September 23, 2006

Trying Too Hard

Have you noticed that some people’s scrupulous pronunciation gets them into trouble? Sometimes this appears to be the effect of wanting to articulate one’s speach so as to sound intelligent and to be clearly understood. There is a woman in Pittsburgh, for example, who appears in local commercials and whose speech always sounds stilted. She makes “school” into a two-syllable word: skoo-wul. I have also heard a number of young people lately use an odd pronunciation of “didn’t.” Rather than saying did-nt, they say did-dent, which, besides being wrong, is actually rather difficult to say. I’m not sure what’s going on here; contractions are supposed to leave out sounds, and this pronounciation seems to be adding them. “Didn’t” is a contraction for “did not,” so where does the other “d” come from? Then there is the unfortunate word “often.” Centuries ago, the “t” in this word was always pronounced. As part of a wider trend, however, the “t” was dropped. In recent times, presumably because people trust spelling more than they trust their ears, the “t” is being put back into “often,” so much so that some dictionaries consider this a standard, though not the preferred pronounciation. Curiously, some words have been imumune to this sort of misguided carefulness. No one puts a “t” in “listen,” for example. On the other hand, one regularly—and mistakenly— hears an “l” in words such as “calm” and “balk.” (See my essay on words containing a silent “l” in Language Notes.)

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