Title: Incorrect Speaking is Often Not
Author: Adam Moore (LÆMEUR) <adam@laemeur.com>
Date: August 1, 2013

Incorrect Speaking is Often Not

Got good and fired-up about this video.

Fired-up largely because here's a man prescribing "correct" pronunciation while grossly mispronouncing words. At one turn he denounces the Canadian tendency to pronounce "pasta" with a short A; this, only moments after declaring the correct pronunciation of Korean "Gangnam" to be with the '' diphthong of "gang". If that isn't the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is.

The standardization of aspects of language does serve a valuable purpose. Language, in practical applications, is most useful when it is unambiguous. Written language benefits greatly from standardized spellings of words. Modern technical and academic discourse depends on accepted, standardized spellings of words. The reason spellings need to be unambiguous and standardized, and the reason that technical and academic discourse is predominantly written discourse, is because spoken language is fundamentally ambiguous and unstandardizable.

When I was a younger man, I admired the design and the concept behind the Shavian alphabet: a new phonetic alphabet for English that would eradicate forever the tyranny of impracticable, traditional, archaic spelling. I still admire it on a few principles, but I reject it for two important ones. First, the spellings of words are reflective of their linguistic lineage; there's a story behind the spelling of every word, and it would be tragic to me if those stories were erased for a reason so banal as to increase the ease by which people may write "correctly"(1). The second reason for which I reject phonetic alphabets is more rational and less sentimental (or less uppity): English is spoken by so many people, in so many accents and dialects, that to standardize the spellings in a phonetic fashion would force one of two outcomes: either a centralized Standard English Pronunciation would be devised by some high committee for international adoption that would be incompatible with 80+% of the spoken dialects in use, or English spelling would balkanize into dozens of Regional Standards. Neither of these are at all attractive to me.

I raise this point because phonetic alphabets and the advocacy for them are logical outcomes of a flawed premise: that there exists a correct way to speak.

Vowel transformation/migration is an unstoppable human force. The spellings of our words are in various states of phonetic accuracy because while the spellings themselves are in stasis, pronunciation will never be so. It cannot be. Lexicographers, whose job it is to record how vocabulary is being used, not to dictate it, are deeply aware of this. English dictionaries already come in a number of regional/national editions, to reflect the accepted (not correct) usage in England, the United States, Australia, Canada, Scotland and elsewhere. Pedants who prattle-on about the correct way of pronouncing words hold up The Dictionary as the voice of authority in the same way that the religious prescribe "right" behaviour in accordance with their scripture – but these pedants have confused a description of the way things tend to be with a proscription of the undescribed.

* * *

In my way of thinking, correctness is characterized by intelligibility, and to that end, speakers have considerable wiggle-room with their vowels. The sequence of consonants and stresses does most of the work. For an example of the importance of consonant sequence, one need look no further than the pronunciation of "ask" as "aks". In that case the vowels are correct, but the consonants are transposed, and the resulting spoken word goes beyond just being an accented-but-unique deviation from the conventional pronunciation; it stands squarely in the middle of the phonetic space of a separate, non-homonymous word ("axe").

I'm sure there's a linguist's term for this idea of words having what I'm calling phonetic space. At the center of a word's phonetic space is the "standard" pronunciation – the way it's been put down in dictionaries, the way a consensus of speakers would accede to as "correct". As you deviate from the standard pronunciation you increase ambiguity and risk unintelligibility by two perils: you may cross a boundary into the phonetic space of another word, or, you may leave entirely the phonetic space of all words and find yourself in a limbo of gibberish.

Getting your panties in a bunch about ˈpɑːstə and ˈpæstə is pointless. It's universally intelligible. No English speaker anywhere is going to be confused by a Canadian (or Englishman) asking for pæstə for their dinner. It enters no other word's phonetic space, and is only a hair's breadth from the center of "pasta"'s phonetic space.

Intelligibility is all we can really hope for with spoken language, and pronunciation is only part of what makes spoken words intelligible. Syntactic, semantic, and idiomatic context are all equally as important as pronunciation.

A little variety in vowels adds colour to the language. I'll admit that I don't like the colours of some peoples' language, but they've got every right to 'em.


1. The ease of spelling is alternatively increased by educating people on the etymologies of the words they're spelling. I believe that to be the proper approach to that particular problem. If that is seen as the elitist-academic view, then I am an unapologetic elitist.

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