Saying it wrong, every time
January 29, 2007 7:15 AM   Subscribe

I know some people who just can’t seem to get the hang of correctly pronouncing uncommon words, no matter how many times they hear the correct way. These are intelligent, educated people, and at least one is an avid reader, but for some reason they constantly, repeatedly, stumble over certain words. Is there a name for this?

Very often, these are non-English words that have been adopted into English usage. I don’t think these are cases of regional dialect or accent, such as “wash” and “warsh,” these are things like “fah-jite-aw” for fajita.

Another example comes from the game Go, which a friend and I play regularly at our local Go club. The game that has many simple Japanese terms such as “komi” (a number of points given to one to player as a compensation for not getting the first move in the game). The correct pronunciation is KO-mee (ko-MEE with the accent on the second syllable might be more correct to Japanese ears), but this friend always, always, always says KAW-mee, which is unquestionably wrong. Other Go players, including me, have corrected him countless times, but he never says it right.

A couple other examples of this I’ve heard (not necessarily from the person above):

soup du jour, “soup DUH-jur”
Tucson, “TUCK-son”

I’m sure I’ve heard other examples. Again, I don’t think this is a case of fumbling a totally unfamiliar word, which is something everyone does, but continuously mispronouncing words no matter how many times the correct pronunciation is heard.

I’ve Googled some terms like “phonetic recognition”, but most of the articles I’ve found are about child development.

Is this something that has a name?
posted by mauglir to Writing & Language (72 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible your friend pronounces it incorrectly on purpose, just to annoy you? I had a friend who would do that.

Drove me nuts, it did. Which I suppose was the point.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:22 AM on January 29, 2007

They might be doing it because they know it annoys you. You know, just to be contrary.

Or possibly they do it as a sort of joke to keep things unpretentious.

But if it's a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly, I have no idea what the term would be.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:25 AM on January 29, 2007

There's no such thing as "a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly." If they're not fucking with you to annoy you, they simply haven't heard the word enough to assimilate the correct pronunciation, or haven't had their attention called to it. As for the foreign words, "parochialism" might cover it: if you grow up in a society where you're not exposed to foreign languages, you naturally say everything as if it were English.
posted by languagehat at 7:27 AM on January 29, 2007

Bob Roll covers the Tour de France every year for OLN. He raced in it years ago. He knows the correct pronunciation, yet he still says Tour day France. It's kind of cute. Most fans have gotten over Bob, you can get over KAW-mee.
posted by caddis at 7:27 AM on January 29, 2007

Different languages use different mouth patterns natively which makes it difficult and unatural for them to make sounds that may be simple for others (think japanese "engrish"). As a billingual person living in a billingual country where people of both major languages more often than not have problems with the other I can assure you that most of the time they are not doing it on purpose.
posted by Null Pointer and the Exceptions at 7:30 AM on January 29, 2007

Habit. He learned it the one way, and that's what sounds natural to him. This is possible to change, but not easy.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:33 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

seconding that it might be on purpose in that specific instance. I know that I pronounce jaguar "jag-WIRE" just to annoy my finace.

In other, everyday occurances, I have never heard of a term, I think it is just not being able to form the word correctly, a girl I grew up with always pronounced breakfast "breck-first" and it drives me nuts just thinking about it. Oh, and "birfday" is another one.... ugh.
posted by ForeverDcember at 7:33 AM on January 29, 2007

Thanks for the responses so far. I realize the tone of my question suggests annoyance, but that really isn't the case. I’m genuinely curious about this topic. And, I'm pretty sure my friend isn't deliberately messing with me.
posted by mauglir at 7:34 AM on January 29, 2007

If they read a lot but don't necessarily say these specific words much (and first enountered these words in text not speech), then it's possible that they mis-pronounced them in their internal monologue for a while before they had reason to say the words out loud (I know I've done this before). And then they'd just gotten used to pronouncing them the wrong way and it was hard to change.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:34 AM on January 29, 2007

This sounds like the same syndrome which causes seemingly intelligent people to say "SIGN-field" instead of Seinfeld, even though it's written in giant letters across the screen at the start of every show. I always thought the correct technical term for it was 'laziness'.
posted by BorgLove at 7:37 AM on January 29, 2007

Every year when I watch the state of the union address (for the past few years, anyway) I'm stunned to hear "nuke-yoo-ler" come out of our president's mouth again. Everybody knows he has a problem with this word, and it's hard for me to imagine that nobody has tried to get him to correct it. I imagine him walking around the white house repeating "new-klee-er, new-klee-er, new-klee-er" to himself in the weeks leading up to the big speech. Maybe he does or maybe not, but I feel like he'd be pronouncing it correctly by now if it was a simple thing to change. So I don't know the name for the problem, but I would think that there is some actual difficulty involved in retraining your brain.
posted by vytae at 7:38 AM on January 29, 2007

I hate to disagree with the guy wearing the languagehat, but this is just not true:
"There's no such thing as "a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly." If they're not fucking with you to annoy you, they simply haven't heard the word enough to assimilate the correct pronunciation, or haven't had their attention called to it."

My Dad has pronounced exercise as "ex-TER-size" for 65 years now. He knows the correct pronunciation, he's a native English speaker and grew up in Wyoming, and, while he does love to fuck with people just for the hell of it, this doesn't fall into that category. It's 100% consistent and completely unconcious. If you correct him on it, he'll be certain that he pronounced it the right way. I don't think it's a "disability" so much as a habit that's so strong it's impossible to break, but it's not something he's doing on purpose and it's not something he's doing because he doesn't know the correct pronunciation.
posted by MsMolly at 7:39 AM on January 29, 2007

My father-in-law, an intelligent man, pronounces 'Mao' (as in Chairman) as 'Mayo' (as in Hellman's).

Maoists are 'Mayoists'.

It has now started to infect his entire family.
posted by unSane at 7:41 AM on January 29, 2007

Anecdotally, when learning French in school, I had problems with feeling self-concious if I tried to pronounce the French words with a French accent (as opposed to an English one). Not sure why, I guess it just felt weird to puton a "fake" accent. You say it's often the case with words adopted into English from other languages, so maybe it's something to do with the speaker not wanting to put on a (potentially embarressing) "foreign" accent to pronounce the words correctly.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:42 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

These are intelligent, educated people, and at least one is an avid reader, but for some reason they constantly, repeatedly, stumble over certain words.

Intelligence does not equal to being able to pronounce words correctly. Neither does education. Some people are just wired differently from the majority, and some people don't think it's a big deal. I knew a guy who specifically pronounced Arkansas as "Are kansas" as opposed to
"Ark-n-saw" just cause he thought the former made more sense and sounded cool.

As to a name for it, word finding and anomia comes up in this somewhat related link.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:03 AM on January 29, 2007

I think EndsOfInvention has it - maybe he doesn't feel it's "him" to say certain things a certain way? And is he stubborn? I know exactly what you are talking about, and I have a friend that does this, too! Although it drives me crazy, I don't think I've corrected her in more than 12 years, so I really doubt she does it to bug me.

And there are certain words I've NEVER corrected her on, because I know she knows how to say them, so there's no point. Bref-fast. Vokka (for Vodka). She is college-educated, grew up in the Pacific Northwest, her parents don't pronounce those words that way - it makes no sense. She also mispronounces and shortens names into the wrong name. She might tell me she read a book and refer to the main character as "Carla Walkfeld." I'll read the book myself, and the name will be "Carmelita Wakefield." (totally made up example).

I chalk it up to laziness, severe reading comprehension problems, and extreme stubbornness.
posted by peep at 8:06 AM on January 29, 2007

Oh lordy, I have such pronunciation problems! I chalk it up to the fact that I was an "early reader" - I read at a much higher age level than I spoke, so there are many words that I read multiple times before I ever heard them or pronounced them. When I read, I pretty much pronounce all the words in my head, so after a while those mispronounciations just get burned in to my neural pathways.

My biggest one is the word "conspicuous". It exists in some sort of dual universe, where the correct pronunciation is either "con-SPI-shus" or "con-SPIC-yoo-us". I just looked it up now, and I don't really believe it.

Long story short, language and pronunciations are functions of our brain synapses. When the synaptic pathways are laid out a certain way, it's difficult to retrain them.
posted by muddgirl at 8:22 AM on January 29, 2007

Oh, they are just being laxadaysical.
posted by lyam at 8:23 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Every year when I watch the state of the union address (for the past few years, anyway) I'm stunned to hear "nuke-yoo-ler" come out of our president's mouth again.

"Nucular" is an accepted alternate pronunciation; it's in the dictionaries. Don't confuse your politics with the English language. (As I said years ago here.)

I don't think it's a "disability" so much as a habit that's so strong it's impossible to break

So do I, which means you're not disagreeing with me. If he got an electric shock every time he said the word "wrong," he'd quickly lose the habit.

But let's face it, most people don't care much about "correct" pronunciation; if others understand what they're saying, they have no incentive to change, and I don't see any particular reason why they should. I happen to have a pathological persnicketiness about pronouncing things correctly; I'll spend an hour researching, and if that fails I'll post a question on my blog in the hopes someone will know. But that's me, and I wouldn't wish the condition on anyone else. (Furthermore, it gives me great ammunition to shoot down pretentious bastards who go around correcting other people's pronunciations, because there's always some obscure word or name they themselves don't know the "correct" pronunciation of. And then of course there are words like forte for which there is no "correct" pronunciation, even though everybody and his brother thinks there is.)
posted by languagehat at 8:30 AM on January 29, 2007

I have this same problem with cimmanon.

posted by ND¢ at 8:30 AM on January 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

The president's new-kyu-lur pronunciation is part of his Texan affectation; he's not accidentally mis-pronouncing it, he's chosen the regional dialect that includes that pronunciation. It has the side benefit that people who grew up saying "New-kyu-lur" (like me) are automatically sympathetic when some conehead gets all pissy about it.

I would guess that this KAW-mee thing is somewhere between the "I read it that way in the privacy of my own head and now it sounds wrong the other way" and "Gee, here's something easy and quick I can do to piss my opponent off and get them obsessing about something other than the game."
posted by hob at 8:31 AM on January 29, 2007

I think some of it may have to do with how they are taught to read? My parents, who never learned phonics, consistently mispronounce words despite having heard the correct pronunciation a number of times. I am a visual speaker (meaning I often "see" the words in my mind as text before I speak them) and I know my parents are the same way. Since they never learned phonics I think they are "reading" the words without attention to phonetics and end up forgetting the way they should be pronounced.

However, my father says "tide-nol" instead of "tylenol" which I will never be able to explain.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:35 AM on January 29, 2007

Intelligence does not equal to being able to pronounce words correctly. Neither does education.

No kidding. My father has a master's from M.I.T. in nuclear engineering and he says "nuke-u-ler". Of course, if enough people say it wrong, then "wrong" becomes right, which it now is.

(Prescriptivists vs. descriptivists battle previously in the blue.)
posted by LordSludge at 8:42 AM on January 29, 2007

Oh, and, from the "now is" link above, apparantly the word you're looking for is "metathesis".

metathesis -- the transposition of letters, syllables, or sounds in a word, as in the pronunciation kuhmf-ter-buhl for comfortable or aks for ask.
posted by LordSludge at 8:46 AM on January 29, 2007

Lordsludge, Don't you mean when enough of certain people say it wrong. "Ax" isn't the next "nuke-u-ler"
posted by MrMulan at 8:47 AM on January 29, 2007

I have a friend who has persistant mispronunciation syndrome. There are words that he just cannot say without adding consonants or changing the vowel. He knows in his head how these words are supposed to be said, but even concerted attempts -- with me saying a word and him repeating it -- get him nowhere. (One of these words is my last name. Sigh.) My father has a similar problem - he cannot make himself correctly pronounce certain plurals of words that end in "s," no matter how hard he tries.

I think some people just have difficulties with accurate pronunciation, and then the wrong way becomes a habit, and then they get anxious about saying things wrong and this makes it even MORE difficult to spit out the right sounds.
posted by desuetude at 8:49 AM on January 29, 2007

Of course, if enough people say it wrong, then "wrong" becomes right

Keep doing it wrong, magically it'll become right! I think I'll start using it in my life...

(Disclaimer: That was sarcasm-- and a dig against many people who think that way, but no one in particular, and surely no one on Metafilter)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:52 AM on January 29, 2007

You say "they stumble" but it seems others are correct and they are saying what is right enough to them for various reasons. muddgirl is right, though, from what I've read, that language and pronunciations are functions of our brain synapses. When the synaptic pathways are laid out a certain way, but I would add it's pretty well impossible to retrain them in some cases, and most people aren't even going to try.

If they do, it may not work. When I studied teaching pronunciation in my ESL certificate, I noticed that no one in the class was very good at detailed awareness that how we speak a group of words in speech is not like linking together the sounds as described in a dictionary pronunciation. Some computers say them that way, though, which shows how unnatural that approach is. So, even people interested in language can be lousy at pronunciation awareness.

I read in a child development magazine (gone to recycling now, so I can't confirm) that the growing brain develops different areas to recognize the different phonemes that are meaningful in the language we are learning, that this shows on some sort of brain scan, I believe the article said. Hence "Engrish" or the R/L problem in Japanese and Korean and hence most people's bafflement with the consonant clusters of, say, Polish. Just like some people don't have a musical bone in their body, some people are going to suck at pronunciation. Luckily, it's not that important and you can still understand what people are saying. Acceptance is good. Maybe the term you want is different brain development, plus arbitrary boundaries, or culture. We all have both of those.
posted by Listener at 9:06 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

A very intelligent friend of mine (three time state chess champion and a brilliant player of many games, including Go) has this problem to an extreme degree. He pronounces every letter of Worcestershire, for example, and for him Carlos Gian is 'guyann'-- he will periodically even call a certain very annoying insect a 'moss-quit-oh.'

However, on a number of occasions I've brought up someone whose name he hasn't previously known, and for the duration of the conversation he's fine, but the next time we talk about that person he gets it wrong and from then on. I gave up trying to correct him when I realized I was only hurting his feelings. The difference was that he had in the interim read something about the person. His memory is so intensely and exclusively visual that when he speaks a word outside of his everyday vocabulary, he is reading it from an internal screen, and he has a fixed program for that which sounds out every letter.
posted by jamjam at 9:07 AM on January 29, 2007

A good demonstration of this in this movie.
posted by lovejones at 9:12 AM on January 29, 2007

Weird- I have always wondered about this too.

There's no such thing as "a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly."

I have to disagree. I had a friend who consistently pronounced the name of Nike shoes "Niek." This was a word everyone around him and on TV constantly pronounced correctly. He was a native english speaker with no accent of any kind. he was not doing it to be funny.

Other examples:
Cario = 'Carrie-Oh"
Hanoi = "huh-nuey"
Aleutian islands = "alootan islands"
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:33 AM on January 29, 2007

I believe it's related to dyslexia, and stuttering. Sometimes I find that I do this myself, and like an earlier poster I was reading well above the level of my spoken vocabulary -- at a College level in the fourth grade. I can't do a sentence diagram to save my life, and while I know about terms like nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, I couldn't tell you the difference between most of them, nor could I tell you which was which in a given sentence. I pronounce things based on how I see them.

BTW, I am 40, American, and a native English speaker. And I'm very particular about things like spelling, grammar, and pronunciation.

After living in Belgium for nearly eight years, my wife and I recently moved back to the US. Certain French words simply would not scan for me. Hell, most of French never scanned for me. But I made an effort, and I learned certain rules, and I think I was a little better at it when we left than when we arrived. For example, today there is no way I'd make the "du Jour" or "Tour de France" mistakes, but there are others in French that I might well still make even after living over there for nearly eight years.

But even now, I find that sometimes I still do this (in English, because despite living over there for nearly eight years I never really learned French), and sometimes it is completely unconscious. Other times, I'll hear what I said and it won't make any sense, and then I go through a serious stuttering-like process until I can correct myself.

For other people, I think it's harder to change the way their brains are wired.

The real question here is, can you change the way your brain is wired so that this doesn't annoy you so much? Is there a way you can find to enjoy playing the game regardless of the way this person pronounces this word (and presumably other related words)?

The only things in this life that we truly own are our reactions and our mistakes. Do you want to be proud of what you own?
posted by bradknowles at 9:44 AM on January 29, 2007

It's just habit.

Everyone I know has words like this, and most of them first encountered the words while reading. When you've read a word a few thousand times, having it "corrected" a few times in conversation isn't going to suddenly change your pronounciation.
posted by tkolar at 9:49 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's no such thing as "a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly."

Try telling that to people with lisps or stutters. That may be an extreme example but it also points out that you also may be overstating your case, languagehat.

A friend of mine seems to add a 't' sound to most words that end with 'n' - for example, he'll say 'my cousint.' When you point it out to him he gets genuinely flustered but he's also been doing it for years and years.

Regarding "nucular," I believe that is how Richard Feynman pronounced it which makes a good case that that is the "correct" way to pronounce it, or that all terms in physics should be pronounced with a thick Brooklyn accent.
posted by vacapinta at 9:53 AM on January 29, 2007

"There's no such thing as "a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly." If they're not fucking with you to annoy you, they simply haven't heard the word enough to assimilate the correct pronunciation, or haven't had their attention called to it."

This is not true, in my experience.

I have several friends who insist that I mispronounce the word Bagel. They say it for me, I say it back, they both sound identical to me, but everyone else says that I'm saying it differently and wrong. I've conducted tests with multiple people who do not know each other and therefore cannot be conspiring to play a joke on me.

Everyone says I'm saying Bah-gul but it sounds like Bay-gul to me.

I pretty much don't say the word anymore as it bugs the shit out of me.
posted by dobbs at 9:55 AM on January 29, 2007

Yikes, I didn't mean to open such a can of worms with the "nuclear" thing, nor was I trying to voice my politics. I guess I fall into the prescriptivist camp, but I don't bear any ill will towards people who don't agree. I just thought it was a relevant example.
posted by vytae at 10:13 AM on January 29, 2007

Is it possible that, rather than having first read the words in question, it was these people's first hearing of the word that was incorrect?

In my teens I had a music theory teacher with a very thick regional (Welsh) accent which led to my mis-pronouncing many of the less common non-native terms (Neo-poor-litan instead of Neopolitan 6th, ana-cri-oo-sis instead of anacrusis). That said, after being corrected a few times in later years, I learnt the right way to say them.

I'd suggest that if someone repeatedly (and exclusively) hears an incorrect pronunciation for long enough it would eventually stick.
posted by dogsbody at 10:29 AM on January 29, 2007

There's no such thing as "a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly."

Try telling that to people with lisps or stutters.

A lot of people seem to be misunderstanding me, which is reasonable, since it's hard to talk about this stuff. I wasn't referring to lisps or stutters, and I certainly didn't mean that anyone who consistently says a word wrong is faking or joking. I read the quoted phrase as meaning some sort of subconscious bar to correct pronunciation of words, comparable to, I don't know, fear of heights or something. Obviously lots of people consistently mispronounce lots of words; that's so obvious it hardly seems worth saying, so I figured the quoted phrase must be making a stronger claim.

dobbs: That's really weird—I don't think I've heard of anything like it when speaking one's own language. (It's common, of course, to be unable to distinguish or reproduce phonemes in a foreign language.)
posted by languagehat at 10:56 AM on January 29, 2007

I know it's a derail, but I can't help myself: you can say "bay," right? Can you say "bay gull"? Now, if you say the phrase really fast...
posted by languagehat at 10:57 AM on January 29, 2007

There's no such thing as "a true unconscious disability to pronounce words correctly."

Sure there is. There's dysphonia, and there are phonemic paraphasias as a mild manifestation of aphasia. These abnormal neurologic phenomena, while mild as far as aphasias go, seem to me to represent a point on a spectrum, at one end of which is perfect language usage, the other end of which is an inability to use language at all.

I wonder if languagehat, as someone with a natural facility for understanding the underpinnings of language, isn't possibly underestimating the ability of some folks - the 50% of folks on the left side of the verbal-IQ bell curve, specifically - to master the nuances of language.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:58 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Quite possibly, and I certainly defer to your expertise on the subject. But in my defense, I thought we were talking about "normal" people who happen to say certain words in a way other people think is wrong, not people with aphasia.
posted by languagehat at 11:04 AM on January 29, 2007

Er, underestimating the difficulty some folks have with language, is what I meant.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:05 AM on January 29, 2007

Well, when I meet these people, and I do - I'm probably somewhat over-aware of phenomena like this, because detecting them is part of my work - I wonder whether it's that they just don't care, or whether their language machinery isn't equipped to make the fine distinctions in the particular case.

For the purpose of trying to figure out what's really going on, the idea of a "normal" person seems bad enough (non-representative of reality, in other words) that it deserves to be enclosed in very disdainful quotes.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:09 AM on January 29, 2007

My Dad has pronounced exercise as "ex-TER-size" for 65 years now.

My dad pronounces "breakfast" as though it contains a "w." "Brekwist." It's the oddest thing I ever heard. He's worked hard not to say things like "warsh the deeshes" anymore, but the "w" in "breakfast" remains, and probably will until the day he dies.
posted by kindall at 11:12 AM on January 29, 2007

I can't say the word 'album'. Well, I can say it but it comes out 'alblum'.
In my case, I truly think it was hearing that word wrong in the beginning - until I was in high school, I never 'heard' it pronounced any way but 'alblum'. I know better now but I can't make myself say it the right way unless I think about it first.
posted by jaimystery at 11:33 AM on January 29, 2007

There are so many explanations and answers for this could be anything from learned dialect differences, speech impediments and disorders, other disorders affecting speech (eg., Autism and related disorders), metathesis, learned habits, mishearing (either by speaker or other interlocuter), habits and patterns of goes on and on.

People who pronounce things differently than the regional 'norm' may simply not hear the difference, or they may not care, or may have subconscious cultural motives for preserving their unique speech pattern (including stress, intonation, accent, pitch, etc.). That would be a sociolinguistic answer.

A phonological answer may be that they may have simply built 'muscle memory' patterns with their tongue, vocal chords, lips, etc. (it takes an awful lot of coordination to speak!)—not to mention the subconscious phonological rules we've learned in our heads, or the phonotactics of our language (what sound combinations are allowed and when—plus, how they change in context of other sounds or across word/syllable/sentence 'boundaries').

When we hiccup while we are breathing, it is not because we are lazy! That's like saying sleep apnea is caused because we are not paying attention to our breathing while we are sleeping.

There is just a lot going on, and a lot can go awry.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:09 PM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't think I've heard of anything like it when speaking one's own language. (It's common, of course, to be unable to distinguish or reproduce phonemes in a foreign language

Normal people grew up hearing different pronunciations [of phonemes and individual words] as well. [Was a discussion here about terminal R in English that's very relevant.] That's why some people can't get rid of their accents or really hear what's going on -- fish can't see the water. Some people go by what they see, others by what they remember. Different learning styles and capabilities.
posted by Listener at 12:10 PM on January 29, 2007

Oh, and this is how eggcorns and folk/false etymologies are derived—people mispronouncing, mishearing, or misinterpreting phonemes, words, phrases. We have thousands of them in English—it's all a part of our everchanging language. Some examples...home in/hone in, doggy-dog/dog-eat-dog, cater-corner became kitty-corner or catty-corner, etc.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:19 PM on January 29, 2007

languagehat and dobbs, aren't you all kind of talking about regional vowel variations? I grew up in the midwest, and got harassed a great deal by my northeastern college roommates for not pronouncing "merry" (and similar vowel sounds) "correctly," in that in my mouth, it's the same word as "marry" or "mary." I could sort of kind of hear the distinction they were making between the sounds, but it took me three or four months of consistently trying to reproduce it before I could do so to their satisfaction.

And I'm good with languages and pronunciations -- I can sound close to native in French and Italian, and I easily hear distinctions in those languages that other American students often miss. But I didn't grow up with that A/E distinction, so I just don't hear it, and can't really make it.
posted by occhiblu at 12:28 PM on January 29, 2007

Also, it occurs to me that when I am paying attention to the merry/Mary distinction, then all my ar sounds shift toward ehr. So when I say "merry" correctly, according to those people, I'm mispronoucning "marry." My mouth can obviously produce the different sounds, but my brain doesn't seem to want to admit a distinction between the words.

All this to say -- I think sometimes we do get mental blocks about these sorts of things.
posted by occhiblu at 12:44 PM on January 29, 2007

President Jimmy Carter was educated in nuclear engineering, but he couldn't pronounce the word correctly. I'm sure it wasn't because of ignorance or inadvertance.

Don't let it bother you -- don't go nuclear over it.
posted by skywhite at 1:03 PM on January 29, 2007

Yes, lots of good points recently. I agree that this could also be a function of regional dialects, especially when it comes to vowel sounds. I visited Massachusetts from California, and although it didn't sound to me like anyone else had an accent, many people there commented on my "lazy vowels." If I think about it, I can hear how all my vowels have shifted compared to people from other states (this was also noticeable when I moved to Texas). However, 90% of the time I'm completely ignorant of it, and indeed many of my friends stopped noticing it, as well.
posted by muddgirl at 1:22 PM on January 29, 2007

My girlfriend has trouble pronouncing the word peace, or piece.

It just comes out as Piss.

But shes not a native English speaker. I rib her mercilessly about it. Especially in a religious context.

"The Peace of Christ be upon you"

That makes me giggle....
posted by gergtreble at 2:10 PM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately I went through a period when I had to say the word "metastize" a lot. I simply could not get this word out properly, although I am a communications professional and actually practised it repeatedly. Once I got to it in conversation, it came out metastasize, every time, and I'm certain this was/is an anxiety reaction/coping mechanism! I still can't really say it. I stick with "spread" although thankfully, I haven't had to use it much lately!

Also, my beau's mom says "Marden" for "Modern". That was a new one on me!
posted by thinkpiece at 2:40 PM on January 29, 2007

posted by Wolof at 3:10 PM on January 29, 2007

An excellent book on this subject is Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct". He goes through quite a few different examples and gives a great introduction to one strand of linquistics today.
posted by hue at 3:13 PM on January 29, 2007

Woah, Wolof. So now I have disconnected to the point where I have it right, but I think it's wrong!?
posted by thinkpiece at 3:19 PM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

One word that has started cropping up in my job a lot more recently is "Parallelize", and, worse, "Parallelizable". I actually haven't heard anyone who can pronounce this fully consistently- everyone, myself included, seem to be veering towards "Paralyzable", which is much easier. I think we all know how it should be pronounced, it's just such a mouthful....
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:01 PM on January 29, 2007

I had a boss who consistently pronounced "Pajero" (the Mitsubishi 4WD) as "Pal-jero", misnamed the Commonwealth of Independent States (former USSR) as "The Federation", among other malapropisms. He was English, and we were working in Russia, and I couldn't take his word on a single placename - I'd have to get GPS coordinates to find out exactly what the town was called (eg he called "Okunaisky" "Okunowsky", which made it impossible to find in an atlas or whatever).

Anyway, he was pretty severely dyslexic AFAICT - his written reports were almost unreadable, lacking punctuation and structure. And any time I corrected him the conversation would go

Him: "So we're going to Okunowsky"
Me: "Okunaisky"
Him: "Right, Okunowsky"

Also, I have an Aunt who does somewhat similar things, guessing at names of places and people, and it seems to me the common thread between them is that they both confabulate constantly. All of their stories are a mixture of experience and complete fabrication. And both will swear black and blue that that's the way it happened (such as my Aunt's dinner with Slobodan Milosevich. WTF?)
posted by claudius at 4:56 PM on January 29, 2007

claudius: Wow. Sounds like my aforementioned friend. Who is also pretty severely dyslexic. And a champion confabulator.
posted by desuetude at 6:40 PM on January 29, 2007

I know it's a derail, but I can't help myself: you can say "bay," right? Can you say "bay gull"? Now, if you say the phrase really fast...

Believe me, this is exactly what's been said to me a hundred times and I do exactly that. However, though I hear baygull, I consistently get told that's not what I'm saying. Initially, I honestly thought it was a huge joke people were playing on me but I've tested it on third parties numerous times and get the same reaction.
posted by dobbs at 7:01 PM on January 29, 2007

I think that some combinations of letters are more difficult to say then others, especially if those combinations aren't common in your native language. (Languagehat, can you back me up on this one?)

For example, I have a friend who just can't say the word 'chipotle.' Every time he says it, he says 'chi-pol-tay.' I know that he's heard people say it the right way a million times, because, hell, everything has chipotle in it now. I think that it's the 'tle' part of the word that throws him. It's just not a combination of sounds that occurs in American English much.

The same friend has problems with words that involve a lot of different .... mouth movements? For example, he has a difficult time with the word 'inferiority,' and tends to say it as 'in-fer-or-i-ty.' If you say both pronunciations aloud, 'in-fer-or-i-ty' is actually a lot easier to say.

I wouldn't just write it off and say that my friend is lazy or anything. He's actually an extremely intelligent person, in a very left-brained sort of way. I guess we all just have our strengths in different areas.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:55 PM on January 29, 2007

Wow. I never imagined this phenomenon would bewilder so many people. I'm like muddgirl and bradknowles - I began reading early, and spelling and grammar skills have always come easily to me, but I chronically mispronounce words. I'm sure one explanation is that I encountered many words in print before hearing them spoken and thus created my own pronunciations, which have been difficult to discard. But there must be something about my brain that makes this especially tricky, because friends who were early readers don't have the same difficulties I do in remembering correct pronunciations.

It's not laziness, and it's not that I can't hear myself, and it's not to annoy people, and it's not even simple ignorance. I literally cannot remember how certain words are pronounced, even when I've heard them spoken multiple times before. "Enzyme" is an example. Back in high school biology, every single time I had to say it, I used to consciously deliberate in my head, "en-zeem or en-zaim?" Day after day after day. The only way I could remember it was by means of a mnemonic, something meta, instead of just simply recalling it. And even now, eight years later, I happened to say "en-zeem" on the phone to my boyfriend and he laughed at me. And even then, I'd deliberated for a millisecond before saying it! And had chosen the wrong one! I just could. not. remember.

Like others, I assume my difficulty is due to being a visual, verbal (as in words-on-the-page) learner, rather than an auditory learner. I can't carry a tune, I'm more likely to retain information from a textbook than from a lecture, and although I love acting, when I vocalize lines from a script I find they sound a bit off-tune and off-cadence, if that makes sense. Maybe I'm finding patterns where none exist, but I've always assumed these things were related.

Oddly, I've even mispronounced words immediately after hearing them for the first time, even when I've never seen them written before. This used to happen very often in my Russian classes, although it's happened in English before, too (and yes, I'm a native English speaker). It wasn't the mechanical pronunciation troubles that affect everyone learning a foreign language - it was literally not remembering what had just been said to me. With English, at least, I think what happens is that I hear the word, create a visual representation of the word in my head, and then pronounce it as I think it would be pronounced from the visual representation I've just created. I assume this is why I had so much trouble speaking Russian and understanding Russian that was spoken to me, even when I was one of the best in the class at writing and translating it on the page - its different alphabet makes the above process more complicated and confusing.

And yeah, so one time in the third grade, I loudly suggested that we bring in some "pot-porry" for the holidays and everyone cracked up. I blame my mom for that one.
posted by granted at 10:48 PM on January 29, 2007

For whatever reason, the first time I read LOTR, I totally missed the 'l' in Gandalf, and my internal word was Gandaf, ryming with dandruf. Took me ages to get over that, even when i knew better.

I too was reading waaaay past my age level for years, and then spent my latter teens getting many pronounciations corrected. Fortunately, few of those were difficult.
posted by Goofyy at 1:10 AM on January 30, 2007

Especially when speaking quickly, I cannot get "particularly" out at all. I often have to sound it out, and sound like a moron because of it.
posted by klangklangston at 1:42 PM on January 30, 2007

Regional dialect difference: "color" is my shibboleth.

The way I pronounce "color" is only different from my pronunciation of "Keller" (as in Helen Keller) is that I speak the word "color" slightly more quickly. What's more, I really can't really here the difference between the two words when they're pronounced by someone who does pronounce them differently.
posted by orthogonality at 5:30 AM on January 31, 2007

I'm another of those kids who read way beyond their age as a kid and ended up with a bunch of funny pronunciations. ("Oesophagus" was a doozy).

My 7-year old is now doing the exact same thing.
posted by unSane at 6:05 AM on January 31, 2007

This drives me a little bit crazy too! My best friend is a college educated executive who checks out books from the Libary (Lie-BARRY) and gets chocolates on Valen-TIMES Day. She stubbornly refuses to change her pronunciation and acknowledges as much.
posted by mynameismandab at 10:41 AM on February 1, 2007

Good for her. Now you should be asking yourself: "Why exactly do I care so much how my best friend says library and Valentine's?"
posted by languagehat at 11:27 AM on February 1, 2007

Because it's annoying.
posted by lyam at 1:22 PM on February 2, 2007

See, by saying "it's annoying" you're transferring your annoyance from your own mind, where it belongs, to the pronunciations themselves. What you mean is "Because I'm annoyed by it," and if you put it that way, you realize that it's your reaction that's the problem, not your friend. (I realize lyam is not mynameismandab, but it's simpler to write this way.)
posted by languagehat at 1:47 PM on February 2, 2007

I recognize the projection, but I choose not to analyze every emotion, particularly one so delicious as self-righteousness. Goddamit make an effort to speak properly!
posted by lyam at 7:10 AM on February 3, 2007

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