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:

  1. make generous accommodation for foreign and regional accents
  2. be accepting of all pronunciations that dictionaries embrace; and finally
  3. 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: 


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 3rd 2008, 3:01 AM
Comment by: grenville P.

While we are on the subject of the pronouncation of what has historically been referred to as the "Queen's English", why is it that many of the most eliquently articulate BBC and SKY News Presenters add a secord "r" sound to the word "Draw" ?? i.e. sounding something like "Drawrr" as opposed to sounding like a soft "dah"followed by "raw".

After all, one would reasonably expect better from professional public exponents of the English language in the heart of the Motherland, would'nt one ;o)

A puzzled English speaking "Soueff Effiken".

Monday November 3rd 2008, 5:05 AM
Comment by: Anne G. (Romsey Australia)
Well, this an interseting view of pronunciations from us here in OZ.Somtimes we use the American pronunciation & at other times we use the British...an interesting mix. Of course muddled up in this will be our own 'accent', ranging from 'broad' Australian (g'daay maate) to cultivated Australian (Good day mate). Apologies..a bit late in the day to translate phonetically, but I'm sure you get my drift.

Perhaps it behoves us all to remember that 'English' speakers are not just American or British!

Anne G 'Down Under'
Monday November 3rd 2008, 5:58 AM
Comment by: Olivia J.
I don't think as many people in Britain say 'HARE-ess' and 'HARE-essment' as you hope they do. Perhaps it's the American influence? But I agree that HARass etc is much nicer. Same with CONtroversy over conTROVersy and FORMidable over forIDible, but sometimes I think I'm on my own there.

P.S. my hackles rise when people writing about language write here instead of hear (para 6, line 1) but I'll let it go this once!
Monday November 3rd 2008, 6:01 AM
Comment by: CJP (Boulder, CO)
FYI Mr. O. Hargraves
there is a misspelling in paragraph six of your article sir. I'm referencing the sentence "Among our own countrymen, our hackles rise when we here the usual American pronunciation of inquiry."
With respect,
Monday November 3rd 2008, 6:16 AM
Comment by: Mary M.
That homophone jumped out at me also. The spell check can't be trusted.
Enjoyed you're article.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 6:27 AM
Comment by: Jana F.
English is becoming "globalized" and that's a good thing.
I teach English in Hong Kong and myself still have a slight accent as I was born and grew up in Slovakia (think mostly British English at school). I lived in Vancouver, Canada (think Canadian, East Indian and other Asian accents)before coming to Hong Kong (think "Hongkonese" of the locals and mostly Australian and New Zealand accents of other teachers).

I have learned to accept and enjoy all the varieties and to respect the speaker by NOT correcting their pronunciation unless there is confusion about the meaning. Even then, I do make sure the comment is in the lines of "oh, you mean (insert corrected pronunciation)" as not to sound condescending.
We need to learn to appreciate the fact that somebody is making an attempt to communicate with us in our language. No matter how heavy their accent is, they made an effort to learn it as opposed to many who are monolingual.

By the way, I find that I readily adjust my own accent depending on the company I'm with. And I still make mistakes - in grammar and pronunciation - when I'm tired.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 6:46 AM
Comment by: Stuart R.
Nice article! The radio voices that transport me are those of host Fiona Ritchie (particularly) and also the musicians featured on Thistle & Shamrock ( http://thistleradio.com), which I hear on NPR station WYPR 88.1 in Baltimore.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 7:00 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Grenville P.: The pronunciation of "draw" as "drawr" is a typical feature of "non-rhotic" (r-less) accents. It's called " intrusive r", and it crops up when a word like "draw" is followed by a vowel. (It can even occur within a word, as when "drawing" is pronounced as "drawring".) The phonetician John Wells says "intrusive r" is used by "speakers of all social classes in almost all parts of England," including speakers of so-called Received Pronunciation.

CJP and Mary M.: Thanks for catching they typo! It's been fixed.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 7:36 AM
Comment by: Lee D.
Wonderful stuff. I am an octogenarian,immigrant Canadian, born, bred and schooled in South Africa. (English background - my boyhood reading was the Gem, Magnet and BOP)
I have to battle somewhat with Canadian accents and peculiarities, heavily influenced as they are by our massive Southern neighbour, but retain my South African accent, language and spelling.
One of my queries has always been the pronunciation of 'Zounds'. Seldom heard in conversation, it always seemed appropriate using the OO sound, rather than the OW, based on the origin from 'God's wounds'.
Recently, in an old movie I heard Leslie Howard pronounce it 'Zownds'.
Guide me please
Monday November 3rd 2008, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Suzanne K. (Guilford, CT)
Yes, I will overlook mispronunciations, such as SHAL-lots when it should be shal-LOTS, but I more than cringe when 99% of Americans today routinely say "There's many people..." "There's a few houses..." I quiver with disbelief that neither speaker nor listener shows even faint awareness of the mistake between subject and number (if that's the correct terminology).
Monday November 3rd 2008, 8:26 AM
Comment by: Ikars S.
Grenville P.: You gave me a chuckle. Do all "Soueff Effikens" pronuce "eliquently" the way you spell it? You all 'hare' have just begun to scratch all the divergent speech modes I have heard English adorned with. What's a few flubs among friends.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 9:17 AM
Comment by: Pat T.
What a wonderful posting! The article was delightful, and the comments also. My sense of humor had me laughing out loud as each one advising us of misspelled words or homophone usage added their own to the mix. Thank you one and all for a good chuckle this morning.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 10:06 AM
Comment by: John B.
I used to work at a think tank called the US Institute of Peace. I once ordered, by phone, a gift for my wife from Harrod's of London. It arrived at my office addressed to me at the "US Institute of Teeth."
Monday November 3rd 2008, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Elizabeth N.
I feel occasional 'other' pronunciations by a skilled speaker are quaint / endearing. However, I tend to make corrections to the vernacular for speakers trying to learn a new language.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Liz L.
How about aluminium vs "aluminum"?? In the US the one that really gets me is how many people pronounce caramel. It ends up sounding like "caRmel" - do people like some vowels to be silent??

Being Australian in the US is interesting - sometimes I do feel like I am actually bilingual! I have to pronounce letters differently when I am spelling my name just so people will understand.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Timothy O.
When I worked in radio, over 40 years ago, it was customary to say "PEE-an-ist." All the very best announcers did. Nowadays, I notice that everyone seems to say, "pee-AN-ist." I wonder, is this that sort of "putting on the dog" pronunciation that causes people to say "ex-per-TEECE" instead of "ex-per-TEEZ"? Or is it that "logical" approach that fails to accept that English is eminently illogical in both pronunciation and spelling? Dictionaries seem to favor the current pronunciation, but I can tell you absolutely that we would never have said it that way back in the '60s.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 10:58 AM
Comment by: cynthia H.
I was particularly interested in the statement to CPJ and Mary M that the the typo (here to hear) has been corrected. The writer used the contraction 'It's' to mean 'It has'. I was taught in school that 'It's' means 'It is' but in recent years I have noticed a trend to use it for both 'It is' and 'It has'.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 11:03 AM
Comment by: cynthia H.
I was particularly interested in the statement to CPJ and Mary M that the the typo (here to hear) has been corrected. The writer used the contraction 'It's' to mean 'It has'. I was taught in school that 'It's' means 'It is' but in recent years I have noticed a trend to use it for both 'It is' and 'It has'.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 11:57 AM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
One thing I thought might be worthy of a more articulate discussion by one of the VT columnists on the role of etiquette in language, especially vis a vis pronunciation.

For example, with the issue of "HARassment" instead of "harASSment," is it possible that the former wins out among the more "genteel" of us to avoid stressing the more vulgar second syllable in polite discourse?

Also, I grew up hearing "yourANUS" said by my science teacher when talking about Uranus but later when I took astronomy courses at the Adler Planetarium (early 80s), I noticed the obvious difference in pronunciation each time the instructor said, "YOUR-ah-nis." Was this pronunciation shift due to the adolescent twittering (and older than adolescent silent snickering) of the inside joke (no pun intended) that the teacher was saying a bad word?

Just wondering if this also might explain the "PEE-ah-nist" vs. "peeANist" pronunciation of pianist. The second pronunciation, though I prefer the first, may avoid the linguistic or aural "slippage" of hearing that some may perceive (at least initially) as "penis" instead of the exceedingly more dextrous and hard hitting of the two, which would be "pianist."

Monday November 3rd 2008, 12:30 PM
Comment by: Anne G.
The grandiloquent pseudo-French pronunciation of "homage" as o-MAJ makes me flinch. I hear it all the time on NPR, and they should know better. When the forces of pop culture speak about a rock 'n' roll band recording an o-MAJ to the Beatles, I cringe; of course, then, I laugh, too.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
The problem with 'Uranus' is that no matter how you say it, you're including one excretory word or another. I vote for yoo-ra-NOOSE.

As for 'pianist,' it seems parallel to 'inquiry' in Orin's discussion. It's called a pee-AN-oh; so the player should be a pee-AN-ist. We don't say vi-OH-lin-ist, do we?

Great discussion here! Thank you again for the fodder, Orin.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 8:42 PM
Comment by: Mal G. (Santa Clarita, CA)
I feel as Jana F. does, viz., that we should be courteous in listening to non-English-speaking learners of English and helpful but uncondescending when we might think the non-English speaking learner will appreciated our guidance.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 9:35 PM
Comment by: Randall M.
Here in Texas we have a broad range of pronunciation. As one who has done a great deal of public speaking, I always felt obliged to find the best pronunciation in my knowledge, knowing that someone was going to criticize if my speech did offence to his ears. Pronunciation is important and I try to make my standard the dictionary rather than the way I hear it on television.

The same is true of grammar. Grammar has become a lost art. I fancy myself the "grammar police", always analyzing what someone says by his grammar. Whenever I find myself wanting to correct someone's grammar I try to use a light or humorous approach. But correct grammar and syntax are still important, even though it seems like a losing battle when all of the old rules are changed whimsically and with frequency. But I will never give up my dictionary and college freshman English book.
Tuesday November 4th 2008, 7:38 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
My sister frequently said "It can be either way, your wrong way or my right way"
Tuesday November 4th 2008, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Andrea R.
Here is a quote I read after reading your article. I decided to share it. It came to me from my home page, www.freedictionary.com; which is another great site for us lingual types!

Let us not be too particular; it is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all. Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Wednesday November 5th 2008, 2:46 PM
Comment by: ANDREW L. (WALLINGFORD United Kingdom)
I can't find anybody I know who pronounces buffet , BOO-fay unless that is in reference to a character from Friends. I am not sure I see the problem with ballet.....certainly the pronunciation has never been a problem for the members of the corps de ballet... A storm in a tutu I think
Friday November 7th 2008, 2:51 PM
Comment by: Hugh S.
My grandmother used to say "orfficer" (officer) and "clorth" (cloth) - or should I write "awfficer" and "clawth"? It was quite common among upper-middling class late Vistorians, I believe. I took it as an affectation, but may be it was an intrusive r.
Saturday November 22nd 2008, 11:26 AM
Comment by: mac
isn't the pernt (as was once mangled here in new york for point) but isn't the point to communicate.
so, if you get it, you get it.
if you want to dwell on something really irritating (and who prefers to dwell) think about the articles preceding a vowel. whether it's correct to say a airplane, it is grating to my ear. continuing, how about the, as in tha, auto as opposed to the, as in thee auto.
what is the rule; what need of a rule when the ear knows right from wrong.
or is it wrong. is this one more aspect of the evolution. it seems to anyone younger than sixty, all this is normal.
coming late to the fray in manhattan
Monday December 1st 2008, 11:30 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Yes, irritation is useless. I give up.

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A rare public appearance by an obscure adjective got us thinking about how English deals with shapes.
The curious phenomenon of English word patterns that seem to occur mainly in fiction writing.
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Looking at the imprecise words used to denote various accents.