(This was also published on August 6 as the first segment of my newsletter at billschmitt.substack.com)
Words demand good stewardship. They are multi-dimensional containers of meaning. Never have they been more definition-fluid, and never have they shown more definition-intersectionality, thanks to the creativity Americans bring to our vocabulary.
Good communicators must be ready to hit the dictionary websites at a moment’s notice to avoid not only embarrassing errors, but also accidental insults. In an instructive example of this danger, hot from the week’s headlines, Beyonce removed the word “spazz” in her song “Heated” after the disabilities community raised concerns.
But our responsibility toward words goes beyond their meanings. This must be said: Our roles in the clear, respectful, informative communication of messages extends to pronunciation.
I am always surprised at how newscasters and others in the audio and video media seem to take lightly their duty of correct pronunciation. In cases of breaking news, we can forgive journalists if they mispronounce a word that has sprung suddenly from obscurity into prominence. However, they should make it their homework to learn the proper vocalization—and to glimpse its connection to a language, a culture, and a history, not to mention a person!
The recent drone attack on al-Qaeda leader Ayam al-Zawahiri presented a challenge. One YouTube clip offered a pronunciation that sounded authentic but did not become widespread.
Why? It’s complicated. There is often a tension between a simplified Americanization of “foreign” sounds and a complex, distracting dive into the voices of native speakers. News anchors may strive for both an accurate vocalization and an accessible, recognizable version. They will repeat what other anchors, news sources, and news audiences are saying themselves. They also need to feel comfortable with their own pronunciation for the sake of personal consistency. But favoring the familiar may literally and figuratively send the wrong message. We all should exhibit habits of independent research, intercultural learning, and the honoring of different voices.
The Internet provides pronunciation guides that promote global standardization. One handy website belongs to the Voice of America news service. VOA compiles an updated list of recent problematic words, accompanying each with a phonetic spelling and an audio clip.
However, even this is not always a simple solution. For example, the VOA site accompanies the Ukrainian capital’s name, Kyiv, with a phonetic spell-out that suggests it is a two-syllable word, not too different from the old Kiev, while the audio clip slides those two sounds together to yield the now-commonplace “Keev.”
While many difficulties may arise in covering international news translated from numerous languages, sometimes I can see no reason other than indifference to explain cases of mispronunciation. Presenters aim to say something clever and contentious before they consider what is correct and contributive.
A few months ago, journalists carelessly told us about the “omnicron” variant of Covid-19. That misreading didn’t even get close to the more legitimate debates about more precise and understandable vocalizations of “omicron,” an omnipresent Greek letter. See Pfizer’s Greek-born CEO speak out.
We also continue to hear about “fentanol,” with a sound akin to “fentinawl,” when the actual word is “fentanyl,” with the last syllable sounded as “ill.”
We see, or rather hear, the need for better pronunciation everywhere. Lectors in church need to rehearse and study the Bible passages they will read so that congregations truly benefit when “faith comes by hearing.”
At an All Souls Day liturgy several years ago, a lector read the names of the congregation’s family members who had died during the past year. Because there was no apparent rehearsal or research, we could hear that many of the ethnic surnames were clumsily mangled. I considered this an unintentional slap at families’ members and memories.
Let’s hope that people from all walks of life will realize that our pronunciations, like our awareness of meanings, deserve greater attention for the sake of fruitful, dignified communication about people and the world. Sadly, we must realize our first task is to salvage the art of conversation itself.
Signs of a mass-market interest in grammar might offer us hope that words still matter. You can find a newly published book, Ellen Jovin’s Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian, joining a “sharp, funny grammar guide” from 2020 called Dreyer’s English and a clever classic about punctuation from 2004 titled Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. The book by Benjamin Dreyer has even spawned a “grammar geek” home game called “Stet!”.
When all is said and done, any campaign for better vocalization is a campaign for diligence and curiosity, outreach and collaboration—as well as a campaign against sloppy, disrespectful thinking—among speakers and listeners alike. As vocabularies and perspectives become more complex and polarized, this should be campaign season. We do so declare!
(Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs)
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