Saturday, October 06, 2007


I get no respect from my children

When I was growing up I considered my father to be the ultimate authority on the correct pronunciation and spelling of our language. Of course, his pronunciation was that of the area in which we lived - west-central Michigan, near Grand Rapids. We had some pronunciations that I have since learned are peculiar to that area and to part of Wisconsin. One of them is a word for a small river or stream: "creek." Most people that I know pronounce that word to rhyme with "meek" or "weak." I was taught that it rhymes with "stick" or "crick." I know now that my pronunciation of that word is a peculiarity of a dialect within a limited area.

I was also taught that the following pairs of words are NOT homonyms; that is, they are to be distinguished in pronunciation: whether, weather; while, wile; when, wen; where, wear; what, watt; which, witch; whale, wail. They rhyme but they are not homonyms. The difference is in the initial consonant or consonant cluster: wh- and w- are to be distinguished in pronunciation. In fact, wh- should be pronounced as if it were written hw- as it was in Old Engish.

My children, both daughters, do not have the respect for my pronunciation as I had for my father's. They laugh as Old Dad for his fussing about "wh-" and such. To them and to most radio announcers the "h" in the combination "wh-" is a silent letter and means less than the silent "gh" in such words as night, sight, drought, and taught. At least the "gh" indicates something about the pronunciation of the previous vowel. Night and nit, sight and sit, and so on, are nowhere near to rhyming, although taught and taut are homonyms.

Another pronunciation that annoys me is the insertion of an "l" sound in words like palm, psalm, and calm. I was taught that "l" in those words is a silent letter, which serves only to indicate the pronunciation of the preceding "a." Thus, palm does not rhyme with pam nor does calm with cam. These silent-l words are all words borrowed from Norman French in which the "l" sound had already vanished but was kept in the spelling. There are other "-lm" in English that came from Old English, such as helm and film. In those words the "l" is not a silent letter.

My daughters will read this and nod to themselves about their rather peculiar father.
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