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Montreal: phonetics, purists, and even some terror...

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Montreal: phonetics, purists, and even some terrorists
Wednesday, August 27, 2008   3:59 PM

One of my fellow roadtrippers was friends with a guy from Quebec, so on the second day of our stay in Montreal we met up with him at a local bar, where he taught us the swears (there's a cheatsheet somewhere, but basically Quebec hasn't made the switch from blasphemy to profanity, so tabernac (sp?) is one of the worst things you can say) and answered our other questions about Montreal.

I can't tell you how nice it was to finally find out what those little triangle marks were called: circumflexes. As Fred tells it, to convert French into québécois, you should pronounce every vowel as if it had a circumflex accent.

Who knows if that's correct. Since reading a post on Foreign Place Names over at Linguism, I've been terrified of French phonology:

For instance, of all the forty-odd phonemes of English, and the similar number in French, only two are identical in the two languages (and there may be small differences even here): /f/ and /m/. All the other sounds of the two languages have differences that contribute to the sound of a French accent in English, or an English accent in French.

After drinks (but also before yet more drinks), Fred took us on a walking tour of the city. He paused outside of a Second Cup to show us the tiny type that had made it into a Les cafés Second Cup.

As I understand it, the business name "Second Cup" is permissible under the Charter of the French Language, even if the predominant language on everything inside the building has to be French.

The "Les cafés" was added to some signs in 2000, after the French Self-Defence Brigade (a translation of the official name, I'm sure) attempted to firebomb three franchises in Montreal. And there were protests last year when the chain considered changing the name back to just "Second Cup."

Successful protests, as far as I could tell.

(Check out this post at Fagstein, the blog of a copy editor in Montreal, for a local's take on the Second Cup issue.)

Related: Montreal is also home to a strangely familiar coffeehouse chain called Café Starbucks Coffee.

We may have actually had drinks at McKibbin's, the Irish pub that was cited for decorating its interior with vintage English-only beer ads (my goodness!), but I wasn't paying attention so I can't be sure.

One article on that particular tempest in a teapot had some nice trivia at the end: a list of "other cases over the years that have attracted the interest of the language watchdog or people seeking to protect the French language." Enjoy.

1996: A woman warns the owner of a Quebec pet store she might get in touch with language authorities because Peekaboo, the parrot she wanted to buy, didn't speak French.

1999: The Old Navy chain is asked to rename its stores "La Vieille Rivière." It never happens.

2000: The owner of an Indian restaurant is told he's breaking the law by having coasters for "Double Diamond," a British beer.

2001: Some people express disappointment that race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve calls his restaurant "Newtown."

2005: Language authorities say they will investigate complaints that Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay's party used the word "Go" on its posters and pamphlets, as in "Go Montreal."

2007: Imperial Oil says it will keep its Quebec-only "Marché Express" name for its Esso gas stations after protests against a proposal to change the name to "On the Run," as they are known elsewhere in North America.

2007: About 50 people protest outside a Second Cup outlet to demonstrate against the words "Les cafés" being dropped from "Les cafés Second Cup" at some of the chain's outlets.

2007: Language activists decry that callers to many Quebec government offices are told to "press nine" for English before instructions are delivered in French. Some of the departments have since changed the message to put English at the end.

...And that's all I have to say about Canada at the moment. We now return to your regularly scheduled anti-prescriptivism.

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Pronouncing French vowels as if they had a circumflex doesn't make much sense, since it usually doesn't change the pronunciation. The mark typically indicates that the vowel was once followed by an [s] which went silent (compare English forest and French forêt or English castle and French château).

Huh. There seem to be some sound changes associated with the circumflex in French, but the Wikipedia article on the subject is daunting. Money quote: "Some circumflexes appear for no known reason."

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Please, leave the prescriptivism to the professionals
Wednesday, October 10, 2007   1:03 PM

While I feel that the reactive grammar movement provides the ideal lens through which to view language on a day-to-day basis, as an editor and proofreader I have to concede the utility of a more strenuous prescriptivist approach. When the rules being followed are consistent and reality-based, measured doses of prescriptivism can help editors, writers, teachers, and (especially? occasionally?) readers.

However, unless your primary role in a given situation is to improve someone's writing or speech (or if you're with the rare sort of person who'd actually want you to correct them), you should reserve your helpful suggestions for the truly WTF. Prescriptivism can do a lot of damage when it gets out into the wild.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike mainstream, non-professional prescriptivism — the attitude many (probably most) educated American have towards language. It's vaguely classist. Its rules often have little basis in reality, especially when amateurs get involved. And then there's the absurdity of those prescriptivists who use their arbitrary set of rules as a general intelligence test.

(In defense of amateur prescriptists everywhere, I should point out that widespread belief in bogus rules like "you can't end a sentence with a preposition" and the appeals to the "one correct definition" or "the one correct pronunciation" are the result of a systematic failure to teach people how language actually works. This caveat was brought to you by Language Log.)

One problem with everyday prescriptivism that I don't think has been given enough attention is the way it paves over the charming quirks which make up our dialects and idiolects.

The prescriptivist mindset is widely assumed to be the default stance of anyone who's commenting on language, and so bringing attention to the fact that someone is talking or writing differently is automatically interpreted as a criticism.

Most people are self-conscious about how they express themselves, and most of the time they don't want how they speak or write to distract from what they're trying to say. A friend of mine came to college saying "abzurd" and "salza," but this derailed so many conversations that he started using the more standard, ho-hum pronunciations.

I'm friends with a Minnesotan who uses the /hw-/ cluster, and another who doubles words for emphasis (e.g. multiple multiple). And a lot of people I know have an overfondness for a handful of particular words.

I don't — can't — say anything about these wonderful peculiarities, because there's so much prescriptivism in the air. There's just no way to know beforehand whether or not these quirks are too delicate for sustained attention.

Not all language variety is good (I don't like Rachael Ray's idiolect, and I find a coworker's variant pronunciation of rhetoric really grating), but the boundaries of what we could say — without a loss in understanding, without prompting a double-take — are constrained by what mainstream prescriptivism says we should say.

However much it may inflate the exceptionalist egos of those devoted to its more obscure rules, however incoherent its dictates, however hypocritical its proponents, the primary goal of mainstream prescriptivism is still conformity.

Not with the largely invisible rules that dictate how the English language actually works, but rather with the prescriptivist: how he already writes, and how he already speaks.

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Please, tell them I fought bravely
Sunday, August 26, 2007   7:47 PM

So I was at the bar on Friday when an acquaintance stopped the conversation to correct my pronunciation of something — prettymuch exactly the situation I mention in the Manifesto. Drive-by prescriptivism!

The word, ironically enough, was pronunciation. I've said "pronounciation" for my entire life and that variant is common enough around here that I don't feel like I have to retrain myself to say it the "correct" way. As I've noted before, with this word I'm much more concerned with my occasional pronunciation spelling.

Still: shibboleths. I didn't know what to say, and not just because of the booze. How could I explain this front of the Grammar Wars to someone who'd done nothing more than wander onto the battlefield with a pointy object? I had the courage of my convictions, but not the requisite wherewithal.

Short story: I looked mighty foolish, but luckily not in front of anyone who realized exactly how foolish.

However, since this is bound to happen again with some other acquaintance — and because I'm still nursing my wounded pride — I've compiled a list of snappy and/or suitably baffling retorts, each of them short enough to remember even after a few beers:

1. You got what I meant, didn't you? (slur this, angrily)
2. Language is the people's!
3. Lots of people say that.
4. Psh, look it up (coward! this delays the conversation until you're sober, but will backfire spectacularly if someone has wi-fi).

1. There's no need to bring Strunk and White into this.
2. Well, have fun with that "rule" while you still can.
3. Psh, go back to [the 18th century / 19th century / 1934].
4. Verily!

1. Psh, you heard me.
2. Oh, that's not how we say it in [dialect area. your hometown?].
3. Whatever, it's not important. (roll your eyes for this one)
4. Sorry, did I pronoonce that wrong? (this isn't my idea, but I can't remember where it's from... McKean maybe?)

Note: that last one doesn't work if the word you're pronouncing incorrectly is pronunciation. Freaking shibboleths... what's wrong with us?

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Usually when some corrects me on pronunciation (which almost never happens) or grammar/word usage I say something like "No one asked you, you can leave/sit down now" if I'm feeling extremely childish.

However, what's better IMO (and obviously more mature), is to say "Mmm, I really don't care," and show the person that it genuinely does not matter to me. That really throws people off because most people just give in and apologize if they make a "mistake" in their grammar or pronunciation.

After I say that I don't care, I make an effort to use the word/grammar construction again =P

posted by Anonymous John at November 13, 2008 12:31 AM  

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Wait, what did you — my leg!
Friday, May 18, 2007   8:15 PM

My correction of some affect/effect confusion got stetted by the client a few days ago. A little bit of my soul died.

Watching Planet Earth tonight, I was surprised to hear piranha pronounced like "peer-on-yah" instead of "per-ahn-uh." Apparently this is the "correct" pronunciation, and for what it's worth the guy seemed to be a local.

Still, I prefer Craig Ferguson's less snoot-y rationale:

Piranha fish. I like to say "piranya" instead of "piranha," because "piranya" is the way a Bond villain would say piranha fish. "Be careful of my 'piranya' fish, Mr. Bond."

I'm all for attempting to abide by older pronunciations if the word is a recent addition to English. But "per-ahn-uh" is already out there. I like it, and the Midwest won't look askance at me if I use it.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my pronunciations, trying to decide between variants on the basis of acceptability and elegance rather than imaginary notions of correctness.

(Picture me riding on my bike, ruminating on the possible advantages of "salza" over "salsa.")

Unfortunately, each of us is allowed to consider himself an expert on the English language. And we all have correctness conditions.

Unless you have a British accent, any perceived novelty in pronunciation runs the risk of generating a WTF reaction from your audience. I once got in a nasty, stilted argument with a German over the "correct" way to pronounce Achilles — because no sane American would pronounce it the classical Greek way.

(For their part, I've heard dozens of Germans, including an English-language teacher, refer to Arkansas as "Are-kansas.")

If a pronunciation I've chosen does stop a conversation cold, there's always the Dictionary Defense — which I'm loath to use for grammatico-political reasons. If anyone's interested, however, my dictionary recognizes four pronunciations for piranha.

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Well, in Proto-Indo-European...
Friday, May 4, 2007   10:40 AM

How do you pronounce ancillary? I doubt that I'd ever said the word aloud before yesterday, when I intervened in an argument about the "correct" pronunciation. I was asked for the "correct" — or to use a more palatable word, "proper" — pronunciation. After pointing out that both parties thought they were right, understood each other, and were unlikely to be alone in their pronunciation, I duly looked up the American Heritage entry.

The loser accepted the dictionary entry and conceded defeat.

(Today I found that the Columbia Guide to Standard American English mentions both pronunciations, and suddenly both were correct. The power of the written word!)

One of the parties involved continues to harbor the belief that the source of the word should indicate how we should pronounce it. His immediate question when I offered up the dual pronunciations today was "did they source it?"

I initially pictured a recording of President Clinton: "I'm Bill Clinton and I approve this pronunciation." But no, we're talking about etymology.

From a later conversation about "Ebonics", it seems like he harbors the belief, exceedingly common in the short term, that language degrades over time. As a copy editor I'm sympathetic to prescriptivist attempts to maintain useful distinctions, but this doesn't work for pronunciation. I don't know where you would stop in this system, certainly spelling pronunciations would be verboten, but how do you handle a silent E? What language is the original? Etc.

I'm reminded of a girl in high school who pronounced glacier "glay-sheer," using similar reasoning.

(This is one of the reasons why it's so refreshing to listen to BBC radio: there's an amazing variety of pronunciations and accents.)

We both agreed that there are pragmatic reasons for trying to find out the Standard American English pronunciation and use that, especially in professional settings. But it's the disgust with differing pronunciations that is the real problem, and I'm pretty sure I failed to convince either of the two parties to be more tolerant.

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On mispelling
Monday, April 23, 2007   9:20 AM

Just finished changing a dozen instances of posotive to positive. Such is life in the trenches.

I'm not the greatest of spellers. In fact, there are some words (e.g. pronunciation, complimentary, separate) that I consistently spell incorrectly.

Often my misspelling is a result of a pronunciation spelling, itself usually based on a nonstandard pronunciation (or should I say "pronounciation?"). This makes it hard to tell where the pronunciation spelling stops and the spelling pronunciation begins.

(A friend of mine, the zine guy, makes a habit of pointing out the standard pronunciation when I slip up. Unfortunately, he always frames his observations as the "correct" way to pronounce something — the IPA notation from Moses' tablets, I guess — which leads to an excessive amount of protestation on my part. I should probably try to learn enough about my Minnesotan accent to separate my local color from my ignorance.)

My solution to the spelling issue is straightforward and boring: I've long since fell into the habit of looking up a word if I'm at all unsure about its spelling. To Bartleby!

Of course, there is another way: I could throw myself into the fight for a free and democratic orthography. Unfortunately, I'm not that h.c.

Also, there's the whole "edits for a living" thing.

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Your apheresis is zine
Sunday, April 15, 2007   7:19 PM

How do you pronounce zine? I usually say "zayn," as in brine, but dictionaries — and people who know more about the phenomenon than I do — seem to prefer "zeen." A friend who was correcting me used zine scene as an example: in his opinion, if that phrase doesn't rhyme for you, you're pronouncing it wrong.

Wikipedia commenters — a useful barometer for the enthusiast group on many subjects — are somewhat unsure. However, if we use the relaxed WTF standard for interpreting correctness, I'd say that "zeen" is probably the version less likely to stop a conversation in its tracks. And that's what matters.

Also, the "zeen" pronounciation is what gave us the awesome word zinester.

I was too late for the zine scene, but it seems to me that this is one of those words that gained most of its currency from being read, which makes anything approaching a natural consensus on its pronunciation difficult.

There's also apparently some confusion about the word's etymology. This is clearly a case of clipping, but from fanzine or magazine?

I love this kind of clipping, also known as apheresis, and if you can throw in an apostrophe that only sweetens the deal. I've been on the lookout for it since I read the American Heritage entry for za:

When young people today speak casually of ordering a za, "pizza," they are unwittingly producing an expression that is quite interesting to language historians. Za derives from the full form pizza by a process known as clipping. Two types of clipping are common in English: dropping the unstressed syllables or syllables not receiving the primary word stress, as in fridge from refrigerator; and dropping all syllables after the first syllable, as in ab, dis, porn, and vibe, whether or not the first syllable was originally stressed. In the case of za, the syllable that was dropped was originally stressed and was the first syllable, which is unusual. Rents for "parents," is another recent example of the same kind of clipping. Interestingly, we don't need to stay in the realm of contemporary youth slang to see the results of this unusual process. The words phone, bus, and wig (from telephone, omnibus, periwig) belong to Standard English but had their start as slangy or catchy neologisms formed by clipping stressed syllables, just like za. Who knows whether in fifty years za and rents will be as widely accepted as phone and wig are now?

My money is on rents, which I hear all the time, but who says 'za anymore?

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