Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

This morning, Consumerist linked to an article in Primer Magazine (for some reason), titled “10 Words You Mispronounce That Make People Think You’re an Idiot”.

With a name like that, it couldn’t be anything but judgmental pedantry, but even in an otherwise eyeroll-worthy article, I found that several of these words are actually completely reasonable pronunciations, and several of them demonstrate interesting phonological processes. So, I’m going to discuss them a little bit.

Athlete (pronounced with a schwa in the middle, “Ath-uh-leet” /æθəlit/)

This is a very reasonable and common pronunciation, which I noticed extensively in the speech of even experts on the subject (Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is a notable /æθəlit/ speaker. Here, the change likely comes from our dislike of having an interdental sound (/θ/) right next to a lateral (/l/). If you attempt to make the “correct” pronunciation, you’ll notice that your tongue is, in a sense, trapped between your front teeth, and to make a smooth gesture, you end up having to attempt to curve the sides of the middle and back of your tongue down. Which is unpleasant. So, it’s not shocking at all that speakers who use the word often may add the schwa.

(It’s also worth noting that there is no ‘H’ in Athlete, despite the author’s smug assertions that “there is no vowel between the ‘H’ and the ‘L’ in any of these words”. The English “TH” in this word is actually a single sound, a voiceless interdental fricative, which is nothing resembling an /h/. Once again, pedantry is seldom done well enough to be immune to further pedantry.)

Utmost (pronounced as “upmost”, /ʌpmowst/)

This is an awesome example of assimilation, two sounds becoming more like one another to make the speaker’s life easier, a phenomenon I’ve discussed before. Here, in the “correct” pronunciation, /ʌtmowst/, we have a /t/ sound, created at the alveolar ridge (just behind the teeth, try it) followed immediately by /m/, a bilabial sound created by pressing the two lips together.

When speakers are “mispronouncing” the word as /ʌpmowst/, they’re actually being more efficient, substituting in a /p/, also a bilabial sound, which allows them to simply close their lips (creating the /p/), then lower the velum (allowing nasal airflow) and start voicing to begin making the /m/. Going from /p/ to /m/ requires no additional tongue or lip movement, whereas going from /t/ to /m/ requires reconfiguration of the tongue and lips. Efficiency. Not quite the idiot pronunciation he’s claiming.

Sherbet (pronounced as “sher-bert”, /ʃɜɹbəɹt/)

Why does Primer Magazine hate assimilation? The first syllable has an “err” (/ɜɹ/) sound, why not the second syllable too? If we can keep the whole word vaguely “r-sounding” (“rhotic”, in phonetic terms), all the better. Speakers love regularity. Primer Magazine doesn’t.

“For all intensive Purposes”

This is really a horsed zebra. For further discussion of this, see a post I made last week.

Often (pronounced as “offen”, /ɑfɪn/)

How many Americans say “often” with the /t/, ever? This is textbook deletion of an unpleasant sound to simplify a cluster, and it’s one carried out by many, many people. Why bother with a /ft/ cluster when there’s no need to keep it around? It’s not like there’s another word, “Offen”, which this form of “often” could be confused with, and frankly, for speed, fluidity, and social reasons (in the US), the “offen” pronunciation is really a better choice.

Edit: OK, I misread this one completely in my anti-pedant rage. The author of the quoted article is actually in favor of “offen” as the “proper” form, and I responded assuming that he, like so many others have, was arguing that “often” (with a /t/) is the only proper form. So, I’ve culled some of the anger from the post, and kept the phonology. Thanks, commenter!

Awry (pronounced as “aw-ree”, /’ɑɹi/ instead of “uh-rye” /ə’ɹaj/)

This word is a textbook example of why our writing system needs to be taken out behind the barn and dispatched as humanely as possible. Although “wry” is used for the proper /ɹaj/ pronunciation in the word “wry” (and only there), usually the “aw” digraph represents /ɑ/ (as in “claw”, “maw”, “awful”, “awkward”) and the “ry” represents /ɹi/ (as in “fury”, “worry”, “scurry”). I can understand the author feeling the need to state the proper pronunciation of the word, but his indignation at the thought that anybody could EVER think “awry” is pronounced “aw-ree” is just silly.

So, there’s a bit of phonological goodness wrung out of an otherwise dry and pedantic bit of prescriptivism. Which I am going to pronounce as “per-scriptivism” for the remainder of the day. Just to anger Justin Brown.

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