A Swiss friend of the Lounge was visiting recently and telling to us how he'd succeeded in getting a paper published in a prestigious scientific journal. His paper, he said, was about detecting plutonium from nuclear tests in milk teas. While congratulating him profusely, we were trying desperately to get our minds around just what this meant: we'd only recently ever encountered the term "milk teas," in connection with the melamine-in-baby formula stories coming out of China, and we thought it would be extraordinary indeed if said teas were now parachuting into the limelight in some other connection. Unable to make sense of it all, and with something vaguely Nestlé-like passing through our imagination, we asked: "Just what are these milk teas? Is it some sort of Swiss product?"
Our Swiss friend pointed to his teeth and said "like children have — the ones that fall out. You call them milk teeth in English, don't you?"
"Oh, yeah. Milk teeth. Or baby teeth," we said, being careful not to overemphasize the voiceless dental fricative and therefore sound like we were trying to play language cop with his very good, but rather German-accented English: after all German, among many languages, doesn't have the sound /θ/ (for "th"), and it's a hallmark of the German accent that it converts /θ/ to /s/ or /z/ depending on context. Who knows that, but for our imagination having chugged out of the station on a different line, we might have understood what he'd said correctly the first time?
Speakers are presented with a dilemma when a conversational partner mispronounces a word: there can be a disagreeable element in all possible responses to the situation. Should you do nothing, and allow the language you cherish to be abused or your confusion to go unchecked? Should you offer a correction, and risk coming off as a supercilious twit? The matter is further complicated by the status of English in the world today. From its humble beginnings as a small island language, English is now a big tent language in which the correct pronunciation of a word must occupy a fairly wide space on a continuum, and in which several correct pronunciations may compete for a particular word. The urbane and sophisticated connoisseur of English, therefore, should probably:
- make generous accommodation for foreign and regional accents
- be accepting of all pronunciations that dictionaries embrace; and finally
- acknowledge that reasonable people differ with regard to what is correct in pronunciation.
Here in the Lounge we like to think of ourselves as urbane and sophisticated and we do very well with (1) — as indicated, we think, by the Swiss incident. But we admit that we sometimes fall down on both (2) and (3), finding certain pronunciations downright irritating, and marveling that they have ever gained any currency. It appalls us, as a case in point, that speakers of British English willfully obliterate the elegance from many disyllabic French words by converting them from iambs to trochees; that is, by shifting the accent from the ultima to the penult. Take buffet (and we mean here the noun, not the verb), which Brits (whose home is a mere stone's throw from France!) think it comme il faut to pronounce as something like BOO-fay. Who would accept an invitation to something called a BOO-fay? Ballet suffers a similar fate on the sceptered isle, and makes it hard to picture a statuesque danseuse tripping lightly through her glissades and emboîtés when her art is called something like BAL-lay. There is a pernicious pattern among such words (baton, beret, brochure, coupé, croissant, debris, debut ... the list goes on), and one must conclude eventually that resistance, much less irritation, is useless.
Among our own countrymen, our hackles rise when we hear the usual American pronunciation of inquiry. This is a word where, to our minds, the Brits have got it completely right: the verb is inquire (in-KWI-er) and the agentive noun is inquirer (in-KWI-rer). Logic and euphony therefore conspire to tell us that the noun of instance is in-KWI-ery. How is it most Americans command their tongues to produce a mash that sounds like INK-wery? It sounds like something in which you would store ink. We can also never hear, without great displeasure, her-ASS for harass, and the related her-ASS-ment for harassment. Far better, we think, to hear HARE-ess and HARE-es-ment — again, the way the Brits say them.
Provincial though it may seem, the attitude we have about pronunciation in the Lounge seems to be a fairly widely held one among educated native speakers: some foreign accents are charming, but overall and for any given word, my pronunciation is the best one. We have resolved, however, to embark on a program of attitude adjustment, and make peace with the fact that our claims to pronunciation correctness are not necessarily superior to anyone else's.
Individual words aside, the Loungeurs are always thrilled to hear the various far-flung accents into which English has settled itself. Here are some links to the English that we most enjoy listening to these days.
Baltimore's classical radio station WBJC is hosted from 3 to 8 pm ET weekdays (that's GMT -5) by South African Judith Krummeck, who introduces tastefully selected tunes in her wonderfully refined native accent:
The BBC's Caribbean Report not only keeps you up to date with what's going on in the islands; the news is delivered in a variety of lively local accents that make it a pleasure to catch up on the latest leeward and windward drifts:
We're not always wild about the music, but it's hard not to stay glued to the delightful French-and-African inflected accent of Afropop's Cameroonian presenter Georges Collinet. The program is carried on stations around the world, with podcasts on the Afropop website:
Finally, we find that we can while away many a pleasant moment when we should probably be attending to other matters, listening to some of the UK dialects archived here: