Friday, June 11, 2010
Well, shut my mouth!
Language is a living thing, ever moving and changing. This phenomenon is noticed only by the old, who have had the benefit of long observation. The young are too busy knowing everything to pay much attention.
By “ever moving and changing” I do not mean -- today, at least -- the coining of new words to describe new inventions (iPod, iPhone) and new technologies (Twitter, Facebook), nor do I mean the putting together of existing words in ways they weren’t previously (car park, space suit, Rachael Ray). And I am definitely not referring to regional accents of the kind one might hear while visiting Alabamistan (“Ah had a rot noss tom last Froddy not”) or Australia (“G’dye, myte!”) or Long Island (“Oy thought Oy would doy; let’s tu-alk over cu-offee.”).
No, Madam Speaker, today I rise to speak of what seem to be, in the overall scheme of things, sudden changes in pronunciation, which like Ol’ Man River, jes’ keeps rollin’ along. [Note. If you don’t click on that link, you will miss something truly special. --RWP]
It’s nothing new. England experienced the Great Vowel Shift centuries ago, which some researchers attribute to the mass immigration to the south east of England after the Black Death.
What this older member of the human species has noticed over his many, many years is how pronunciation of certain words seems to change rather suddenly, even without benefit of Black Death. For example, most Americans used to say Car-uh-BEE-an when talking about that little sea near Central America until President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it the Cuh-RIB-ian. Then the Him-uh-LAY-as became the Him-AHL-yahs. Okay, it pares down the number of syllables from four to three in both of those words, a significant saving of 25%. The world might be better off with a 25% reduction in syllables. Or maybe we’re just trying to sound British. (There are worse things. I don’t think anyone on this side of the pond has said Luh-BORE-a-tree yet, though.)
But how and why did Yom KIP-per morph into Yomka POOH-er? That’s just strange. Maybe we’re all trying to sound snobbish.
As a child, I heard about a disease called di-a-BEE-tis and now everywhere it’s di-a-BEE-TEES. Same thing with the plural of the word “process” -- no more PRAH-cess-iz; it's proh-cess-SEES. Maybe we’re all trying to sound like scientists.
Some people say to-MAY-to and po-TAY-to; others say to-MAH-to and po-TAH-to. Some people say EE-ther and NEE-ther; others say EYE-ther and NYE-ther. Maybe we’re trying to sound cultured. I understand in Scotland they say AY-ther and NAY-ther. No one has yet determined what Scots are trying to sound like.
Proper nouns have their own difficulties. Take the state of Louisiana, for instance. LOO-is-iana and LOOZ-iana are both acceptable, but not loo-WEEZY-ana, because the place was named for Louis, not Louise. New Orleans is especially problematic. Depending on who is talking, we have noo-or-LEENS, noo-ORLY-ans, and NAW-lins (residents say it the third way). The preferred pronunciation of Louisville, Kentucky, seems to be LOO-a-vul. Outsiders may not realize it, but old-timers in Missouri, Cincinnati, and Miami all end their place of residence with an -uh, not an -ee.
I could go on and on, but I’d like to open the comments now for pronunciation changes you have noticed.
We now return you to regular programming. This has been a public service announcement.