Wednesday, July 31, 2013

[WIP] Debunking John Green's "79 Common Mispronunciations"

John Green, I am disappoint.

Just watch the video if you haven't already. Most will probably wonder how I could disagree with a video meant to correct people's pronunciation. I would've agreed with y'all in the past, but then I like, got an education.

I'm gonna go through each pronunciation one-by-one, but for the most part, my points will be made under one premise: language isn't given to us from on high. Since I'm working in a written format here, I'm gonna use English orthography—the writing of English—as an example.

Grammar Nazis (like myself, and I know that's a contradiction) operate under the unspoken assumption that there are actual unbreakable rules of a language. I've begun to take issue with this assumption lately. Language is a rule-based system, to be sure, but the extent to which Grammar Nazis take this notion is frankly absurd. Grammar Nazis (GNs) will correct people's spelling and grammar as if there's an objective fact of the matter regarding the nature of the rules of English. However, the spelling and grammar of English—like any language—is fluid, which is why the original text of Beowulf is illegible to modern readers.

Interestingly, GNs will often try to ground their corrections in some sort of logic; John Green in this video reminds his viewers that the word "arctic" has two Cs so they should both be pronounced. However, they put themselves in an awkward position when trying to defend the pronunciation of words with silent letters; John Green never elaborates in the video when a silent letter is involved, we're just expected to accept it.

Anyways, the fact is, English spelling wasn't always standardized. It's only possible to be a GN because some arbitrary system was concocted in order to standardize the language. Moreover, the nature of that standardization has changed. English pronunciation varied greatly until the adoption of the printing press. In that period, certain spellings of words were adopted literally out of the master printer's own whim, and subsequently became the "house-style" (by the way, I'm getting most of the information with which I'm supplementing my own knowledge from Wikipedia).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, some radical proposals for spelling reform were made, but few adopted. James Howell in his Grammar proposed some minor changes, like changing "logique" to "logic," "warre" to "war," "sinne" to "sin," "toune" to "town," and "true" to "tru." Only one of these examples doesn't exist in modern use, and there doesn't seem to be a justification for that fact.

In the following period, scholars of the classics tried to link English words to their Greco-Roman counterparts.

They did this by adding silent letters to make the real or imagined links more obvious. Thus det became debt (to link it to Latin debitum), dout became doubt (to link it to Latin dubitare), sissors became scissors and sithe became scythe (as they were wrongly thought to come from Latin scindere), iland became island (as it was wrongly thought to come from Latin insula), ake became ache (as it was wrongly thought to come from Greek akhos), and so forth.

So not only are our modern spellings of these words not based on any logic regarding how they're pronounced, they're sometimes even based on misconceptions as to their etymology. Yet, the GNs continue to correct people on these and similar spellings as if they were obvious.

The last notable spelling reform in English was the more famous one of Noah Webster in the early 19th century. So many of the differences in English spelling and pronunciation between American and continental English—the ones people still bitch about on the Internet—came from the decision of one guy who wanted to differentiate American English.

I use the example of orthography instead of pronunciation just because I know a bit more about it and it's easier to talk about in a written format.

Here's the point of all of this: John Green has other "misconception videos." His brother, Hank, hosted one on scientific misconceptions, and John himself has talked about historical misconceptions and misconceptions generally elsewhere. That's great. People can be wrong about matters of fact in science and history. It's much harder to say one's pronunciation or spelling is "wrong" when that pronunciation or spelling was dictated by some guy who wrote a dictionary 200 years ago.

On to the words.

I use a lot of IPA here because I'm a purist, and some linguistic jargon because it saves space, so...context clues and Wikipedia are your friends!

1. "Colonel"
The word directly comes from Middle French "coronel" (with an "r"). I'm just guessing, but I have the feeling that the English spelling has an "L" in the middle because the Latin root of the word is "COLVMNA" or "columna" ("pillar"). Honestly, I'm surprised that people still mispronounce this one, seeing how it's a pretty common word, but it's pretty understandable seeing how there's NO FUCKING "R" IN IT.

2. "Awry"
I don't think I've ever heard anyone pronounce it /ˈaːri/ before. I wouldn't defend this pronunciation for two reasons: 1. it's compound of "a-" and "wry" and should thus be unambiguous, and 2. /əˈɹaɪ/ sounds way better.

3. "Epitome"
It's possible I've heard someone pronounce it /ˈεpɪtoːm/ at some point, but I can't remember. Either way, it's hard when English adopted a Latin word without even trying to make it look like an English word. Here, let me make up a better spelling: "epitimy." Sure, the stress on the second syllable isn't obvious, but at least it's clear that it has four syllables instead of three.

4. "Edinburgh"
This one's stupid. As far as I can tell, it should be pronounced /ˈɛdɪnbərg/. The "-burgh" suffix has the exact same etymology as the "-burg/-berg" suffix in other words that aren't pronounced stupid. It originally comes from the Old English "burh" (one syllable, by the way). But, BECAUSE SCOTLAND, we have to pronounce it /ˈbʌrə/. I dunno if it's because the dative form of "burh" in Old English was "byrig," so it had two syllables, or because whoever was in charge of romanizing the Celtic language was ON CRACK.

5. "Ethereal"
Can't argue with this one. /ɪˈθɪriəl/ is an amazing pronunciation and /ˌɛθɪˈriəl/ just sounds silly. Unfortunately, people see the "-real" in the word and try to pronounce it like the word "real." However, in this case, the word "real" isn't in this word. The Latin root is "AETHERIVS" or "aetherius" meaning "of or pertaining to the ether, the sky," or more literally "of the ether," hence: "ethereal." The "-real" in there is just a result of how people chose to spell it. There are a lot of alternate/obsolete spellings of this word, and there'd be a lot less confusion if we used the old spelling, "ætherial" or "aetherial," then made it simply "etherial." But...I really like the fact that "ethereal" has three "E"s in it. It's really cool.

6. "Meme"
No excuse. John's 100% right here.

7. "Nene"
I won't focus on the names too much because...who cares? Most of these are just celebrity names anywho, and they pretty much just make up their spellings and pronunciations, so it's their fault if we can't spell/pronounce them.

8. "Gangnam Style"
I have no idea what he's correcting here, but either way, his pronunciation is wrong in so many ways. He said "/ˈgeɪŋnəm/," or something to that effect. The actual Korean pronunciation of this Sino-Korean place name is [kaŋnam] (I don't know Korean phonology, so I'll stick with the actual sounds). Yes, that is a [k], but to English speakers, it sounds like a [g], because it's an unaspirated [k], and [k] cannot be unaspirated in English. Either way, the vowel he used in the first syllable was so not the actual vowel, I'm not gonna even go into it. I can be bitchy about the pronunciation of this word because 1. it's not an English word, it's (Sino-) Korean, so we owe it to ourselves to do their language justice, and 2. he says it five-fucking million times in the song.

9. "Psy"
I've never heard anyone pronounce this wrong. John's right either way.

10. "GIF"

John Green says both pronunciations are correct for this word. I prefer /dʒɪf/—I dunno why; I just do. Some people say /gɪf/ and it gets under my skin—I dunno why; it just does. Doesn't matter. What matters is he says that regarding pronunciation, the dictionary "is all that matters," and I don't know if he was joking. Regardless, I've hopefully already explained why this is false.
Also this isn't a mispronunciation.

11. "Pwned"
I honestly don't care how this is pronounced as long as the "W" isn't pronounced as such. Honestly, pronouncing the "P" at all is kind of a joke on the word in the first place, but it's become so mainstay that it's almost standard.

12. "Facetious"
This one has the same problem that "ethereal" has, in that it has another English word ("face") in it, so people are tempted to pronounce it like the word. Also, it's just another case of Latin words being adopted horribly into English. I can't think of another spelling, but the people who did coulda thought of one that wasn't stupid. Or they coulda come up with a better pronunciation, like /fəˈkeɪʃəs/ then spelled it "ficatious" or something. Hey, at least I'm thinking of my reader instead of worshiping some stupid dead Roman guys.

13. "Hyperbole"
Same thing as above, except "bole" isn't an existing English word, just a possible one. "Hyperbily." Hey, I just fixed another word. This mispronunciation does bug me too, I must admit.

14. "Lava"
Never heard it.

15. "Pasta"
Never heard it.

16. "Nuclear"
Oh, but John can't complain because Merriam-Webster online lists /nukjəlɚ/ as a variant pronunciation! I've been trying to figure out why people mispronounce this one. Maybe it's a kind of metathesis, switching the "e" and the "l" yielding "nucelar," but it doesn't explain the /j/. Wikipedia says it's "reanalyzed" as "nuke-+-cular" as in "binocular," and that would explain the "mispronunciation." I mentioned in the intro that GNs try to ground their corrections in some sort of logic, and they may well say "it's pronounced the way it's spelled," but metathesis actually exists in standard English in at least one word: "iron."

17. "Official"
I wouldn't even consider this one a mispronunciation, just an overly-emphatic rendering of the word. I'm pretty sure when people say /ˈofɪʃəl/ in one context, they'd say /əˈfɪʃəl/ in other contexts, so it's not like they don't know the common pronunciation of the word.

18. "Hermione"
It's a name. Also, now that the movies are out and we've heard her name a million times, we shouldn't have this problem anymore. It's a fukken stupid name too—OH LOOK, ANOTHER CLASSICAL ROOT WORD JUST GREAT. Comes from "Hermes," of course. "Hirmaynie." I tried. Still better than the real spelling.

19. "Ralph Fiennes"
Names again. Also /rælf/ and /reɪf/ are the same name, one is just spelled stupid. The name exists in different forms in other Germanic & Romance languages. The latter pronunciation exists only in British English. Always the Brits.

20. "Taylor Lautner"
This is just inconsistency in anglicizing German names. Plenty other German names with "au" have that vowel rendered as /ɔ/ (or in my case, /a/) in English.

21. "Jake Gyllenhaal"
Another name, and I don't know what the correction is.

22. "Gotye"
It's a made-up spelling, so can't blame anyone. A respelling of "Gauthier," and still confuses people. "Gottyay" oh look I fixeded it kinda.

23. "Rihanna"
If he's correcting the middle vowel, then he's incorrect—Wikipedia says both /riˈaːnə/ and /riˈænə/ are accepted, and it comes from the Welsh name Rhiannon, and I can only assume that vowel is closer to /a/ than /æ/.

24. "Zooey Deschanel"
I don't know what the correction is.

25. "Martin Scorsese"
Fine, whatever, I'm sick of names.

26. "Ke$ha"
I don't care—Jesus Christ—

27. "Niall Horan"
I had to look this one up. I'm sorry I did. In any case, refer to my earlier comment about the guy who romanized the Celtic language being on crack.

28. "Manolo Blahnik"
Who? What? I don't care—make it end—

29. "Accessory"
OMG he said "/əkˈsɛsəɹi/," and Wiktionary says its "/ækˈsɛsəɹi/" OMG MISPRONUNCIATION. Also Merriam-Webster recognizes /əˈsɛsəɹi/ as an alternate pronunciation. The reason this happens is probably because there's no one way that "cc" is pronounced in English. Here, it's pronounced /ks/, but in "occupy" it's pronounced simply /k/. Also, I suspect that the /s/ pronunciation doesn't so much come from not knowing how the word is pronounced, but from slurring of speech/laziness.

30. "Versailles"
Sigh...yeah he's right. It's French, there's no alternate pronunciation. Still, whoever standardized French spelling was also on crack.

31. "Illinois"
Again French, so it's stupid. However, Illinois is no longer owned by French-speakers, it's considered more American than French, and the original word (which I can't reproduce because I've seen conflicting sources as to the spelling, pronunciation and originating language of the word) has been so corrupted beyond recognition that I say anything goes at this point.

32. "Arctic"
I made a point regarding this word in the intro. I can't blame bad anglicization this time, but a little elision is only natural for language speakers, right? Would he have us say "/ˈfæmɪli/" for "family" instead of "/ˈfæmli/" just because there's another "I" in it? Would he have us say "/ˈkʌmfərtəbəl/" for "comfortable" instead of "/ˈkʌmftərbəl/" just because it's written with four syllables? We pronounce these syllables when we're being overly-emphatic, so we know that the syllables are "there," but we've agreed as a linguistic community that we can elide those syllables for the ease of speech. The only reason "can't" and other contractions are "acceptable" in English grammar is because when English grammar was standardized, these contractions were deemed acceptable; there's no other governing force behind it.

33. "Alzheimer's disease"
Well, it's certainly not "Old-timer's disease," but technically, being a German name, the "Z" would be pronounced /ts/ not /z/.

34. "Asperger's syndrome"
I'm still figuring this one out. Spellcheck didn't even recognize it as a word, which is fucking abhorrent. No real defense for this one (beyond observing it as an instance of medial voicing, i.e. /sp/ becoming /zb/ between vowels); I don't even know what language the name "Asperger" comes from.

35. "Et cetera"
It would certainly help if we spelled this out more. I still blame the Enlightenment obsession with Latin on this one.

36. "Ask"
Oooh, this is borderline accidentally racist. African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is a real dialect of the English language. It is not a corruption. It's not bad grammar. It's not lack of education. It has its own rules and features. In fact, it has some grammatical formulations that Standard English doesn't have. Among AAVE's distinctive features is its phonology, and its phonological features are often systematic, formulaic—not random due to simple "bad grammar." The feature relevant here is less systematic, but still distinctive. In AAVE, consonant-clusters containing /s/ at the end of words can metathesize. Without the jargon, if /s/ is before a consonant at the end of a word, they can switch places in pronunciation. Thus "grasp" yields /græps/, "wasp" yields /waps/, and yes, "ask" yields /æks/. It can't really be called a mispronunciation, it's a part of their dialect. It's not a bug, it's a feature. So, yeah...John is unintentionally participating in an unfortunate phenomenon in which black children are forced to abandon the dialect they grew up with, being told that it's "incorrect," in favor of the standard dialect, which is only standard by happenstance.

37. "Pinochle"
I've never heard of this so I'm skipping it.

38. "Forte"
Whoever decided to put an "E" at the end of this word is a retard. I honestly thought this word was the same as the Italian word. It shouldn't matter anyway, as they both come from the same root and both mean "strong." And no, the Italian word doesn't mean "loud," it does in fact mean "strong."

39. "Parenthesis"/"Parentheses"
I mean, he's right, but it's just more bullshit caused by the fact that SOME PEOPLE were so obsessed with importing shit from Ancient Greece and Rome that we got not only the word, but HOW ITS PLURAL IS FORMED just because they were so dissatisfied with English as it was.

40. "Irregardless"
Not a pronunciation error. But yeah, it's not a word, and it sounds awful, therefore no.

41. "Anyways"
Not a pronunciation error. So he says "'Anyways' is not a word." Says who?

42. "Reoccur"/"Recur"
Kay, so he's gone into Grammar Nazi tangent land, so imma just skip till he gets to pronunciation.

43. "Mauve"
It's both. I've never heard /mɔv/ or /mav/ ever.

44. "Ku Klux Klan"
It's kinda hard/pointless correcting people on this because a) it's made up, and b)it's basically a tongue-twister, so that's not very fair to correct people on it.

45. "Gnocchi"
Foreign word. Next.

46. "Crepe"
Meh, the Brits won't care because they all intentionally mispronounce French words anyway.

47. "Quinoa"

48. "Quiche"

49. "Hors d'oeuvres"
This one's interesting because we've all heard the word aloud, but then when we see it—even those of us who know how it's spelled—we all freak out. "omgwutdafukamilukinat"

50. "Penne"
Dun' think I've ever heard /pɛn/ before. Oh, if we're gonna be totally accurate, an Italian would say "/pɛnɛ/" not "/pɛnej/," contrary to what you were going on about back at "crepe."

51. "Merlot"
Uncontroversial, it's just that it doesn't really look like a foreign word at first glance, so people may not be thinking in French when they see it.

52. "Caramel"
Again with the syllable thing? I've already covered this, and both Wiktionary and Merriam-Webster accept /ˈkarməl/, so next.

53. "Guacamole"
As long as no one says "/ˈgwakamol/," y'all can butcher the Spanish pronunciation however you want.

54. "Chipotle"
I just heard someone say it "/tʃɪˈpatlɪ/," and it hurt. What John said.

55. "Wikipedia"
...What? You just pronounced it "/gwakaˈmoli/," and now you want me to care about the difference between a tense and a lax vowel? In a made-up word?

56. "Thyme"
I think this is literally the only time when English takes a word from Ancient Greek that uses the letter θ, and pronounces it correctly. And they kept the "H." Again, blame whoever was dumb enough to standardize this spelling.

57. "Prosciutto"

58. "Mayonaise"
Dunno how else you'd pronounce this.

59. "Prescription"
More metathesis. Makes it easier to pronounce. Again it's the whole thing where the speaker knows it's not how it's actually pronounced, but says it for the ease of speech.

60. "Realtor"
OH NOW YOU SPLITTIN' HAIRS BOI. That is, if you're talking about /ˈriltɚ/ vs. /ˈrijəltɚ/, and I couldn't even find that pronunciation anywhere, but it's barely even different. We'll get to the difference between [i] and [j] later. If you mean /ˈriəltɔɹ/, then that's also two syllables. If you mean /ˈɹiləɾɚ/, then I don't think I've ever heard that ever and I don't even understand it.

61. "Jewelry"
Even though it's spelled with three syllables? This is ultimate splitting hairs. The amount of work required to move the mouth from [w] to [l] is stupid—it's a really awkward consonant cluster. So, speakers add a vowel between the two consonants. You may say, "well they'll still wrong!" But there's more. But like [i] and [j], I'll get to that at the end.
Unless you're talking about the pronunciation /ˈdʒuːələri/ (which Wiktionary says is a UK pronunciation, by the way), then a similar thing could be said about that. /lr/ is a really awkward consonant cluster, so people put a vowel in the middle of it. Perhaps the Received Pronunciation doesn't dictate the language—people do. ALSO. THE UK SPELLING OF THIS WORD IS "JEWELLERY." TELL ME AGAIN IT'S TWO SYLLABLES.

62. "Athlete"
Same thing as above, but with the consonant cluster /θl/. It's a burden that the English language needlessly put on itself, as the Ancient Greek letter "Θ" (theta) in the root word for "athlete" was pronounced [tʰ] (aspirated [t]), not [θ] (Modern English "th"). If we were "accurate," we'd spell it "atlete" and pronounce it "ˈætliːt."

63. "Asphalt"
/ˈæʃfɑlt/ and /ˈæʃfɛlt/ are Canadian and Australian/New Zealander pronunciations respectively. I don't think I've ever heard them; I don't understand them, but again, the only reason we could say they're wrong is that they're not official. And I don't even know what the official pronunciation of this word is in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

64. "Ptolemy"
This one makes me facepalm. His name in Ancient Greek is Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος (Klaudios Ptolemaios). You wanna know why the "P" is there? BECAUSE IT WAS PRONOUNCED. I don't know enough about Ancient Greek to do the whole name in IPA, but the first three letters would indeed be pronounced /pto/ in ancient Greek.

65. "Bacchus"
/ˈbækəs/? Really? I see no reason to not pronounce it /ˈbakəs/ unless I wanted to be as far from the Ancient Greek as possible. Anyway, I'm guessing you're correcting the pronunciation /ˈbæt͡ʃəs/ or /ˈbat͡ʃəs/—pronouncing the "ch" like it would be in English words. Fine, whatever. Either way, all pronunciations I've listed so far are wrong. Our word comes directly from Latin, in which it was spelled the same way but among other things the "u" (or V in Latin) was pronounced as such. But, in Greek, the final vowel was an /o/. Does that make all of these "mispronunciations?"

66. "Veteran"
Refer to numbers 59 – 61.

67. "Veterinarian"

68. "Definitely"
I dunno what the mispronunciation would be. Also, OMG "DEF" IS NOT A WORD USE PROPER ENGLISH NOOB.

69. "Supposedly"
There is a logic to this one, because the meaning of the word doesn't mean what it would had it the suffix "-ably," and it doesn't have anything to do with being able to be supposed, rather the fact that the thing is supposed. I'm fine with this one.

70. "Especially"
I'm torn on this one. The reason I think this happens is because we're so used to seeing the "ex-" prefix in English (because of our afore-mentioned obsession with Latin), and it looks like there's a prefix in this word, so people say it as if it were spelled "ex-." Unfortunately, there is no prefix in this word. It's just "special" with "-ly" at the end, and a random "e-" at the beginning. I have no idea what the "e-" means, and either way, it's not a meaningful prefix in Modern English. So I understand why people mispronounce this one—because there's no logic to it, but people assume that there is. On the other hand, I cringe whenever I hear /ɛkˈspɛʃli/, and when you think of it beginning with "ex-" you lose the meaningful part of the word: "special."

71. "Comfortable"
Oh. He would have us say "/ˈkʌmfərtəbəl/" instead of "/ˈkʌmftərbəl/" just because it's written with four syllables. See number 32.

72. "Larvae"
See, this is more inconsistency. Latin "AE" was pronounced how it was spelled: /ae/, but Latin's mangled descendant, Church Latin, turned it into /ɛ/ (or in Modern English /ej/), but that's the pronunciation John says is "wrong." The /aj/ pronunciation that John gives exists because it's closer to the original Latin diphthong. I have no idea where he gets the /i/ pronunciation from. The way I see it, we've mangled the Latin language so much in our obsession with it, that any one of these pronunciations could be "correct."

73. "Library"
I love how so many of the "wrong" pronunciations turn out to be UK pronunciations. The related pronunciation "/ˈlaɪbəɹɪ/" is in fact given as a UK nonstandard pronunciation on Wiktionary. This one does make me cringe, though, and there's not much reason to not pronounce it the way it's spelled, except to avoid consonant clusters (which isn't really a bad reason).

74. "Triathlon"
Talked about this. Next.

75. "Asterisk"
This word is stupid. I don't blame anyone for "mispronouncing" it.

76. "Affidavit"
I don't know.

77. Schadenfreude

78. Chauvinist
Never heard it the other way.

79. Les Miserables
Dunno how accurate his pronunciation was, but it's as close to the actual French as we're gonna get. It's French; you gotta pronounce it right.

So even the bonus question in this video is completely wrong. The question answered here is "why is 'Y' only sometimes a vowel?" but it's pointless to talk about it in terms of the letter "Y," rather we should talk about the sounds. "Y" in English can make two sounds, the vowel [i] and the consonant [j]. I've been sorta foreshadowing talking about the difference between [i] and [j] and [u] and [w] (I'll restrict it to [i] and [j] for simplicity).

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