Feb 19, 2010

On Pronunciation, or...a Torty-un-Tord

Today's the first day in ten that it hasn't been 100 degrees in the shade, so to celebrate, I'm posting...

I've recently been asked to teach a pronunciation course. To prepare for this, I've been attending some workshops with a very fine teacher of pronunciation here at the institute. We teach American English here, and in examining the way words in English are pronounced, I find myself turning words and their pronunciation over in my mind...over and over. I disagree with some of the ways she says words are pronounced, a very small point really, because English pronunciation in the US is so influenced by the region and prevalent cultural group of the local area. She says that A, as in RAN is pronounced with almost 2 syllables, like RAY-AN, where as I (being from the High Plains area) say it with just one syllable, as A. Just AAAA. No AY-A. Just AAA. And the -ing in bring, something, thing, wing, and ring...I pronounce that almost like EEEENG, long E and NG. She says it's pronounced with a very short i, similar to THIS, IN, LIFT. She learned her pronunciation in the Deep South, and I grew up in Colorado. With all this regional difference, I wonder if the students will be confused.

Along with that, as I think about pronunciation, I have in my mind the story that my parents used to tell us when we were all kids. How it kept coming up, I can't remember, but we heard it numerous times. We always laughed uproariously each and every time we heard it...here it is, in a nutshell:

When my parents, Tommy and Phyllis, were in school, they knew a little boy named Johnny, whose last name escapes me now. When he was little, Johnny mispronounced his words, never learning to say his "K", "G", "F", or any other sound that required him to move his tongue from the ridge behind his teeth. So he used the "T" and "D" sound a lot when he spoke, calling my mom "Tyllis" instead of Phyllis. He never had the opportunity to go to speech therapy, but he could make himself understood and besides - he was so darn cute when he was in elementary school, so Johnny never learned the correct way to pronounce most of his words.

Time passed, and everyone grew up and tried to be cool, even little Johnny Whatsisname (gads, I wish I could remember his name!). The girls were wearing their hair in tall bouffant 'dos and wearing red lipstick and black mascara, and the boys were rolling cigarette boxes in their t-shirt sleeves and rolling their pant legs up so their white socks would show. Johnny's parents got him a 1941 Ford coupe to drive around, so cool. So very cool...until he opened his mouth.

Johnny never did learn to pronounce any sounds that required him to use different points of articulation in his mouth, aside from his old stand-by, the ridge behind his teeth. He wanted to be cool though, and boasted about his "Torty-un-Tord" (Forty-one Ford.) Everyone, even my mom, thought he was funny. Plus, he had the hots for my mom. So one day, he pulled up beside her with the '41 Ford and offered her and her friends a ride in his car. They all piled in, with my mom in the front seat, my dad as one of the pals in the back. Johnny leaned over to my mom and put his arm around her shoulders, puckered up, and (being the suave, smooth-talker that he was) said, "Div us a tiss, Tyllis!" While the pals in the backseat laughed so hard they couldn't sit up and gasped for breath, my mom gave him a look that said "Drop dead, jerk", exited the car and ran, mortified. You know the look I'm talking about.

Funny how after these more than 60 years, old Johnny is still remembered, but not as a cute little kid with a speech impediment, nor as a cool teenager in a hot car. We all remember him as either the moron, or the poor unfortunate, who never learned to pronounce his words correctly.


Pondside said...

That brought on a laugh!
I remember when we lived in Oklahoma. I'd been to a party at someone's house and the day after the party took part in the following silly conversation:
caller - "You left your pin at our house"
me - "No, I'm sure I didn't. It must have been another guest"
caller - "It's your pin."
me - "No, I wasn't wearing a pin"
caller - "You used the pin to sign the guest book and you left it behind"
The light dawned. Pin to me and pen to my Oklahoman friend.

Rani said...

Great story!!

I have so many preschoolers that (for obvious, age-appropriate reasons) can't pronounce all their words. It is charming in a 3 and 4 year old. Not so charming as they progress and continue to use the old ways.

Gotta nip that stuff in the bud.

Good luck with the new class!

marit said...


We learn the Oxford-Englishpronounciation here in Norway, but the kids watch so many American TV-shows, so most of them are really good in English(we have subtitles, not dubbing!)One singer got in trouble recently, he was supposed to sing "heart", but it sounded like "hard", and he got a lot of pepper! It isn't easy!

Margaret Cloud said...

Good luck on teaching the course. I enjoyed your story about your mom and dad, it was funny. My younger son when little had some pronunciation problems, but out grew them. Have a nice week and keep cool.

Sharrie said...

A friend's son had a Deuce Coupe for a toy which he called a Goose Poop when he couldn't pronounce. He outgrew it also. I agree with your take on pronunciation, midwesterner and English teacher. Regional differences can be a problem: which one is the "correct" one. Stopped in this morning to check where you lived because I was afraid it was Chile. Glad it is Peru.

knittingdragonflies said...

When we first moved here there were a few people at work I had a lot of trouble understanding. English is a hard language, good luck.