Last week I was giving a talk at the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s 15th Biennial International Conference at the University of Prince Edward Island. I was speaking on what I called Montgomery’s “iconography of the spiritual imagination.” The talk was less an academic paper and more a playful performance of an idea I found in academic research. In the end, it was really a 20-minute close reading of four paragraphs in Anne of Green Gables that millions of people have read, but that often get passed over–despite their brilliance, humour, and critical strength. It was a good talk–though both the poet and literary magician in me wish that I could have simplified the idea to strengthen the effect and enhance the “aha!” factor of the performance.
In the midst of a key moment, I had a bit of a crisis when I came to this line:
Christ couldn’t look dour or angry or stern or the children wouldn’t trust him.
I had practiced the talk a dozen times, but I hadn’t thought about how to say “dour.” Locally, we say it so it rhymes with “sour,” like dower, daʊə. A more standard pronunciation is more like “doo-uh”–though soft, with a schwa sound sucking in the “r,” dʊə–or like doo-er or dewer, dʊ(ə)r. When I say the word out loud, I say dour/sour. But when I think of that word, I hear a Scottish English pronunciation like the first syllable of “durable” but with a rolling “r.”
So … a room of Montgomery readers from 18 countries, half of whom are not native English speakers, but who learned English either from the US or the UK/Continental Europe pathways rather than from Prince Edward Island‘s rural school system … what should I say?
In the decision of a moment, for the sake of clarity, I said dour/sour. It would be clear for many, it is honest to my natural way of speaking, and it gives a texture to the word I liked (the sourness more than the durability of “dour”).
We told her that her far off shore was bleak and dour to view,
And that her sky was dull and mirk while ours was smiling blue.
She only sighed in answer, “It is even as ye say,
But oh, the ragged splendour when the sun bursts through the gray!”
Obviously, though, the better choice is to not use that word in a talk! Seriously, speeches are hard enough to give on their own without adding a whole world of trouble in difficult-to-pronounce words. Beyond my own tendency to stutter when set back on my heels, some folks are über dour about how to pronounce words.
For example, in my 10-minute Book Talk on Walter Miller’s genius science fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a friendly viewer living in a police state of perfect pronunciation wrote a comment:
“Nuclear”, “nuclear”, “nuclear”. FFS, stop saying, “nook-yuh-ler”
Touché … or touchy, either one. Nucular-age jerk that I am, I wrote:
You must find life exhausting! The whole internet is there, here is a talk about a gorgeous and challenging book, and you take the time to harp on my local accent? Be free! You don’t have to police the whole world. Are you going to live your life critiquing local accents and variant pronunciations of all the greatly mishandled and regionally varied words, like lieutenant, aluminum, Arctic, tenterhooks, espresso, Toronto, acai berry tea, potable, film, basil, pernickety, Wednesday, Saoirse, all the French words Americans say wrong, and the word “pronunciation” itself? Who lives and dies on how you pronounce either when you can pronounce it either way?
Not exhausting at all, actually, though you may want to clear up your understanding of the etymology of, “pernickety” and the long-accepted American version of, “persnickety”, from the British, not French, the pronunciation of which you’ll find in all reputable dictionaries of the last century, unlike, “nook-yuh-ler”, which you ain’t gone fin’ nowhere. Nice try to charge me with an entire life of hand-wringing and damnation of all speakers worldwide because you can’t pronounce one word. Your video only has 104 views, 105 if I give it a like just for trying, so I will. When you make yourself public, expect to be corrected when you err, make the change, and improve your lot, but FFS, don’t go…. (sayyyy it).
In terms of the writing life of trolls beneath the literary bridges of the Interweb, it’s pretty well done. And my “nook-yuh-ler” (though I weight the middle vowel a bit more) is not in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) pronunciation guide–though Merriam-Webster notes it as nonstandard. The American Heritage Dictionary adds a usage note:
The pronunciation (noo’kyə-lər), which is generally considered incorrect, is an example of how a familiar phonological pattern can influence an unfamiliar one. The usual pronunciation of the final two syllables of this word is (-klē–ər), but this sequence of sounds is rare in English. Much more common is the similar sequence (-kyə-lər), which occurs in words like particular, circular, spectacular, and in many scientific words like molecular, ocular, and vascular. Adjusted to fit into this familiar pattern, the (-kyə-lər) pronunciation is often heard in high places. It is not uncommon in the military in association with nuclear weaponry, and it has been observed in the speech of US presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush. The prominence of these speakers, however, has done little to brighten the appeal of (noo’kyə-lər), which was considered acceptable to only 10 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2004 survey.
Well, tough day for me as a hack speaker–though my hick pronunciation is “often heard in high places.” I like a touch of humour in my dictionaries, don’t you? That one is nicely done. A new Usage Panel survey is perhaps warranted, but I think we are sliding back to “nuclear” in more proper ways in popular English.
And, by the way, my Canticle for Leibowitz video has 3,500 views. So there Nuclear Boy!
For the sake of honesty, I should add that even I, pronunciation bottom dweller that I am, have been a bit per(s)nickety about pronunciation. I queried whether C.S. Lewis’ strange dystopic narrative poem is pronounced “Die-mer” or “Dee-mer” (I am certain “Dymer” is “Die” not “Dee). I launched “A Complaynt on the Letter Y and Wyther Grange of Emily of New Moon,” and I wrote this piece: “The Sloo/Slow/Sluff of Despond: Today’s Word of the Day and a Spiritual Truth in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.” So I clearly think word pronunciation is important.
(And folks who are both lovers of words and listeners of American roots music, you should see this.)
In any case, the result is that I’ve got to scratch “nuclear” with “dour” from my talks–and check ahead in other cases. I must admit, though, that mispronouncing an invented house name in a book is nothing compared to the fear I have of saying one of Tolkien’s 14,168 invented words wrong in public. Dour or not, Tolkienists can be … precise.
There are other words that I have erased from my speaking vocabulary for obvious reasons, like niggard or niggardly, fecund, nippy, masticate, and titular. Like that poor American youth pastor schmuck all those years ago when Youtube was young, I will never say “pitch my tents” out loud. Or anyone’s tents. There are other phrases and words to use, for English is rich in possibilities. No doubt, I will discover other “Words that Must Not Be Named” along the way by accident. This is just a little terrifying but is the normal adventure of words in motion.
I do say “Poop Deck” whenever I speak to children about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. So there.
One word that I cannot pronounce in a formal talk is “imaginative.” And I want that word, for all of my work is with imaginative writers. Anne is imagination personified. However, I have it in the “intro” of my MaudCast script, and I just cannot get it right.
Some of my speech self-editing is because of my upbringing and my local verbal space. Sometimes this is my own confusion, like riffle vs. rifle as a verb describing a shuffling search. My mother was indefatigable–a word I don’t say in speaches because I will mess it up–in retraining me to say “I beat” instead of “I bet” when referring to winning a game. Locally, we often soften “often” to “offen,” or almost, for me it rhymes with “soften”–and I have been soundly rebuked for this one. And I think we say “etc.” as “ectetera,” not quite an “x” sound, but a clear case of metalepsis. Or maybe I mean metathesis … either way, more words to avoid–though in her Great Course lecture series, The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins, Anne Curzan tells me that the maligned American pronunciation “aks” for “ask” has historical precedence: Chaucer used both spellings.
You can see in my saucy Youtube response to Dr Strangelove above, that I seem to favour a regional disparity in word pronunciation. I like the variety of usage that an English map would reveal (see here for North America, just dialects). However, there are some localisms I detest. Cringingly, folks say “I been” here in PEI–a point that one of Montgomery’s characters notes as a personal shame, somewhere in her stories. Prince Edward Islanders, insist on taking the “r” out of “slippery” and putting it in “wash,” and lean heavily on certain vowel sounds. Though we have our share of fine singers, “Silent Night” can sound like this in rural churches:
“Soi-lent noit. Hoe-ly noit. All is cam, all is broit.”
“Calm” is pronounced with a terrible nasal soft “a” sound. We would have named a daughter “Hana” as in Japanese “Hanako,” “flower child,” but the light rhyming syllable “Hana” would have become a nasally “Hanghth-ah”–with the first “a” sound like New Englanders say “sandwich.” Before Nicolas was a Nicolas 18 years ago, as an Islander having just moved from Japan to Vancouver, that pronunciation would have made me leave a room. Today, after being indoctrinated in our local talk, I quite like the Hannahs I know.
Here is a conversation I might overhear at local Tim Horton’s after an older man orders a double-double and sits with a gathering of like-minded gossipy old farts (a self-description I once heard):
Old Fart 1: “Jeez b’ys, but ain’t those arseholes in Warshington some slippy.”
Old Fart 2: “‘Magine!”
Old Fart 3: “P’isen!”
Old Fart 4: “[Indistinguisable in-breath of assent] Youse’ll find out they been fillin’ kit bags full of cash all along.”
Old Farts 1 through 4: “[Indistinguisable in-breath of assent]”
The “Indistinguishable in-breath of assent” is what linguists call ingressive pulmonic speech, or an ingressive particle. As you can hear in this delightful video on CBC News by my friend, linguist Anne Furlong, we may have the Vikings to honour or blame for this! You have to hear it to know.
This suck-in particle is probably related to the English particle “eh,” which has roots back in Middle English “ey.” Canadians get a generous laugh from Americans for saying “eh” at the end of sentences and apologizing a lot. This Canadian-born habit bred in me a kinship with the Japanese language when I moved to Japan a few years ago for a brief and beautiful part of my life.
Like Canadian English, Japanese also has “an interjectional interrogative particle; often inviting assent to the sentiment expressed,” as the OED defines “eh!”–though I would add “reflexive” before “interjectional” in the definition, at least in the case of Canadian and Japanese. “Ne,” ね, sounds like “eh,” but is a bit softer. Like Canadian end-of-sentence “eh,” “ne” is trying to draw a response from the listener in some way (thus reflexive).
Japanese folks also apologize a lot. Truly, more than a Canadian’s instinctive “sorry,” many of their relational words are apologies and “excuse me” in one way or the other. A 2015 BBC article captured the reality of this Japanese verbal culture, but there is a practical application. If you can simply learn words like “sumimasen,” すみません, you will do well. “Yurushite,” 許して, is a more formal pleading for forgiveness, and onegaishimasu, お願いします, a word of asking, has a polite and deferential tone, like “if you please.” There are dozens of apologetically tinged words in the language, for built into the Japanese social space is a give-and-take of relationship with dozens of degrees of complexity.
To be fair to Canadians, “eh” is pretty common in many lands. I hear Americans use it with ease, and it is a normal part of conversation for many British folk–though they may be more apt to say “Eh?” or “Eh!” as a response at the beginning of a sentence than Canadians, who say “pardon me?”–a kind of apology, once again.
Onlookers be warned: don’t be fooled by apologetic language in Canada and Japan. Apologetic language can be like the act of bowing in Japan: what looks deferential and communicates respect but is also a way of gaining power and creating defined spaces and even distance.
I have largely worked out the “eh” in my formal conversation, but I hope that it still pervades my everyday talk–even when talking to Americans. I don’t know in what other ways I protect myself, though, from the American ridicule of the “Canadian accent.” Anyone who has spent time in Canada, or near it, knows that there is a great deal of difference in Canadian accents. The lower mainland BC (Vancouver) accent is distinct from cowtown Calgary, AB, the plains of northern Saskatchewan, the “we’re the centre of the universe” Torontonian gabber, someone native to Iqaluit, or a Quebecer–which is different in the north or in Montreal in Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in the east. Even in our small Maritime region, I can tell when someone is from Bouctouche, St. John, Acadian Moncton, Tignish, North Rustico, Souris, Cape Breton, Digby, or the French south shore. I would be surprised if an accent specialist found only a few hundred variations on the Island of Newfoundland.
Still, despite the erroneous American imagination of a Canadian accent–and despite variances in its pronunciation across the country, one thing is certain: though I say “house” with distinct precision, “how-se,” Americans hear it as rhyming with “moose.” I blame the government. So I just don’t say “house” if I can help it.
Moose, by the way, really are huge here, but not in every part of Canada.
Who can win this word game anyhow? Some folk gets fussy about accents and pronunciations, and other folk gets owly. But as Buddy Whatshisname always says, “Holy mackerel! Why go scoffin’? They just needs a good biff on the head.” Well, I haven’t quite boughtened into that bit of Island wisdom as a way of defining my entire approach to giving talks and making Youtube videos, but it goes some ways towards sharing my feelings. Going a bit further, I would say that if you are presenting yourself to the world, you have to think about the way your words land in different contexts. And it is super key to avoid words that will trip you up.
However, when it comes to everyday connections–whether on the beach or at table or connected through nuclear age technology–you should speak the way you want.
As Old Fart #5 might say, “Fill yer boots!”