Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


JANUARY 12, 2012 9:41PM

Am I pronouncing this right?

Rate: 8 Flag

Has someone ever corrected your pronunciation? It's happened to me often enough, even in public. One of my embarrassments was due to the word examplar--I was answering a question in class, when I was in grad school, and I pronounced it with emphasis on the first and third syllables. My professor corrected me. (I would never do that.) Examplar is a bit uncommon but not all that obscure. The correct stress is on the second syllable, and it sounds very much like example, but with a short e and a different ending.

Fortunately, on the Internet no one knows you're a dog mispronouncing a word. Otherwise, you'd hear me hesitate over words like heroine (is it really the same as the drug? I guess so), puerile (long i or not?), and other words I can't remember right now. If I have a hard time remembering how to pronounce some words, how do you expect me to remember what those those words are?

But I do remember a few, and it's not that I'm mispronouncing them exactly, it's more that there are so many acceptable pronunciations that it's hard to choose between them, and I get mixed up. Oddly enough, the words that comes most easily to mind all deal with food. Merriam Webster gives three ways to say basil, for example, none of them the same as the Swiss city of Basel. Cumin? Also three choices. Ditto turmeric, though I hardly see the need to drop the r. Whatev.

Speaking of Switzerland, which has German as one of its official languages, the years that I spent living in Germany have warped my pronunciation of English in some ways. Should I put on a German accent if I ever happen to say bratwurstkindergartenangst, doppelgänger, and so forth? These are pretty well-established words in English, but there's still the temptation. (It's worse than you might think. In Bavaria, wurst is often pronounced "voorsht", which I imagine can be taken as a mispronunciation--though I might be wrong, since it's a dialect thing--by some Germans.) And brand names... If we're talking about a Swedish furniture manufacturer, I'll probably say "ee-KAY-uh", and if we're talking about household appliances like electric shavers, it'll be "brown". I can't help it--it's automatic. Porsche seems to have two syllables in today's English, though I remember that it didn't always, and a lot of other pronunciations have evolved to match the originals: Deutsche (two syllables) and Neanderthal (with a t rather than th sound), for example. So I'm safe there. If you ever hear Germans use a word that sounds like "beemer", though, don't be fooled. They're not talking about a car or motorcycle, but an LCD projector.

There's a certain aspect of personal preference to all this. By analogy to BMWs, people who drive faster than me are maniacs, and people who drive slower than me are idiots. It's much the same with English pronunciation. For example, there's a list of commonly "mispronounced" words insisting that you pronounce the y sound in the middle of parliament, and that there's no such word as persnickety--the original Scots word is pernickety, without the s. That last is ironically apropos--those folks must be maniacs.

What words do you mispronunciate? 

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This was a fun little jaunt.
Thanks, TaosGirl. I do like words. It's only in the past few years I've worked my way up to appreciating sentences and paragraphs.
It took me years away from Iowa to pronounce "creek" with a long "e" instead of "crick." I would drive my wife crazy when saying "Italian" with a long "I." On the flip side, even though it's considered a correct pronunciation, hearing the "t" in "often" grates on my ear. No one says the "t" in "soften."
My children mock me for saying "absurd" with a hard "z." How absurd, to make an issue of it.

My mom used to castigate my dad for the way he pronounced "theater." He accented the second syllable rather than the first, and she carried on as if he was a classless oaf. Just to annoy her, he never would change.

Will and I both have large vocabularies derived from reading, and we frequently use words in conversation and then ask, "Was that the right way to say that?"

It is always a pleasure to catch your musings. I see I have some back reading to do.
Funny post. I recently mispronounced Liechtenstein in front of a roomful of students, one of whom was from that country.
every other, and that's not even when I'm trying to mangle the name of a medication
Lots of words I only know to look at- common enough in books, but no one actually says them outloud.
My worst was epitome -- but what cruel bastard would spell a word in a way so different from the way it sounds? That's sort of like picking the word "lisp" to describe that speech impediment.

A kid in my ninth-grade biology class had the extreme misfortune to read "venereal" aloud. It came out sounding like "general" and the entire class -- including the teacher -- exploded in nervous laughter. I'm betting the poor kid never fully recovered from that embarrassment.
I am always greatly amused by the American pronunciation of "hour" and "our" as "are".
I, like Tom, had a problem with epitome; I pronounced it eppi-TOME.

And I have a friend who pronounces "mind" as "mine" - spells it that way too!

Much fun Rob!
I hear you here and I used to have problems with my speech and still do.
Heck, I still hesitate about the pronunciation of 'vase'(that thing you put cut flowers & water in)--does it rhyme with 'lace' or with 'gauze'? And does 'aunt' rhyme with 'ant' or with 'haunt'? One pronunciation sounds crude, the other pretentious.
Think one of my faves is "sumac", which apparently is supposed to be pronounced "shoo-mack", like "sugar". Odd, I know, but not entirely unknown. Can I think of another example? Sure can.
Fun post. My family has the aunt as "ant" or "ahhhnt" issue; Daddy says Ahhhnt and Mom says Ant. I go back and forth; a friend recently suggested that I just use Tia. Not a bad idea!
Hey, sorry about the late response--my Internet connection was down all day at home.

Stim and Snippy, I neglected to mention the class issue. There are so many ways in which pronunciation of specific words is treated as a class signal. Maybe it's because we broke away from the British Empire... "Theater" and "Italian" are good examples. (I haven't heard absurd-with-an-S, but it reminds me of a similar case--I say "luxury" with a hard x rather than a sort of g sound. I don't know which is preferred.)

Hey, emma, Liechtenstein is less than obvious, I think.

God, Julie, medications drive me crazy. Over the years I've had to read dozens of labels, and the meds all seem to have ten-syllable names with no obvious place to put the stresses.

Tom and skypixie, you've reminded me of Jim Varney's Ernest character--he says "epitome" exactly the way it's spelled. And sometimes it's easy to be fooled. I read the term "mores", in connection with customs, long before I ever heard anyone say it. How was I supposed to know it sounds like a group of eels?

Algis, we may be in the same boat, maybe.

Donegal, you bring up another interesting class issue, but it's probably more of an issue of pretensiousness, as you say. The example I'm thinking of is "foyer", which for me is a close rhyme with "Sawyer" (but that name probably is pronounced differently in different parts of the U.S.) I've heard it given a French pronunciation, but to me it sounds a bit awkward.

"shoo-mack", Lee? Really? Huh. I could see that being an issue for me. (Some plant words are tough--a lot of people I know drop the i in foliage and poinsettia).

"Tia" sounds good, Laura. My wife uses a broad a for aunt, and I use a flat a. It's weird when you're talking with someone who pronounces a word differently from you, and you're both saying it. I ran into something similar recently at work, where I was talking to an electrical engineer about "piezoelectric" devices, and the "piezo" part can be either pee-ay-zo or pie-ee-zo. Fortunately, I don't often have to use the word. :-)