"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

This week’s topic is inspired by two questions I received. The first is from an American professor of English and the second from a Nigerian resident in the UK.

Question:
 I too am a fan of your language interventions, and have a question. I have noticed that Nigerians mispronounce English words by pronouncing them as they look rather than as they actually should be pronounced. Not always, but often.

I don't believe rules are sacred; rather, I am curious about how these changes will work over the long run, whether what was a mispronunciation at one period becomes standard later over repetition.

And I wonder if Indian and Nigerian usages are going to prevail since there are more Indian and Nigerian, African, speakers than American and English. I also wonder whether the misuse of “I” as an object will ultimately prevail. I just saw it used that way in Oyeyemi's The Opposite House. I often hear that wretched “between you and I” from my colleagues here in the English dept, and mostly bite my tongue since I don't want to appear impolite.

Also, I wonder about what makes it a mispronunciation and a misuse. I understand the idea of the generally accepted norms of an educated class, or textbooks, but that doesn't really make it a "mis" since language changes. Thoughts?

Answer:
You're right about the oddity of Nigerian pronunciation. I will put it down to mother-tongue "interference" and insufficient (or, in some cases, lack of) exposure to socially acceptable native-speaker pronunciation of particularly difficult (i.e., by non-native standards) aphonetic English words like yacht (pronounced /yot/ in native-speaker linguistic environments but pronounced /yach/ in Nigeria), etc.

 In the absence of exposure to the socially accepted ways of pronouncing words in native-speaker climes, Nigerians generally pronounce the words as they are spelled, what grammarians call “spelling pronunciation.” (The opposite of spelling pronunciation is “traditional pronunciation”).

Spelling pronunciation, however, isn't restricted to second-language speakers like Nigerians and Indians. It also occurs in native-speaker linguistic markets, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology. For instance, the “h” sound in the word “host” was once silent, as it still is in words like “hour,” “honor,” etc. But through “spelling pronunciation” in Britain and America the “h” is now articulated. 

Similarly, the “th” in the word “author” was traditionally pronounced with a “t” sound but is now pronounced like the first sound in “thanks.” Other examples of “spelling pronunciations” that have been normalized or that co-exist with “traditional pronunciations” in native-speaker English environments are “forehead” (which used to be traditionally pronounced “forrid” but is now pronounced “fohed” in the UK and "forhed" in the US), “schedule” (where the “sch” now rhymes with the first sound of “care,” especially in American English, but is traditionally pronounced like “sh”), “often,” (where the “t” sound is traditionally silent but is now articulated), “appreciate” (where the “c” is traditionally pronounced “sh” but is now sometimes pronounced “s”), etc.

I hardly ever bother with questions of pronunciation because all professional linguists agree that pronunciation isn’t an ingredient of Standard English, although Received Pronunciation (which is largely the accent of southeastern England where the English Royal family lives) and General America (which is largely Midwestern U.S. accent) enjoy social prestige in the UK and the US respectively.

Of course, there is no such thing as a person who has “no accent.” As phonologists often remind us, “a person without an accent would be like a place without a climate.”

Now, what is considered correct usage is often no more than elite social tyranny—and sometimes the product of an improbable concatenation of “popular” pressures and elite consensus. Pierre Bourdieu has written brilliantly on this in his book titled Language and Symbolic Power. And because “standard” usage norms often reflect the biases and arbitrary social conventions of the ruling intellectual, cultural, and political elites in any given epoch, the norms usually change in the course of time.

I entirely agree with you that some of the solecisms we rail against now may sooner or later become normalized if a critical mass of people repeat them often enough. There is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about any expression, as descriptivist grammarians often point out—to the annoyance of prescriptivists. It was once considered very terrible grammar, for instance, to say “it’s me” in response to the question “who is that?" It was supposed to be “it’s I.” Some grammarians still insist on this usage. But almost nobody says “it’s I” these days.

I also think the distinction between “you and I” and “you and me” will disappear some day— in the same way that the distinction between “each other” and “one another” has disappeared. Or how “they” and “their” have now become the generic pronouns in place of “he” or the clumsy “he or she” after a set of indefinite words, as in: “everybody should read THEIR book,” “if anybody thinks THEY can bring me down, they should bring it on,” etc. Conservative semantic purists still object to this usage, but they seem to be giving up now.

Another instructive example of the arbitrariness and unabashed elitism of usage norms is how the modern use of the phrase “due to” became normalized over time. In traditional grammar, "due" is an adjective, and when it is followed by the preposition "to" it should be attached to a noun (example: the cancellation of the event was due to the rain). The use of "due to" at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of "because of" or "owing to" was considered uneducated. But when the Queen of England, in a Speech from the Throne, said "Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage," this "uneducated" usage gained respectability. It is no longer bad grammar.

As to whether Nigerian or Indian English could supplant American and British English in the future, I have my doubts. Those varieties lack what Bourdieu calls cultural and symbolic capital. What might happen—in fact, what already seems to be happening—is that younger generations of Indian, Nigerian, etc speakers of the English language will get closer and closer to native varieties of the English language, especially the American variety, as a result of the technology of the Internet, which is collapsing spatial and temporal boundaries in many fascinating ways. But I could be wrong—and I will like to be wrong, obviously, because I am a speaker of one of the non-native varieties!

Question:
I have question for you, please. Right from my college days in Brighton, I have always wondered why British people in particular, say this: 'It was an horrific injury,' for example. Normally I would expect it to be 'It was a horrific injury'.   Perhaps words like ‘horrific’ usually have the article 'an' as opposed to 'a'.  They also tend to say, 'It was an historic event'. Can you tell me if this is peculiar to British English? If it’s used worldwide why is this so?

Answer
Both “a horrific injury” and “an horrific injury” are considered correct forms depending on your phonological attitude to the “h” sound in the word. If your “h” is silent, then “an horrific injury” is the only correct option. But if you articulate the “h,” as Americans and Nigerians do, then “a horrific” is the only acceptable option. My research shows that “an horrific…” is almost entirely absent in American English. It occurs more prominently in British and New Zealand English than in any other national variety.

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