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Penchant for Pronunciation
Learned Volume 5, Issue 50
This week: Pronunciation can be challenging for second language learners. Besides the new sounds and accents there's choosing which pronunciation to employ. British? American? French? It all gets a bit complicated, so let's talk about it.
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Penchant for Pronunciation
Let me start with a question: how do you say penchant? What about accoutrements? Or envoy? Rapport? Insouciant?
I ask because I'm using a new textbookwith a student of mine; this textbook isn't a textbook per se, rather it's a workbook for learning lots of vocabulary through repetition and, most importantly, by examining the relationships between small groups of words. Thus, every chapter is broken into categories like "Only Fools Rush In" and "Make Up Your Mind." It's a very useful tool and so far, both the student and myself are pretty pleased with it.
In each chapter, each word is given a definition, an example sentence or two, and, crucially, a pronunciation guide, which is where things get a little bit complicated. Several early chapters of the book are given over to English words derived from other languages, which is fun, but brings up an important question - which pronunciation do you use?
The pronunciation guides mostly adhere to standard American English; with words derived from Italian and German, the pronunciation is (relatively) straightforward and is mostly similar to English, give or take a few variations in how certain letters are said. For example, once you know how to pronounce the German "geist" ending in English, most of the words you come across follow the pattern, including the two used in the book, zeitgeist and poltergeist. Similarly, once you know how the Italian "gli," is said, a whole host of Italian words become sayable. But then there's Frenchand its refusal to pronounce half the letters present in the written form of any given word.
Okay, I’m kidding. There is nothing wrong with the French language. Rather, the complication stems from how English has borrowed words from French over the centuries. As these words have drifted into English, their pronunciations have changed, but, unlike German and Italian, French was an elite language in English-speaking communities for centuries. In other words, due to the long history of British and French frenemyship, being able to speak French had a certain prestige attached to it. Add in a little bit of geographic and social distance multiplied by time and you end up with the situation my student and I have been discussing, how should they be saying these words derived from French?
Take a look at the list of words that started off this essay. Each of them has at least two distinct English pronunciations. Generally speaking, the British one is closer to the French, but the key word there is closer. The are not, so far as I can hear, said in exactly the same way. So, for just one example, let's take the word "penchant." I usually pronounce it pen-shon, because, well, it falls on the long list of words I learned from reading rather than from hearing. And because of the context, I knew it was a French word, so I mimicked French pronunciation as best I could. Later I would learn that the word “should” be said, in English, as pen-chent.
Only, there are four different pronunciations listed in the the Merriam-Websterand Cambridge dictionaries alone. Both dictionaries have an American and a British version, none of which are exactly the same as the French one. So how are learners supposed to know which pronunciation to use? And the answer is, it doesn't matter, not really.
A lot of the words present in this textbook are ones that I usually tell students are in the long list of words they should probably understand but that they don't necessarily ever need to say (or write). And what I mean by that is, well, take a look at that list again. When was the last time you used the word "envoy" in a daily conversation? I can tell you, I've written over three and a half million words across several different types of writing over the past five years and I have never once used it. But, I do know what it means and I understand when other people use it. That's the goal for most of my students, which makes the question rather academic.
But sometimes there comes a word that they have to use for whatever reason. So I tell them, like everything else in human communication, context is key. The best pronunciation for any word is the one that will be understood by the listener. If that means adjusting your pronunciation of a given word, that's fine. There's no rule that says you have to be consistent in how you speak, so say your words however you like. Use those long British vowels and those American /r/ sounds. Throw in a breathy German /ch/ or an Italian /gn/ just for variety. As long as people get what you're trying to say.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Not so much a rabbit hole this week as just a book recommendation. My daughter and I have been working our way through How to Draw Adorable by Carlianne Tipseyand it is just what it says on the tin - a bunch of tips and tricks on how to draw adorably cute characters and, in fact, how to turn any random object into a cute character.
I’m finding it a fun refresher on a bunch of drawing and cartooning techniques, but the real joy for me is watching my kid (who’s eight) make her way through the book, her eyes bright and pen busy as she learns each exercise.
Honestly, I haven’t been this intrigued by drawing since I was eight and got a copy of How to Draw Marvel heroes from the school library.
From the Archives
This week, the archive is reaching all the way back to 2018 to Learned Volume One, Issue 4: Four Panels and a Punchline, where I talk about my love for sequential art and my attempts to get better at drawing. I’m happy to say that I’m better at drawing now than I was five years ago. With any luck I’ll be better still in another five!
The Vocabulary Builder Workbook by Chris Lee.
Also, there is a whole conversation to be had about whether studying vocabulary is the best way to learn a language, but, in Japan, many adult learners need to achieve certain benchmarks on standardized tests like the TOEIC or EIKEN. Depending on the test in question, having a large vocabulary is the surest way to achieve those benchmarks. It is a flawed system at best but is also one that doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.
I'm as guilty as any other English speaker of using French as prestige language even though my French language ability is rudimentary on a good day.
Although asking Japanese people to say "savoir vivre" is listed in the Geneva convention under cruel and unusual punishments.
To call this an oversimplification is like snorkeling over the Marianas Trench and calling it surface-level swimming. It's not wrong, but it's leaving a whole lot unsaid.
I ended up cutting the example, but I thought it was interesting that M-W lists one alternate pronunciation of accoutrements as "ah-cooter-ments" which, to me, sounds redneck as hell and shows my biases towards what I perceive as "correct" usage. Unlearning prescriptivism is an ongoing process.