget his name ) suggested that Niagara Falls should be pronounced “Niffles”.

    • James H says:

      Surely if there is no English version of a place name you should pronounce the name in the language of its country? I should be embarrassed to say lions for Lyon – it sounds a bit like Wipers for Ypres.

      On the other hand, I was raised in a polyglot country, where it was considered very polite by my generation to pronounce names and places according to their original languages (in most cases)… even if the place name had a click, like Qunu or Xobile!

      • John Nolan says:

        The general principle always used to be that foreign place names are English words even if the spelling isn’t changed, for example Paris or Hamburg. I rather like Leghorn and Ratisbon but they are a lost cause. Sometimes politics comes into it; Victorians used Frenchified spellings for Rhineland towns, e.g. Mayence, Treves, Spires; however they pronounced them as English words. We still have Cologne, though. Central Europe can be problematic – is the second city of Ukraine Lvov, Lviv, Lwow or Lemberg? Spelling Cracow as Krakov and pronouncing it as if were Russian is simply ignorant.

        As to Amen, the Anglican version is better when it is sung, and although it is a Hebrew word, in Latin the accent is always on the first syllable – Amen, amen dico vobis!

  3. claret says:

    Returning to the less flippant subject of Aids and sexual behaviour I re-call reading that following on from the commercial success of the film ‘Fatal Attraction’ and its message of the potential dangers of infidelity there was a marked reduction in married men, who had seen the film, having extra-marital affairs ( not sure how they measured this phenomenon !)
    Facing up to the dangers of AIDS and having the risks of risky behaviour laid bare is surely a more effective preventative than anything else on offer.

  4. st.joseph says:

    Some still say ‘Prinnage’ for Prinknash Abbey!

  5. mike Horsnall says:

    In chinese there is the sound ‘ Zhu’ pronounced a bit like’ jew’ If spoken on a rising tone like a stretched out ‘jewel’ it means Pig. If spoken on a flattened tone a bit like ‘two’ it means Lord….As you can imagine this leads the unwary foreign preacher into a multitude of doctrinal difficulties..

  6. Horace says:

    I once referred to the capital city of China as “Beijing” but one of my chinese students immediately said “No, no, you should say ‘Peking’ ! “.

  7. John Nolan says:

    Also interesting how the glottal stop in the place of the letter ‘t’ has migrated north from cockneydom and now pervades north country speech; listen to the younger actors/actresses in ‘Emmerdale’ if you can put up with the plot-lines. And why has the northern pronunciation of ‘contribute’ and ‘distribute’, with the accent on the first syllable, migrated so far south?

    Received Pronunciation (RP), once known as BBC English has metamophosed over the last few generations; nobody outside the Royal Family says ‘orf’ for ‘off’ or ‘hice’ for ‘house’. But I noticed in the 1990s that younger RP-speakers would not pronounce the ‘oo’ sound – ‘food’ becomes ‘feud’.

    This is a fascinating thread, and not at all trivial; at least it marks a truce in the liturgy wars.

  8. st.joseph says:

    On the radio a few years ago there was a talk on how teenagers spoke and how they spelt.One was asked how he would spell window. He spelt ‘w i n d a’.

  9. claret says:

    Fascinating for most posters it would seem but trivial to one.

  10. Iona says:

    If the words are carefully pronounced, one can hear the difference between “diffused” and “defused”, two words whose spellings are so often interchanged that I sometimes wonder whether people think they are the same word, meaning “in some way alleviated”.

    • John Nolan says:

      Americans are the worst offenders against pronunciation; quite apart from there being no distinction between a mass-book and a hurled weapon, I remember being perplexed to hear an American commentator describe something as feudal when he actually meant futile.

    • In some circumstances they could effectively be opposites: a pernicious libel, for instance. if widely diffused, would be anything but defused.

  11. mike Horsnall says:

    ” I’m going to….” “Here are two..” I’m going too ” “Its much too..” “here’s to….”
    There is a problem with similar sounds I agree. Once while teaching English in China I set my class the poem Jabberwocky as a test The students were a bright lot,all doctors wanting to go abroad to study, I told them they could use their dictionaries too………..After I had narrowly escaped the water torture by explaining it was all a hoax they thought it quite funny and began making up words to describe ‘slithy’ and ‘mimsy’ I wonder how we manage to teach English at all. It took me ages to realise that ‘sth’ which I kept meeting in written or spoken class was a written abbrevation for’ something’ as used in most dictionaries that had been taken up as a genuine word by students-after all it was in the dictionary.

  12. mike Horsnall says:

    I would be extremely grateful if anyone could have a look at the very interesting mini lectures on Neuro science and free will on You tube by Prof Sautoy -Professor of public understanding of science at Oxford. there are one or two on You tube under the heading of Consciousness,free will and the brain which seem to be farily close to current thinking about science/theism etc. Also does God have a Future? which is a series of debates on the subject of science and faith.
    These few lectures seem to me to hold a key insight into the thoughts of materialists and have interesting implications for Religious minds.

  13. John Nolan says:

    And another one – ‘lather’ always had a short ‘a’ until 1960s soap commercials.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      It still does when used as a metaphor for being in a state..”All in a lather” but not when used in its normal context.

  14. I don’t remember hearing any other pronunciation. I was born in the midlands and moved north; could this be a regional difference?

    • John Nolan says:

      I don’t think it’s regional; my 1964 Chambers’s only gives the short ‘a’ and I suspect those who wrote the TV ads for Camay lengthened it to make it sound more genteel. ‘Culinary’ with a short ‘u’ does not respect the rules of English pronunciation (insofar as they
      exist) or the Latin from which the word is derived. Was there a confusion with ‘cutlery’? In any case this mispronunciation is barely 25 years old. Unfortunately the Oxford lexicographers are useless if you want to ascertain correct pronunciation or even meaning, since they only want to reflect the latest usage even if it’s ignorant or wrong; a sort of linguistic relativism, in fact.

  15. Iona says:

    Like Peter, I don’t remember hearing any other pronunciation of “lather” (even when it appears in “all in a lather”). As far as I’m concerned, it has always rhymed with “father” and “rather”, not with “gather”.
    “Fry’s English Delight” on Radio 4 this morning was all about pronunciation, and anyone who is enjoying this discussion would probably enjoy it too (sorry Claret, that doesn’t seem to include you).

    • My memory is the opposite; no offence intended, but if I’d heard “lather” rhymed with “rather” I’d have thought someone with an impediment was referring to a food store.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        My Grandad used to lather in the larder in those bad old days of tin baths and minature kitchens ..

  16. st.joseph says:

    My mother used to say that ‘Only the Irish could prounounce English correctly’!

  17. Quentin says:

    I have been asked the derivation of the title of this post. As I expect some of you know it comes from a very old joke. This foreigner came to England and studied the language for many months. The hardest part, he found, was mastering English pronunciation — particularly when it bore no relationship to the spelling. At great length he succeeded. But when he got to Waterloo to start his home journey, he passed by the Old Vic where he saw a poster reading “Hamlet, pronounced success.” He threw himself under the train.

  18. Iona says:

    I lkie that, Quentin!

  19. John Thomas says:

    On Northern uses, remember that northeners have the Miner’s Gay-la. Horace: It’s often said that the PC versions (you have “Beijing”, there is also “Mumbai”) are not used by the inhabitants of those places; and the use of “Myannmar”, I have read, implies the recognition of a rather dubious regime.

    • I particularly noticed that in a Reith lecture by Aung San Su Chi (I hope I’ve got that right) she and everyone else involved referred to her country only as Burma. If she doesn’t know, who does?

  20. JohnBunting says:

    How about ‘meteorology’? I’m sure I’ve heard Jeremy Paxman, several times, on University Challenge, pronounce it ‘metreology’. TV and radio weather-persons commonly refer to ‘cloud’ and ‘showers’ as if they were spelt ‘clahd’ and ‘shahs’; and in Norfolk, where my parents came from, there’s very little difference between the sounds of ‘boot’ and ‘boat’.
    A further rich seam is that of misused idioms and expressions. Hardly a day goes by without someone ‘begging the question’ in the wrong sense.

  21. Quentin says:

    John Bunting, thank you for reminding me of “begging the question” . I thought this definition from Fowler’s might be helpful to us:
    …used in logic to mean the ‘fallacy of founding the conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself’

  22. tim says:

    Paxman is unreliable – he constantly pronounces scientific terms wrongly. His predecessor would have checked them. People get stresses wrong, too. Compare OXford STREET (a street in Oxford) with OXford Street (a street in London). Likewise SIGnal failure (causing train delays) with SIGnal FAILure (a major error).

  23. John Nolan says:

    Patrick Macrory’s book on the first Afghan War (1839-1842) was originally entitled ‘Signal Catastrophe’ but had to be retitled in subsequent impressions as librarians filed it under railway accidents.

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