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Where incorrect pronunciations misled us

Wed, 23 Jul 2014 Source: Pacas, Idris

Humans were created with speech which transformed in organized languages. In the course of civilization, we invented letters of alphabet to represent sound and never the reverse. Pronounce these words: actual and victualler /vitla/. The ability to pronounce words ‘correctly’ or ‘acceptably’ makes verbal communication effective. The manner in which a word is pronounced or is heard directly affects how it is decoded and/or written.

Whichever form it takes, the better way of pronouncing a word is to sound it such that it is understood same—acceptable pronunciation. That is, one only needs to expend energy pronouncing the word such that listeners needn’t ask one again. Hence, avoid expending so much energy with the view to pronouncing every word as English persons do.

Here, we look at how the ‘mispronunciation’ of some words misled us into either misspelling them or assigning wrong meanings to them. We start off from the subject I teach—integrated science. Mispronouncing the first two syllables in ‘INTEgrated’ to rhyme with the prefix ‘inter-’ as in INTERnational has been misleading many students into writing the subject name as ‘intergrated’ science. Acceptably, integrated derived from the verb ‘integrate’ is pronounced as /in-ti-greited/ meaning to put together. Thus, pronouncing the modifier ‘integrated’ acceptably both brings out the meaning of subject and enables our students to spell it correctly.

Outside the classroom, ‘cornrows’ is the word whose mispronunciation has infested ALL the towns and cities in Ghana with the odd form ‘corn roll’. Just close your eyes and walk towards any salon (not saloon) and you’ll /yuul/ see ‘corn roll’. The correct form ‘cornrows’ derives from the resemblance of the plaited hair to a panoramic view of a corn or maize field in which the plants are standing in lines (rows). Notice that the word is a plural tantum; ie, ‘s’ is always attached to the end. Thus, if the first hairdressers had pronounced the word as /cornrows/, their graduating apprentices would never have been misled into converting ‘rows’ into ‘roll’. Notice that ‘cornrows’ is solid; ie, no space exists between the two words.

What about the word ‘moustache’? It is nearly always mispronounced as /mustach/ instead of as /mustaash/. And this mispronunciation misled us into erroneously pronouncing nearly in all other words with such endings (eg, creche, cache, niche and douche). How were we taught to pronounce ‘dwarf’?—/dwaaf/? Oh, no! Compare ‘war’ which is located in the spelling ‘dwarf’. The same applies to wharf /worf/—landing place for ships and boats— and to wart/wort/.

During lessons on acids and bases, we were most likely taught that ‘alkali’ is pronounced as /al-ka-li/. In contrast, the correct pronunciation is /al-ka-lai/. Extending this into how English nouns of Latin origin are pluralized and pronounced, we notice that masculine nouns ending in ‘us’ (eg, humerus, malleus, nucleus and alumnus) are pluralized by replacing the ‘us’ with ‘i’. The plurals (ie, humeri, mallei, nuclei and alumni) are pronounced to end in ‘ai’ (ie, hjuu-me-rai, ma-lai, njuu-klai and alam-nai). The ‘rule’ reverses for plural feminine nouns (eg, fibulae, antennae and alumnae), which are pronounced with ‘ii’ (fi-bju-lii, an-te-nii and alam-nii). Whereas both antennas and antennae are correct plurals for ‘aerial’ of radio or TV, only ‘antennae’ is the correct plural for feelers on insects and crustaceans.

At the JHS, we were all nearly infected during our lessons on fishing farming and on agricultural systems. How did your teacher pronounce ‘pectoral’ and ‘pastoral’? I guess s/he would have mentioned //pek-to-ral and /pas-to-ral/. To confirm that you were misled, compare pectoral with electoral (these words are perfect rhymes). You’ll notice that the ‘o’ is ‘schwa’ and never sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘no’. The same applies to the ‘o’ in pastoral.

Whilst delivering a lesson on ornamental plants, I asked my students to tell me the name of the part of streets where beautiful ornamental plants are often seen. The answer was ‘runabout’. Asked what runabout means the students told me that all vehicles/vii’ikles/ must ‘run about’ around it like a circle. Clearly, these innocent souls were misled by ill-pronunciation. The dictionary defines ‘runabout’ as a small car, motorbike, boat or aircraft used for short trips. Thus, that the road junction with central island which vehicles must go around is rather termed roundabout. Roundabouts or traffic circles are used as flowerbeds in towns and cities.

Again in our basic school general or integrated science lesson on digestion, the teachers most likely mispronounced oesophagus as /o-so-fa-gus/. In consequence, we were misled into pronouncing oestrogen as /os-tro-jin/. Acceptably, oesophagus is pronounced as /ii-so-fa-gus/. And if we were taught correctly from that lesson, we would have had no problem pronouncing oestrogen, oedema, phoenix, foetus, amoeba and onomatopoeia.

Did it end there? How were you told to pronounce ‘listen’? Our teachers would have probably sounded the ‘t’ leading us to /lis-tin/. Thus, we kept on mispronouncing nearly every other word appearing like that (eg, moisten as /mois-tin/). However, if were told that the ‘t’ is silent, we would have pronounced them as listen /lisn/, moisten /moisn/, christen /krisn/, soften /sofen/ and chasten /chei-sn/. In the word ‘often’, the ‘t’ may or may not be pronounced. The silent ‘t’ still occurs in pestle /pesl/. Using pestle, we note that all other words such as whistle, nestle, hustle, tussle, jostle and rustle also contain the silent ‘t’.

Again in our lesson on reproduction in animals, our teachers might have taught us the terms used to describe parturition (the process of giving birth) in mammals. The problem would have been with parturition in ewes /yous/—female sheep. The process is called lambing /la-ming/. Notice that it has a silent ‘b’. The silent ‘b’ again occurs in comb & combing, plumb & plumbing, climb & climbing and coulomb (unit of electric charge). What is common to these words containing ‘mb’? Look for more examples.

What have we learnt from the above? First, that we must learn to cross-check words before using them. Second, that among any set of words, a rule likely exists which teachers can formulate to enable their students pronounce such words acceptably. Summarised from the presentation above, some of these rules are as follows:

(1) The letters ‘-che’ often take ‘sh’ sound when they appear at the end of words (eg, creche /cresh/, cache /cache/, mouche /mush/ and cloche /klosh/).

(2) The letters ‘oe’ form a digraph pronounced as ‘ii’ (eg, oedema /iidiima/ and oestrus /iis-tros/).

(4) Words containing the suffixes ‘-tle’ (eg, thistle and mistletoe) or ‘-ten’ (fasten) have a silent ‘t’.

(4) Words containing ‘mb’ have a silent ‘b’ (eg, succumbing /sa-kaming/, tomb/tuum/ and womb /wuum/).

Despite being laded with innumerable exceptions, English language has so many of such simple rules which teachers can formulate and explain to their students. After all, it makes sense to start from a rule applicable to many words and then deal with the exceptions case by case rather than to deal with all the one thousand and one words on word-by-word basis. Such rules are particularly important for words that contain silent letters (eg, depot /de-po/ & debut /de-bju:/. Compare: fracas/frakaa/, debris /debrii/, chassis /sha-sii/ & précis/ pre-sii/).

But it is necessary expending one’s time learning these acceptable pronunciations? Yes. First, our students are mainly examined by written test. And for those words whose correct spellings depend on correct pronunciation (eg, integrated /in-ti-greited/), spending time to learn and to pronounce them correctly are worth it. Second, our students write oral exams particularly English. Here, words such as gneiss /nice/, corps /core/, aisle /ail/ and wrestle /resl/ which when mentioned from the tape recorder may surely confuse students who only know how to pronounce words by their spelling. Thus, such students will just fail or lose marks in manner that is simply avoidable. Prevent our students from losing such marks.

Long live practising teachers! Long live Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana!

Idris Pacas: 020 910 15 33 & iddrisuabdulai12@yahoo.com

Columnist: Pacas, Idris