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The Wrong Pro-NOUN-ciation

Why You Should Be Wary of How Merriam-Webster's Dictionaries
Treat Pronunciation

(This article appeared in the Boston Globe, Sunday, January 22, 2006.)

While pronunciation mavens like me are always on the lookout for oral blunders, lexicographers are always on the qui vive for linguistic variation. When I hear something that deviates from respectable usage, I make a note of it and put it in a file labeled “Beastly Mispronunciations.” When lexicographers hear the same thing, they fill out a citation slip and put it in a file labeled “For Possible Inclusion in the Dictionary.”

At Merriam-Webster, the storied house of lexicography in Springfield, Massachusetts, they have been assiduously collecting citations since the 1930s of “all pronunciation variants of a word that are used by educated speakers of the English language.” And when they say all, they mean all—including the warts. If a lapsus linguae happens to come out of an educated speaker’s mouth, it goes in the file. This worries me because “it is primarily on the basis of this large and growing file,” says their latest dictionary, “that questions of usage and acceptability in pronunciation are answered.”

Like other dictionary publishers, Merriam-Webster promises to give us guidance in standard American pronunciation, but its concept of standard American pronunciation seems to be that if you’re an American, your pronunciation is standard, no matter how eccentric it may be. Peruse the pages of M-W’s popular Collegiate dictionaries and you will find many controversial, stigmatized, and downright strange pronunciations—all of them, M-W claims, “falling within the range of generally acceptable variation.”

Let’s see how that claim holds up.

We’ll begin with accurate, which M-W gets all wrong. Recent Collegiates bestow their blessing on AK-ur-it and AK-rit, variants that are not standard and never have been. The vast majority of educated speakers consider them slovenly, which is surely why all the other major current American dictionaries ignore them and give only the accurate AK-yur-it, with a y-glide before the u.

Since 1961, M-W’s dictionaries have perversely countenanced an arch in archipelago, a variant no other reputable dictionary has seen fit to list. Educated speakers simply don’t say it that way. They say ark—because, as Alfred Ayres explained in The Orthoëpist (1894), “When arch, signifying chief, begins a word from the Greek and is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced ark—as in archangel, architect, archive, archipelago . . . but when arch is prefixed to an English word, it is pronounced so as to rhyme with march—as, archbishop, archduke, archfiend.”

M-W is the only dictionary to recognize as “standard” the affected KAL-yum-nee for calumny (KAL-um-nee) and SEN-tee-int for sentient (SEN-shint). And for eschew, which is traditionally and properly pronounced es-CHOO, M-W is alone in sanctioning the weird e-SKYOO and the vogue e-SHOO, which it brazenly lists first.

According to M-W, you may count yourself among the ranks of educated speakers of English if you pronounce particular and particularly as puh-tickler and puh-tickly and pronunciation as pro-NOUN-ciation. Other dictionaries do not record these unfortunate aberrations, choosing instead to politely avert their gaze.

For foliage, M-W lists FOY-lij, a major blunder other dictionaries eschew, and calls FOH-lij “very common”—as if this alone justifies it. If it were as common, and certainly if it were more common, a tenable argument could be advanced for its acceptability. But lots of usages that are “very common” are also very objectionable to lots of people: the mispronunciation nucular and the bogus irregardless come quickly to mind. Just because something is common doesn’t make it right or respectable or wholesome.

M-W has no shortage of usage notes apologizing for variants that many educated speakers consider substandard and authorities on pronunciation proscribe. The usage note for library says the variant liberry is heard “from educated speakers, including college presidents and professors, as well as with somewhat greater frequency from less educated speakers.” If a few college presidents and professors say liberry, does that somehow make it less beastly? If your professor, or your child’s professor, said liberry—or perfessor, for that matter—wouldn’t you raise a concerned eyebrow? Here, and elsewhere, M-W chooses to ignore the plain truth that when educated people use slipshod or stigmatized pronunciations, they lose credibility. They are perceived as “less educated speakers.”

Language mavens and lexicographers can agree to disagree. But by promiscuously sanctioning questionable pronunciations, including some that are beyond the pale—like the ludicrous DUHB-yee for the letter W—Merriam-Webster insidiously misrepresents what Noah Webster called “the general practice of the nation” and obliterates the distinction conscientious speakers strive to make between what is and isn’t standard.

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Copyright © 2006 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.