In Quest of a Standard American Pronunciation

By Maeve Maddox

American English has many regional variants, some of them more comprehensible than others.

Along with spelling rules, schools once taught a standard pronunciation. The purpose was to maintain a standard speech easily understood by people in every part of the country and by non-native speakers who learn English as a second language. No one doubted that children were capable of learning the standard speech without abandoning whatever dialect they spoke at home.

Now, however, a doctrine of political correctness inhibits the teaching of standard pronunciation with the result that the media has become the final arbiter. Certain pronunciations that were once considered non-standard are catching on, even when they fly in the face of rules I imagined were still being taught in the early grades.

Apparently it is now possible to get out of school without learning the most basic rules for forming the plurals of nouns. I think I knew by fourth grade that the nouns life, knife, and wife form their plurals by changing the f to v and adding –es. Yet I have heard an announcer on NPR use “lifes” as the plural of life.

Ignoring the First Rule of Silent Final e (e makes the vowel say its name).

I was startled to attention one day when I heard someone on the radio talking about “gas-powered micro-turbans.” I figured out from the context that the intended word was turbines.

Another time I heard someone pronounce finite as if it would rhyme with “mine it” instead of pronouncing both vowels as long i’s.

An NPR reporter once described a scene in which people were wielding staves (plural of staff). She pronounced staves as “stavs.”

The sounds of s, sh, and zh

I’ve heard the word coercion /co er shun/ pronounced “co er zhun,” and the word resource /re sors/ pronounced “rezorse.”

One of the most interesting drifts I’ve noticed concerns the pronunciation of the noun house /hous/ and its plural houses /houz iz/. (NOTE: When the word “house” is used as a verb, the s is pronounced /z/.)

Until fairly recently, the pronunciation of the plural houses with a soft s /hous iz/ was a nonstandard regionalism not even mentioned in the dictionary. Now, however, the pronunciation has been spread by announcers from the eastern and northern areas of the United States. (The same ones who pronounce tourist /toor ist/ as “tor ist.”)

TV Meltdown
Because actors come from different parts of the country, their pronunciations of certain words vary. I listened in fascination one evening to the actors in an episode of Numbers. The plot required them all to say the word houses numerous times. Some of them said /houz iz/ and some said /hous iz/. If I remember correctly, one actor used both pronunciations, in different sentences!

It’s probably time for English teachers to take a united stand for a standard pronunciation.

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9 Responses to “In Quest of a Standard American Pronunciation”

  • Mary Ann

    Maeve,
    Do you think it has anything to do with the low average reading level of the public? I sent an email recently to a local news personality. She informed me that she never read any books at all. Perhaps the mispronunciation stems from a lack of familiarity with words such as finite and stave.
    For the most part the generation that controls the electronic media was brought up on electronic media not literature.

  • Dan

    It’s probably time for English teachers to take a united stand for a standard pronunciation.

    The variations that you list are all minor — it’s hard to imagine that any of them would, in itself, obscure any meaning. I can’t help but think that this is more about pedantry than about communication — international English, if there is such a thing, can accommodate all sorts of much bigger oddities before it becomes unintelligible.

  • Maeve

    Dan,
    I agree that the variations in my article are minor.

    Impediments to comprehensibility are more likely to arise from intonation and the pronunciation of vowels than from something as trivial as the substitution of /s/ for /z/.

    Regional and national variations in accent present no problem in comprehension and often add charm to spoken expression.

    My contention is that English has conventions of spelling and pronunciation which can reasonably be taught to all the children in our public schools and mastered by them.

    A state trooper from the deep South should be able to modify his speech and form his words carefully enough to be understood by a motorist for whom English is a second language.

    An athlete who in the locker room communicates in slurred utterances understood by his team mates should be able to switch into a more conventional mode of expression when being interviewed for the television audience.

    I don’t think that’s being pedantic. I think it’s caring about our language and being considerate of other people who speak it.

  • J. Smith

    God, I could not imagine anything more boring than if we all tried to talk like Tom Brokaw.

    As an English language teacher, I take an active stand against standard pronunciation. Things are much more interesting –not just charming– with the regional variety. In fact, I highly discourage my students who, in misguided attempts at conforming, try to lose or disguise their accents.

    Furthermore, any attempt at artificial standardization is not only likely to fail, but also result in the silliness that all too often afflicts grammar classrooms today as a result of the last attempt to standardize the language, e.g. the myth of split infinitives as poor grammar.

    It is much better just to allow these things to evolve naturally, as the Great Vowel Shift did, and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

  • Bradley Berthold

    I’ve also noticed, with no little annoyance, the “drift” towards saying “hous iz” instead of “houz is.”

    It grates on my ear, rightly or wrongly makes me think the speaker is ignorant.

    Another big drift is towards the use of “no problem” as a substitute for “you’re welcome.”

    We’re “dumbing down” at a frightening rate!

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  • Eric Berman

    There is a sort of “rasp” in the phrases spoken especially by girls, and women who were girls within the last 15 years. It is caricatured in what was called “Valley Speak,” but it has made its grating way into advertisements, radio commentators and more and seems headed to become the standard. Any sentence amounts to a transition from a more or less routinely vocalized opening but trails off into a sort of unvocalized gargle. I thought perhaps it had always been there and I had been lucky enough to miss it, but if you listen to recordings from as recently as 20 years ago and on back, or movie soundtracks, or speak with women who came of age in the 1970s and before, it is not there. Some others use the mannerism which is what it seems to be. Along with this–often the same speaker, but not necessarily–is an ennui-filled style, and flat tone ending in a hard “r” almost in the style of a pirate! What’s going on?

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