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October 3rd, 2007

Broadcasters who mispronounce words

by Barbara Wallraff


William E. Horn, of Westerlo, N.Y., writes: “I wonder if you would write about our broadcasters (newscasters, sportscasters, talk-show hosts and other ‘talking heads’) who routinely mispronounce words: ‘DEfeat,’ ‘DEfense,’ ‘INsurance,’ etc. Our kids learn to read and write in school but learn to speak via TV and radio. I hate to see our culture get blown away.”


Dear William: I couldn’t agree more that those of us in the words business are supposed to be skilled with words. I also agree that people who talk for a living should pronounce words correctly — especially ordinary ones like those you mention, as opposed to, say, the name of the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which might take some practice. Hearing media professionals enunciate in peculiar ways makes me, too, feel as if our culture is getting “blown away.” It’s both distressing and irritating.

I’m less clear on why you and I feel this way. Your argument, that the mispronunciations are liable to rub off on young people, makes intuitive sense, but the facts don’t bear it out. Research has shown that little kids mainly learn pronunciation from other kids. (That’s why the children of immigrants with heavy accents rarely have accents themselves.) Older kids tend to imitate role models, it’s true. But their role models are likely to be people they know — often a parent. Entertainers and professional athletes are also popular as role models — but not talking heads. All this may give us plenty of reasons to worry about the younger generation’s language skills. But a pernicious effect exerted by broadcasters is not one of them.

The argument I wish I could make for why pronunciation matters is that we’ll have an easier time understanding one another if we all say words as nearly the same way as possible. Diversity doesn’t have to mean mutual incomprehension if we can all communicate. This argument does hold up if we’re thinking about standard English versus pronunciations that are very different from it. But you and I both understand “DEfeat” and “INsurance” perfectly well — we just don’t like them.

I suspect our reaction stems from the fundamental human characteristic that allowed us to learn English in the first place. Learners of English can’t afford to get creative with things like verb tenses (“write,” “wrote,” “written” but “read,” “read,” “read”), plurals (“adult,” “adults,” but “child,” “children”) or pronunciation. Our ideas may be creative, but the language we use to express them needs to follow the formula.

Maybe the fundamental characteristic I’m talking about is nothing but an impulse to be suspicious of anything unfamiliar — an impulse I don’t think usually serves us well. Ordinarily, I dislike following rules unquestioningly, and diversity is fine with me. I enjoy regional and ethnic accents. But beyond that, pronunciation can be right or wrong. I’ve never heard anyone complain that any public figure uses standard pronunciations too consistently. Those of us who are persnickety about pronunciation, I conclude, should keep caring and never admit deFEAT.





© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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