In Quest of a Standard American Pronunciation
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.”)
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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