In a phonic world, is it OK to mispronounce words on your way to discovering what they should sound like?
Or maybe I should rephrase the question. Do you remember words you learned through reading on your own, and only realised your error after an embarrassing mispronunciation with a public audience?
As a test, how do you say hyperbole, coincidence or banal? Would it be so outlandish to read them as “hyperbowl”, “coinkidenky”, or…well, you get the idea.
When and how should we correct such things? Many of us have experienced the embarrassment of first realising our error in public. And neither the professional and pitying correction of a colleague, nor the merciless and repetitive mocking of family and friends, gives any comfort to the person making the error. Once it’s out there, there is no putting the verbal genie back in the bottle.
The three-syllable challenge
For English teachers, the constant battle over words such as “hyperbole” and “oxymoron” is a familiar but understandable phonic faux pas. Indeed, I once had a wonderful CPD moment on a whole-day Inset, when a teacher claimed confidently (and without irony) that the word “challenge” had three whole syllables.
How did this happen? And how would you go about correcting it? (Be honest: you’d probably keep quiet, and then write about it in a Tes article five or six years later.)
Interesting to find that, when it comes to language acquisition for early years, the focus is supposed to be on lots of positive reinforcement as the best way to help your child's language development. Constant talking with preschoolers, attempting to remove baby talk and correcting cutesy mispronunciations are all recommended approaches.
But at what age are you expected just to know?
A moment for scorn and snobbery
A common thread seems to be a shared experience of embarrassment or awkwardness about these self-taught words. Do we applaud it as an example of resilience and the confidence to read complex texts without support or guidance? Or do we actually and not-so-subtly put that utterance, and the person who spoke it, into a box marked “malaprop” – or, even worse, “stupid”.
To side with the pedantic for a moment, I do understand if the mispronunciation bleeds into the incorrect spelling of certain words. That’s an understandable reason for correcting someone. But at what expense?
Mispronunciation seeps into everyday life, and suddenly the innocence of new knowledge and new learning becomes a moment for scorn and snobbery. Around the dinner table, among the more delicious stumbling blocks might be quinoa, aioli, crudités or falafel. Would you like a side of (social-class-marking) mispronunciation with your meal?
The pre-Victorian majesty of the words “macabre”, “gaol”, and “awry” haunt many of us, and definitely lead to a fear in some of Shakespeare and the classics.
The joy of word mangling
Another – often subtly offensive – part of this discussion is the mispronunciation of someone’s name. It might be plausible to mispronounce a character called Hermione, Penelope or Hugh, for who hasn’t enjoyed “Her-me-own” or “Huge” as a rounder and more satisfying alternative? But what if your name is mispronounced on a daily basis?
The pedantic will state that there is a correct way to pronounce every single word. If you wish to speak correctly, then you should Google the right, correct and proper way to say every word.
But part of my reader’s soul cries foul: where is the joy there? Where is the fun of word mangling and finding each new syllable more ridiculous with each repetition?
And then there’s the impact of dialect and accent impact on, say, mowing the lawn, visiting local monuments and turning on the tap for a long soak…Say after me: grass, castle, bath.
Words discovered through reading should be cherished, applauded and delicately corrected with the knowledge that we’ve all done it, and all secretly love the mispronunciation more than the slightly dull and formal correct pronouncement.
The joy of reading and the joy of words are a mishmash of cultural input, intellectual excitement and learning at its raw best. Long live the mispronunciation experiment.
Sam Draper has been head of English in three inner-city London schools and has been teaching for 15 years. He tweets @aLondonBookman