Keeping Step With Speech


EVERYONE who has studied the pronunciation of English words realizes the difficulties that must be faced by persons who wish to establish a uniform system according to which all international differences of speech can be harmonized. It is commonly known that on both sides of the Atlantic where English is used almost as many types of the language are spoken as there are large cities or states, county towns or counties.

Looking over the list of terms that are different in pronunciation or accentuation in the speech common to the people of the United States and the people of the United Kingdom, it is necessary to bear in mind that many words met only in books or very seldom spoken have no established pronunciation, and these are uttered or read occasionally as analogy or principle indicates. Many of these terms are mere dictionary words, frequently selected by the aspirant to literary distinction for the purpose of being different from anyone else. The words treated here are words in current use, and the treatment presented assumes that correctness in pronunciation, like correctness in diction, in general depends upon the consensus of usage. Obviously, correct English pronunciation should be determined by the best and widest usage among the Englishspeaking races. No exception can properly be taken to a manner of pronouncing a word that is general among the educated classes of these people. Occasionally forms that are used by even a few only of the great speakers may call for consideration and possibly record. The dictionary’s, particularly the New Standard Dictionary’s, recognized aim, after having ascertained the facts concerning English usage in pronunciation, is to place them on the record, indicating at the same time that which it considers best usage.

In his Pronunciation of Standard English in America, Professor Krapp, of Columbia University, emphasizes the fact that ‘most cultivated persons in America to-day, and an increasing number in England, are more or less self-conscious about their speech. Yet everybody knows that there is no type of speech uniform and accepted in practice by all persons in America. In England differing opinions are held on the question of standard speech,’ and the good Professor claims that, the general public seems pretty well agreed that the English of the southern counties of England has greater right to be regarded as standard than any other form of British speech.

On the other hand, Dr. Daniel Jones, head of the Department of Phonetics of London University, has told us that the standard speech in England is that of the schoolboy of the great public boarding schools. ‘The English public school accent,’ he says, ‘is the most uniform, and it is the only pronunciation common to various parts of England,’ and so upon this pronunciation Dr. Jones based his EnglishPronouncing Dictionary. But the English themselves are not in harmony with the recommendations of their experts. From the pages of a condensed dictionary, said to be adapted by the Fowler brothers from a larger work, we learn, for example, that in the condensation the pronunciations of the magnum opus planned and edited by the late Sir James A. H. Murray, although ‘they have been consulted and noted, have not always been followed.’ This statement may be applied also to other lexicons published oversea. The result is lack of harmony in the pronunciation of such words as ‘cottage,’ sometimes indicated kot’age, whereas the normal pronunciation of the term is kot’ej. ‘Furniture,’ ‘knowledge,’ and ‘often’ are other simple words over the pronunciation of which English dictionarymakers are at loggerheads. Whenever the pronunciation of his native tongue is challenged, the average Englishman takes the attitude that it is his mother tongue; that he himself is autocrat of its pronunciation, and that no one else has any right to criticize or comment upon his priceless inheritance. Selfrighteousness in matters of speech only produces pronunciation-consciousness, and whenever one is subject to this weakness one’s utterance becomes formal and stilted instead of naturally smooth.

On this side of the Atlantic, we are a word-ridden people. Our sum of literary coinage is much greater than that of any other nation, but none of us have worried ourselves to any great extent about the differences and distinctions that exist in the manner of putting over what we want to say. George Bernard Shaw, speaking before the British Association, took occasion to refer to the muttered inanities of hostesses as they welcomed or sped their guests, and characterized the speeches used on such occasions as ‘mumblejumble and parrot-talk.’ On this occasion, he suggested that the people of England ‘find a standard actor whose English is unchallengeable; then set him up as a standard, saying, “This is good enough. If you come within a reasonable distance of it, you will be all right.”' The other philologists do not like the idea of acquiring speech via the goldencalf type, and each one has his own views or axe to grind. So, when doctors disagree, who shall decide?

It is much the same with us. A man from Mississippi asked a woman from New York whether she could note any trace of British English in his speech. She insisted that he had a British accent. The man had never gone north of Mason and Dixon’s line until years after he had left college, and since that time he had been living in Alberta. He used ‘leftenant’ unconsciously, and although from Mississippi, but bearing an English name, he made use of other words common to the race of his forbears. His speech demonstrated the fact that what is bred in the bone comes out in the flesh.


The genial Irish critic, St. John Ervine, believes our affirmative yah, yuh, and yehah are all corruptions of the word ‘yes’; but some years ago the Literary Digest availed itself of an opportunity to point out that this was a variation of the Old English yea, or a reintroduction thereof, now pronounced as if written yey, but pronounced as a diphthong, yeh-ah, in Shakespeare’s time. Yep may be as careless and snappy as it is common among the younger generation, but it has spread to the mouths of those who know better, and who first made use of it humorously, but who now use it permanently. In the United States one very seldom hears a good sibilant assent ‘yes,’ even in highly educated circles, nowadays.

A little attention to what we are saying would save us from speaking of being ‘abzorbed’ when we mean ‘absorbed,’ and of overcoming ‘difficalties’ when we mean ‘difficulties’; or of saying ‘yestidy’ for ‘yesterday,’ ‘entervene’ for ’intervene,’ ‘pronosticate’ for ‘ prognosticate’ (for that is one of the words in which the g is sounded, not silent), ‘Bogo’ta’ for ‘Bo"gotah’,’ ‘perticler’ for ‘particular,’ ‘Monac’o’ for ‘Mon’aco,’ or better still ‘Mo-nah’co.’ By looking up words with which we are unfamiliar, we can frequently save our faces and avoid ridicule — such ridicule as pro-doos’ and rec’antation are likely to bring to our doors.

Correct pronunciation of any language is that used by the bettereducated classes in any good locality. A certain well-spoken actor, written down as hopeless and characterized as provincial and suburban because he persisted in pronouncing ‘England’ and ‘English’ as they are written, instead of as they are commonly heard on the lips of the people of the tight little island, ‘Ingland’ and ‘Inglish,’ was chided by a famous playwright for so doing. This led to a prolonged argument, during which the actor stood his ground and insisted upon this so-called mispronunciation. Finally the playwright, who was none other than Sir Arthur Pinero, surrendered. ‘Have it your own way,’ he said; ‘I don’t wish to rob you of any laughs in this part.’ The actor did so and jarred some of his audience into the realization that he was striving to correct another absurdity. Now there is no more sound reason why e should be turned into i in ‘England’ and ‘English’ than a in ‘make’ and ‘take’ should be turned into y, and spoken as myke and tyke, or e in ‘derby’ or ‘clerk’ turned into a. To those thousands of fine young women whose efficiency saves the country from being ridiculed, the word sec’re-ta-ry is one of four syllables and not, as some of our recent importations from Great Britain would have it, one of merely two — secr’try.

The true purpose of speech is to say much in a few words; get the maximum of effectiveness with the minimum of effort. Anyone who wishes to convince himself that only a small percentage of persons use American speech clearly and forcefully can do so without going farther than his office chair, and listening to the speech of the persons who come in during the day. Not one of us in fifty speaks English so that it is clean-cut and clear, or free from colloquialisms, coarseness, or vulgarity; not one in twenty expresses his thought in delicate, elegant, and beautiful words. Very few persons — and among them many native-born Americans of English-speaking stock, and men and women born in England — really pronounce correctly. To this day the American says ‘hostil’ while the Englishman prefers ‘hostyle’; the American usually aspirates the h in ‘humble,’ but some educated Englishmen still speak of ‘an umble and a contrite heart.’ This class refers to ‘an abitual criminal, an ospital, an istory, an istorical novel, and an otel,’ where the American says ‘a habitual criminal, a hospital, a history, a historical novel, and a hotel.’

Although our colloquial speech is careless, the speech common to the English is slovenly. They are given to dropping the h, smothering the r, maltreating the a, and mouthing the o. Objection has repeatedly been made to the prevalent English practice of breaking down the vowels in the unstressed syllables used in conversation, yet fault is found also with us for striving to attain precise uniformity of vocalization. Among certain other racial peculiarities that perplex those who speak English, the words ‘again’ and ‘been’ are repeatedly cited as examples. A-gain’ is repeatedly heard on the air and is occasionally heard in common speech, and before long the English been will be assimilated at the expense of the American bin.

The number of persons whose pronunciations accord strictly with the usage indicated by the particular dictionaries that they claim to accept as authority is limited. Thirty years ago the pronunciation of New England was based upon the work of Joseph Worcester. That of the states abutting New York followed Webster. When the Standard Dictionary and the New Standard Dictionary were issued by the Funk and Wagnalls Company, the pronunciations, indicated by Dr. Francis A. March, Sr., reflected the best American usage, and this venerable Anglo-Saxon and English scholar took particular pains to see that every word submitted to him was correctly pronounced.

In the House of Commons recently, Sir Alfred Knox warned the British President of the Board of Trade against ‘the encroaches of the dangerous American language,’ as if our good friends across the sea had not already provided a few dangers of their own! As a result of the contact of the men of the American Expeditionary Force with British-speaking troops other than the Canadian, an un-American pronunciation of English was brought back to our shores from oversea. Not so very long ago, St. John Ervine described this as ‘an emasculated utterance.’ It is this very pronunciation that has been responsible for so much slovenly speech on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately for us, the maxim ‘Where ignorance is bliss, ’t is folly to be wise’ has been taken literally, and is lived up to rigidly every day by persons who should know better. Thirty years ago the pronunciation of the word in’ter-est-ing was a guide to the social position of the person who made use of it in England. To-day this word has suffered, in common with a great many others, from a strange departure in the way of its correct pronunciation — in’tris-ting, to which further reference will be made.

There was a time when the Australians were not particularly proud of the quality of English spoken under the Southern Cross — English that was constantly the butt of the Australian press. That day seems to have passed, and, if we may cite Sir George Hubert Wilkins as typifying the best that the continent can produce, the Australians have every reason to be proud. It is true that Sir George Hubert clips occasionally, as when uttering such words as ‘interested, territory, meteorology, particularly, contrary, and laboratories,’ but that is a British characteristic. His enunciation is clean-cut, clear, crisp, and magnetic; his tonal quality charming to the point of fascination. All in all, he speaks his mother tongue admirably.


Bearing in mind that there is no absolute standard of authority for all English-speaking peoples to-day, and that the standard accepted is the best usage of educated persons in every country, state, city, county, or region, pronunciation must and will vary widely among persons of equal intelligence and cultivation. The institution that purposes to establish on a solid base an authoritative standard is bound to take into account the whole practice of the entire body of educated men who are entitled to consideration over all the world. How, then, is this practice to be ascertained? There is little doubt that, even if everybody worth consulting could be consulted, we should still be left in the same state of uncertainty as if they had not been consulted. Jealousy fostered by racial antagonisms and opposition would assert themselves, as they did in the days when Samuel Johnson and Thomas Sheridan walked the earth, or when Lord Chesterfield and Sir William Yonge quarreled over the pronunciation of the words ‘great’ and ‘state.’ Samuel Johnson was jealous that Sheridan should attempt to fix the pronunciation of English words, and he protested against any Irishman attempting to do this. All was not plain sailing then, nor is it to-day.

Here are two words, both of two syllables, ‘adjourn’ and ‘sojourn.’ The first is correctly pronounced with the accent upon the last syllable — a-jurn’; the second with the accent upon the first — so’jurn. In both words the “ approximates to “ in ‘burn.’ The pronunciation of ‘sojourn’ as here given is indicated uniformly by American, English, and Scottish dictionaries, but the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (N. E. D.) gives suj’ern, soj’ern, and so’jern, in the order noted here, as reflecting usage in Great Britain.

In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act III, Sc. 2, 1. 171), a play appearing in 1595, the stress is on the last syllable; but in King Lear (Act II, Sc. 1, 1. 105), a play written in 1605, the stress is placed upon the first syllable. By Milton the noun was stressed on the first syllable in one poem and on the second in another; see Paradise Lost (Book III, 1. 15), published in 1667, and Paradise Regained (Book III, 1. 235), appearing in 1671. Modern dictionaries stress ‘sojourn’ on the first syllable and ‘adjourn’ on the last.

The word ‘gladiolus,’ as the generic name of an Old World plant of the iris family, is pronounced gla-dai’o-lus — the ai being pronounced as in ‘aisle,’ and the “ as in ’but.’ But the same word, used as a plant name and not a generic name, in the flower market is pronounced glad-i-o’lusa as in ‘at,’ i as in ‘habit,’ o as in ‘go,’ and “ as in ‘but.’ The plural of the generic name is commonly gladi’oli, and in pronouncing it both of the i’s should be given the diphthongal sound of ai as in ‘aisle.’ The plural gladio’luses is commonly used in the flower market, but there are some persons who apply this plural to the generic name. For this reason both forms arc placed on record.

In our own time, the word ‘demonstrate’ is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable or on the second, and so we hear dem’on-strate or de-mon’-strate. Both pronunciations occur in Shakespeare, but the first recorded here is now preferred in the United States, while the second is accepted in the United Kingdom. ‘If you say dem’onstrate, why do you not say rem’onstrate?’ asked the late Professor Lounsbury in his work, The Standard of Pronunciation in English, several years ago, and he continued: ‘Well, the latter word will not have its back broken if people should choose to so pronounce it. To the question itself there is but one answer. The users of speech do not say rem’onstrate for the reason that they never had a disposition to do so.’

Medial t, as in ‘listen,’ and the like, is unlike midday ‘tea,’ for the first is silent and the second is noted generally for garrulity or the brilliancy of its conversation. When followed by le or en, as in ‘apostle, castle, epistle, thistle, whistle, and wrestle,’ or as in ‘chasten, moisten, fasten, hasten, listen,’ and so forth, medial t should go unpronounced. Whatever the modern tendency may be, the speaker who, in his address on the correct pronunciation of English, says he prefers of’n to of’-ten is on the winning side, for no pronouncing dictionary with a reputation to lose ever sounds medial t in such words as ‘Christmas, mistletoe, ostler, chestnut, often,’ and so forth.

Following Shakespeare as our guide for the pronunciation of the word ‘contemplate,’ we know that the stress was placed on the first syllable in his day, and although he frequently varied the position of the accent in his lines, he never shifted it with this word. In our own time, however, con’template is recorded as the accepted pronunciation of American dictionaries and the only English dictionary worthy of the name — the New Standard, the International, and Murray’s New English Dictionary. But Ogilvie and Annandale, as well as Stormonth in Scotland and Hunter in England, as late as 1882 indicated the stress upon the second syllable — con-tem’plate, which pronunciation was accepted by Dr. William D. Whitney for the edition of the Century Dictionary issued under his editorship. Dr. Whitney here took over a Scottish pronunciation that had been advocated in the United States by Joseph Worcester in the dictionary that he published in 1859.

John Walker passed the following comment on the word in the edition of his work issued in 1797: ‘The very prevailing propensity to pronounce contemplate with the accent on the first syllable is a propensity that ought to be checked’; but how much the other philologists thought of their colleague’s opinion is shown by the fact that twelve out of fourteen of the earlier lexicographers, from Johnson to Worcester, indicated the stress on the second syllable, while modern usage has supported the accentuation on the first. Byron, Shelley, and Tennyson used both con’tem-plate and con-tem’plate, but the latter was preferred by orthoöpists to the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Thereafter the former prevailed, and is accepted as best usage to-day.

The pronunciation of ‘interesting’ is uniformly recorded by the dictionaries as consisting of four distinct syllables, yet in England, in our own time, the tendency has been to pronounce it as if it consisted only of three. ‘How in’tris-ting!’ is a commonplace of fashionable circles. This tendency to suppress syllables is more noticeable in other words, such as ‘laboratory, deliberately, dictionary, extraordinary, hosiery, secretary, secondary, military, oratory, purgatory,’ of which, in English practice, the penultimate syllable is commonly suppressed. Some expert has told us that speech energy extends from a frequency of 60 cycles to above 6000, with an average of about 200 cycles. The vowel sounds carry most of the energy of speech and their important frequencies lie below 3000 cycles. The consonants are the characteristic quips and quirks with which the syllables begin and end, weak in energy but important to intelligibility. In frequency they are rather high, some involving vibrations attaining to a frequency of 6000 cycles or even higher. The speech energy output of the normal voice has been found to be at the rate of about 125 ergs per second, and computations reveal that if we could have a million persons talking steadily, and were able to convert the energy of their voice vibrations into heat, these people would have to talk for an hour and a half to produce enough heat to make a cup of tea, and yet we are charged with being the sole purveyors of ‘hot air’!