Friday, December 30, 2011

Potato, Potahto, Spud

I was pondering what sort of end-of-2011 blog to write when one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an article titled "10 Words You Mispronounce That Make People Think You're An Idiot." His posting touched off a longer, more involved discussion than most political posts do.

I had several objections to the article, the main being that the very idea that a person should be judged an idiot simply by how he pronounces certain words and not by the content of what he's saying is offensive. But of course, that's how humanity does these things -- judge a person by what they wear or how they comb their hair, rather than what they stand for and what they've accomplished.

Beyond that, the writer's entire viewpoint revolved around himself, his background and pronunciation he'd been taught in school. He obviously knew nothing about the history of words and speech, or about usage in regional dialects.

He didn't know, for example, that "sherbet" and "sherbert" originally had 2 different meanings, the first being a cold fruit drink of 17th century Persia and Turkey. "Sherbert" was more often used to describe ices made with milk, egg white and gelatin that became popular in the next 2 centuries. Now both spellings are used interchangeably to mean the ice, and can be pronounced either way (at least, according to most dictionaries, including my Merriam-Webster's). Sherbet is actually more often pronounced with the "r" in most regions.

Speaking of "often," this word was pronounced with a "t" through the 17th century. Probably because of regional dialects and popular orators dropping the "t" sound, the more common pronunciation became "offen" in the last few hundred years, but many dialects continued the old pronunciation, and it's experienced a comeback in the last thirty years. This doesn't mean it's wrong. And since the word's meaning doesn't change, no matter which way you say it, your neighbor pronouncing it differently from you shouldn't be a motive for murder.

The beauty of language is, I think, in it's flexibility and ability to evolve. The bottom line is that our language allows us to communicate. Sure, we have rules of grammar and spelling, and yes, pronunciation, but the rules are there merely to facilitate communication, and shouldn't restrict us or make us judge one another for the way we speak. We need to allow a bit of leeway for everyone's unique voice, which to my mind is one of the most beautiful of human traits.

If you're interested in the evolution of language, I recommend an excellent article in the November 19, 2011 Science News called Darwin's Tongues.

In 2012, I'd love to see everyone (myself included) make an effort to listen to each other -- to the meaning of words, instead of just the sounds. Concentrating on substance might allow us to see through the pretty soundbites of all those political speeches we'll be hearing the next 11 months.

Peace in the New Year,

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