Tuesday, November 13, 2007

puh-TAY-toe, puh-TAH-toe

We were sitting in the NBC studios in Manhattan, waiting impatiently with other audience members for the taping of a game show to begin. Behind me were two women, obviously together, and a man, even more obviously alone. The women were in their 20s, he was late 40s. At one point he leaned to the woman closer to him and said, “So, uh, where youse from?”

She smiled weakly and said, “Excuse me?” He said, “Where youse from, are youse from New Yoak?” She thought for a moment, then said, “Oh, I’m from Detroit.” He said, “And who’s dat which youse?”

Of course, at this point I’m all ears. This might be better than the game show. She pondered his last words, and then she said, “Ah — this is my sister.” Then he uttered my favorite question, “So, is de bodie youse from Detroit?”

That just flat out stumped her. She looked at him right in the face, and said nothing. He repeated, “Is de bodie youse from Detroit?” She said, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand your …” So with some vigor, he said, “De bodie youse, de bodie youse — is de bodie youse from Detroit?”

Here’s the end of it, and I promise you I am not making this up. She looked at him and said, “I’m so sorry, but what’s a bodie?”

The point of the story is that how we pronounce words does matter. Dialects — the particular forms of language and speech determined by geographic regions or by groups of people — make language rich and interesting. For all of us, the words we choose and how we say them are, to varying degrees, dialectal. But that is not today’s topic.

I want to talk with you today about some pronunciations that are very common … and very wrong. Remember, this rundown has nothing to do with dialects; it has to do with wrong.

Let’s start with hearing how you say “Realtor.” Say it aloud and count the number of syllables. If you say it with three distinct syllables (REE-la-tor), then you are wrong. The word has two syllables (REEL-tor). Can you find any dictionary that gives three syllables as an option? Yes, but most that do so also indicate it’s a less-than-desirable pronunciation. Trust me: two syllables.

Let’s look now at “jeweler.” Say that one out loud and listen to yourself carefully. If you say JULE-er or if you use the British JOO-el-yer, you’re fine. Here’s the off-putting and wrong version: JULIE-yer. Have you heard that? Let’s hope it’s not from your own lips.

While we’re on that topic, let’s make sure we’re all saying “jewelry” correctly, shall we? That two-syllable word, to be pronounced JOOL-ree, is not meant to sound like JOO-la-ree.

You know that we cannot discuss pronunciations without at least mentioning “nuclear.” Regardless of how you feel about our current president, his NOO-kew-lar pronunciation is wrong. I grew up in Texas. Have I heard others pronounce it NOO-kew-lar? Sure. Does that mean it’s an endearing component of the Texas dialect, helping make spoken English a varied and appealing aural landscape, adding to America’s rich tapestry of sounds? No, it’s just wrong.

These next two take a bit of thought. They’re great words, but pronouncing them offers some challenges — “erudite” and “virulent.” Each can be said with or without a “y” sound (although I invariably cringe if the “y” is there), but the absolutely wrong way to handle them is with four syllables. You do not want to say VEER-ee-u-lent, as I heard a National Public Radio announcer in D.C. say last week. Just as important, limit the sound of “erudite” to AIR-uh-dyte or AIR-you-dyte. You do not want to say AIR-ee-you-dyte, as thousands of ill-informed people say, in an effort to sound erudite.

Finally, is it “sherbet” or “sherbert”? Do you know? These days it’s spelled both ways and pronounced both ways, depending on where you are and what you’re talking about. Sherbet is a cold drink, frothy and sweet. Sherbert is an American version. We added milk and other ingredients to ice, threw in an extra “r” and made a tasty frozen treat. Many people, including some readers of this column who have written me about it, feel that only “sherbet” is correct.

If there’s no easy answer, why did I bring it up? It’s always nice to end on a sweet note.


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